Early in my years of understanding social media, I said it was a lot like other social interactions: face to face individually and in groups, on the phone and in email exchanges. I was right in many ways, but I hadn’t yet noticed how different social media could be at the extremes of interaction.
I’ve been fascinated the past couple years with how kind strangers have been on social media, and how rude they have been.
I don’t know how much this represents evolution of social media (or perhaps tweaking of algorithms that govern the social-media experience) and how much it represents my eventually noticing what was always going on. It certainly represents only my experience, rather than any extended research. And I’ll admit that my transparency about personal matters probably draws more support than many people when life turns difficult. And my willingness to engage with (OK, sometimes to provoke) the rude people butting in on conversations probably inflames their rudeness beyond the usual experience.
But I’m fascinated with the way that social media brings these responses, so I want to mention them both. I will note only briefly, with appreciation, the many people whose outpouring of support has uplifted and touched me the past couple of years. When I lost my job last year, the encouragement and support on social media (and tips and introductions to people who actually offered me jobs) were overwhelming.
But that support paled in comparison to the virtual hugs I have received since my lymphoma diagnosis last December. During my treatment, which has included some setbacks I won’t repeat here, the digital embrace on Facebook, Twitter and CaringBridge was tremendous. But it went beyond words of encouragement and promises of prayers. People I never or barely met in person, as well as friends of Facebook friends whom I truly didn’t know, even digitally, sent me a journalism game, a handmade prayer shawl, a personal note about baseball, headgear when my hair disappeared, and, I’m sure, other gifts I’m not recalling at the moment. A person I’ve met only digitally shaved his head in support of me and another person undergoing chemotherapy.
These weren’t just journalism friends who knew me through my blog and meetings at conferences (though the support from my journalism friends was amazing). But non-journalists joined my support network after seeing my blog posts or CaringBridge posts in their friends’ comments and likes.
I don’t want to go on too long about the wonderful extreme of social media, though I’m writing the first draft of this post on Thanksgiving Day, so it feels appropriate. To go on at length about the support could go beyond expressing gratitude to boasting about how beloved I am, or inviting more support. I mostly mention the positive extreme to provide the necessary contrast to the primary point of this post: Facebook trolls.
Consider other social situations: Political arguments are common, whether at an office holiday party, a meeting of friends in a bar or restaurant or a family gathering. But I can’t imagine one of those situations, even in settings that involve lots of drinking, where a stranger would decide to join a conversation that’s already under way and take it over, insulting the others in the group and even calling names, without ever making sense.
That happens to me multiple times in a week on Facebook, not just with politics, but politics and cultural issues are the most common settings in my experience. Who, in overhearing a political discussion in a restaurant or at a party where you’re mostly or entirely an outsider, would butt in, however certain you were in your position, belittling people to their faces and calling names? I’m not saying it’s never happened, but I can’t remember it. We’ve all been at parties of people we didn’t really know, perhaps a spouse’s office party or a business conference where we don’t have many friends. We hear people making absurd statements, but we don’t feel the need to loudly set them straight.
Not on Facebook. Again and again, usually in political discussions, people I’ve never heard of jump in and go off on rants like I almost never see in personal encounters. I’ll illustrate with two discussion threads from Facebook this week (and they could come from nearly any week).
Before I show these discussions, I should acknowledge that these situations don’t necessarily bring out the best in me. When strangers interrupt rudely, I am not as gentle in pointing out their errors as I would be with friends. As I might do with a stranger interrupting a dinner conversation in a restaurant, I sometimes suggest they return to their own tables. I believe I am patient in most of life’s circumstances, but I sometimes hastily return rudeness with rudeness. Which makes me rude, I guess. If the point it to bring people down to their level, it sometime works. But sometimes I just like to poke them because their responses are so predictable.
The initial discussion (below) was pretty cordial. I think I met Jim Magdefrau, an Iowa journalist, a few times in my Iowa journalism days. Frank Arnold is a cousin, more conservative than me, not able to embrace Trump’s lies but raising a question about Hillary Clinton’s honesty. I shared links to PolitiFact’s checking of statements by Clinton and Trump. Clinton, I was not surprised to learn, has told plenty of political lies, but nowhere near as many as Trump. (Most of both discussions I will feature here went on like this: actual friends discussing issues cordially, whether we agree or not. You can see the full discussion here, but I’ve cut several screen grabs from my first draft that didn’t involve the troll. I initially included screen shots of the full conversation to provide context, but this post just too damn long (it still is, but what the hell; it’s a holiday weekend).
