While there are many things about Twitter I like (such as the near-instant delivery of news and the sometimes-clever chatter accompanying live news events), one thing is growing absolutely clear: Twitter is the near-perfect hate-delivery vehicle. By merely typing “@” and then your Twitter handle, any disturbed, deranged, vicious, or just bored troll can send the most vile possible language and expression not just directly to your smart phone but before the entire Internet world with the right hashtags.
I’m of course reminded of this by the predictably malicious reaction to the shooting at the Family Research Council — as chronicled by the diligent folks at Twitchy. Do these tweets merely reflect a preexisting extremist mindset or do they foster that mindset and further radicalize our extremes? A bit of both, I fear.
I’ve often counseled those faced with extreme or obscene speech to remember the “2 Live Crew” rule. For those who don’t remember the musical stylings of 2 Live Crew, it was a relatively obscure, edgy hip-hop group in Florida until family groups discovered their lyrics and led a legal charge to ban their albums. The resulting controversy catapulted 2 Live Crew to near the top of the Billboard charts. The lesson I took was fairly simple: The best way to deal with truly extreme speech is to ignore it — allow it to drift into obscurity and irrelevance.
But Twitter makes that strategy almost impossible to execute. Its constant presence (most of us get alerts when we’re tweeted at) combined with the ability of others to read what anyone else is saying about you means that hate can go viral quickly — even if you ignore your enemies. For a nation as politically and culturally divided as I can remember and already deep in the throes of a campaign featuring such Democratic tactics as calling Mitt Romney a felon, a killer, and now — apparently — a wanna-be slaver, Twitter looks to be a key driver of harassment, anger, and division.
And if you think the nastiness is confined to politics, I urge you (language warning) to watch Jimmy Kimmel’s hilarious bit: “Celebrities read mean tweets.”
I have a feeling, however, that the market may begin to offer a corrective. Twitter is powerful, but when or if the trash outweighs the treasure, it could find itself quickly going the way of MySpace.