In response to my comment urging good folks on our side to “get involved on platforms like Twitter” as a way of fighting back against what we have seen and are seeing in our new Trumpian world, a first-class thinker and blogger, Jim Wheeler, wrote:
Get involved in Twitter? It’s discouraging to think that 140-character opinions can be effective. Feels like he’s dragging us down to his level, a landscape of trolls and brain-farts. Ugh.
Here is my reply :
I feel your pain.
But the good guys don’t always get to choose where the battles are fought. I agree with you that it is a little depressing that here in the 21st century we are forced to fight part of the war against Trump-inspired ignorance and bigotry on 140-character terrain, but Twitter is Twitter. It is one of the fronts. There are other, larger battle zones accessible to the public (like Facebook), but Twitter played a significant role in this election and it is something I have chosen to focus on. My thinking, post-election, is that we can’t just allow the bad guys to occupy all the social media space without a fight. And tweeting is relatively easy. You can do it anywhere, anytime. All you need to do is adapt to the medium, supply good information and argumentation—and develop thick skin.
Let’s review: Trump’s use of Twitter proved effective in two ways. He used it to bring in followers with whom he could communicate directly—and pass on lies and conspiracies and propaganda—who would then retweet his messages to others, amplifying those messages and attracting more like-minded people. And, more important, he used it as a way to get the media to amplify and replicate his messages and present them to an even broader audience, some of whom were then attracted to Trump’s blustering persona and his dark world view and became a part of his loyal following. Think of Trump’s tweets as 140-character rallies. He used his Twitter account much like he used his numerous rallies: to attract adoring fans who would praise him, to give those fans lots of rancid red meat, and then to get out of the way and allow television do the rest. Facts were never a part of the formula, which leads me to my main point.
We all know the old, old saying, “Facts are stubborn things.” But, really, they aren’t stubborn at all. They are easily pushed out of the way, as this past election demonstrated rather painfully. Facts are only as stubborn as the people who value and use them—people like us. It is we who must be tireless in defending and wielding the facts, who must obstinately maintain their place in our discourse. If we give up, if we refuse to engage others with the facts wherever they might be, then ignorance and bigotry will certainly win. Because the truth is that ignorance and bigotry and tribalism really are stubborn things. They tend to be default positions.
Thus, I think we, those of us who want to see more of a fact-loving, inclusive electorate than we saw this cycle, ought to get on social media platforms—my personal emphasis is on Twitter, but Facebook and other forms need us too—and engage those who are spreading misinformation and falsehoods and propaganda. This past summer, Clive Irving, writing for The Daily Beast, argued that “Trump is never going to be the monster that Hitler was,” but, rather, Trump is more like Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi’s Reich Minister of Propaganda:
Had Goebbels been around today he would probably be the master player of the media—of any or all media. He would have grasped and exploited the ubiquity of social media. He would have relished the random distribution of defamatory vitriol via Twitter. In fact, few people have ever understood the technique of selective messaging better.
Goebbels was Hitler’s indispensable genius of spin. Long before the Nazis came to power, Goebbels understood what had to be done to gain that power. Fundamentally the German public needed to be made to happily acquiesce in the idea that the nation needed a demagogue to right its grievances.
It was Goebbels who proved that if falsehoods were repeated often enough they became, in the minds of the ignorant and aggrieved, facts.
I don’t think for a minute that Trump is smart enough to pull this off alone. But media made him who he is, and with a cadre of other liars and deceivers to help him, along with too many profit-chasing news outlets, it does seem we are now experiencing something that looks a lot like a Goebbels strategy. I have called it quasi-fascism. And that is why we must fight falsehoods everywhere they appear. And “everywhere” especially includes social media, since those are home bases for Trump and his followers.
As I have said before, we shouldn’t be under any illusions. Changing minds is difficult, mostly impossible. There are incorrigible assholes and trolls and fake accounts all over the place. But Twitter and Facebook and other platforms are networks that connect all kinds of people. Some of them are without a doubt hardcore haters and fanatics who are beyond rational redemption. Others, though, are only passive participants in the back-and-forth, and if these relatively passive people are only half convinced on one topic or another, seeing a determined person on our side might keep them from turning to the dark side. At the very least they will know there is an aggressive defense to be made against certain assertions, and they may think twice before they pass on falsehoods as “facts.”
And the good people who fear the dark side, but don’t feel confident or competent enough to get in the fight against it, need to know, if only for their psychological well-being, that there are determined people out there willing to fight against ignorance and stupidity and bigotry on all fronts, so that a Goebbels strategy doesn’t become normalized, and successful, in any large-scale way. We are dangerously close to that happening, in my opinion. If we don’t stubbornly defend and advance fact-based information, then falsehoods will become facts “in the minds of the ignorant and aggrieved.”
Finally, like the Internet at large, there is a lot of useful information available on Twitter and other platforms. It’s not all a fact-free sewer. Twitter especially can be a good way to follow what is going on in the country and the world, if you follow the right people. A lot of world-class journalists, literally from all over the world, are on Twitter and offer some valuable insight on whatever is breaking, or whatever has broken. There are, too, a lot of smart people, including academics, sharing pithy commentary and analysis, as well as graphs and charts, etc. These folks need our encouragement. If you look at the nasty responses they often get, you can see why it is important that our side is there to back them up and help shout down the shouters and, if necessary, bully the bullies. We can’t just let the trolls, the misinformed, and the misinformers dominate useful, often mind-expanding, platforms.
For all these reasons, while I share your “ugh”and fear the possibility of Trump “dragging us down to his level,” I think it is necessary for the triumph of good that bad folks pushing bad information be confronted, on Twitter and elsewhere. And even if the good does not ultimately triumph, at least we will know that we did all we could, that we fought the good fight.