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Social media discussions could promote political dialogue but instead sometimes creates divisiveness.
Social media discussions could promote political dialogue but instead sometimes creates divisiveness. (Cineberg Ug/Dreamstime)

As a longtime participant in and observer of Baltimore’s social media sphere, it’s becoming clear that while these platforms have tremendous capacity to help build connections in our city, they also possess considerable potential for divisiveness.

The social media peanut gallery, particularly on Twitter, but also on Facebook and other forums, is becoming increasingly sure of itself and devoted to each other, and to its various totems of group membership signifying ideological purity. This is expressed through public shaming and sometimes bullying that ultimately leads many people to self-censor or stop participating at all in online settings.

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This ultimately hurts political discourse.

Why this polarization happens is understandable given that the number of people actively participating online in any given city is small but loud. It is also a small number of people who tend to engage the most in ideological purity testing and accompanying bullying activity, be it hard or soft.

The vast majority of the city residents don’t see the online battles, and these online skirmishes are not even central to the city’s civic brain. They are fringe conversations in many cases had by just a few people. But they have tangible impact.

Experienced people who understand how things actually work, people who have deep civic roots and social capital with institutions and organizations of power, are slowly throwing up their hands and in many cases, walking away entirely. They don’t want to participate in a civic realm where they are told that they don’t have a clue and aren’t up on the pet cause of the day that is sweeping social media.

Much of the online discourse centers around virtue signaling, which can be a way of expressing awareness of the city’s long and troubling history with racial and social inequity. There is no question that Baltimore (and other U.S. cities) have suffered from systemic structural racism, and it is undeniable that these structures should be broken down. But driving people away from the civic realm is not the answer. We need people with good and experienced brains who are committed to the same causes to come together and refresh and restore the institutions we want to keep, while creating the new ones we need to build.

Experienced civic leaders overestimate the power and importance of online chatterboxes. Likewise, people online vastly overestimate their own power and centrality. Both sets of people need to find ways to build bridges and achieve shared goals. Walking away is not the answer; nor is it proper to pillory anyone not willing to abide the various symbols and rituals of today’s social media orthodoxy.

It may be tempting to just encourage the online mobs to flush away the city’s civic elders; for did they not, through their actions, deliver us unto this state of evil? If we are honest, the answer is that there are many smart, committed people who have worked very hard to fix the same problems today’s social media brigades think they are now “woke” to, and if we are honest, have fallen short.

But flushing away the people with experience, with battle scars, with institutional knowledge and social and financial capital is not the answer. If we do that, we will end up with a certain outcome: corruption and inefficacy.

Delivering a sick burn on Twitter is a different skill set from being able to manage a program budget for 10 years, file 990 tax forms on time and navigate grant writing. Knowing how to build coalitions and effect real results is different from knowing how to gather online followers. Being effective in public office is not the same as being the online candidate célèbre of the day

Online platforms offer great utility, but successful outcomes require intentionality in our designs. When we allow them to devolve into “Lord of the Flies” — like playgrounds where kings and queens rise and fall with the whims of tribal trends, they can be antagonistic to our shared civic reality.

Likewise, the people who are doing the real work — and not just talking about it — may need to thicken their skins. People chattering online don’t necessarily require your reaction, nor should it be a reason for hurt feelings. People who are willing to say deeply hurtful things online would never say the same things in person.

As someone who has spent the last dozen years or so bridging the online and offline civic realms, I’d encourage everyone who is meaningfully challenged in an online setting to slow down and take an opportunity to meet one-on-one in person. In my experience, the people who are willing to do this are changed by it, and real relationships are created that persist and can often help drive change.

We are on the same team, and we need to build connections rooted in respect — not find new reasons and ways to drive people apart.

David Troy (dave@410labs.com) is the CEO of 410 Labs, a software company based in Mt. Vernon, and the co-founder and lead administrator of the Facebook group Baltimore City Voters.

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