When Debates Became Battles

Welcome to the age of snide comments and memes.

“But wait,” you say, “it’s been that way for a while now.”  Well hold on there.  What if I told you this was a problem?  What if I told you that all those snide comments and memes probably and likely contributed to the political divide we saw on display during this election season?  What if I told you that the memes aren’t what they seem?

 

Why yes Morpheus, do go on.

Why yes Morpheus, do go on.

 

In an age where social media dominates, perhaps it was inevitable that our chosen form of information consumption would come from pictures with white words written on them.  This is the internet age, where being “viral” is everything.  So many are looking for their fifteen minutes of fame.  But ironically, it is usually those who aren’t looking for their time in the spotlight that actually get time in the spotlight.  Because that’s just the weird way the internet works.

But all that viral meme-ness has led to a lot of misinformation and false statistics.  For example, you may remember this meme going around a while back:

 

gun-violence-meme

 

It echoes a certain sentiment that pro-gun people have, namely that gun control doesn’t work.  But here’s the problem: the meme is inaccurate.  No matter what metric you use, it seems that it is impossible to put the United States in third place when it comes to murders.  Now, understandably, that makes the second part of the meme much harder to test.  But as Snopes found out, it still doesn’t add up.  Using FBI statistics from 2012, they found that those four cities added together only account for about 7.8 percent of murders in the United States.  So basically, not enough to push the U.S. up from “fourth from the bottom” on this theoretical list of murders.

It might not seem like this meme had all that much impact, considering that it has faded out of view (at least, I haven’t seen it in quite a while).  But in an age when all criticism can be countered by screaming “FAKE NEWS” in all caps on Twitter, things like this are more dangerous than ever.

Memes like these leave no room for debate, nor were they meant to.  They usually come with links to an incredibly biased source or sometimes no links at all.  You’re expected to take them at their word, which is troublesome because so many are filled with biased rhetoric.  They’re not meant to encourage discussion.  They’re meant as a “so there” to discourage any opposing viewpoints.

 

chicago-teen-meme

Memes like this are only ever meant as a self-affirming fist pump, a soothing assurance to a select group of people that their worldview is right and all others are wrong.

 

And misinformation is just as dangerous as ever.  For example, recently an anti-abortion group called “Live Action” released a video that claimed Planned Parenthood was lying about providing access to prenatal care.  Of course, once you actually dig into the story, you’ll find that what Live Action really did was take things out of context so that their viewers would reach the conclusion they wanted them to reach.

That’s exactly what’s so dangerous about the widespread use of memes in political discourse.  It’s very easy for people to click “share” on something that coincides with their views.  It doesn’t matter if the meme is factually inaccurate.  It makes them feel good, so they share it.  And when something like that catches fire on the internet, it becomes nearly impossible to put out.

And in case you think I’m being biased, the left (or liberals, if you prefer) is guilty of this as well.  You might have seen this meme going around during election season:

 

trump-dumbest-voters

 

Ouch.  Yeah, it’s pretty harsh.  Also it’s totally bunk.  There is nothing in People Magazine’s online archive where Trump is quoted as saying anything even close to that.  But still, it was shared and liked by many liberals on Facebook, simply because it fit their mental image of Trump.

If you’re going to criticize someone, criticize them for something they actually did.  And believe me, there’s plenty of things Trump did that are critique worthy.

These days, debates have turned into fights.  They’re no longer about learning, they’re about winning.  They’re no longer about growing as a person, they’re about never admitting you lost.  Instead of trying to understand where someone with an opposing view is coming from, it’s about disparaging them and calling them names.  Why listen to what they’re saying when you can just brush them off as the “regressive left” or the “racist right”?

Bottom line is, we need to be vigilant.  Especially now, in an era where photos and information can be easily manipulated or taken out of context and made to suit specific agendas.  And I get it, it’s hard.  There are even blog sites out there that will make themselves appear to be a news website in an attempt to gain more followers or spread their message.  It’s a metaphorical minefield out there on the internet. and you can never be one hundred percent certain you won’t step right on top of one.  But you can do your part.  Before you click “share” on that buzzy meme, maybe do a little searching on Google to see if the meme’s information is accurate.  If it isn’t, don’t give it the time of day.  Don’t give it its fifteen minutes of fame.  Don’ t give it time in the spotlight.  You’ll be doing us all a favor.

And now, before I go, I leave you with this:

 

willy-wonky-generated-meme

 

Yes, I did that all by myself…using tools I found on the internet.

