All a Twitter

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.

5 thoughts on “All a Twitter”

  1. I’d take a slightly different position on the “Twitter as the window into the soul” issue. We’ve seen time and again how public figures do end up in trouble for tweets (Jim Clancy is simply one in a long line); and even relatively obscure figures can get their 15 minutes of fame for destroying their own careers on social media (hi, Steve Salaita!).
    It is an id-driven medium, but not necessarily any more so than the rest of social media. The people who do end up tweeting themselves in the foot, though, seem to be ones not only with a strong id, but (if I may continue along Freudian lines) a distinct lack of superego. The superego, if I recall correctly, keeps the id on a leash through principles of morality as well as social convention. And when people like Salaita and Clancy get into trouble, it’s because their Tweets (or other social media posts) give them an opportunity to demonstrate their lack of moral principles, be it underlying racism or support of terrorism.
    For many, social media, with its “look at MEEEEEE!” immediacy, is like alcohol in that it loosens inhibitions. And on Twitter in particular, the viral propagation of a tweet by retweets is far faster and wider than on Facebook or other social media. I partake in this myself quite freely– the glee over new followers (1075 right now! Yay!), the rush when your clever bon mot gets 25 retweets in an hour, and so on. But for some, the rush is so strong that they can’t restrain themselves from pouring out their actual feelings, and revealing those to be relatively less restrained by morals or social convention. Before social media, these might be statements uttered in the company of friends, or at the office party after a few drinks, where they end up causing small scale embarrassment. But now, one can do the same on a much bigger stage.

    Even last night, in the wake of the BDS divestment “victory” at UC Davis (followed today by the chancellor’s statement that of course UCD will not be divesting one share of stock in any of the targeted companies), there came this post on Facebook: . Now the last thing BDS wants is to provide us with evidence to back up our assertion that the BDS agenda and the Hamas agenda are one and the same. And here they hand it right to us. Why? Because the joy of sharing on social media feeds the id, and there’s not nearly enough moral principle on board to stop it.

    So at least to this armchair psychologist, social media DOES actually provide a window into the soul. And when someone screws up online, quite often the view through that window is quite revealing. You’re right that hashtag campaigns or “trending” stories is just silly pablum for the media. But I’ll be happy to let BDS activists let loose online, and show us– and the world– how they really can’t help opening that window into their movement’s black heart.

    PS I’m @drmikeh49

    1. I thought about the Salita story almost immediately after posting this and, after reading your comment, it’s clear that I’m conflating a number of different issues and controversies related to social media in general, and Twitter in particular. I’m glad to not be the only person who finds hashtag trending a silly barometer of political momentum – but you have also pointed out that Twitter feeds (at least of our opponents in the BDS battle) really do reveal important truths that help us understand who/what we are dealing with (not to mention providing us the ammunition needed to expose them).

      I probably become uneasy when this important fact (that dumb people, ideologues, and dumb ideologues tend to drop their pants on Twitter) gets extended to using anyone’s social media feeds against them (especially younger people who may still need to learn what constitutes appropriate vs. inappropriate online behavior). Not sure where the line should be drawn (given how many BDSers are younger pants droppers – like that clown at Davis), but it strikes me that we should be a bit uneasy using the online behavior of the <20 set against them on a routine basis

      1. I don’t give a pass to people like that BDSer at Davis (or at any other university). 18 is considered old enough to vote, to serve in the military (literally making a decision that can result in putting one’s life on the line), and to hold every privilege granted to adults in this country except for access to certain controlled substances. And when these young adults decide that they are going to exercise their rights to involve themselves in politics, they also accept the responsibilities that come with it. They claim to be able to pronounce judgments on a complex international conflict, and want to control how a university invests what can literally be hundreds of millions of dollars.

        If someone is old enough to demand a seat at that table, then she is absolutely responsible for her behavior there. And she will learn that there can be consequences for it. Maybe if Salaita had learned that lesson on a smaller scale when he was younger, he wouldn’t have screwed up his career.

        1. There is this whole movement now by psychologists and neuroscientists to drive home the point that “the brain isn’t fully developed until age (fill in large number)”. The number is usually somewhere in the 20s. Often the case is made that because young-ish people don’t have their final brain configuration in place that there needs to be something other than full accountability for their actions. However, it is a conundrum because 20 year olds are fully physically capable of wreaking havoc on the world, and some are even financially capable of doing so. So postponing the age of legal and responsibility beyond the already established 18 seems problematic to me.

          That having been said, some of the decisions I made at 20 make me cringe now. I am glad that I got that all out right before social media came around.

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