As a follower of various news feeds for subjects related to Israel-related activism, I’ve been curious about the recent spate of stories that derive not from action (such as war, terrorism or elections) or long diatribes or complex arguments, but from people saying stupid things in 140 characters or less.
Exhibit A: Earlier this year, CNN anchor Jim Clancy (one of the network’s most stable Israel dissers) ended a peculiar Twitter spat with critics over the Charlie Hedbo cartoons wit this gem of a tweet:
Translation: I have no genuine critics, just organized pro-Israel propagandists (i.e., “the Hasbara team”) who think they can get the better of me, not realizing that I’m a big, tough journalisto-hombre (see my shirt!) a la Mel Gibson in Year of Living Dangerously.
Mr. Clancy nixed his Twitter account and left CNN shortly after this post appeared, possibly over judgment issues related to his juvenile online behavior, possibly due to criticism over his use of the word “cripple,” but decidedly not because of his 30+ year history of unbalanced journalist vis-à-vis Israel and the Middle East.
Exhibit B: Given its prominence as a Jewish institution, and the prevalence of Jews in anti-Israel organizations (including many promoting BDS), it’s not that surprising that Brandeis University has become a hotbed of Israel-related political agitation over the last ten years.
As debates over police brutality charges in Fergusson and NYC became coopted by the “Free Palestine” crowd, this merging of conflicts played out at Brandeis over a set of hugely inappropriate tweets written by a young African American student (which I won’t reproduce, for reasons noted below) that were picked up by a student journalist associated with conservative and pro-Israel causes. This led to even more tweets, not to mention Facebook postings and blog comments, many of which were dedicated to demonizing and threatening one party to the conflict vs. another.
While it might be tempting to pick sides in this particular battle (for matters of principle, of course), I tended to look at this story through the lens of social media generally, notably how it enables those stupid things we all say (especially in our younger years – things that might still make us wince upon remembrance) to be broadcast around the globe where they get to live on forever in screen grabs of Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines long since deleted.
In each of these cases (and in countless others where people get into hot water over their online commentary), there seems to be an assumption that the quick-and-dirty meta-communication people pump into the Interwebs on a minute-by-minute basis represents a window into the soul (rather than the id).
Personally, I’m not buying it any more than I’m buying the assumption that #Bringbackourgirls trending for 48 hours will involve any girls actually getting brought back, or that #JeSuisCharlie is going to lead to a lot of “Je’s” actually “Suis-ing” Charlie (i.e., putting themselves at risk to stand by principle).
I recall a story (now lost to that Internet ether) that questioned whether the hashtag #BDSFail should be used every time an Israeli company lands a big deal or scores some major investment, vs. just being set aside for actual examples of BDS failure (like their recent AHA debacle). But if hashtag volume is going to equate to political momentum, how can we compete with the boycotters who spat out a dozen #BDS tweets during the 3-5 minutes it took me to read that #BDSFail-debate story?
Perhaps I’m just an old fogey who doesn’t understand or respect the power of social media to establish (and ultimately control) discourse. But as a blogger, I obviously embrace the power these new tools of communication give us to leap over former gate-keepers of information to reach audiences and build communities hungry for citizen journalism and analysis.
Sure, a big chunk of that citizen journalism consists of unedited crapola, and much analysis found online is designed to spread hatred or pump up lies. But that just increases the responsibility of individuals to exercise sound judgment over what information to seek out and believe. And, unlike online journalism which – good or bad – at least requires the better part of an hour to knock out, tweets let you unburden yourself in a second – leading to the aforementioned id-based communication or intentional hashtag stuffing designed to push nonsense into more people’s faces.
All this bellyaching might just represent the sour grapes of someone who has never managed to sustain a social-media-based self-promotion campaign for more than a couple of weeks (which reminds me, I need to tweet about the last half dozen blog posts I’ve written over the last few months). But I don’t think I’m the only person who is skeptical (and a bit nervous) when trending hashtags are used by mainstream news sources and political leaders as a stand-in for the pulse of popular opinion.
Personally, I actually use (and like) Twitter – as a newsfeed or human-driven search engine, one that must take its place alongside other information filters (including my own brain). And if you ever need to follow an obscure event (like the BDS vote at a student senate or food coop) on a minute-by-minute basis, there is no substitute.
But as these thirty-second communication tools become proxies for what we are thinking, or bricks in the wall of confirmation bias too many of us are building around ourselves, it might be time to reflect on how tools originally designed to help us make friends should not be used to destroy lives.