……

Don’t look at me like that.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

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Echoes of Orlando: Victim’s Families Target Social Media in New Lawsuit

June 12, 2016 is not a day people are going to soon forget.  On that day, a shooter who claimed allegiance to ISIS stepped into the nightclub and killed forty-nine people.  It was the worst mass shooting in United States history, the fallout of which is still being felt today.  Just this past Monday, families of three of the victims filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Twitter, and Google, arguing that they provided material support to ISIS by allowing them to use social media as a recruiting platform.  According to an article by the Christian Science Monitor, the allegation is going to be tough to prove.

A professor in the article states that “their biggest success is going to be in the national media and causing embarrassment to these providers, because it is true that you have jihadi propaganda that flies across Twitter and flies across the internet.”  The professor goes on to state that the situation boils down to a First Amendment debate.  “It’s a battle between increased security and civil liberties,” he says.

Now this isn’t the first case against a social media company in regards to terrorism.  Many private parties have pursued lawsuits in recent years, although the Department of Justice has never accused a social media platform of providing material support to terrorists.  According to the Christian Science Monitor article, only one of these cases (Fields vs. Twitter) ever resulted in a ruling, and it was dismissed by a federal judge.  The reason for this lies in something called the Communications Decency Act.  Section 230 of the act says “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  In short, companies or people who host or republish speech cannot be held accountable for what others say and do.  It’s the largest hurdle for lawsuits like these, and it hasn’t been jumped yet.

However, the lawsuit aims to tackle the issue in a new direction.  They’re arguing that by matching the content of users with targeted advertisements, social media sites are in effect creating their own content and profiting off of terrorist users’ content as they do off of all posts.  They acknowledge that Facebook and other sites have taken steps to remove such content when it is reported to them by users, but they argue that the sites should be taking bigger steps to combat such posts.

Now that we’ve gotten the background out of the way, it’s opinion time.

It seems that this case boils down to a situation of free speech vs. increased security (as the professor from the article said).  And the problem becomes one of “how far do you go?”  Normally I consider the slippery slope argument a logical fallacy, but in the case of civil liberties it’s an apt one to make.  When you start trying to stifle free speech, no matter how reprehensible, where does it end?  Sure, we say that we’re fighting terrorism, but our definition of what can be considered terrorism could change.  Today we say we’re fighting against ISIS because of their violent agenda, but tomorrow we could be policing groups who spout anti-government rhetoric because we’re concerned they might “incite violence”.  Pretty soon anyone who burns a flag or questions the government could be scrutinized, analyzed, and denied the right to speak for fear of “public safety” if we choose to go down that path.

What it comes down to is that freedom of speech means that sometimes we have to allow people to say reprehensible things.  The Westboro Baptist Church is one of the scummiest groups in our country, but they’re allowed to picket military funerals because it’s their right, just as it’s our right to counter-protest them.  We can’t just tell them they’re not allowed to say these things because we don’t like it.

But it is a sticky situation.  Westboro isn’t encouraging violence against people, just hateful views.  ISIS on the other hand is telling people to go attack crowded areas in the name of their cause.  They’ll even post videos telling their followers how to stab “non-believers” with a knife.  What it all comes down to is the fact that we can’t possibly police everything.  The anonymous nature of the internet means that hateful things are posted every day because people know they can do so without any repercussions.  Are we really going to try to arrest anyone who posts a death threat in the comments of some article or video?  Even if we wanted to, I doubt it would be possible.  The sheer amount of resources that would be required to police all of that would be insane.

Because in the end, how do you stop the bad ideas without stopping a few of the good ones?

 

That’s all I have for you this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post.  Have a wonderful week and a great Christmas holiday.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Independence Issues

So this past Monday was the Fourth of July here in the United States.  And you know what that means right?

Freedom, America, beer and EXPLOSIONS!

Yep, the fourth of July is a very big event, with lots of fireworks and patriotism.  And on Facebook, posts tended to fall into two categories: those expressing gratitude for the freedoms the United States has, and those mocking the over-enthusiastic nature of the holiday (myself included).  But something else happened just this past weekend that I feel deserves a look.

This past Sunday, July 3rd, a 22-year-old guy in Illinois named Bryton Mellott posted several images of himself burning the United States flag.  The photos have since been deleted, but not before they were shared thousands of times.  Below is an image of the original post:

 

Bryton Mellott

 

He also changed his profile picture to one of him burning the flag with the hashtag “youbetterburnthatflag”.  “I would like to one day feel a sense of pride toward my nationality again,” Bryton said in the post.  “But too little progress has been made.  Too many people still suffer at the hands of politicians influenced by special interests.  Too many people are still being killed and brutalized by a police force plagued with authority complexes and racism.  Too many people are allowed to be slaughtered for the sake of gun manufacturer profits.  Too many Americans hold hate in their hearts in the name of religion, and for fear of others.  And that’s only to speak of domestic issues.”

