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Stop the hate on Twitter

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 8:26 AM EDT, Tue May 21, 2013
Dean Obeidallah says Twitter exchanges often lead to fights reminiscent of the 1999 film
Dean Obeidallah says Twitter exchanges often lead to fights reminiscent of the 1999 film "Fight Club," which starred Brad Pitt.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah says Twitter has become a home to sharp exchanges, fights
  • He says the social network allows people to release aggression
  • Obeidallah: It's inexcusable when people engage in racist, sexist, homophobic rants
  • He says Twitter users must unite in declaring there's no room for hate

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report and co-host of a new CNN podcast "The Big Three" that looks at the top three stories of the week. Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.

(CNN) -- For some, Twitter is a social media platform that enables you to keep up with breaking news, raise political issues or offer amusing thoughts. But for many others, including myself, Twitter has become the new "Fight Club." It has in essence become the cyber version of the basement of "Lou's Bar" from that 1999 classic film.

To those who have not made it onto Twitter yet, let's make something clear: Twitter is not Facebook. Facebook is as dangerous as visiting a P.F. Chang's. Twitter, on the other hand, is the Wild West in the 1800s -- it's new, unsettled and often savage.

In "Fight Club," people from all walks of life -- from professionals to blue collar workers -- would nightly shrug off their mundane existence to experience a visceral rush by beating the crap out of each other in the basement of a neighborhood bar.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

"Fight Club" celebrated the duality of life. By day, actor Ed Norton played a mild-mannered, timid insurance adjuster leading the quintessential life "of quiet desperation." But by night, Norton became his brash and bold alter ego, Tyler Durden, portrayed by Brad Pitt. The difference between these two characters was succinctly summed up by Tyler Durden while talking to his more staid alter ego: "I am free in all the ways that you are not. "

This is what Twitter is to many. A place to be free. A place where people from all walks of life are on equal footing to battle each other -- from the rich and powerful to the poor and angry. And on Twitter, you're not required to be polite like you are in the real world. In fact, cutting and snarky remarks are not only accepted, they are glorified.

But there's an increasingly dark underbelly to these Twitter fights. What might start out as a disagreement about a political or social issue, at times can escalate into racist, sexist or homophobic rants. In fact, Humboldt University recently created a map entitled "The Geography of Hate" which charted the hate filled comments being spewed on Twitter. It's truly alarming.

I've experienced it firsthand. Some I've fought with on Twitter have called me ethnic slurs like "towel head" because I'm of Arab heritage or a "stupid guinea" because I'm also of Italian descent. But these comments are tame when compared to the far more hateful comments launched on Twitter against Blacks, Latinos, gays, and the disabled as noted by the Humboldt study.

I know some reading this are asking: Why do you fight at all on Twitter? Why not just ignore those people who challenge you? Sure, you can do that, but as Tyler Durden instructively told us in "Fight Club": "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight." So many engage in these battles to test their mettle.

There's nothing wrong with the great percentage of Twitter fights. You get a chance to test your opinions on issues of the day. In today's hyperpartisan climate, many just associate with like-minded people and consequently their views on political issues are never challenged. But Twitter provides a forum to debate with others who passionately hold opposing views. True, these battles can become heated and include nasty comments, but for the most part they remain issue-oriented and avoid bigotry.

More than once, I've engaged in a fiery battle over an issue and then found common ground on an unrelated subject that has led to a Twitter friendship.

After one intense argument with a conservative over President Obama's policies, we both discovered our mutual dislike of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. (I'm a NY Giants fan and he's a Buffalo Bills fan.)

That's not to excuse the alarming rise of racist, sexist, homophobic and other hate filled comments on Twitter. And while the Humboldt University report doesn't indicate how many of these comments were made during Twitter fights, I can assure you that is where I have seen them rear their ugly face most often.

Here's my plea to my fellow Twitter users: We need to make it clear that there's simply no place for that type of hate on Twitter. You can win a battle on substance -- or even with cutting remarks --- without descending into the realm of racism and bigotry.

And the best people to police this are my fellow Twitter users. If enough of us collectively speak out, Twitter can become a social media platform where users share info, joke around and even fight with each other, but all without being subject to hate.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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