Talking Points

How Twitter made the Waukesha tragedy even worse

The verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse case had nothing to do with the deadly SUV rampage at the Christmas parade in Waukesha.

That's an easy assessment to render now that Darrell Brooks has been charged with multiple counts of first-degree homicide for Sunday's attack that killed six people and injured more than 60 others. Brooks was free on bond after allegedly trying to run over another woman — she says she's the mother of his child — earlier this month. He appears to be a menace, but politics don't have much to do with that. 

In the first fraught hours on Sunday, though, social media was awash in speculation that Friday's "not guilty" verdict for Kyle Rittenhouse was somehow connected to the attack. Comments came from the right: "After the widespread hateful reaction to the Rittenhouse verdict & dog whistle calls to radical BLM ground troops by the mainstream media, Democrats, and even the President of the United States, we must ask if they incited the mass murder in Waukesha, WI," tweeted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). And it came from the left: "The blood of Kyle Rittenhouse's victims is on the hands of Wisconsin citizens, even the children," wrote Mary Lemanski, the now-fired social media director for the DuPage County Democrats in Illinois. Those were just the highest-profile examples.

Thanks to Twitter, misinformation and misguided anger spread faster than the facts.

That's not entirely a new phenomenon: After Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Muslims wrongly came under scrutiny until it became clear the terror was home-grown. It's just a human fact that people start looking for explanations when unexpected violence disrupts their lives, and that in the absence of evidence they'll conjure up narratives that later look foolish or worse.

But social media supercharges the process, enabling — even encouraging — masses of people to coalesce around bad ideas and amplify them to potentially thousands of people in mere moments. And in a time like this, when very online Americans are ready to go to (metaphorical) ideological war at the drop of a hat, that cascade of speculation often ends up reinforcing our divisions, creating a self-reinforcing wheel of rage that too often has little to do with reality.

A few mean-spirited people revel in all of this: As of Wednesday morning, Greene was still falsely promoting a Waukesha-Kenosha connection. The rest of us should be a little more cautious with our takes and refrain from posting in the first hours after a disaster unless there is real, verifiable information to share. Otherwise, we should learn to shut up.