The retweet (or “RT” in shorthand) is a funny thing. It can serve many purposes, some of which are contradictory: signal boosting, positive endorsement, an effort to draw negative attention to someone’s opinions, or simple agreement. The practice of retweeting can be so fraught with confusion, that some individuals choose to include a “RT =! Endorsement” disclaimer right in their Twitter bio. But when RTs do equal endorsement, how do we separate endorsement of a Tweet from endorsement of a Tweeter?
This is a problem that both Richard Dawkins & Donald Trump have recently had to grapple with, after the controversial figures found themselves in the awkward position of having positively retweeted white supremacists.
For Dawkins, the controversy arose after he retweeted an anti-social justice meme with a QR code linking to Nazi propaganda. For Trump, it came after he retweeted an endorsement from a white supremacist group. Their reactions were strikingly similar:
“Well, that, I know nothing about,” Trump said. “I mean, I don’t know about retweeting. I mean, you retweet somebody, and turns out to be a white supremacist. I know nothing about these groups that are supporting me.”
Dawkins, for his part, has made his case up front, with the following statement in his Twitter bio:
“RTs don’t imply endorsement, nor exhaustive research of tweeter’s CV.”
After other tweeters called out the message on the QR code, he chalked the mishap up to simple oversight:
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) February 1, 2016
Perhaps the question we need to answer isn’t, “Do positive retweets imply positive endorsement of the tweeter?” After all, I’m sure I have retweeted a toxic person or two. Hell, I’ve been friends with such people – it’s hardly unreasonable to think I might have unknowingly endorsed one during a late night Twitter sesh. Maybe I’ve retweeted a TERF or White Feminist who has generally positive opinions about some aspects of feminism, but is a complete and utter failure when it comes to understandings of gender theory or race. I’d be more than willing to wager I’ve fallen into that trap at least once.
It is even reasonable to think that even someone as noxious as Trump might be right every once in a while. After all, some feminists may make sensible arguments on issues affecting their own lives, but fail miserably when it comes to intersectionality. Couldn’t this same logic extend to white supremacists? Unfortunately for Dawkins & Trump, this isn’t simply a matter of a broken clock being right twice a day.
Both men would have you think that their association is nothing more than random happenstance. But when you’ve made a name for yourself by hawking bigotry and intolerance, you can’t be terribly surprised when bigotry and intolerance flock to you. Dawkins’ musings on Ahmed Mohamed, date rape vs. “stranger rape,” and views on Islam are far more in line with Donald Trump’s views than those of a more progressive figurehead. Yes, the same Donald Trump who was credited for a Stormfront resurgence. If there is a major difference, it seems to be that Dawkins tries to mask his Islamophobia in faux-intellectualism.
As a self-proclaimed liberal, Dawkins should balk not only at being associated with white supremacists – but also at finding himself in the same group as Donald Trump. Perhaps instead of blaming ignorance (or claiming to be misunderstood), it is time to hop off Twitter and allow for some internal reflection.