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Opinion | Want to understand an issue? Have a conversation, not a Twitter war

The revolution devours its children.

That phrase emerged from the French Revolution, when polemicists and pamphleteers incited passions among the so-called mob. It’s a euphemism for revolutionaries who turned on their own and made a meal of them.

I thought of that old time aphorism as I watched, in real time, a Twitter mob in action again this week. It is instructive to watch bad things happening to good people while a crowd gathers online to cheer on the pummeling.

Today, the social media revolution eats its progeny. That’s the alchemy of an algorithm gone bad and mad.

The surefire formula: the more virulent, the more viral.

Many have written before me about the toxicity of trolls, so I’m late to the game. In Tuesday’s column, I recounted the online attacks on Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who has emerged as a voice of reason and reasonableness during the last three years of pandemic worries.

I called out the troll(s) who target him. Then I watched more of the same snark erupt in the aftermath.

Among the first to feel the heat — for daring to shed some light — was the Globe and Mail’s award-winning health policy columnist, André Picard. For the sin of sharing my column online, Canada’s most authoritative journalist on COVID-19 incurred the wrath of countless pandemic trolls accusing him of misinformation and malevolence.

I try not to linger on Twitter — it reminds me of rubbernecking at a car accident. I hadn’t noticed that Picard — always a generous colleague in a cutthroat field — had just announced in the New Year that he would no longer curate his Twitter feed to share articles of interest:

“I’ve given lots of thought to how to make #Twitter more tolerable and decided that, after more than a decade of posting stories daily … I won’t be sharing a variety of health stories from various media anymore,” he wrote. “#Twitter used to be a place for sharing ideas and conversation. It’s not anymore ….

“I used to get ideas and intellectual stimulation. Now, my timeline is overwhelmingly filled with hate and misinformation. Not worth it.”

Despite that declaration — perhaps he found an echo in my laments — Picard decided to retweet my column. The venom came quickly, though he wisely refrained from engaging with the trolls who always want the last word.

Another COVID voice of reason to face the wrath of the censorious was Dr. Lawrence Loh, who served eloquently as Peel’s medical officer of health at the height of the pandemic. Loh first won acclaim in late 2020 for acting to protect workers in Mississauga and Brampton who were closer to the front lines than almost anyone else, staffing all those Amazon warehouses and postal hubs that kept Canadians safely supplied at home.

On Tuesday, Loh dared to call attention to my column — and call for civility. The response was swift.

“I once respected you when you were with Peel, after this tweet I can hardly say I do anymore,” one outraged troll tweeted at him. “So you’re siding with bogaach (Bogoch) and saying masks don’t work … Shame on you!”

Another tweeted out at Loh, who now heads the Canadian College of Physicians and Surgeons: “It’s not really surprising that you are taking the minimizer’s side.”

Yet Loh, who is surely not a mask minimizer, remains as fearless today as he was in his old job. And no less thoughtful.

“I have every anticipation that I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and it’s going to be a re-traumatization of what made me leave public health in the first place,” he told me in jest when we talked later.

But he wanted to make a serious point about the intersection of public comment and public policy. Many of the people who are quoted as experts on social media — and, it must be admitted, in the mass media — aren’t always the most qualified.

Just because you have a doctorate or you’re a medical doctor (of which there are more than 30,000 in Ontario) — doesn’t necessarily make you a subject expert who is practising in the field with the mandate and credentials to weigh all the factors. Beyond the scientific consensus — which can change by the week and does not accrue to a single voice on Twitter — there are also real-world economic and social parameters for politicians to weigh when considering something as contentious as a lockdown, for example.

But the notion that a resurgence of RSV, flu or COVID requires a mask mandate or red alert is a conflation of medical science with political science. It’s hard enough to persuade my own family to wear a mask in public, so why do academics believe governments can compel compliance, so long after COVID fatigue set in?

What made sense early in the pandemic might be nonsense today. The science keeps changing because the circumstances keep changing — the novel coronavirus is no longer so novel.

“The reality is that after multiple rounds of vaccines and waves, the context of this pandemic — and necessary interventions — has very much shifted,” Loh mused.

“I’ve been very surprised by the number of colleagues who have actually taken a position and stuck doggedly with it regardless of new information or how things have changed,” he added. “But now, given that this is not a novel virus anymore, this isn’t necessarily a fully susceptible population like it was in 2020. The whole calculus around the directives has changed, right?”

Those are the nuances that come out in an interview, instead of a Twitter war. Like Picard, my journalistic colleague, I once hoped social media would be a forum for throwing out ideas instead of putting people down.

Pre-Twitter, kids would hide out in their parents’ basement making crank calls and nobody took them seriously. Now they have a computer and they’re treated as public opinion.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn


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