The Power of Not Retweeting
I was outraged by a tweet. I didn’t share it.
I’m on tour with the Team Human book and have been inspired by the interest I’m getting from real people and places, podcasts and independent journalists — but a bit surprised by the almost deafening silence from institutional media. I know that’s partly because they’re all busy covering Trump and Russiagate, while almost ignoring stories like the coup in Venezuela, the dam disaster in Brazil, or the anti-Kurd offensive in Turkey. Books are not shocking enough for the viral mediascape, unless they’re bombshell tell-alls from former Trump staffers.
Then, all of a sudden, that Covington Catholic Schoolboy MAGA Hat Versus Native American video hits the Twitterverse, and everyone wants me on air to analyze the way human interactions are being poisoned by social media platforms and the fake accounts spewing weaponized messages. The hook!
It’s an interesting little memefest to dissect, of course. It’s really the story of what happens as you zoom out of a scene from close-up to medium long shot to the establishing shot. What looks like a MAGA kid menacing a Native American, becomes a seasoned Native American activist setting up a Catholic schoolboy, and eventually reveals itself to be a Native American intervening on a conflict between Hebrew Israelites from Brooklyn and some rowdy white anti-abortion demonstrators. So far, anyway.
It’s a little troubling that my favorite news shows only want me on air when it’s to explain a sensationalist, social-media-generated, cultural fart. But hey, at least I had the opportunity to pivot the conversation toward our collective responsibility for disinformation. What disturbs me more, is that so many of my friends and, worse, so many respected journalists, intellectuals, activists, and others thought to tweet and retweet and comment on this story before they had any idea what was going on. We were not present on the Mall, and have no business commenting on what happened there — certainly not based on a video clip.
Yeah, I saw the clip in my Twitter feed — from one of the people who retweeted a truncated version of the video spawned by a fake news account in Brazil. I was tempted to share a few really clever, nasty things about the apparent confrontation. But I took my own advice, for once, and did not respond. I took a breath, and waited. I didn’t do what the platform is programmed to make me want to do.
I accepted the possibility that I was looking at real video, but nonetheless fake news. No more real than any of the stitched together reality TV on the tube every night. That’s what reality TV is, we all know, right? They use real footage, but cut it together to say whatever they want. It’s why reacting to decontextualized imagery is so dangerous. We spread the lies, and inflame our friends for no good reason.
If anything, we’re living in a media landscape where whoever can most convincingly put words to the picture, wins this sick and mutually destructive game. Are those refugees? No, they’re terrorists. No, actually, they’re rapists. Whoever names the meme, wins the meme. And the winner is most often determined by who can come up with the most emotionally resonant frame — which may have nothing to do with reality.
That’s why we can’t respond intelligently or compassionately to photos on a news feed. We can only react — impulsively and usually prejudicially. This is raw footage. We were not there. It may be compelling to look at — particularly if it triggers our knowledge of real racism, oppression, and violence. But this is also why we have real journalists, on the ground, skilled at investigating a story and determining what happened — so we don’t have to rush to judgment. So what if I don’t find out about what happened until an hour later?
Tweeting one’s outrage is not real activism, anyway. It’s really just a form of social signaling. Doing so without even knowing anything about the scene we’re commenting on is just adding noise. Worse, it becomes good evidence that whatever side you’re on is just as guilty of disinformation and rushing to judgment as the trolls.
Instead of getting drawn into righteously indignant online substitutes for social justice activism, let’s go out into the real world and fight the injustices we see all around us. In some ways, the willingness of the activists on the Mall to show up, make their claims, and stare into one another’s faces was a more dignified, productive, and promising event than anything happening on social media.
And if we really want to work problems occurring beyond our physical location, let’s get the facts from professional journalists.