How to start a Twitter conspiracy
Last night, I received a disturbing little glimpse into how social-media outrage works.
Glancing at Twitter as I watched the news -- much of it consumed with the bombings in Boston -- I saw people on all sides of the Canadian political spectrum still arguing about the wisdom of Conservative attack ads launched on Monday against the new Liberal leader. It seemed like a perfect example of how perspective can get lost amid toxic partisanship -- who cares, given larger events in the world, whether this was strategic genius, a political fumble, etc.? It all looked very small. (And it should have been an argument to pull down the ads and put the conversation on hold for a while, I believed.)
So I posted a small, sarcastic tweet of objection: "To be fair, it takes a certain amount of strategic genius to launch attack ads on the same day as terror bombings." The idea being, of course, that red-meat partisans and conspiracy theorists, left to their own devices, would take these conversations to their usual, ridiculous lengths -- and that's about as ridiculous as you could get. And to underline the fact that this was a tweet about tone and perspective, I included the hashtag #lookingsmall.
Sarcasm is hard to pull off on Twitter. Had I been sitting with a bunch of people in my living room who were arguing about political ads while the Boston news was on TV, and said: "Yeah right, this is an appropriate time to be arguing about who's got the smartest political strategy," my meaning may have been clearer.
But a surprising number of people, including a few who actually know me, thought I was seriously seeing a plot behind the bad timing of the ads. (Really??) And here's what can happen when you make a sarcastic comment on Twitter about outrageous conspiracy theories -- you become enmeshed in even more outrageous conspiracy theories.
In some quarters of Twitter, where people are disinclined toward me anyway, this was enough to set off a chain of vitriol in which I was suddenly accused of everything from politically exploiting terrorism to making light of tragedy. *** Oh wait. See update: a couple of days can make a huge difference. ***
In other words, I had stirred up exactly the kind of small-minded partisanship that prompted the tweet in the first place. I keep forgetting that once you've fallen down that rabbit hole on Twitter -- the world where people see the absolute worst in each other -- that it's difficult to get out. I sent out a few tweets of clarification, asking people to check their own Twitter feeds for signs of lost perspective, but I suspect these were a lost cause. I thought about simply taking down the tweet, but figured that by doing so, I would just feed more conspiracy theories or feed (btw wrong) speculation that I was sitting in some bar somewhere, sending out cocktail-induced, random thoughts.
Hence this longer blog post. Points of clarification for the literal-minded out there:
No, I didn't see a deep dark plot in the bad timing of attack ads. Yes, I believe that for last night at least, the only kind of attacks worth discussing were the ones in Boston. No, the point of the tweet wasn't to make a joke about tragedy -- it was to make a joke about people who can't set partisan politics aside long enough to see the bigger picture. Oddly enough, by asking for a suspension in small-minded partisan hostilities, I merely gave people another target for them.
I do know the perils of using sarcasm on Twitter, and this was another lesson on that score. In an attempt to tamp down crazy talk, I whipped it up. #lookingsmall, last night at least, was a hashtag fail.
Update: Today, on Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apparently decided that the statute of limitations was over on politicizing the Boston tragedy. Yes, go figure. I haven't checked the Twitter feeds of all those who were scandalized by that idea a couple of nights ago, but trust they are, true to their principles, sending their vitriol in the direction of the PMO tonight, since they seemed to be very upset about domestic politics being in any way associated with the Boston tragedy. For the record, I stand by the looking-small thing.