I recently blocked a longtime political acquaintance, and someone I consider a friend, on a social media account. He was not the first and likely will not be the last.
The toxicity of social media, particularly in politics, is neither a new revelation nor one that is likely to change soon. To the contrary, it has been hyper-charged by a political landscape dominated by tribalism and outrage politics. Mixed with disassociation caused by limited in-person interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic, the online environment has become a place where the worst inside us plays out.
What could be a venue for political debate and discord has become a channel for angst, anger and personal attacks.
Lest anyone believe this is thin-skinned overreaction, I am accustomed to letting insults and disparagement roll off me. Writing columns for five years, I have received plenty of hate-mail. When I ran for office, I became a target for rancid mail pieces that led to even more vitriolic personal encounters. One flyer compared me to mass-murderer Kermit Gosnell.
And I have an active Twitter feed where I take strong positions and often get replies from random people I do not know. Most often they hope to draw me into virtual screaming matches. As a general rule, those are easy to ignore.
It changes when it involves someone you know and respect personally.
Over the past year I received almost nothing but personal slights and trolling comments online from the person I blocked. At one point, we got into a heated exchange over COVID-19 responses that I took as an implied attack against my family. I deleted the entire conversation after he took the initiative to contact me directly via text message.
This is someone I have known in real-life, and not just via the Internet, for years. I have been in his home and he has been in mine. In person, he is one of the most congenial people I have ever met in Colorado politics.
But in recent weeks, it seemed he simply wanted to troll me for my work with The Lincoln Project.
Eventually, one of those tweets ended up alongside another from writer Shea Serrano, who makes a regular production of blocking people who disparage him. That juxtaposition hit home and I thumbed my way to the block button.
It is something I have done with more frequency as my feeds have become increasingly filled with competing levels of shock replies. And maybe that is to be expected in a world where one member of Congress took to Twitter to openly mock another member’s support for her transgender daughter or QAnon enthusiasts eschew familial ties for their fellow online conspiracy theorists.
The problem is just as prevalent on the left as the right. I have also blocked people engaged in the progressive movement who interact solely through outlandish online behavior, personal attacks and ugly tactics such as doxing.
Last year I blocked a progressive activist I once wrote a glowing column about. She chose to browbeat me online rather than clear up any misunderstanding. I am sure it appeased several of her followers, but it cost us a friendship.
And it kept me from ever engaging in any cause in which she holds a leadership role. That is a real-world cost that disheartens me.
Given that past I figured I should cut off my online interactions with a guy I respect and like personally but cannot stand on Twitter. I hope he will not take it as a personal slight and rather view it as an attempt to save something a little more real and a lot more human.
Certainly I hope that we will have the opportunity to get coffee or lunch again in the future. That’s a phone call or text invite I would happily accept.
It seems two worlds surround many of us these days, one online and one out the window. If I have to sacrifice the former for the latter on occasion, so be it.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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