digital civility

Targets of online vitriol agree: Digital civility is improving

in News/Technology

By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, is arguably one of the most active Wyoming politician on social media. 

He boasts around 3,500 likes on his public Facebook page and just over 1,600 followers on his Twitter account. He’s considered “very responsive to messages,” according to his Facebook page. He regularly posts videos of himself chatting in his car about stances he has on various issues, news stories (both political and not) or even fun Wyoming historical facts. 

“I’m the most followed politician in Wyoming,” he said. “Now, you have to remember that it’s Wyoming, so the number isn’t huge. But I do a lot on social media because it’s a great avenue to talk with people.” 

Lindholm regularly engages with his commenters. He takes his social media presence seriously. For the most part, people are kind, even if they don’t always agree with his views. 

As a die-hard Republican, it’s common for Lindholm to have detractors. That’s fine, he has a thick skin and can deal with that. 

The death threats get a little old, though. 

“Absolutely people have said horrible things to me online,” he admitted. “People have found my political page and have called me names and started to send me and my wife nasty messages on our personal accounts. I’ve definitely had death threats, but most of the time I ignore them. A couple years ago, there was a guy out of Pinedale who sent me something and that was the first time I took it as a credible threat.”

It’s not easy being a politician in the social media age. Democrat, Republican or independent, there will always be someone who doesn’t agree with an elected official. 

While some critics might send an email, write a letter or call their elected officials to explain why they disagree, others will personally attack these politicians online. 

Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, admitted he used to get an inordinate amount of threatening emails, but thankfully the number has tapered off in the last couple years. He said it wasn’t because people got nicer, unfortunately. They just realized the emails could be traced. 

“When I first proposed the idea of tolling on Interstate 80 eight or nine years ago, I got emails calling me everything but a civilized person,” he said. “I still occasionally get them, but I think the majority of those emails are coming from truckers in other states who drive through Wyoming.”

While the nasty emails have decreased, Von Flatern noted he still gets criticized by constituents in public forums, such as on social media or in comments sections of the state’s newspapers.

Von Flatern and Lindholm agreed that they’re always willing to talk with dissenters, but when people begin to verbally attack them, their families or loved ones, that’s when they shut the conversation down. 

Lindholm compared the current social media landscape to the Wild West, where people are still figuring out how to properly communicate. 

“It’s a cool concept, because we’ve never had such a freedom where we can communicate with elected officials,” he said. “But there are positive and negative aspects to it. You just have to remember the positive.” 

Psychologist Lisa Taylor, who also works as an adjunct professor at Laramie County Community College, did admit that there is a lack of civility online, especially in regards to politics. 

But she actually believes the landscape is getting better, not worse as many would like to believe. Von Flatern and Lindholm agreed. 

All three believe that people are emboldened by the anonymity that the Internet provides, where they can say whatever they want and won’t experience any real consequences. 

“There is a way to fix this issue: we have to find forums to talk about issues in a respectful manner,” Taylor said. “I don’t think we have to agree on these issues, but we can at least disagree in a civil manner and move forward. Maybe we have to recognize that the Internet isn’t the best way to have some of these tough conversations and we have to engage in another way.” 

Taylor pointed to a recent story about talk show host Ellen Degeneres and former president George W. Bush, who were photographed sitting together and laughing at a football game.

Degeneres stated on her television show that she was friendly with the former president and stressed she believes in being kind to everyone, regardless of differences. Taylor agreed with Degeneres and applied that sentiment to citizens engaging with elected officials. 

“You can’t walk into these conversations with the goal of changing someone’s mind,” she said. “You can have a discussion and share why you think they’re wrong, but when you go in with the mindset of completely changing someone else’s opinions, you’re just going to get upset and frustrated.” 

Lindholm, Von Flatern and Taylor agreed that people engaging with others online about a topic they feel passionate about should take a moment to make sure they are clear-minded. 

They should also ask themselves whether they would say something impassioned to the face of the person they are communicating with. If so, the message or comment should be sent. If not, the person should come back later and try to write something passionate, yet polite. 

Lindholm and Von Flatern want constituents to reach out when they agree or disagree about a stance they have. They encourage it. 

But once name-calling, cursing or being a “Billy Badass” (as Lindholm calls it) begins, people shouldn’t be surprised if there’s no response.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying that we can agree to disagree,” Taylor said. “I have faith that we can get back to being more civil. We just have to remember things aren’t as black and white as we believe.” 

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