I imagine just about everyone has at least heard of Twitter and has probably heard it can be a pretty nasty place, where people exchange insults and incite others to join in hateful online attacks on their adversaries. I’ve seen the transcripts of some ugly interactions. But my Twitter community is quite civil, and I don’t go looking for trouble. Recently I got involved in a relatively small tussle, though, and I’m sharing the story in this post. If you’re not on Twitter, it may not make sense to you without some explanation of how Twitter works, so I’ll start with that. If you don’t need it, you can skip the next four paragraphs.
I have a Twitter account, which allows me to post short—140-character maximum length—messages (called tweets) to the “twittersphere.” I also “retweet” (RT), i.e., pass on others’ tweets that I think worthy of note, though—as many say in their Twitter bios—“RT doesn’t = endorsement.” I used to sometimes mark tweets as “liked,” until Twitter changed the star that indicated a like into a red heart, which I refuse to use. Everything I tweet is public. Anyone, even someone without a Twitter account, can go to my Twitter page and read all my tweets. So a person’s tweets are essentially posts on a miniblog. This is true for anyone on Twitter that hasn’t opted for a private account, which is not the norm and sort of defeats the purpose.
Tweets are of three types. There are tweets with no particular reader in mind. There are retweets (RT). And there are tweets addressed to particular persons. Everyone on Twitter is identified by a Twitter handle that starts with the @ character, as well as by a name, which may or may not be the person’s real name. If a tweet is meant for someone in particular, then it will begin with that person’s Twitter handle (@that_particular_person). While I can go to anyone’s Twitter page and read all their recent tweets, there is a better way to follow what they’re tweeting, namely to “follow” them. This is basically subscribing to their tweets, which will automatically appear, along with the tweets of all those I follow, in my Twitter timeline, as they are tweeted, most recent on top. Anyone can follow anyone else (not private) on Twitter, excluding the case where one user has blocked another. On Twitter I’m @onscrn. (Feel free to follow.) Not everyone I follow follows me, and vice versa.
All tweets that aren’t addressed to anyone in particular will be automatically seen by the tweeter’s followers. A tweet addressed to @addressee will appear in the timeline of @addressee whether or not @addressee follows the tweeter. Don’t count on @POTUS actually reading your tweets, but they will be delivered to his Twitter timeline. If anyone mentions @onscrn in the text of a tweet, I also get notified about that. Probably the main way a tweet directed to a particular person gets sent is when someone chooses to reply to a tweet. That automatically puts the Twitter handle of the person whose tweet is being replied to at the beginning of the reply. If someone replies to a RT, then the both @original_tweeter and @retweeter are addressed in the reply. The address part with the @ can always be edited before the tweet is sent. If a reply is made to a tweet that was addressed to two people, then the reply tweet goes to the sender of the tweet and the other recipient of the tweet being replied to. It’s like a reply-all email. I mention these details to make sense of the Twitter exchanges below.
If you’re particularly interested in some subject or event, you can search for it on Twitter via keywords (or “hashtags” marked with #). This is a search of the vast ocean of tweets. In this way you can find tweets that contain these keywords tweeted by people you have no prior knowledge of. You can read the tweet, and you can go check out the authors of the tweets, see all of their recent tweets.
Below, I’m using Twitter handles of @protrump (a woman in Texas, according to that Twitter account’s bio) and @antitrump for the people involved, while keeping my own name of @onscrn. There didn’t seem any point in using the others’ real Twitter names, since the story doesn’t depend on who they are exactly.
One thing that has especially disturbed me about Donald Trump’s campaign is how casually he can speak of murder, which I’m pretty sure is a first for Presidential candidates, and which is enough, by itself, to convince me that I really don’t want to see this man in a position of governmental power. I’m assuming my original tweet, which started the interactions, was the one that follows, though I can’t be sure because @antitrump retweeted a couple of others.
ME: “Why does Trump keep saying he could murder someone & not lose support? Not bothered by Putin’s murders. Gave Kim Jong-un credit for murders.”
Since @antitrump wasn’t following me, he would have seen my tweet only as a result of searching on Twitter for “Trump”. I assume @protrump wasn’t following @antitrump on Twitter, so she would have also come across his RT by virtue of a search. In both cases, they would have had a whole lot of tweets to read through, as Trump is undoubtedly one of the most frequently used words on Twitter.
@protrump saw at least one of @antitrump’s retweets from me about Trump and responded. So both I and @antitrump had this tweet from @protrump show up in our Twitter feed:
PRO-TRUMP: “@onscrn @antitrump Oh shut the hell up. It was a metaphor.”
I guess I’ve been lucky, but that was the first out-of-the-blue aggressive tweet I’ve ever had directed at me, so it was a bit startling. It was nothing compared to the rather disturbing vile insult thrown at me years ago in the comment section of someone’s blog, which had linked to my blog post, written at the time of Obama’s first inauguration, about the depth of racism in the recent past: “Thoughts of Water on the Eve of Obama’s Inauguration” . That comment was evidently from a virulent racist. Blog comment sections are well known for bringing out the worst in people, or attracting the worst people. I don’t have a comment section on my blog.
Anyway, the next tweet I saw in this exchange was from @protrump, but it was preceded by a response by @antitrump just to @protrump, of which I was unaware at the time. I think @protrump would have had to explicitly include me as an addressee in her response, so it was probably directed to me as well as @antitrump.
ANTI-TRUMP: “@protrump Same with punching protester in face, or megyn kelly’s ‘whatever’, or fiorina’s ‘persona’ .. He likes (is) despots”
PRO-TRUMP: “@antitrump @onscrn Who cares? Grow a set you delicate little flower”
Then came this reply (in which I am clearly just being CCed):
ANTI-TRUMP: “@protrump @onscrn speaking of flowers, don’t u have weeding to do in the tub outside ur trailer?”
Now, admittedly @protrump had insulted us (as unmanly, presumably in contrast to Trump), in her “grow a set” response. But that was at least somewhat generic and based on an insulting interpretation of why we’d failed to appreciate Trump’s murder references. @antitrump’s retort was thoroughly ad hominem and based on a stereotype of what a Trump supporter is like. Beyond that, it showed a contempt for such people (poor, White, uneducated, non-coastal) as being the only members of our society who can be insulted for being who they are without violating the code of political correctness. I think there’s a good deal of truth in this analysis of Trump’s appeal by Clive Crook: “Donald Trump, Class Warrior”
For good measure, @antitrump added this.
ANTI-TRUMP: “@protrump @onscrn dont worry #trump loves the poorly educated.. They’re loyal. [link to picture of a cartoon dog]”
I didn’t want to be part of this, so I just tweeted to the two of them:
ME: “@protrump @antitrump Leave me out of this. I’m not getting into any personal insult contest.”
Right away, @protrump responded in agreement.
PRO-TRUMP: “@onscrn @antitrump Deal.”
And @antitrump both retweeted and “liked” my tweet.
I was kind of surprised. Is it that easy? As far as I can tell, @protrump and @antitrump also ceased firing at each other. So, I think they were open to a call to end hostilities, maybe even relieved to have an end. These interchanges were actually pretty mild compared to many that happen, but they were bad enough for me. I’d like to think I’d called them to their better selves, but I’m not fooling myself into thinking they’ve abandoned the fray. Totally missing from these exchanges was any attempt to change the mind of the other person, or of anyone sharing that person’s opinion who might have seen the tweets, so I can’t help feeling that the sole motivation was the desire for combat against representatives of the “other side,” to whom no amount of respect was due. This is a temptation that should be resisted. It’s Good Friday. Love your enemies. It doesn’t require agreement.