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Like a lot of us, I’ve been thinking more about this Covington High situation than 16-year-olds behaving badly would generally warrant. It’s hard to imagine why an incident like this would have hijacked the national news cycle right now, when the government is shut down and federal workers are going hungry. Internationally, the news cycle is even more dire: Mexico is having gas shortages, the UK is stuck in Brexit purgatory, and let’s not even get into the Middle East. There are humanitarian crises all over there world, and here I am, thinking about some 16-year-old high school boys in Kentucky. What a waste.

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It’s not just me, of course. The media and the public have been captivated by this story. NPR, not generally the type of news outlet to be captured by social media drama, has run four stories on the incident. CNN has run nearly a dozen. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion.

It’s a predictable cycle by now: First comes the incident, then the outcry, then the backlash, then the backlash to the backlash. That’s the stage we’re in currently, and this is the one where people seem to really embrace the idea of collective guilt. People are no longer thought of as individuals—some of whom probably acted poorly and some of whom probably did not—and they come to symbolize all the historical wrongdoings attributed to their kind.

Take, for instance, a 2012 photo of Covington students in what appears to be blackface at a basketball game, which, by now, has also gone viral. Snopes looked into this, and it turns out that it’s a local basketball tradition called “black-out games,” in which students paint their bodies and wear all black. As far school traditions go, this certainly seems like an unwise and insensitive one, but for plenty of observers, that seven-year-old photo means that students attending Covington High now must be guilty of the completely unrelated crime that allegedly happened last weekend. And how could they not be? As I keep seeing on Twitter, one former Covington student was recently convicted of raping someone, and some Covington boys did what may be a white power sign or what may be the universal symbol for a three-point shot at another basketball game, this one year unknown. Why not lock them all up just to be safe?

Of course, it’s not usually white boys who get caught up in this web of collective guilt. Just look at how right wing media outlets like Fox News treats Muslims, Arabs, and other people of color. But in this case, it does seem to be mostly progressives who are doubling-down on the original narrative despite the fact that essential parts of the story—that, for instance, the kids instigated the conflict—have been debunked. Not all progressives are doubling down, of course, and many prominent voices in the media have apologized for calling for the kids’ heads before the full story came out. But, when confronted by evidence, some people just move the goalposts, inch by inch. On Twitter, the debate goes something like this:

“Ok, so may they didn’t mob the Native American guy but they did take their shirts off and run around. That’s clearly disrespectful.”

“It was one kid and it happened before the Native Americans got there.”

“Ok, but they shouldn’t have been at a pro-life rally in the first place.”

And so on and so on until everyone has worked themselves into a frenzy and no one has changed anyone’s mind.

The cycle keeps going, even after the account that posted the original viral video clip was suspended from Twitter due to suspicious activity. According to CNN, "a network of anonymous accounts were working to amplify the video," which has now been removed. By that time, however, another short video clip had gone viral as well. This one allegedly shows Covington boys yelling at a young woman and her friend walking by them at the rally in DC. “The Covington Catholic boys harrassed [sic] my friends and I before the incident with Nathan Phillips even happened,” the tweet reads. “I'm tired of reading things saying they were provoked by anyone else other than their own egos and ignorance.”

Haven’t we learned anything about sharing 8-second video clips by now? The video looks damning and very well may be authentic but some of the media has covered it as though they know for a fact that it is. And yet, you can’t tell from the clip what the boys were shouting (MAGA? Build the wall?), who they are, whether or not they go to Covington, when it was filmed, or what precipitated the incident. That, of course, has not stopped people from sharing. In less than a day, it’s been viewed nearly 9 million times on Twitter. (This being 2019, there quickly came another wrinkle in this drama, after racist tweets allegedly posted by the young woman who claims Covington boys harassed her were uncovered on Twitter. There goes her chance of hosting the Oscars.)

