Commentary

Getting Beyond Vitriol And Conflict

Social media came of age as a political tool in this election. What a troubled and unruly man-child it has turned out to be.

Donald Trump’s attention-grabbing tweets played a key role in getting him the Republican nomination. According to a tally by the New York Times, Trump insulted 282 “people, places and things” on Twitter, many repeatedly, between announcing his candidacy in June 2015 and the end of October.

Twitter is not build for nuance. Nor is Trump. Whoever wrested the Twitter account away from him in the final weeks of the presidential campaign (or not) allowed him to project a less vitriolic persona designed to appeal to undecided voters.

Whatever other misgivings I developed about Trump during the campaign, I have followed his business career for years and occasionally written about his failed houses of cards and other alleged scams. I’ve thought of him as a blustering con man. And like most others of my obviously too-limited acquaintance, I gave him little chance of garnering more than about 25% of the vote in the Republican primaries, no less a general election.

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But friend of mine who is the CFO of a company in the building trades — he’s a naturalized citizen, by the way — told me at least a year ago that I didn’t understand the depth of people’s anger and their frustrations with government. He felt Trump had a good chance of prevailing, despite his own misgivings.

Yesterday, I saw a lot of crying among my acquaintances. Rightfully so, because Trump has said, and allegedly done, some very nasty things to all sorts of people who don’t have his power or platforms to respond. Some take heart in fantasizing that Trump may yet answer for some of financial finagling. “I think he will be in jail within a year,” New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, who does have a platform, told The National's Wendy Mesley in an interview that has had about 230,000 shares since it was posted Monday.

But no doubt a major reason many of us were so shocked by the election results is because when we’re not using social media to attack, we’re using it to talk primarily to — and occasionally with — people just like ourselves. No doubt the Gladwell video was shared mostly among #notmypresident folks. And there’s a cascading effect when our social conversations are like coffeeklatches.

“News outlets are contending with a media landscape where social media platforms are helping to drive people into echo chambers, as users see posts from like-minded friends and hyper-partisan, often fake news stories spread quickly,” Steven Perlberg points out in the Wall Street Journal. “Getting through to voters with negative information about their favored candidate or positive information about the opponent is getting harder, particularly as trust in the news business at large is dimming.”

Yesterday, I listened to the morning-after speeches delivered by Trump, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Starting with Trump, they all called for reconciliation. I wondered if this message was resonating with my fellow citizens in the same way that negative ones like #BasketofDeplorables or #TrumpTapes had. I asked the folks at Affinio if they could glean some insight into the reactions of Clinton supporters to both Clinton’s and Trump's comments, to do likewise with Trump supporters, and also to gauge how Obama’s remarks were registering with people of both sides.

Bottom line: There was little of relevance to be found on the theme of #comingtogether or similar hashtags, although scads of information about the tribes who were posting to the likes of #presidenttrump and #imwithher was available. Not to mention #lockherup.

Expressing dissent is as American and apple pie. But name-calling and ad hominem trolling do nothing to advance an argument or effect change. Sixty million people hurling invective back and forth at 60 million other people (with third-party supporters and those too bummed out by all choices to vote thrown in) will not resolve anything.

So I would suggest this. Let’s stop thinking of social media as a soapbox, and start to use it as a tool for broadening our horizons. Let’s stop using it for vitriol and conflict, which is so easy to produce, and start using it to discover -- to ask questions and then listen to the answers, just as the people who really know things do in real life.

My friend the naturalized CFO tells me he was first clued into what Trump tapped into while visiting a Home Depot one day a while back. He noticed that people seemed extraordinarily frustrated about seemingly minor things in the larger scheme of life’s difficulties. They couldn’t find what they wanted. The aisles were blocked.

“That was nothing new in Home Depot,” he says. “But to me what was new was the level of anger in their faces because of these minor issues, and some verbalized it. That made me look and listen to regular people more in everyday life, and I noticed people were not happy.”

As we know now, they took that anger to the polls.

That’s what’s called old-fashioned reporting. Do we need any more evidence that there’s not enough of it being done?

That’s a question.

2 comments about "Getting Beyond Vitriol And Conflict".
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  1. Peter Rosenwald from Consult Partners, November 10, 2016 at 4:21 p.m.

    You've made a lot of sense Mr. Forbes. Thank you.

    It's a bit hard to tell whether you are being hopeful or actually optimistic that people will stop talking (mostly about themselves) and start really listening to other voices and other opinions.

    My fear is that the ‘selfie’ has become the symbol of our age and Twitter its small-thought communicator. We used to look outwards through the viewfinder and delight in images of the world and thoughtful discussion. Now all we seem to care about is narcissistically looking at ourselves, tweeting vitriol and nonsense and not caring about other people or the compromises that are the bulwark of democracy.

    Trump is hardly the answer. But if there is a single good thing which has happened, it is that the fear and anger of millions of people is now out in the open. Our challenge is how to honestly address it and change its causes. Someone said that revolutions are what comes around and goes around. They tend to end up pretty close to where they started.

    Our social media is only meaningful if we use it to help bind a divided nation through shared values and understanding.

     

  2. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co. replied, November 11, 2016 at 10:22 a.m.

    Good point on our selfie culture! As for your question, as I wrote in my Top of the News column this morning, to be honest, I'm probably tilting at windmills. —Thom

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