I was news editor of The European Stars & Stripes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. During my year and a half in that role, a general on one side of the wars personally presided over the genocide of thousands of people because of their religion. He was finally captured this spring, and I tweeted that I was glad about that. The tweet below quickly was sent back to me.
(I have censored the tweet to hide the sender's identity and affiliation.)
The atrocities were a grisly and terrible thing to cover as a journalist. You do not have to be for one side or the other to oppose genocide. That someone would wish me dead for mentioning their hero's arrest on Twitter was stunning and sickening to me. (I do not align myself with any religion or group in the Balkan wars.)
As a former mainstream journalist and current social media professional, this incident touches upon something that has troubled me for some time: The increasingly partisan and divisive political discourse online. Moderates who are not as fervent or united as the extremes often get shouted down. Those with extremist views are more able to reassure themselves of the veracity of their beliefs.
The New York Times reported today that people argue just to win, a new wave of scholarly research suggests. Arriving at the truth is not the goal. So our discourse can distance us more rather than pull us together and closer to the truth. This might be human nature: Being right is a basic motivation. But it is troubling, and compounds the problems created by the ability today to surround oneself in a partisan echo chamber of one's own beliefs.
Objectivity may have been an impossible goal of mainstream, traditional media, but at least it was valued. The splintering of media into myriad subjective channels allows the Fox News junkies to surround themselves with their views and the MSNBC junkies on the other side to do the same. This leaves those of us who are more moderate in the crossfire.
On blogs, the largest topic of news stories linked to were about U.S. government or politics "often accompanied by emphatic personal analysis or evaluations," the Pew Research Center reported in a 2010 study. Pew also reported that most people use social media to get a candidate elected or espouse a cause, not to attempt to solve a problem. The more partisan a group, the more it may use social media: The Tea Party faithful embrace their causes on social media far more than do more moderate groups. Some say social media was the most important tool in galvanizing that movement.
The more extreme the views, the more propaganda necessary to defend it, and the more free and available social media may be employed. White supremacists have relied on social media to gather, and to immediately purge anyone who doesn't share their views.
Arguing just to be right is dangerous, but is perhaps human nature. Stoking the furnaces of hate is when it goes too far. When that happens on social media, the need for moderation is clear.