Death Wish: A Writer Finds Twitter Turning Toxic

Social media has a dark side that is nasty, brutish, and anonymous. Lauren Ashburn on coping with the vile attacks aimed at her.

Fred Tanneau, AFP / Getty Images

Twitter is now my enemy. And we used to be best friends.

After years of virtual addiction, I’m pulling the plug. When some miscreant tweets to the world that you should kill yourself, it kinda takes the romance out of it. And it doesn’t take me 140 characters to say, I’ve had enough.

As someone who critiques social media for a living, I am well aware of the snarkdom that is Twitter’s hallmark. I’ve reported on politicians who dash off things that they come to regret. Entertainers, like Chris Brown, who think it’s funny to tell a female critic you want to defecate on her. Teenagers, like those exposed by the website Jezebel, who think it’s OK to spew racist trash and call the first African-American president a monkey.

But to wish someone dead?

When that comes straight at you—when hatemongers target you by name—it’s downright creepy. And no matter how thick your skin, it’s a hard slap. These people don’t know me, they don’t really care about me, they don’t stop to think that I have children who might stumble upon these vile attacks.

I hold forth on TV and online for a living, so I’m fair game for criticism. The other day I weighed in on the New York Post running that horrifying photo of a Queens man seconds away from being killed by a subway train by questioning whether a Korean immigrant was being treated with less sensitivity. I expected some people to agree and others to disagree. What I didn’t expect was this: being called “unbelievably racist,” “a useless elitist,” a “s**tty excuse for a journalist,” a “smirky bitch” who “looks like Scott Baio in a wig,” and this lovely sentiment: “Why don’t you hop on the tracks.”

In contrast, when I posted a picture of my parents’ 50th anniversary on Facebook along with a story about how they met at a streetcar junction, dozens of well-wishers came out of the woodwork congratulating them and telling me their own parents’ love stories. Yes, these are my friends, but like many on Facebook, I am “friends” with many I’ve never met, but who share similar interests, or are people I find interesting to follow.

Since anyone can follow you on Twitter (unless you block them), they can infiltrate your news feed simply by typing your Twitter handle into a posting. What’s more, many of the haters on Twitter don’t use their real names, spreading their filth without having the decency to attach their names.

What is it about Twitter that brings out the worst in some people and makes it acceptable—almost mandatory—to be small-minded jerks? Those 140 characters don’t leave a lot of room for context. It’s almost as if brevity breeds idiocy. Even powerful business executives have fallen prey to reckless comments.

Rupert Murdoch famously took a swipe at the “Jewish owned press” before having to apologize to the Anti-Defamation League. Donald Trump ranted that Barack Obama’s reelection was a “sham and a travesty.” Jack Welch accused Obama’s Chicago crowd of cooking the books on the unemployment numbers. Without editors and publicists, these corporate titans exhibit a disturbing tendency to tweet first and think later.

Perhaps it is worse for women. Ashleigh Banfield, the CNN anchor, has been called the C-word and worse. She likens Twitter to a modern-day public-execution square. “The tenor of Twitter has become so un-American,” she says. “What we’re left with is a steady stream of concussive attempts to weaken resolve, opinion, or thought.”

She has learned to respond to tweeted assaults with more force. When a woman named @HubScout tweeted that Banfield’s “bias against gays & same-sex marriage is so blatant when she covers the issue,” Banfield replied: “You’re crazy. And flat out wrong. Get over yourself.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Winding up our interview, Banfield made a plea to readers: “If you wouldn’t mind, please don’t tweet me to f#ck off for writing this.”

I often wonder whether, in person, these anger-filled ranters would be so crude. It’s as if Twitter gives them Superman-like powers impervious to Kryptonite. Banfield agrees that “it comes…from people who, I’m almost certain, are otherwise delightful in their homes and offices.”

Not so sure I’d go that far.

This is not to say that Twitter users and organizations don’t use the social network to share valuable information, or simply to make someone’s day. Lori Moreno, a former attorney who wanted to find deeper meaning in her life, plunged into social media—what she calls “a world within a world”—to help people understand it. She sprinkles such professional advice as “Top 10 Twitter Strategies for Social Media Branding” or “The LinkedIn [in]cubator” with love bombs quoting famous people. “The more one judges, the less one loves—Honor de Balzac”; or, “Life minus love equals zero—Rick Warren.” Heart emoticons and XOs abound. Moreno has 268,000 followers on Twitter (including me) and her positive notes provide an oasis from the rough-and-tumble Twitterverse.

As the level of vitriol on Twitter rises, the company is acutely aware of the problem of hate speech and is groping for a solution. One approach may be to hide @mention tweets by people who aren’t deemed “authoritative” because they have no biographical information, followers, or picture. But CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged that some of the “beautiful serendipity” between fans and celebrities could be lost to excessive restrictions. And the company is loath to undermine its First Amendment commitment, he said, noting that in many countries Twitter is “the only way to speak freely.”

Maybe the worst abuses will be curbed. Maybe my Twitter time-out is an overreaction to the kind of mindless garbage that many folks have learned to tune out. I know I’ll probably wade back into the shark-infested waters, but I’ll be carrying a harpoon.