A popular Twitter disclaimer found filling space on many a user profile warns us not to assume that the retweeter agrees with tweet he just shared. It is sad that it has to be said. There are numerous reasons that someone might retweet. Tweets can be humorous, outrageous, satirical or simply passed on for the information of followers. In spite of that obvious truth, I often find that I must offer my own disclaimers on social media to avoid being pounced upon for passing on an unapproved opinion.
This might at first seem a contradiction in the modern Instagraming, SnapChatting world we live in, where everyone seems to think that the crepes they made for breakfast are just the thing everyone wants appearing on their smart phones. In the social media realm, too many are ready to give the world the full benefit of their unsolicited opinion on trivial matters. So why the hedging?
The First Amendment gives us a de jure negative right to free speech – only de facto as long as we insist upon it. Government may not prohibit our right to free speech. Social media has given us unprecedented access to a platform from which to broadcast speech. You might say that it has given us a de facto positive right to speech. As long as we are able to use Facebook, Google+ or Tumblr, we are enabled to easily exercise our First Amendment rights.
But the ease of exercising rights can diminish our appreciation for them. The founding generation, deeply grateful for the rights to speech they had not long ago won, took care to utilize it for serious matters, such as the consideration of morals and government in nascent America.
Opining today is so easy that it is done by just about anybody purely for pleasure. It is cathartic to disembogue your hopes and frustrations to the world, flooding the news feeds of sympathetic readers who (you hope) will validate you. If it were not so, you wouldn’t do it. And this is the solution to the paradox.
It is why no one wants to be held responsible for what they post. David Foster Wallace once opined that one of the reasons for the massive popularity of modern television is the fact that we can observe the lives of others (fictional or not) through one-way-glass. No one will turn an examining eye on you. With social media, there is no such escape. If your existence must be under observation, at least you should be validated by it. This is one of the reasons that Thin Privilege became a movement (however insignificant.)
This is also why so many seem to want to pounce on what others post. By scrutinizing friends and followees, the social media user can turn attention away from his own possible shortcomings and still “be right.” Retweets that are obviously not endorsements but are not noted as such make easy targets. Thus arises the need to cut off silly debates at the pass.
As a final note, even outside of social media, Americans seem to be growing more unwilling to take stands on their positions. Certainly an increased relativism stemming from the fact that our society has grown more pluralistic is partially to blame. Whether desirable or not, this is probably somewhat inevitable.
Aside from that development, however, some Americans have become more likely to consider all opinions equally valid (The Federalist’s Tom Nichols wrote recently about the death of expertise) – at least until they vehemently disagree with them. The founders of this country, to the contrary, might have considered our social media platforms a boon because of the newfound potential to critique ideas, thus refining them.
Refining opinions, though, often means changing them. It means thoughtful discussion. Nobody has time for that. Instead, they engage in pointless Youtube debates. That’s why, for now, it’s easier just to add the disclaimer “Retweets do not equal endorsements.”