A search of the #utpol hashtag on X, formerly known as Twitter, yields a flood of political posts.

It doesn’t always reveal civility.

Among news articles, politicos discussing pivotal issues and lawmakers giving updates on legislation, Utah’s political figures are also seen at times engaging in tense exchanges with each other, with constituents and with journalists.

Enter Gov. Spencer Cox’s recently released “Disagree Better” initiative, which seeks to look at the problems of polarization and how Americans can work together to find solutions to the country’s toughest problems. Cox is promoting the initiative as chairman of the National Governors Association.

“When we engage in healthy, honest dialogue, we avoid demonizing others and we’re more likely to find solutions. Instead of calling names, be curious. Listen more. Attack ideas, not people,” Cox said in a video about the initiative. 

Is it working? 

Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said users of social media have the “ultimate” confirmation bias. People engage with those they agree with and have a lot less civility with those they don’t. 

“And for those of us in the political world who want to see solid, constructive conversations about policy, it’s going to require us to elevate that dialogue,” he said. 

In one example among the #utpol conversations on X, less than two weeks after Cox launched the Disagree Better idea, Darlene McDonald, engagement chair for the Utah Black Roundtable and former congressional candidate, called out Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, questioning why he had liked a negative post directed at her.

In an interview, McDonald explained she was upset by Lee liking a July 27 post from the Utah Log Cabin Republicans account — a group that says it is made up of LGBTQIA+ Republicans and allies who advocate for fiscal conservatism and equality — that heckled her for her stance on issues of racism and commented on her interracial marriage.

Lee liked the post on X but didn’t reply to it. Several other social media users did, however, further needling McDonald.

“It’s upsetting when you think about that in the context of the disagree better mantra that Gov. Cox is trying to have, so that we can engage with each other on social media, whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever places we engage with each other, that we can disagree on just the actual policy … not like people using social media to personally attack and bully people,” she said.

Lee told the Deseret News that he liked the post because he agrees with the first part of it, calling McDonald a “race baiter.” As for the part about her husband being white, he said he doesn’t care.

This is also not the first time Lee has been called out for liking uncivil social media posts. He was recently the subject of backlash for liking posts that suggested some Black women do not work for their positions. 

“The media is one the most divisive groups we have in our country, and that’s what happened specifically with my Twitter,” he said about that controversy. “They’re specifically trying to make people fight or go after each other, or cause an uproar. And that’s on the media.”

Lee said part of being a lawmaker is knowing that when something has gone too far, he has to let it go. 

“I’m not going to keep that conversation going if it’s going to distract from accomplishing good policy here in the state of Utah, or it’s going to put me or even other legislators in a bad limelight,” he said. 

Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, said that in Lee’s case, where a journalist reported on his liked tweets about Black women’s work ethic, the media is just doing their job.

“If you’re worried about something you’re gonna say making it into the media for a bad reason, a controversial reason, you maybe shouldn’t say that … especially if you’re going to attack the media afterwards for reporting,” he said. 

Lee said he doesn’t think X is a good way to engage with constituents or colleagues. 

“Twitter is not a good place to talk to constituents. It’s not a good place to even reach out amongst each other, because we know it’s just a public forum,” he said. 

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he gets accused of being rude on the X platform, but that’s because he sometimes has a snarky way of putting things.

“I might be a little tongue in cheek at times. I think there’s a difference with that,” he said.  

Both McDonald and Weiler, in separate interviews, shared the same sentiment. They argued that they could post “The sky is blue,” and someone would argue otherwise.

McDonald said she’s actually tweeted that statement out before.

“I had somebody come out and say, ‘Well, actually, it’s purple because of the way that the eyes translate,’” she said.

Similarly, Weiler said, “I joke sometimes that I could tweet, ‘The sky is blue,’ and I’d have 30 people telling me I was wrong, so that’s kind of the plus and the minus on Twitter is, you’re gonna get feedback. Some of it’s incredibly smart and insightful, and a lot of it is not so.”

Lee thinks Utah already does a great job of disagreeing better. 

“If there is a back and forth between some Democrats, and then a few Republicans, that’s typically the most you’ll see, and it’s not very indicative of how things actually are up at the Capitol … we get along really well,” he said. 

Blouin doesn’t think Cox’s initiative will be bipartisan. He finds the initiative “misleading” and as a “way of silencing dissent.”

“It’s not about disagreeing better, it’s being able to understand that we’re going to have disagreements and things are not always going to be comfortable ... what it means is depersonalizing it and saying, ‘Look, we don’t agree on this, we can have an argument.’ ... seemingly disagree and have a side conversation and still set that aside and have productive negotiations.”

“And that doesn’t happen in my experience as a Democrat,” he added.

Weiler said he supports the initiative, but even though he agrees with the governor’s sentiments, that doesn’t mean he’ll “always live up to them.” 

Perry said the impact of these online, contemptuous conversations between lawmakers aren’t always clear. 

“But for us as voters and citizens of the state of Utah, I think the approach for us is to not reward contemptuous speech,” he said. “Try to find a way to let elected officials wherever they are know that we are watching, and we are reading, we are watching and that there are consequences.”