Yesterday, I discussed Michael Den Tandt’s piece on the “kid from Ontario wine country,” Sam Oosterhoff, who has made a big splash in his riding, but apparently left a sour note in the mouths of his detractors. Part of Tandt’s dismissive diatribe focused on the inexcusable attention the young politician has thus far attracted from some of social media’s most-profound thinkers:
Later, as the video made the rounds on social media, the Greek Chorus of revulsion chimed in: “This guy is an ignorant f—!” read one Facebook post. “Scum,” wrote another. “Seriously f— this little shit,” wrote a third. “Somebody buy the little twerp an hour at a massage parlour,” ventured a fourth. “Maybe then he’ll shut up.”
Regardless of context or circumstance, these comments are unwarranted. Period. There is not one respectable justification for this abusive language to be hurled at anyone, let alone those that choose to serve the public good. And most reckless, ill-informed commenters hide behind the veil of anonymity (Drunkguy151, ImCanadian_eh?, or whitetrash401); too meek and pitiful to put their face or name with their impulsive, irredeemable invective.
And the above-quoted comments are hardly the worst that our refined, digital society has to offer today’s leaders. How about the online comments that former Progressive Conservative Sandra Jansen endured and then read to fellow MLAs in the Alberta Legislature, or the literary genius displayed by these troglodytes when Jansen crossed the floor to Rachel Notley’s NDP. The comments are vile, misogynistic, and threatening. Both disheartening and disrespectful. Simply, pathetic. And Jansen suggests that she didn’t even share the worst of it. I believe her.
This is not a passive-aggressive attempt to otherwise scold and berate users on the efficacy of the comment section. We are human and fallible. I know: I didn’t believe it, either, but it’s in black and white on Yahoo! Answers. We all make comments that we wish we hadn’t the moment we hit send. That is normal and part of growing up. I do it. Like four times a day. I’m talking about the people that go out of their way to spread hatred, spewing unsophisticated, ignorant, and otherwise harmful commentary at or about people they don’t even know. I’m writing to the Canadian that thinks he’s disenfranchised and unemployed by immigration policy and decides to wield his keyboard with tempestuous, dictatorial authority (“My family has been in Canada for three generations! Damn immigrants. I demand satisfaction!!!!”); or the person that thinks Donald Trump’s filterless world means that he’s a “straight-shooter” and “tells it like it is.” Sure he does, as @realDonaldTrump backs away from yet another 3am Twitter campaign promise.
In this era, the infancy of social media, it has provided the great bulk of internet users with a positive platform they would otherwise not have to enter into political discourse in a meaningful and thought-provoking way. On the whole, digital venues create an unending space to discuss, share, build, and expand ideas in real-time; it allows citizens to openly and directly challenge those in authority; it allows the ‘silent majority’ to speak up without having to put on pants and travel to the nearest polling station. The fact that traditional newspapers have been forced to have (only) an online presence with a working comment section – that is monitored and edited for content – to remain relevant is a good thing. To be sure, everything I write here is edited several times over, and then I wait to see if it passes through the final and most important filter – that of my peers.
I know that it is apoplectic to most savvy and sophisticated users – I’m looking at you, @intheknow2019 – to suggest that censorship is positive. Especially within the context of social media, many jobs would have been saved if users had first sent their action, text, tweet, or post though a filter: like the geniuses that took up yelling FHRITP to female reporters that were live on the air; the party girl uploading pics of her latest drunken debauchery; or Anthony Weiner (yes, that’s actually his name) sending yet another phallus-pic to an unsuspecting woman. The censorship I’m talking about is your mom standing behind you completely aware of the comment you’re about to share with the world: a momentarily disappointed mother is better than searching the help-wanted section on indeed or workopolis. #motherapproved
We need to be held accountable for our thoughts, actions, and ideas. That’s why scientific studies should always require peer-review before publication: to ensure the study’s conclusions are accurate (informed) and acceptable (shareable), other scientists must be able to successfully replicate it (without burning down the lab). The problem is that social media is a bastion for those that think their opinions have inherent worth and value. They do not; not even close. Most thoughts lack edification, and are destined for the “trash” folder (I empty it several times before posting).
Social media remains a sanctuary for the internet-tough-guy or “troll” (thanks, Justin M). The person that gets a momentary emotional rush from telling someone in power where-to-go and how-to-get-there, or makes a disturbing statement to get a rise out of the social media horde that is offended by … well, everything. Trolls are the equivalent of the after-school bully that thumps his chest in triumph after meting out vigilantism on a kid half his size; the class-clown-turned-asshat because she still has her peer audience but no teacher to dole out discipline; the guy in the safety of his parents’ basement ruling the comment section with an iron fist, finally using curse words never acceptable during dinner prepared by mom and dad (again); or the adult-turned-petulant-two-year-old with an iPhone and internet connection throwing a mega-byte-my-ass temper tantrum in the middle of a digital coffee shop, the traditional place for serious political discourse, for no other reason than because she can.
We must expect more from one another on social media. We must shine a light on the darkest corners and recesses of anonymous internet commentary and hold each other accountable. It is the only way forward; it is the only way to ensure civility in the digital age. Political leaders should absolutely be held to account: but telling a 19 year-old that he requires sexual-servicing before commenting on behalf of his constituency or suggesting that two female politicians are lesbians because you’re upset with a change in the political headwinds is positively embarrassing. What’s more, the Weiners and Trumps of the world that bask in the afterglow of social media sensationalism; their actions perpetuating the belief that this behaviour is both acceptable and justifiable. It is not. And if you’re willing to put your name and face with the vulgarity and crassness mentioned above, you’re the asshat that will eventually be served his comeuppance.