Froma Harrop: Social media warp politics

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

“The Bernie Bros are out in full force harassing female reporters,” according to a recent headline on The Washington Post’s website.

Why did the author conclude that the “Bernie Bros” were acting badly? Several respected female journalists had written that they’d been subjected to vulgar and threatening emails, phone messages and tweets — purportedly from Bernie Sanders supporters displeased with their reportage.

Many in the Sanders camp took offense at this characterization, and with reason. The more astute among them concede that some members of their club are prone to misbehavior. But the world of social media is rife with intrigue. And the manipulation of reality grows especially thick wherever participants can hide their true identities.
Professionally conducted polls are often flawed, but they at least try to scientifically gauge opinion “out there.” Trying to draw a bigger picture on the basis of incoming opinion is hazardous. The problem with online perceptions is that five jerks can seem to make a trend.

Today’s French phrase is “agent provocateur.” An agent provocateur is one who commits a rash act with the intention of falsely implicating another.

There’s no better place to practice this dark art than on anonymous social media. Many, perhaps most, read a tweet and assume that the feelings expressed are real. That includes tweets from unidentifiable sources and, still more pernicious, from sources using fake identities made to look real.

So, some harassers may not have been “Bernie Bros” at all. They may have been trolls seeking to sow discord among Democrats. (A troll is someone who posts offensive or divisive comments online.) They could have been teens in an Oslo basement smoking pot and doing mischief. They could have been anyone seeking to discredit the Sanders phenomenon.

And some attach to popular political hashtags to flog their businesses. The Post was able to identify one of the offending “Bernie Bros” as a wannabe comedian in Berlin.

The most skilled inciters, meanwhile, know that getting under people’s skin distracts them from the important question: “What creep really wrote this?”

The professional media have no excuse for getting taken. If they don’t know the source of a statement, they should pay it no mind.
One of the earliest and best pieces of advice for navigating social media is: “Do not feed the trolls.” That means do not respond in a hurt or angry manner. For heaven’s sake, don’t debate them. The major nuisances can be blocked.

Responsible voices treating anonymous posts as representative of larger opinion end up feeding trolls a 10-course dinner. They magnify a gang of miscreants into a “cause celebre” (French again), and the attention paid only draws in more lowlifes.

Look, people using social media, high-school kids included, put themselves at risk of being targeted online. The sensitive should avoid sites that tolerate masked ghouls. There’s a reason Twitter has trouble keeping users while Facebook, which requires “friends” to identify themselves, is growing rapidly.

Some journalists cushion their tales of online nastiness as a form of reporting, a mere telling of what’s happening “out there.”

But even if they’re mocking the louts in the process, that’s still giving them prime time. And seeing as one person can work 100 Twitter handles (assuming he or she has a unique email address to go with each), it’s really not wise to portray anonymously written stuff as representative of anything.

Those in the public eye would do best to dismiss their online attackers as dogs barking in the night. If they sense a genuine threat, they should call the police. Otherwise, ignore the trolls. The howling will eventually stop.

Email: fharrop@gmail.com.

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