Danielle McLaughlin: Villains, heroes, and the bias that binds us

Columnist Danielle McLaughlin, second from right, appears on the Hannity show on Fox News with commentators Tomi Lahren, ...

Columnist Danielle McLaughlin, second from right, appears on the Hannity show on Fox News with commentators Tomi Lahren, left, Gina Louden and host Sean Hannity.

OPINION: It's been an interesting week on social media.

Thanks to a foolish tweet, Martin Shkreli – the villainous "Pharma Bro" who hiked up the price of the anti-parasitic and life-saving drug Daraprim 5000 per cent (from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill) – was thrown in jail while awaiting sentencing for fraud.  Skreli, who slimy-stalked Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca, among other creepy things, had offered $5000 on Twitter for some of Hillary Clinton's hair. Despite his lawyer's assertion that "stupid doesn't make you violent", Skreli had his bail revoked.  Jokes abounded about what he would be charged at the Brooklyn federal prison's commissary for snacks and gum. And Ibuprofen.

Someone with access to the Twitter account of Ted Cruz, the conservative evangelical who once argued as Texas Solicitor General that the state's ban on the sale and advertisement of sex toys was constitutionally permissible, "liked" a pornographic tweet and Twitter went wild.  Those of us who have lived through his preachy ideological lectures for years were delighted at this momentary flash of, well, humanity.  By point of contrast, Cruz argued to an Appeals Court in a 2007 sex toy case that "there is no substantive-due-process right to stimulate one's genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship." It occurred to me that this statement brought new meaning to the phrase, "may it please the court."  Cruz blamed the lusty "like" on his staff (of course).  But he did go on the record calling the Texas law he defended 10 years ago "stupid", and stated that what happens in people's bedrooms is nobody else's business. What a refreshing bouquet of pragmatism to spring from some ham-fisted tweeting.  

Columnist Danielle McLaughlin had what she describes as a social media twilight zone-like experience "due to a strange ...

Columnist Danielle McLaughlin had what she describes as a social media twilight zone-like experience "due to a strange confluence of misinformation and confirmation bias".

Also on Twitter, Ann Coulter lost her mind as it appeared that Donald Trump might not build the wall, and is in favour of granting amnesty to nearly one million undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and were protected from deportation in 2012 by the Obama administration. Coulter tweeted, "If we're not getting a wall, I'd prefer President Pence" and "At this point, who DOESN'T want Trump impeached".  That's a big turnaround from Coulter's prior take on the Donald, publishing her book In Trump We Trust in support of his campaign in 2016.   If Coulter is a thermometer for Trump's base, Trump is cooked.

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And I had a social media twilight zone-like experience of my own this week, due to a strange confluence of misinformation and confirmation bias.  On Wednesday night I appeared on Hannity, a widely watched show on conservative network Fox, to discuss (you guessed it) a tweet by Jemele Hill, an ESPN host, calling Donald Trump a white supremacist. Now, if you actually watched the show, we (two conservative guests, plus me, plus Hannity) talked far more about freedom of speech than racism.  And as the sole (don't call me a "token") liberal on the show, I defended Hill's free speech rights, suggested that name calling wasn't productive on any side, and criticised White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for suggesting that Smith should be fired for her tweet.  The irony of an administration run by a birther conspiracy theorist being upset about a criticism of the now-president wasn't lost on me, and I made sure the audience knew it.  Or so I thought.

Within minutes, Judd Legum, the founder of a progressive website called Think Progress, tweeted out a still image from the show.  The chyron at the bottom of the screen, frozen in time in Legum's screen grab, screamed ESPN HOST CALLS TRUMP A "WHITE SUPREMACIST".  Legum editorialised, "Hannity assembles a diverse panel of experts to discuss racism".  

If you didn't see the show, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a dubious idea to collect a bunch of white people to talk about racism.  Fair enough.  Race is an important and sensitive subject.  And, like anything, a proper conversation calls for a view from all sides.  The thing is, we primarily talked about accusations of racism levelled at conservatives, and free speech.

But that truth didn't get in the way of the inhabitants of the twittersphere, who, in their white hot rage (no pun intended), determined that we four "whities" were the devil. Forget that I stood up for African Americans who are standing up for social justice.  Forget that I called out the Trump administration for its hypocrisy.  Forget about what I've said and written over months and years about social justice.  Newsweek and Yahoo News piled on, intentionally omitting my political leanings, attributing to me the views and commentary of my conservative counterparts that I don't share.  Ultimately, I was a blonde talking head on Fox, and by God, people were going to force me into their narrative.

I feel no ill-will.  I accept criticism as part of a public life.  Call me an airhead or a bimbo or a Stepford wife.  I don't care.  I know I'm none of those things.

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But there are broader lessons here.

This experience taught me how easy it is to be pulled in by a viewpoint that you ascribe to.  How we are looking for confirmation of our beliefs and biases in an increasingly interconnected, online world. And that the interconnection of social media is mostly an illusion – it is a world of disparate fragments that rarely interact.  On a practical level, it showed me the power of Russian-backed Twitter bots and Facebook profiles churning out lies about Hillary Clinton in 2016: I want to believe it, therefore it is.

At our cores, we are all looking for our tribe. For similarities in experience and outlook, for the legitimisation of our views. I am, too.  But 115,000 likes (and counting) has taught me to work a bit harder before signing onto alluring headlines without doing my homework first. 

 - Sunday Star Times


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