I don’t know exactly what happened in DC and neither does anyone who wasn’t there to see it. Even people who were there probably didn’t get the full picture: Eye-witness accounts are so notoriously flawed that they are often thrown out of court. Humans, it turns out, just aren’t that good at perception. But while I don’t know exactly what happened in DC, I do know that what happened on social media this week will happen again. Tomorrow or next week or next month, there will be some other incident and some other outrage and we’ll all be right back here again, spending our minutes on Earth arguing about minor conflicts instead of things that actually matter.

I blame Twitter for this. As Damon Linker put it, Twitter is “a medium through which Orwell’s Two Minutes of Hate gets spontaneously recreated every day, in multiple ideological directions, with no external control at all.” I think he’s right. That particular platform—with no space for context and a reward system that encourages viral outrage—brings out all our worst instincts, my own included. Twitter feels to me like a battle ground, like every time I log on, I’m ready to stab someone in the neck. I call out people for ideas that I think are stupid or rash, I screenshot hypocrites and make fun little stories out of their tweets. I quote tweet people who call me names, for no other reason than I enjoy watching them squirm. It feels like I’m teaching these dumb fucks a lesson. You’re going to call me a “cunty MAGA bootlicker”? Fine, go for it. It will take me less than a second to retweet you to 11,00 people who disagree. Let’s start a mob, shall we? Of course, I would never act like this in real life, where my primary response to conflict is to spin around and walk in the other direction. But with the distance of a screen, I become an entirely different person. A worse one.

Twitter may have a massive impact on culture, but the strange thing is, it’s not actually that popular. With an estimated 335 million active users, it’s not even in the top 10 social media apps across the world. Facebook, in comparison, is approaching 2 billion active users. But where Twitter is popular is among journalists, editors, and other people working in media. Many of us spend all day on the app, in part because we’re constantly engaged in conversation, and in part because it’s an easy way to monitor what’s going on in the world. If you've got to find something to write about, Twitter is the place to do it. It’s like wire services used to be, but instead of being filtered through reporters and editors, it’s filtered through likes, retweets, and clicks.

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Something must change. Twitter drama is taking up too much space in the media and too much space in our culture at large. There are, to be sure, valuable things about the platform: If you’re a writer or creator, it’s a good way to grow your audience. And when it comes to networking, it’s better than any other platform, including LinkedIn, the one that’s actually designed for it. I’ve met people I genuinely consider friends through Twitter and it’s how we keep in touch. But that’s the exception: Usually, it’s just one battle after another. Sometimes these battles seems genuinely justified—like when I’m defending myself or someone else against false rumors or claims—but even then, I don’t think I’ve ever successfully changed someone’s mind by arguing with them. It just doesn’t work. Instead, we toss barbs and share links back and forth, endlessly trying to win the debate. Eventually, I mute the whole conversation and forget it ever happened. What’s even the point?

I was thinking about this yesterday while arguing on Twitter about the minute details of what happened in DC. None of us, of course, have any definitive answers, but that didn’t stop us from arguing as though we did. How can I stop doing this, I wondered while doing it. How can I engage in this platform in a way that doesn’t devolve into arguing or contribute to pile-ons and mob-like behavior? Naturally, I immediately tweeted this thought, and I got some pretty good answers in reply (you can read the all here). Some are practical: Don’t call people names, block liberally, post cat photos instead, and resist the urge to quote tweet, which is generally a sign you care less about good faith debate than you do posturing to your own followers. There was one other piece of advice I particularly liked, and it came, from all places, the Bible, a book I’ve never found useful for anything but storing drugs: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”

Twitter doesn’t make this easy. The rewards system is based on immediate reactions and snap judgments: Someone retweets you and you get a little zing of endorphines. It's designed to be addictive. The company could change the interface—say, stop displaying how many replies, retweets, and likes a tweet gets—but outrage is too good for business. Nothing increases engagement like hate, so if we want this problem to stop, perhaps we should stop policing each other as much and start policing ourselves more. Of course, this is easier said than done: As soon as I finished writing that sentence, I checked Twitter, saw something enraging, and immediately picked up my knife and started stabbing. But I truly do want to fix this problem, so I'll try again. Not today, but maybe tomorrow.

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