I have no idea who Nick Dey is, but he’s apparently a Facebook friend of a relative. I suspect he would be polite if we were to meet in real life sometime. Instead, he introduced himself to me by challenging my mental competence. Imagine starting a conversation that way at a wedding reception or conference or other event where you encounter strangers or friends of family.
Note that second response from Nick. He doesn’t know jack about me. For all he knows, I could be a Republican and hoping like hell that my party can find someone who’s less hateful than Trump, someone with a chance of beating Clinton. But he’s already jumped to his conclusions about my mental ability, my political leanings and my judgment. In real life, an awkward silence would follow someone lacking social graces butting into a conversation among friends with such presumptive remarks about the others present and such a lightweight contribution to the initial conversation. Rather than responding, I might walk away and find someone civil to converse with. But sometimes I can’t resist tweaking a troll.
I have no idea what “excuse” he was referring to in the last remark above, but you deal a lot with imagination in these conversations with Facebook trolls. By the way, Nick’s supposed proof of some point he was making was a busted link that didn’t include anything about Hillary Clinton.
I enjoy a good political debate with a friend, but this guy was bringing nothing, so I becamse condescending, as I believe I would if someone did this in an in-person social setting:
The Snopes link I shared debunked some right-wing myth Nick apparently believed. Instead of slinking off to troll another conversation, he resorted to name-calling and condescension (apparently missing the irony that he was being condescending about his presumptions of my digital skills before he had even mastered the art of cutting and pasting). By the way, the “really cute” insult below is a perfect example of the kind of language that’s welcome and fun in trash-talking among friends, but absolutely trollish between strangers.
This might be a good place to admit that I am liberal. And I can be an asshole, especially to trolls. I guess the grown-up-table shot and the Big-Lebowski pile-on kind of make that undeniable. But perhaps it’s time to slink away without any name-calling when the argument you failed to make has just been slammed with a thorough, impartial debunking. (Snopes didn’t start out as a political site; it started out debunking urban legends and other Internet lies, and expanded into politics because that’s such a huge source of Internet lies.) Whatever impact Nick might have achieved by the accuracy of the “liberal asshole” shot was, at this point, blunted by his pouting tone and my laughter.
While Nick and I were sniping back and forth, the main conversation continued, with all manner of friends, family and friends of friends joining civilly. We discussed such things as whether it’s a lie, or just reckless disregard for the truth, when someone stupidly says something false that he knows to be true (the best defense you can reasonably make for Trump, until he doubles down on the lies).
Kevin Muilenberg, another friend of a friend, joined the conversation late, suggesting that some research would show that Trump was actually telling the truth. In a real-life conversation that you’re joining midway, you might start with a disclaimer: “Pardon me if you’ve already covered this, but …” But you don’t have to do that on Facebook. The whole conversation is right there for you to read, though you might have to click a few times to read all the replies and subthreads. Not necessary, but a good idea if your opening remark is going to be to suggest that someone you don’t know hadn’t done any research.
I wasn’t very civil to him, but he joined the conversation rudely, unaware of how Nick had already worn down my patience. So I challenged him immediately. I think his response speaks for itself.
Remember, our relationship started with this stranger telling me to to the research. I presented him with extensive research, presenting the facts that show Trump to be a serial liar, lie by lie (71 statements examined, 53 of them mostly false or worse), and two minutes later, Kevin has read enough to declare it to be ideology. So I drew some conclusions, based on the little glimpse of himself that stranger had shown me.
Here’s the kicker: Kevin sent me a friend request. I have lots of conservative friends, Kevin, but not many troll friends. That’s my ideology.
A discussion of immigration
Here’s another discussion I started Wednesday about another hateful politician. Facebook trolls can’t resist discussions of immigration. Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a Native American trolling such a discussion. Just descendants of immigrants.
I have spent about 20 years of my life in Iowa, more than any other state. I married an Iowa farm girl and all three of my sons were born when we lived there. My beloved sort-of-home state’s most profound current shame is that its Fourth District keeps re-electing Congress’ worst bigot, Steve King. You could label “most idiotic” almost everything King has ever said, but his 2013 statement about the “calves the size of cantaloupes” on young immigrant children supposedly smuggling drugs across the desert is perhaps his most famous.
