Example 7 Billion of Why Clickbait is Dangerous

Stephen Lovekin/WWD/REX/Shutters

Earlier today, when I noticed that the actress Rose Byrne was trending on Twitter, I figured it was for either one of two reasons: Byrne had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, or she was being dragged by the Moral Outrage Mob for some innocuous quote that was taken out of context. It turned out it was the latter.

In an interview published by Variety on Thursday, Marc Malkin spoke with Byrne about the FX show, Mrs. America. On the show Byrne plays the famed feminist rebel, Gloria Steinem. Starring opposite Byrne is Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the notorious conservative activist who helped thwart Steinem’s 1970s campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. The interview, which was edited and condensed for publication on Variety’s website, is accompanied by a full recording of the phone call between Malkin and Byrne.

Responding to one of Malkin’s questions about Schlafly, the printed article states that Byrne describes Schlafly, an activist with “six kids, a law degree, a marriage,” as a “first-rate feminist.” On the page Byrne’s observation does seem a little off, since Schlafly’s vehement opposition to the ERA — an amendment Schlafly insisted would bear unintended consequences, like the draft of women into the military and an increase in lost custody battles for divorced mothers— was what earned her the ire of the progressive left. To feminists, Schlafly was a treacherous pawn in conservatives’ decades-long “war on women.”

Listening to the actual interview, however, it’s clear that Byrne was expressing a clever take on the irony of Schlafly’s place in the feminist movement. “Here was a working mother and wife,” Byrne may as well have said about Schlafly, “who was also a well-respected and highly influential activist.” When considering the prominent definition of a feminist — a fiercely independent woman in control of her own destiny — then Byrne’s sarcastic label of Schlafly as “a first-rate feminist” is fitting. Right?

True to form for any news media outlet, on Twitter Variety accompanied its link to the article with Byrne’s provocative quote about Schlafly taken out of context. Naturally this sparked a fierce political debate between Twitter users, who have nothing better to do under normal circumstances, let alone during a lockdown from a pandemic, than to attempt to cram their entire worldview into a 280-character, emoji-laced takedown of anyone who stands on the opposite side of this oh-so-pressing Byrne controversy.

If only it were that silly. The reality, though, is that it’s careless missteps like Variety’s — just one of many media outlets that appear to have traded integrity for relevance in the new culture wars — that pump toxic waste into the already overflowing cesspool of social media. Before the abominations of Facebook and Twitter, Americans, influenced by polarizing cable news networks and radio programs, were already sharply divided over political and cultural issues. Now, mainstream news media and social media personalities are indomitable allies, each pulling stories from the other and twisting them into whatever sensational narrative they’re pushing to drive likes and viewership. Everyone keeps talking about Russian bots spreading false information to divide America over our biggest conflicts, like the #MeToo movement, racial inequality, gun control, the COVID response, etc. And yet we insist on doing it ourselves.

It’s almost like we’re headed for a complete collapse of reasonable discourse. Scratch that — I think we’ve already arrived. Now we’ll just have to wait and see how long we can stay afloat in this mire of our intellectual excrement.

To give credit where credit is due, in the last two hours Variety tweeted a new link to Byrne’s interview with this statement: “We deleted a tweet about this Rose Byrne podcast as the text and copy didn’t accurately convey her tone in the conversation. Apologies and thank you for understanding.” This was an admirable move and I only hope Variety recommits to practicing ethical journalism, since the very future of our republic depends on an ethical press.

Some Twitter users have issued similar retractions to Variety’s. But it’s hard to imagine their followers paying much attention to these tweets. After all, it feels way too good to have a target at which to direct one’s rage. And so what if Byrne was misquoted? It’s easy to scan her interview and find something — anything — problematic in order to justify one’s vitriol. Otherwise, if one can’t always be right, then what’s the point of living?

Since I am a person who likes to stay on trend, and since Twitter shaming is all the rage, I want to wrap up this article by dispensing some scorn of my own: To all the Twitter users who have issued corrections to your previous moral-outrage tweets, I admire your humility. At the same time, it’s really disappointing to see how incapable you are of taking a moment to investigate the truth about a story, especially given the high stakes. In the future, you should really try to… what’s the colloquialism everyone’s using these days? Oh right, Do better.

Hairstylist turned writer. Married to a dude. Dad to a cat. Proud survivor of Christian fundamentalism, codependent mothering, and the ’90s.

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