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Experts say social media partly to blame for increasingly polarizing discourse

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., discusses extreme political rhetoric following the Las Vegas shooting with WEAR on Oct. 4, 2017. (SBG)

The mass shooting in Las Vegas Sunday that left 58 concertgoers dead and hundreds of others injured has kicked off a new and particularly heated round of public political discourse, but lawmakers and experts say the increasingly volatile rhetoric may not be advancing any discussions that end with change.

One recent example left a top-level executive without a job after she posted her opinion about the mass shooting on Facebook.

An attorney for CBS was fired Monday after saying of the victims on Facebook, “I’m actually not even sympathetic bc country music fans often are Republican gun toters.”

Meanwhile, televangelist Pat Robertson was blaming the shooting on disrespect for President Trump, the national anthem, and government institutions.

Harsh words have not only come from the fringes, though. Members of Congress frustrated by legislative paralysis on gun control have also lashed out to a greater degree than in the past.

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., said Republicans have “blood on their hands” because of donations they take from gun lobbyists. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., urged Congress to “get of its ass and do something” about the issue.

Mass shootings and terrorist attacks have inspired similarly extreme statements before from both sides pointing fingers, casting blame, and demanding change in moments of outrage and high emotion.

In the wake of what is now the second deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the Pulse nightclub attack in June 2016, some liberal activists attempted to hold the Christian right responsible for the violence, and a few radical Christian commentators blamed the LGBT community for the attack on itself.

In recent years, terrorist acts in which the suspects are Muslim often lead to immediate racist and Islamophobic invective from some factions on the right, while violence believed to be perpetrated by right wing extremists sparks similarly ugly rhetoric on the left.

Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., said the heated language is unhelpful.

“Here we sit, what, a day and a half after this horrific attack and…my prayers go out to the victims and their families,” Rice said. “This is not something that should be politicized. We should look at it carefully.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., sees some benefit to an impassioned debate.

“I think that robust rhetoric around a variety of issues can sharpen public policy decisions, so I have no objection to the rhetoric that’s being used,” he said. “But I think in a lot of ways the real work comes with finding bipartisan solutions.”

According to Bob Mann, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University and a former Senate press secretary, emotional responses are to be expected as people struggle to come to terms with events that result in shocking levels of death and destruction. He does not see that as a new development, even if it sometimes seems that way.

“Consider the Vietnam War protests, which were perhaps more emotional and far more disruptive than any protest we’ve seen in response to police killing innocent, unarmed black men,” he said.

Thomas Whalen, a professor of social science at Boston University, agreed that crudeness and incivility in rhetoric surrounding pivotal political issues is nothing new.

“Politics has always been a rough business,” he said. “If you don't believe that, then why was Founding Father Alexander Hamilton murdered in a duel with Aaron Burr?”

Emotions have been running hot throughout the Trump era to date, with the actions and words of the president drawing frequent allegations of racism, sexism, and fascism. There have also been high-profile threats and images of violence, such as comedian Kathy Griffin’s photographs with a severed Trump head.

President Obama was subjected to polarizing rhetoric as well, including baseless claims by Trump and others that he was born in Kenya that many saw as racist. Musician Ted Nugent, who has dined with Trump at the White House, said Obama should “be tried for treason & hung” and told the then-president to “suck on my machine gun.”

One reason the environment may feel more heated now is the increased media attention on anything involving Trump and the seemingly constant debate over the president on social media.

“I do think this stuff is, perhaps, more widely covered and in real time, on TV and on social media,” Mann said, “which probably makes it seem more emotional because viewers are not only exposed to a wider range of views and actions, but are in many cases actually engaging directly with some of the protestors in real time though Twitter and other media.”

The distance created by social media can make people more willing to say things they never would face-to-face. The medium also makes it easier to silo oneself off in an echo chamber of sympathetic voices, fostering misinformation and misunderstanding of the other side.

Whalen also pointed to social media as a factor that makes discourse feel more vitriolic.

“What's different is the new technology and social media which amplifies the often crude discourse,” he said. “Can you imagine Joe McCarthy in his prime with a Twitter account? Add big budgeted ad campaigns from powerful special interest lobbying groups in whose interest it is ramp up extremist rhetoric and you have a perfect storm for our current dysfunctional political climate.”

Whalen sees little hope of the level of dialogue and debate improving with Trump in the White House.

“I expect the civil discourse to get rougher in the coming years,” he said. “It doesn't help to have a leader who has seemed to learn his social manners from the World Wrestling Federation sitting in the Oval Office. The fish, as they say, rots from the head down.”

Mann argued that when used strategically, incivility has its place in public discourse.

“Incivility is sometimes a good strategy to get people to pay attention, maybe not so effective to change minds,” he said.

He also cautioned against the media or government attempting to police thought and box out more extreme rhetoric. In his view, the audience can decide on its own what is or is not appropriate.

“Incivility takes care of itself,” he said. “You are either a persuasive proponent of your ideas or you are not…. It is not inherently bad or destructive.”

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