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Julie Doll: Be wary of political theater on social media

Julie Doll
Special to Gannett Kansas
Julie Doll

So much of what grabs the public’s attention or passes as news these days is just banal trivia.

I don’t mean to be too harsh because we Americans — and probably all the world — have always enjoyed the occasional diversion from our bigger, more difficult troubles.

In 1801, for example, President Thomas Jefferson created one of those “international incidents” at a diplomatic dinner by choosing to escort Dolley Madison to the White House dinner table, rather than the wife of the British ambassador.

By flouting etiquette, Jefferson aimed to make a point: America rejected not only British rule but also the protocols associated with British tradition. And, also, Jefferson just enjoyed snubbing British officials.

But, egad, it was just a dinner.

And then there was the time President Harry Truman threatened a newspaper critic who had panned the singing talents of Truman’s daughter, Margaret. Truman’s note to the Washington Post writer became a national to-do.

But the elevation of the trite to news of supposed national importance isn’t limited to presidents.

A year ago, actor Chris Pratt made national news after an incriminating photo of the actor was posted to the social media site Instagram. Pratt issued a national apology, because in the photo, he is holding (insert gasp here) a single-use plastic water bottle.

Across the country, self-righteous environmentalists — including other actors — felt obligated to condemn Pratt for destroying the environment.

OK, they didn’t feel obligated.

What they felt was that this was an opportunity to shine a light on their own intelligence, passion, virtue or wit by finding fault with someone else.

Such demonstrations of outsized outrage have become our national pastime.

One reason that social media shaming is so popular is that it’s so easy. Cellphones come with cameras and are equipped to share videos and photos through any and all of the social media sites we choose.

As a result, an unfortunate encounter with a mentally ill bigot can be turned into a viral sensation, creating a worldwide tirade about systemic racism.

Or a “Happy Holidays” greeting from a store clerk can be used to fuel attacks on all the godless lefties who — we are warned again and again — are trying to “do away with Christmas.”

These social media rants are at best an awful form of political theater. At worst, they ruin people’s lives and make us unwitting participants in campaigns that breed anger and hate.

Some of those campaigns are sponsored by foreign governments and domestic groups, as has been documented by U.S. intelligence agencies and the social media companies that give the campaigns a platform.

And while we can argue that the tech giants and the U.S. government should do more to facilitate healthy dialogue and civil engagement, the real problem is us — as participants, followers and consumers of information.

We ought to do more to ensure the information and news we share comes from reliable sources. We need to think about the consequences of sharing accusations about others. We should ask whether what we’re sharing serves a constructive purpose.

There’s nothing wrong with occasional distractions, or with appreciating the humor or irony in the words and actions of others.

But we should remain mindful of the difference between ranting and relevance, and between what is meaningful and what is just mean.

A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.