Twitter is (sometimes) fantastic. The limit of 140 characters requires one to either be very concise or simply link to something much longer—like this article, which I will duly tweet out when it is published. But some people truly shine in this medium, turning out regularly clever statements all within the confines of 140 characters. And those are great to read. Others are simply astonishing, such as when a celebrity famous for being famous asks a question on Twitter and begins to receive answers.
This past week, Jenny McCarthy (who against all laws of reason is back on television) tweeted out, “What is the most important personality trait that you look for in a mate?” And she asked for answers using #JennyAsks. When Jenny McCarthy isn’t condescending to guests on The View, she’s often loudly campaigning against people vaccinating their children and claiming that vaccines (specifically the MMR vaccine) caused her son to be autistic. She bases that claim on a discredited (and now retracted) article in a British medical journal—an article that was written by an also discredited former physician. So in response to her question, people actively responded by bashing McCarthy’s anti-vaccination views with tweets that were usually more than a little pointed and sometimes quite funny, ranging from “Someone who respects that science isn’t on some secret malicious crusade to screw us over and that vaccinations save lives” to “What qualities do I look for in a mate? Science literacy and critical thinking skills.”
Admittedly, some of the tweets were pretty clever and made me laugh. But I started to think about what was behind it, and why I didn’t join in. In the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I have already begun having our child vaccinated (his least favorite parts of check-ups!), and I would counsel any other parent to have their child vaccinated since a) it might save your child’s life, and b) it will save the lives of other children. So that being said, it’s a little unfair and a lot silly to continue to blast McCarthy with tweets calling her out on her anti-vaccination views. As I was looking at Twitter with my own response ready to go (something to the effect of “someone who loves our child and other children enough to want then to live long and healthy lives”), I deleted it.
I deleted it because this isn’t a debate I belong in. Not because I don’t have an opinion and a stake in it, as I both have a strong opinion (please vaccinate) and a serious stake (see mentions of having a child, above) in this discussion! Nor is it because I don’t think celebrities should be called to task for using their fame to spread messages that are irresponsible and dangerous, as I think that she does. But I’m not a doctor, I’m not a medical professional, and I am not a research scientist. While I may have much more credibility here (and a much smaller platform) than Jenny McCarthy, that still doesn’t mean that my voice is one of the right voices to be heard. The right voices are those of the people with the expertise to completely and logically refute her in the public sphere. Many people engage in various online arguments and flame wars for a variety of reasons, but I have rarely heard of anyone’s opinions changing substantially as a result of something that a complete stranger sent to them online. If anything, I have seen quite the opposite, where someone like McCarthy who is castigated for her opinions will instead even more firmly cling to those opinions and act as though those who disagree with her are persecuting her precisely because she is right.
On one hand, it’s great that so many people online are willing to publicly call out someone for having an opinion that can be harmful. Yet on the other hand, we’re effectively talking about a scenario where the mob rules. Tweeting back to Jenny McCarthy is a part of the problem, because people should instead be turning off her show and emailing her employers. If you want to take a stand and do something, tweeting can be a component of that, but it can’t be everything. Social networks can be a great tool and that has been proven on the global stage—Facebook and Twitter didn’t cause the Arab Spring, but they were vital tools to organize.
So let’s build on that. When someone is spreading a dangerous message, respond. Not just to them, but to those who give them a platform. Not with a message of insult and mockery, but of serious engagement about why that platform needs to be taken away. We have the ability to vastly improve the nature of our media culture, we just have to use all of our tools in a better way.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.