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How Black Twitter might ruin black voting

If we don’t watch out, we might stampede toward a political abyss

Jonathan Chait, writer for New York Magazine, penned a smart piece in April that endeavored to explain why black Democrats preferred presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over her opponent Bernie Sanders. “[A] long historical tradition, of highly rational electoral pragmatism,” he wrote, courses through the lifeblood of black folk. Centuries of harrowing struggle charred into our consciousness an unflattering, yet fairly accurate, portrait of how American democracy operates.

We understand political opponents’ capacity to thwart our interests. We appreciate the rarity of revolutionary change. We accept that short strides forward must be lauded as a victory when misery-inducing backtracking stands as the alternative. Clinton’s incremental program for progressive change, therefore, wins. But Sanders’ call for a torrential downpour of political revolution that promises to flood the streets with democratic socialism? That loses, particularly when Sanders never explains how he will precipitate rain.

Chait avoids concluding that this history has cultured blacks into being generally shrewder voters. Perhaps that leap proved too far for him. Not for me. Our rough history has indeed hardened us to the political realities that inform wise voting behavior.

I fear, however, that Twitter might wither away that wisdom. Mindless tweet building upon mindless tweet could erect a tower of inanity that blocks the light of intelligent thought from illuminating our existence.

The story of anti-drug campaigns offers a cautionary tale explaining why.

In 1982, a young girl attending Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., asked Nancy Reagan how to respond to someone offering her, that is the girl, drugs. “Just say no,” the first lady answered, birthing a slogan still seared into the memory of anyone who lived through the ’80s.

Soon commercials imploring kids to “just say no” appeared incessantly on those old wood-paneled TVs with rabbit ears angling toward the ceiling. Sitcoms and dramas alike smothered viewers with overly preachy “just say no”-themed episodes. “Just say no” intruded itself into being an ever-present part of the culture back in those days.

Preventing drugs from tripping up the lives of American youth serves the public interest and national campaigns geared to keeping boys and girls upright seemed like a smart and obvious undertaking. Thus, between 1998 and 2004, Congress doled out nearly $1 billion for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which was aimed at educating youth about drugs, much like the Just Say No campaign, to persuade them to reject doing what ruins futures.

Robert C. Hornik, a professor of communication and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, set out to answer a simple question: Was this campaign successful? And so he conducted thousands of in-home surveys, re-interviewing teens over time to determine whether they had viewed the campaign’s advertisements and whether they had ever smoked marijuana.

The study’s results shocked researchers. Those seeing campaign ads were more likely to smoke marijuana. A basic truism explains why: The more often people appear to engage in a behavior, the more likely other people will deem that behavior normal and begin doing it too.

The anti-drug campaign did tell kids not to do drugs. But it also told kids that other kids were using drugs. Drug use, which was once a secret, now became open through widespread ads. And as more kids became aware of the drug use of other kids, drug use increased. The anti-drug campaign turned drug use, a private fact, into a public fact.

And this is the problem with Twitter.

We never truly knew, before Twitter, how many people held awful opinions. Now we know. And we can engage them. We can follow them and form relationships. We can click on a hashtag and read an endless stream of thoughts that should be hidden, not shared openly. Twitter makes private poor thinking public poor thinking. People reproduce that poor thinking and become convinced they are astute because they notice many likeminded peers.

Twitter bridges islands of ignorance.

Many champion Twitter for permitting everyone’s voice to be potentially heard. Not everyone, however, speaks with a voice worth hearing. Twitter enables, under the world’s gaze, know-nothings to connect with other know-nothings. And frequently a mob of impotent thinkers, through sheer numerical dominance, become thought leaders even if their flaccid ideas should never lead a soul.

I’ve long worried about this abstractly — Twitter weighing down black thought, sinking it into the ground. Black Twitter criticizing President Barack Obama for stating an obvious and inoffensive fact convinced me it poses a threat to the wellbeing of the black population.

“As a general rule,” Obama said in April, “I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers, has been really effective in bringing attention to problems.”

He continued: “One of the things I caution young people about, though, that I don’t think is effective, is once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.”

Obama articulated truth about how protest movements must go about achieving their aims. First, rally attention to a cause. Second, gain the ear of sympathetic power holders to forge alliances. And third, work with those allies to push reforms through the democratic process.

A Twitter stampede, nevertheless, quickly gathered and maligned his remarks, believing he unfairly assailed the Black Lives Matter movement. He did no such thing. This perception, nonetheless, amassed momentum so fast this nonsensical viewpoint acquired an undeserved ring of truth. And because so many people parroted this view they turned what would have been a private fact — misguided criticism — into a public fact.

Such thinking in a world sans social media would never dominate. Sure, some folk individually would have concluded that. Still that conclusion never would have weaseled its way into the discourse.

Political leaders will speak to black folk with an eye toward how their remarks will play on Twitter if Twitter sets our agenda. Only pure terribleness will result from that. Groupthink and raw emotion, under such circumstances, will enslave knowledge and reason. We would turn our backs on the radiance of truth and step into the shadowy land of unenlightenment. Our voting behavior would consequently suffer.

Something similar continues to infest the political right, where politicians must tailor their rhetoric to appeal to voters whose views are largely misinformed by Fox News and talk radio.

If we don’t watch out, we might become like them.

I will weep for my ancestors whose suffering taught us lessons should that ever happen.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.