Robert Gehrke: The only solution to the toxic tone of social media is for each of us to try to be better

You know it’s bad if Ben Winslow, Mr. Utah Twitter, decides he needs a break.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Last week, my friend Ben Winslow made a surprising announcement.

The Fox 13 journalist and unofficial Mr. Utah Twitter — with nearly 49,000 followers and 220,000 posts — announced he was “stepping back” from the platform. The toxicity in the Twittersphere had just become too much.

“To be clear: I did not quit Twitter,” he told me, “but I’m trying to figure out how to set healthy boundaries. For me it was just when you start to dread opening an app because [you think] ‘How bad is this going to be?’ you have to start rethinking your priorities.”

Winslow said he’d just had enough of the rage-tweeting about his reporting, low key threats, even sexual solicitation.

It can get a whole lot uglier than that. After KTVX reporter Jason Nguyen reported on a West Valley City paramedic who used his government e-mail to make a contribution to the defense of Kyle Rittenhouse — charged with killing two protesters in August — Nguyen found himself the target of threats, abuse and anti-Asian hate on social media.

Fox News and the right-wing media were happy to pour gasoline on the fire, and Nguyen, at the recommendation of law enforcement, made his social media accounts private.

The corrosiveness obviously isn’t limited to news media, nor is it limited to Twitter. And without question, if Nguyen and Winslow are the targets of social media hate, women on the platform experience much worse.

I’ll admit, I have thrown my share of snark bombs.

Remember last week, when there were charges that the Utah Jazz scholarship program was racist because it catered to minority students and Gov. Spencer Cox caught hell for defending the privately funded program?

Even Fox News’ Tucker Carlson — who knows a thing or two about racism, since he exploits racist dog whistles on the regular — weighed in, calling it “totally immoral that a scholarship is given on the basis of skin color,” he said. “There are a lot of dumb people in this country. The problem is when they become governor.”

State Sen. Dan McCay asked his Twitter followers: “If a private group decides to create a scholarship with the criteria that the recipient be a low income, caucasian child … is the scholarship racist? I’m sincerely interested in the rationale either way.”

Twitter World wasn’t kind to McCay and I joined in, replying to his post with nine clown emojis, “one shy of a perfect score.”

The next morning I deleted my snide retort. The senator wasn’t playing the “what about” game or siding with Carlson, and if he was “sincerely interested,” suggesting it was clownish shut down the discussion.

Constructive dialogues are already hard enough on Twitter, but they’re not impossible. On this same topic, I had a surprisingly positive exchange with two Twitter users who viewed the scholarships as racist, and we were able to hash out differences and find some understanding. It can happen.

These social media tools — not just Twitter, all of the platforms — are powerful things. They enable us to communicate in ways we never could before, with people we might not otherwise encounter — but it’s only communication if we’re willing to listen as much as we are to express our views.

Government can’t change the social media climate. Lawmakers are tossing around revising to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act — which generally makes internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter immune from liability for posts on the sites.

Section 230 needs changes, but those really would only make a difference in the most egregious of circumstances — like the hatestorm directed at Nguyen.

We could trust the platforms to do better — to find a way to monitor and regulate content. But we’ve seen the futility of trying to limit big lies and the blowback that comes when they do it. Imagine trying to find a way to tone down inflammatory exchanges. It won’t work.

So it comes down to us to do better, to take a deep breath and think twice before we hit send on our latest incendiary hot take or personal attack on someone with whom we disagree. Perhaps even asking why someone thinks what they do, instead of questioning their intelligence.

At least that’s my new goal, and I’d invite you to join me. It won’t always be easy, and I’m sure I’ll fail now and then. But the only other way for us to address toxicity on social media is to do what Winslow did, and step away from the cesspool.

Correction: April 26, 12:28 p.m. • The story has been updated to reflect that it was a West Valley City paramedic who had donated to the Rittenhouse defense fund and that Nguyen has made his social media accounts private, rather than deleted them.

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