Take a Deep Breath: Online Opinions Have Little to Do With Reality

The internet, in spite of all of its wonderful Ryan Gosling Tumblrs and videos of baby sloths getting bathed at animal sanctuaries, can be an ugly and dark place. Take a look at the YouTube comments on that same baby sloth video and scattered between all of the "So cute!" and "First!" comments you're bound to find someone with a screen name like SWASTIXXX who calls the sloth a faggot before going on a racist rant about Michelle Obama. It's gross. It's depressing. Let it take you down and it will, but here's the silver lining — what happens on the internet does not necessarily reflect what happens in real life.

Is that to say that homophobia, sexism and racism don't exist in the real world or that they're not big issues? Of course not. They are huge, very real issues that we have to deal with on a day to day basis, but, in the end, the homophobia, sexism and racism of the real world tends to be much more subtle than it is on the web. It's systemic, whereas the hate expressed online is far more akin to a perverse and loud game of telephone where, instead of whispering to each other, one idiot screams into a megaphone and, rather than ignore it, we all start repeat-screaming it ourselves. The internet gives a voice to people whose voices don't matter and fools them into thinking that it does.

Take this recent study by the Pew Research Center that compared Twitter reactions following big events — like the presidential debates or the federal court ruling that found Prop. 8 unconstitutional — to public opinion polls. For the most part, because Twitter skews young and liberal, the opinions on Twitter did not match the more conservative public opinion, though occasionally the results were reversed. When it came to the 2012 presidential race, Twitter comments for either candidate were primarily negative by a long shot because, when it comes to the internet, people really hate being positive unless they happen to be discussing a micro pig wearing a pair of rain boots. And even then it's touch and go.

While the Pew Research Center's findings might suggest that we really have more to worry about in the real world, it also reminds us that Twitter, for the most part, is selective information. According to the study, only 13% of American adults said that they used Twitter and only 3% of that thirteen said that they tweeted about the news. Additionally, over 57% of those who posted about news said that they were democrats or leaned left, whereas only 46% of the general public would identify the same way.

And yet, if Twitter was to be believed, Barack Obama would have lost the 2012 election. I remember being so nervous on election day, despite the reassurances from Nate Silver The Boy Who Lived that things would be fine, that I skipped dinner and went straight to drinking whisky because I was so sure that we were fucked thanks to all of the shit that I read on the internet claiming that America was now more conservative than ever. But come 9:30 EST, the election was over, Obama had won and I was very very drunk.

Message boards can be the most vile and homophobic things ever, but, in the real world, for the very first time, the majority of Americans support same sex marriage. Our Jezebel tips line gets a constant flow of hateful emails featuring messages so racist and sexist that they could make you weep and give up on humanity all together, but the truth is that they're all sent by a tiny handful of small-minded people lucky enough to get their hands on our email address and dumb enough to cry to us about what a bunch of loud-mouthed cunts we are.

It's demoralizing, it's a bummer, but the truth is that they're only doing it because they are stupid and scared. The world is changing, maybe for the better and that terrifies them. Anytime a black person is elected to office or a woman becomes a CEO or a pair of moms are allowed to get married, bigots lose power and they start grasping at straws to regain any sort of relevance that they can — usually through Facebook pages on how minorities don't tip or blog comments on how women should just STFU already. This is sad for them. They are sad, desperate people whose only way of feeling like they matter is by shouting hate into a vacuum. So fuck them, let them shout until they're hoarse, because all of that shouting — unless the person talking is a senator or someone whose decisions can actually affect your life — is just the miserable ramblings of the increasingly irrelevant.

Twitter Reaction to Events Often at Odds with Overall Public Opinion [Pew Research Center]
Image via eelnosiva/Shutterstock.