It’s Katie Notopoulos, tech reporter filling in for Elamin.
I’ve been obsessing over straws the last few weeks. It all started several weeks ago when the BuzzFeed office in New York stopped stocking plastic straws as an eco-friendly move. As a sometime straw-user, I was minorly annoyed (I now keep my own personal stash in my desk, because I suck), but more perplexed as to how straws became the hot new issue.
What I’ve started to see as the Great Straw Debate has played out is that what began as a seemingly simple concept has become twisted and warped until it fits into the familiar cattle path of internet behavior. It’s been fun to watch it progress, like crystals growing from salt in elementary school.
After our office got rid of straws, news about cities considering straw bans, as well as big companies like Starbucks voluntarily ditching them, started popping up over the last two months.
In the BuzzFeed office, I often joked with national reporter Tyler Kingkade about how it must be “Big Lid” behind the straw ban, or some shadowy corporate interest that was feeding the momentum. (This is not actually the case, folks.) But hey, sometimes noticing something strange and digging in is how journalism gets made.
Tyler noticed that a figure that was cited in a lot of news reports — 500 million straws were used per day in the US — was actually from a phone survey done by a 9-year-old, as Reason reported earlier this year. Tyler tweeted about this, and his tweet went viral.
Seeing how many people latched on to Tyler’s tweet told me something: People were desperate to find something wrong with the straw ban. There are reasonable objections to the ban, of course, like how it penalizes people with disabilities who rely on straws. But also there was clearly a secret desire lurking under the surface of the internet to debunk the idea that straws were actually so bad for the environment. Sadly, no one seemed to have the courage to come forward and say, “Hey, I’m just lazy and I like straws and I don’t really care about the ocean. Fuck those pelicans, man. I’m very much enjoying this boba tea.”
And of course all this played into the fractious political whirligig effluent of Twitter. BuzzFeed opinion editor Tom Gara tweeted a joke about how San Francisco is trying to ban straws but has rampant drug abuse problems as well as, um, lots of human poo on the streets. His joke got picked up by people with large followings in the pro-Trump media, who went absolutely wild. This was the moment: Straws had become political. Tom’s joke framed it perfectly for the MAGA internet to put to use: Silly liberals in San Francisco are so worried about saving the sea turtles but can’t deal with the real problems.
All of a sudden I started seeing Tom’s exact framing pop up in other places. In a Facebook group I lurk in (for work!) dedicated to the QAnon conspiracy, someone posted an article about the straw ban and all the comments parroted Tom’s joke — San Francisco is banning straws but hands out needles!
The Political Straw meme morphed into bizarre yet oddly predictable forms across the internet. People started posting photos of themselves using multiple straws at once with captions like “triggered, libs?” Inexplicably, a conservative commentator posted a video of herself in a bikini with animated straws around her, captioning it “Melt, snowflakes!”
The Political Straw had now reached thirst-trap status.
We even reached the point in the Internet Straw News Cycle where counterfeiters were selling fake metal straws on Amazon.
Following the straw story has been truly a joy in seeing how the machinery of the internet works in these predictable ways.
Which is why BuzzFeed News has published three (yes, 3) opinion pieces on straws.
It’s futile to resist; the straw ban is inevitable.
Take my straws from my cold, dead hands.
What if we keep straws, but tax them?
Of course, all of these are wrong. The correct take? (Which is to say, my editor’s take.) Straws should be freely available to anyone who wants or needs one — but only upon request.
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