Viral tweets come in many forms. The heartstring tugging dog video, the ridiculously dumb stunt, the absurd meme that eventually becomes overused to death. Though most are fairly harmless, one of the most insidious of all viral tweets is one that misinforms and infuriates, particularly when it comes to political and societal issues. In the most recent incident, Twitter was overrun with a massive backlash in response to articles about liberals demanding a “gender neutral Santa.”
The articles in question came from a variety of sources, including CBS News, NY Post, and FOX, which cited a survey conducted by a graphic design company called GraphicSprings. Not only is GraphicSprings not an official polling operation, the survey was mainly put out as a publicity stunt to attract potential customers. The questions were skewed in order to produce controversial results, something many of these articles failed to mention. Respondents were essentially asked to rebrand Santa, reimagine him as a modern pious philanthropist with a cool image. Some said he should wear skinny jeans, others suggested tattoos. So it should come as no surprise that if respondents were entirely reconstructing the idea of Santa Claus, some would opt to change his gender given the option to do so.
And yet, outrage ensued. Many headlines echoed the same attention grabbing excerpt, “27% of people think Santa should be gender neutral or female.” As the posts became increasingly popular with thousands of tweets about gender neutral Santa, many right-leaning Twitter users seized the opportunity to attack the left. They claimed the left had gone too far, and that the age of political correctness was turning into absolute madness, as if there was an actual, active effort to change Santa’s gender. The gender neutral Santa fiasco became perfect conservative bait for proving just how “radical” and “unreasonable” liberals are in their eyes; hook, line, and sinker.
Another prime example of this misinformed outrage came in response to the idea of gender neutral gingerbread men–gingerbread persons. The culprit of this mass hysteria was Tucker Carlson of Fox News. In Carlson’s eyes, when a Scottish baker decided to name her baked goods as persons instead of men, she was launching yet another leftist attack on Christmas. He couldn’t let these gingerbread persons slide, and fired back, referring to the incident as “spiritual neutering” on live television, implying cookies have religious symbolism in Christianity.
In another one of his FOX News segments, Carlson launched an attack on theybies, kids raised “without gender” that are referred to by their parents as they and them. According to Carlson, once these children reach a certain age, they can choose the gender they wish to identify with. Many viewers reacted to the segment with vehement outrage, attributing this style of parenting to an entire generation, rather than a select group of parents. In reality, the “rise of theybie parenting” is not significantly large. More commonly, millennial parents are simply allowing children to play with whatever toys they wish, instead of assigning toys to a specific gender and perpetuating stereotypes.
It’s not difficult to spot the connection between these incidents: both heavily perpetuated by sensationalist journalism, both aiming to direct hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community. Most importantly, both were isolated incidents that became blown out of proportion to supposedly represent the stance of an entire group of people.
These attacks on the “opponent” are nothing new when it comes to different political ideologies, but in an era of social media, it feels as if this war has been heavily weaponized. In the past, a scathing article or insulting poster reached only those who saw a physical copy. Now, millions have access to a single post in the palm of their hands. For those who don’t bother to fact check and only seek out sources which tend to agree with their viewpoints, these posts become truth; through misunderstanding, their hatred of the other side becomes even more deeply ingrained in their minds. Not only is this troubling in terms of national dividedness, this form of propaganda even has the potential to sway elections.
BC psychology Professor Andrea Heberlein claims that attributing extreme views to the opponent is a commonly practiced propaganda tactic. She cites the, “deliberate misinformation campaign,” of the 2016 presidential election by Russian operatives on social media as a prime example. The social media accounts created by Russians first attempted to attract liberals or conservatives to their page; once they had garnered a substantial following, they began attacking the other side, relentlessly demonizing them. Those particularly vulnerable to these forms of propaganda include people for whom the social media is their main information source, and those who frequently exhibit confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and believe information that already confirms one’s preexisting beliefs. According to Professor Heberlein, “Confirmation bias can also account for some of people’s willingness to believe negative or even outrageous things about an outgroup.”
Although arguments about gender neutral Santa and theybies may seem silly and trivial, below the surface there are more sinister motives at play to create deep divides in society and to discredit the struggles of non-binary people. Stories like this will continue to arise, and there’s no way to prevent people from manipulating information. What’s important is that we look critically into the type of media we’re consuming and not give into our own confirmation biases.