Now of course the reaction to this was anything but quiet.

“fuckin ignorant,” one person commented on his profile picture.  “you think you’re the only one who’s angry????  You think this is the worst living condition you could be in???  This just shows me ungratefulness.  And for you to think anyone who has pride in their country is wrong is astounding.  You must not get out much.”

“You should probably move and leave America then.  You don’t deserve to live here with how little you respect those that served,” another person commented.

Of course, not everyone was in the “hate Bryton” camp.  “We have freedom of speech in this country, which gives us the freedom to burn the flag,” one person wrote.  “Flag burning is not a crime.”

Fox 59 reported that Bryton was arrested later on after things reached a fever pitch.  They say that police “made the decision to arrest him after consulting with the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office and weighing his free speech rights against concerns of public safety”.

He was arrested under what is known as the state’s Flag Desecration Act.  He was later released and served a summons to appear in court.

Opinion time: I feel like this is a case of people obsessing over the flag itself and largely forgetting what the flag stands for.  They’re worshipping the symbol instead of respecting what the symbol actually represents.

One of my favorite arguments to hear whenever something like this happens is the “my friends fought and died for that flag and your freedom, so show some respect” line.  How?  How did they “die for my freedom”?  No one has ever explained that to me.  Then again, they would never want to explain it.  It’s a throwaway line meant to shut people up and stop any further discussion.  Because they don’t want to hear opposing viewpoints.  Their view of the world is right and damn anyone else who thinks differently.

I’ve also heard this line “I fought and my fellow soldiers died for your right to say stupid shit.”

Well maybe they should stop?  Seriously, why would you go and risk your life fighting for someone’s right to say something that you’re just going to send them death threats for saying?  That seems just a little bit counter-productive.

No really, apparently people sent Bryton death threats for what he did.  Because there’s nothing more American than threatening to kill someone you disagree with.

Now I’m not saying Bryton is exempt from criticism.  Like with anyone who says anything, people have the right to argue against him.  But if we escalate to things like “you should just leave this country if you don’t like it” or “you should just kill yourself you ungrateful brat”, then I think we need to take a step back and truly examine what our purpose is.

And far too often it becomes an “us or them” style of confrontation, as if there are only two rigid groups that you can side with in the argument.  We forget that there are plenty of people with a whole spectrum of opinions.

“Since I’ve served in the military, I suppose I should be angry that you’re burning a piece of cloth made in China, but I’m honestly not,” one commenter on Bryton’s profile picture said.  “I’m more angry at the fact taxpayer money is being wasted to arrest and suppress someone who was speaking his mind.  Still, you have to understand that this was in really bad taste.  You seem like a good guy, but you should find better ways at channeling your anger to make a positive change.  I hope you find happiness bud.”

Besides, flag burning is protected speech.  It’s considered “symbolic speech” and protected under the U.S. Constitution.  And if you don’t agree, well that’s too bad because the Supreme Court ruled it so in the aftermath of the court case Texas v. Johnson in 1984.  In a 5-4 decision, they ruled that flag burning was constitutional and that “society’s outrage alone is not justification for suppressing free speech.”  So there you have it.

And fortunately, the Bryton story does have a bit of a happy ending.  Following Bryton’s release from jail and summons to court, Champaign County State Attorney Julia Rietz said that she will not be bringing charges against him in the case of his flag burning.

We have considered 720 ILCS 5/49-1, Flag Desecration, an Illinois statute currently in effect,” a statement released by Rietz read. “This statute was the basis for the decision by Urbana Police officers to arrest Mellott.  While that statute remains in effect, it is contradictory to the US Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. Johnson.  We will be discussing this issue with our local legislators and asking that they consider reviewing this statute given the constitutional issues it presents.”

Another victory for freedom of speech.  Because, like it or not, we all have different voices that deserve to be heard regardless of how inflammatory they may be.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  I hope you had a wonderful Fourth of July, and check back next Wednesday for another post.

Like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Facebook Page

I know what you’re all thinking.  “A post on a Sunday?  What is this madness?”  I just wanted to let people know that I have created a Facebook page for this blog in honor of reaching twenty-five posts (which means that I have been doing this for approximately five months now.  I have connected this blog and the Facebook page, which means that as soon as a post goes live here, a post will be made on the Facebook page.  You can find the Facebook page here.

I would like to take this time to thank all of you who have stopped in to read my blog.  I originally started this as a sort of personal endeavor to keep me writing, and never really imagined that anyone would really run into it or care what I had to say.  But apparently people do, and I am now currently sitting at fifty followers.  So thank you all for following this blog and listening to my ramblings.  I hope you all find success and fulfillment in equal measure.  A regular post will go up this Wednesday, and as always, have a wonderful week everyone.