While most of the country is embarrassed by the clown car of the Republican presidential campaign, careening across Iowa in advance of the caucuses, King is lapping up the attention, kissing the candidates’ rings and just can’t decide which demagogue to support:
End of Pres Family Forum. Santorum strong early & now. Huckabee very genuine. One president & a cabinet on stage. Cruz strong throughout.
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) November 21, 2015
Thanks @BobbyJindal for your effort to parlay govnr to POTUS. My honor to serve with you & hope to again. To your critics, “Give it a rest.”
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) November 23, 2015
Ted Cruz & crowd at Harlan, Iowa. pic.twitter.com/gL200Fjml5
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) November 20, 2015
And, of course, King is too blinded by bigotry to understand that terrorists are too smart and impatient to try to enter our country as refugees, when it’s so easy to enter at tourists, students or business travelers:
My NO vote on the Safe Act today says again we can’t trust Obama & NO amount of background checks of Islamists will screen out jihadis.
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) November 20, 2015
I usually try not to indulge attention-seekers such as King. You could have a Twitter or Facebook account solely focused on examples of his bigotry, and I’m too busy for that. But I thought this bit of idiocy deserved calling out Wednesday evening:
The initial reaction just noted other examples of well-assimilated Americans from the Middle East. Mimi Johnson, as you may know, is my wife. Barb Cunningham is a friend from Iowa. Steve Fagan a retired journalist friend. I don’t know Deborah Woodell, but as noted above, I welcome the friends of friends who join the discussion civilly. (Again, this is just a bit of context, but you can catch the whole conversation here, except the deleted comments, which I’ll explain shortly.)
The troll’s shows entrance to the discussion was actually polite in tone, but absurd in content.
I lost patience with this troll pretty quickly. He opens up by trying to place the idiotic King statement in a broader context, but then he won’t own the very statement he just made doing that? But this friend of a friend tries to pretend he’s studied my previous posts about immigration issues. I called him pretty quickly on this BS:
Ah, now James has clicked on my profile and learned that I teach journalism. So that leads him to jump to all kinds of conclusions about me. Here are a couple of truths about journalism and trolls like James:
- Most reporters vigorously (and honestly) work to keep all opinion out of their work.
- Despite the journalists’ best efforts, trolls will claim their reporting shows liberal bias because is doesn’t show a conservative bias toward bigots like Steve King.
If James actually knew anything about me and what I teach in journalism, he would know that I’ve advocated more transparency about journalists’ opinions. So his faux concern for my students is entirely misplaced. I encourage my students to think about and discuss with their editors or news directors whether opinion is appropriate in their journalism (and in social media).
And he’s assuming (perhaps sarcastically; I wouldn’t know because we’re not friends) that I would find a “Happy Thanksgiving” wish culturally insensitive. Well, I wished all my liberal friends at work (and probably some conservative ones, too; we don’t talk a lot of politics, so I don’t know) a “Happy Thanksgiving” on Tuesday and Wednesday. I hadn’t posted the usual “Happy Thanksgiving” Facebook message Thursday, by the time James joined this conversation, because Mimi and I had canceled our holiday travel plans Wednesday (I’m OK, it’s not a health setback, just caution, and I didn’t feel like explaining).
I just couldn’t resist, though, the urge to note what an absurd context Thanksgiving is for this discussion of welcoming refugees from another country.
I was planning to use James in this blog post, so I had made the screen grabs you see above. He kind of whimpered his next response or two, then deleted all his comments before I screen-grabbed the last couple.
Before he deleted his comments, though, Mimi and a former colleague noted that the sinister description that James gave to immigrant communities describes virtually every immigrant community in our history.
By the way, James was completely wrong in contending that I or the Salon piece that I shared had misrepresented what King said. Here’s the exact quote: “There’s not assimilation taking place here and no one has shown me an example of people from that part of the world that have assimilated into the broader society.”
And here’s the full interview:
That’s three strangers this week butting in on conversations more rudely than I can remember anyone doing in person any time this year. I probably should ignore them, but I guess I enjoy swatting them away.
I welcome friends of friends and other strangers to join the Facebook conversations I start. But watch out if you’re a troll: I can be a scold to rude people butting in on conversations. And I have 40-plus years’ experience in getting my facts right. So you’d better have your facts right or I will call bullshit.