How Twitter’s Toxicity Can Jeopardize Civil Discourse

James Gunn, former director of Disney franchise “Guardians of the Galaxy.” (Invision/AP Images/Shutterstock)

By Graham Piro

The San Diego Comic-Con is usually a time for annual fan celebrations and breaking news of blockbuster movies and television shows. But the latest gathering found the routine events overshadowed by a disturbing story: the firing of filmmaker James Gunn from the third “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie.

Gunn had been an outspoken opponent of President Donald Trump on Twitter. He tweeted about a controversy between actor Mark Duplass and activist Ben Shapiro, saying that he thought “even Ben Shapiro’s mother should unfollow him” and telling his followers, “There are a lot of traitors and racists in the country today. Perhaps save the outrage for them.” The perceived slight at Shapiro and others on the right spurred far-right figures like Mike Cernovich to dig through Gunn’s social media feeds. They found extremely objectionable material he had written about and tweeted between 2008 and 2012. The subject matter included pedophilia and rape. After these tweets and other writings were made public, Disney dismissed Gunn from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” series, the first two films of which he had written and directed. (For more context, read “Mark Duplass Rescinds Ben Shapiro Recommendation” and “James Gunn Fired as Director of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.’”)

This is not to defend the content of Gunn’s tweets and writings, which are objectively offensive and condemnable. Nor is it to endorse the actions of Cernovich, who is no stranger to vile conspiracy theories and despicable tweets of his own. Gunn certainly is not the first creative figure to suffer the consequences of offensive tweeting. And at the rate online mobs are moving, he will not be the last.

Since the 2016 election, social media have become a total nightmare. Facebook continues to face controversy surrounding its abuse of user data. While Twitter has avoided quite as substantial a crisis, the firing of Gunn illuminates what has been a nasty trend for the outlet: its battle against anonymous accounts and harassment. Once seemingly harmless platforms meant to connect friends have become festering grounds for the worst of human nature. It’s easy to forget that Twitter, at its best, can be a constructive influence on national and international dialogue.

Twitter operates as a modern-day public forum. It is a platform on which practically anyone can voice opinions and gain a following. The character limit provides a functional, if crude and confined, opportunity for engagement and debate. Twitter also offers journalists and publications free promotion: Any active Twitter user has most likely encountered an enlightening Twitter thread, or links to more extensive articles tweeted out by a journalist. But the forum has now become a hostile environment, and has begun to push good-faith mainstream and alternative journalists alike away from engaging it.

Are Twitter users better off avoiding earnest attempts at engagement? Perhaps. After all, the past year has shown a multitude of examples of Twittermobs pushing to exact professional revenge on journalists with whom they disagree. All political factions are certainly guilty, as journalists are targeted for a number of reasons that transcend mere left-right divisions. The general toxicity has turned what could have been a beneficial place for civil discourse (as, at least in theory, ideas and arguments would have had to come from real people instead of anonymous accounts and bots) into an outlet no different from other wretched corners of the internet.

But mob rule has turned the platform into a place where context is irrelevant, and all that matters is what one can pull from an individual’s past statements. Mobs do not stop for due process or consideration of subtlety and generally operate in bad faith. Continuing to empower them will push more and more people off Twitter and away from fruitful engagements.

The last thing that should be done is to reward these mobs. If protecting the speech of someone like Roseanne Barr, Milo Yiannopoulos, or a similarly affiliated individual is what is necessary to protect the rights of others, then so be it. Allow viewers to turn away from Barr’s show, or students to protest Yiannopoulos’ appearances, or fans to boycott Gunn’s movies. Fighting for the rights of such fringe figures sends a clear message: Online mobs will no longer be able to use someone’s own words against him or her, or to use intimidation tactics to get their way.

Forgiveness and the potential for personal growth are ideals ingrained in any civil society. If individuals want to operate in good faith on a platform like Twitter, the potential for personal growth and a change in mindset must always be enhanced. Punishing someone for past controversial statements is a thinly veiled capitulation to the mob. Institutions must resist online outrages that call for heads to roll. To preserve whatever dignity is left in Twitter, these mobs must be divested of their power.

Graham Piro, a contributor to the Free Speech Project, graduated from Georgetown University in 2018. He is currently working in journalism.