Has Social Media Been Weaponized?

We ignore the quality and tone of these conversations at the risk that it becomes the new normal.

Until you find yourself the victim of a social media attack, the whole thing seems kind of silly.  You know, like in middle school: “Sticks and stones will break my bones,  but names will never hurt me.” Remember that one? I do.

Words are just words, right? You can ignore name-calling and nasty comments ― and just rise above it.

Well, this is a story about the day that all changed for me. I think it’s a troubling and important wake-up call for all of us in publishing, advertising, media, and social networking. 

There’s an ugly storm gathering, and until it hits you, it’s easy to ignore.

Let me tell you my story.

On June 16, I went to see Elizabeth Warren at Town Hall in New York. The Massachusetts Democrat read excerpts from her book, “This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class,” and pulled no punches as she took issue with Donald Trump.

I wasn’t there as press, and I hadn’t planned to write anything. But I recorded a brief video, which I posted on YouTube that night. The next morning, it had been viewed 10,000 times and had 20 comments.

The comments were vile, angry, and nasty.  I was kind of shocked. A few examples: 

Joash Church posted: “So a democrat leftist shoots people in a peaceful baseball field, and we haven’t seen nasty yet? Shut up and sit down Pocahontas!“
Sousuke Ryan posted: ”Wtf Fakeahontas talking about this is why the retards of the left is burning their own Democratic Party to the ground.”
Whatisthisplace posted: “Is she actually reading her own book to a crowd.  What the f*ck is this story time for children or something?  Motherf*cker what a sickness.” 

I edited out the profanity, but you get the idea.

I don’t know where the traffic came from, or how it spread. By the next day, it had been viewed 49,287 times and had hundreds of comments, angrier still:

Robert Johnson posted: “the white piece of trash with somebody please stick *ss because that’s what she wants she’s nothing but white trash anyway so stick it up her *ss and push her brains back up where they belong or maybe push her brains out of her ears she needs to go to hell she don’t even need to be on this planet anymore white trash go to hell”
Scooter Van Neuter posted: “This godless mouth-breather has the IQ of a clock radio. Please run this retard for president in 2020, Dems. Please.”
Killbo Fraggins posted: “Pocahontas is one despicable Communist C*NT!”
Now, here’s where it gets even more ugly and personal - the comments started coming after me. 
steve STAR posted “Steve Rosenbaum .... JINO and gay pajama boy.”
And then steve STAR followed up: “Not enough New Yorkers died on 9/11.”
And a YouTube commentator named “2 weeks ago” posted: “steve, try being less gay”

So, what happened here? And given Elizabeth Warren’s popularity, why did the comments and the ThumbsUp/Thumbs down votes both go 95% against her on YouTube?

As best as I can tell, there were two explanations. First, while I do believe that the actual percentage of the right wing that is vile, angry, pornographic, and threatening is a small minority,  they’re activated. Someone had a Google search for “Elizabeth Warren” and shared the YouTube link with a community of equally angry and social hate-mongers. But how -and where? I wasn’t able to find the link on Reddit.  And it didn’t appear on mainstream conservative media until days later. 

So why, given the fact that the Presidency, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court are now in the hands of the Republicans, is this angry base still so motivated to turn political conversations into personal shouting matches? 

Days later, on June 18, Fox News, Breitbart, The Hill  and others picked up my YouTube video, and without permission turned it into the basis of stories about Warren and her Town Hall talk.  Coverage from mainstream news media or Democratic blogs was nonexistent. 

It’s shocking to be the target of this much hate. The only comment that appears to have been edited (by either the author or YouTube) was one that called me a Jew. That one is gone. 

In some ways it’s more shocking that there was NO counter-response, no support for Warren, no balance.  Why are 50,000 angry Republicans finding her on YouTube and launching an attack?  These aren’t bots or Russian hackers. These are bitter, angry American’s who, despite having Trump in the White House, are still looking to attack.

But allowing this kind of anonymous anger without attribution is, in my mind, the political equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, then running for the nearest exit. 

This is weaponized social media.  And you won’t know what it feels like until it’s pointed at you. 

So, what can YOU do to fight back?

  1. Don’t accept anonymous posting on your sites or any sites you promote and support. 
  2. Ask your peers and partners in the social media world to shift from anonymity to authored comment posting. 
  3. Ask Reddit to replace pseudonymity with real names to foster authentic opinion and attribution.
  4. When someone with a real name takes a stand or makes accusations that you don’t agree with, stand your ground and comment back. I did.
  5. Set new standards for civility, conversation, and dialog. Get out of your filter bubble, and invite your friends to join you. 

The only way that we allow the power of social media to be eroded into hate speech, threats, and trolls is if we don’t bring thoughtful and civil conversations and engagement into this important and growing piece of our digital society.  We ignore the quality and tone of these conversations at the risk that it grows unfettered and becomes the new normal. If that happens, it’s too late to turn back.