In An Increasingly Polarized America, Is It Possible To Be Civil On Social Media?
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Twitter - a bastion of kindness and empathy; yeah, not so much. If you spend any time on social media, you know it can easily turn into a public brawl full of insults, curse words and vile threats. And maybe you've found yourself asking, who are these people? Why would anyone write stuff like this? NPR's Jasmine Garsd wondered the same thing. As part of our series on civility and incivility in a polarized America, she set out to meet two people who have done battle in a very noisy public space.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Before I could even interview these guys, I had to agree not to use their real names. The online circle they roll in can get really aggressive. One of them says he's even gotten death threats in the past. They asked to be called Tyler and Larry. They've never met. If they crossed paths on the streets, they wouldn't recognize each other. But almost every day for the last year or so, they've engaged on Twitter. And some of their posts are benign, even wonkish (ph).
LARRY: Privatize Medicare and Medicaid and create a plan to phase out Social Security without ripping off...
GARSD: That's Larry, reading a recent tweet. He's a Trump supporter on the East Coast. The other one, Tyler, is a liberal.
TYLER: Trump wasn't exonerated or did you not see that?
GARSD: He lives in Indiana. He's been tweeting a lot lately about the Mueller investigation.
TYLER: You should care more about the country than some orange, racist peon.
GARSD: OK. So Twitter users, you know. This type of thing rarely ends well. The conversation almost always turns awful. Larry will snap and say...
LARRY: Your idiotic posts are serious. Get the [expletive] out of here, cretin.
GARSD: ...Which will drive Tyler nuts.
TYLER: Oh, shut the [expletive], you inept [expletive].
GARSD: And it just goes on and on.
LARRY: Everything you tweet is stupid. Now [expletive], moron.
GARSD: Even Larry can't believe he wrote this.
LARRY: Yeah, I'm not so proud about that.
GARSD: He told me his wife is a liberal.
LARRY: She's never even seen me on Twitter. I'm like, please don't divorce me if you read my tweets because I just sort of shift modes and become - I might call it a troll mode, where I'm not really trying to make a point anymore. I'm just trying to battle. And I don't like that. I don't feel good about it.
GARSD: And Tyler, Larry's liberal Twitter nemesis, he knows he goes overboard too.
TYLER: I said, sit the [expletive] down. The adults are talking. That was a low moment.
GARSD: Remember. These guys are two complete strangers, but they've been going at it since last year. And the obvious question is...
TYLER: Why do you even bother? Why are you on that thread?
GARSD: Tyler says it's a question his husband asks a lot. Tyler is a gay man who lives in a conservative state. Even though he says Larry isn't one of them, there are people in his Twitter world who, Tyler says, post really homophobic and racist things. And he's sick of it. Like a lot of Americans, Tyler says he feels the stakes are really high right now. Maybe it's just not the time to be civil on Twitter.
TYLER: If we stop talking about racism, if we stop talking about homophobia and hate towards gays and just everything under the sun, then it goes un-taken care of. It goes to the side that's promoting that.
GARSD: But this constant fighting, Tyler says it takes a toll.
TYLER: You find yourself thinking and feeling about the thread, even if you're not on your phone or the computer to where you're having panic attacks or you're hyperventilating.
GARSD: Larry, the conservative, says he doesn't take Twitter so personally. But he's been thinking about quitting. He doesn't always like the way he behaves online. He has trouble breaking away, though. Like, he'll be at a restaurant and on his phone.
LARRY: I'll just think, I just got to send this one last one, you know? And it's, like, taking 10 minutes. And we're - the waitress is tapping her pencil. It's a fun thing to do, right? So every time you send a tweet and you think you made a point, it feels good. And you want to keep doing it.
GARSD: The pleasure and anxiety they're both describing, there's a growing body of scientific research on this topic that suggests social media can have addictive qualities, just like a drug or a gambling habit. Consider the very nature of Twitter. It's more public than other media platforms. It's easier to just jump into an argument and pile on, so the whole thing can be very performative. More than talking, we're showing ourselves off. Larry says that's not why he joined.
LARRY: The reason I joined was to have enlightening discussion. And that's the frustration is that there's no mindshare. It just always seems to blow up. And at that point, it just becomes two trolls trolling one another.
GARSD: Even though I interviewed them separately, both men came to a similar conclusion.
TYLER: You'd have a better chance of solving your issues over a beer or a meal than sitting behind a phone, typing - in caps - your point across.
LARRY: You know, we used to have barbecues and - liberals and conservatives. And if you're my neighbor, come over and eat and drink. You know, Twitter just is not good for that kind of thing, I think.
GARSD: And if they were sitting at that barbecue, they'd be able to see all the things they can't see on Twitter - a hurt look, a furrowed brow, a face flushed with embarrassment. Two-hundred-eighty characters, hashtags and memes might just not be enough for the difficult conversations we need to have right now. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.
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