Hate in a Digital World

Despite how exhausting the 2016 election cycle was in this regard, I continue to be fascinated by the effect of social media on interpersonal relations, something I wrote about a little bit in 2012 when I deleted my Facebook account, in 2014 about the intimidation of professional Twitter, with respect to activism in 2015.

I stand by most of what I wrote before, about the ways in which social media is performative (there is an entire genre of Instagram posts comparing posed and “natural” pictures), is intimidating even when interacting with well-meaning enthusiasts, and isolating. I would revise my assessment of its role on friendship, something I was reminded of this week in light of a thread on Twitter. The general point, since this is not my main focus here, is that when there is a reciprocal interest, social media and other forms of digital communication are an immense boon to friendship. The catch is that reciprocity is foundational, so while it has allowed me to maintain several friendships with people who I have only seen in person once or twice in a decade, many others have withered as one or both sides in the relationship have lapsed. This is not explicitly the fault of social media—people have busy lives and many other responsibilities—but I think Facebook and other social media sites that give the appearance of intimacy make it easier for people to not put in the work to maintain relationships.

Like a lot of people, I have been impressed with the high school students from Florida and elsewhere in the country organizing marches and keeping up the pressure on issues such as gun control. Their ability to sustain pressure online is the one thing that gives me hope that this time, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting might result in change. Not immediately, and probably not enough, but something.

On the other side of the equation is this:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

As the Twitter user mentions in subsequent tweets, the origin of this photoshopped image could well be a Russian troll farm, but it still has its intended effect. This and the issue of privacy, brought again into public discourse by the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, are the legacies of the first two decades of social networking.

The features of the internet that were meant to bring about an enlightened, educated populace and connect people have done that. There is more information on many more topics on Wikipedia than there ever were in the old, lacunate collection of hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica’s I pored through as a child. Sure, it might not have the same specific figures for the size of the East German army as in EB, but in terms of breadth, depth, and (if you know how to look) granularity of the information online, even just counting the content that isn’t behind paywalls, is astounding. News travels at an incredible pace, though rumor still travels faster. The diversity of voices and ability to communicate online is remarkable.

And yet, these same features have their perversions. Falsehood, rumor, myth, and propaganda abound, reinforced and socialized in niche communities. The intersection of the intimate and the impersonal are particularly insidious in this respect. Beyond even the fact that it is easy to attack someone anonymously, the tools of the internet make it easier to attack someone for several reasons.

1. It is possible to see someone like David Hogg as a social media avatar rather than as an individual. He is a face to an issue, not a person expressing one. Besides, if everyone is performing to some extent online, then who is to say that school shooting victims aren’t actors?

2. There is the impersonal nature of the internet. Not only is it easier to attack someone who you will never meet, but it is also easier to caricature or otherwise other them.

3. It is easier to engage with a partial or corrupted versions of ideas rather than their entirety. This happens on all sides; I know I have been guilty of falling for fake Twitter accounts or buying a misleading headline of an article that I didn’t read.

4. This is always the case, but the acceptance of a truth is the responsibility of the beholder. Some facts are more verifiable than others, but accepted truth is just that: a social consensus that is usually based on a deference to authority. With an abundance of information and misinformation online, anything and everything might be regarded as “Fake News.”

Here is the thing: none of this is new. Each of these forms of slander and misinformation has been used against people for as long as there has been communication. For instance, portraying your opponent as an “other” (the more grotesque the better) is a common feature of anti-Jewish, Bolshevik, Irish, and German iconography. Partial truths and outlandish fabrications fill the pages of ancient texts. Some of these come from cultural misunderstandings and curiosities, some from deliberate propaganda, and some out of simple malice. These stories have been the justification for slavery and the cause of wars.

What has changed, in my opinion, is how easy the internet has made the transmission of information. In other words, hate in the digital age is not new. It a cancerous mutation of old problem.

Calcification of opinion

I am hardly alone when I say that recent politics has been a major drag on my mental and emotional energy. I don’t know what is going to happen in the near future, but the current direction scares me in more ways than I care to mention. Still, I find myself thinking a lot about politics and doing my best to stay informed because, as difficult as it might be, that remains a civic duty. I also remain problematically addicted to checking my Twitter feed, albeit recently in shorter and less-comprehensive bursts.

These moments of checking Twitter have led me to a realization about the current superficial maelstrom, as epitomized and led by the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That realization is this:

There is nothing that President Trump could post to his Twitter account that would change my opinion of him.

Sure, there are things that he could post that would change the trajectory of the country and do good in the world, but that would mean one of three things: 1) the account was hacked; 2) someone else was managing the account; or 3) that President Trump decided to make an about-face in order to be more popular. None of those three options would change my opinion of him, while what he does post simply digs deeper. I still see people retweeting (usually with sarcastic comment) what he says or dredging up past posts looking for inconsistency. Neither genre of tweet does much for me and in many cases both distract from the substance of issues—not to mention that feeding the ego of someone who fundamentally wants to be the center of attention, whose interests run toward habitual misinformation and complaining about media coverage.

I could never bring myself to follow Trump’s twitter account, but, for months, I would regularly check in, caught up in whatever the latest utterance was. No longer. The campaign is over and I don’t need to actually see the latest bout of internet logorrhea in order to know what he said, at least in reasonable facsimile. I can’t live isolated from the news, but that doesn’t mean that I have to partake in online farce.

Social Media and an Academic Conference CAMWS 2016

Last weekend I attended the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) annual meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is a conference I have been to before, but, for a variety of reasons, some of which are the topic of this post, I had a different interaction with it than usual. For a compilation of the tweets I sent during conference, see here.

I went into the CAMWS meeting figuring that I would be at least somewhat active on Twitter; my posts there ebb and flow depending on a number of offline factors, including an internal debate over what I want the platform to be “for.” But I am active on Twitter and figured, as is my wont, that I would post something. I was not going to make an attempt at live-tweeting sessions, knowing my attention span, but I thought I’d do some posting after the fact. This was facilitated because, for once, the venue had fast, free, widely available wifi.

Then a funny thing happened: early in the conference a debate popped up on Twitter from people who couldn’t make it to the conference asking why there was an apparent zone of silence over the conference. More and more often conferences and meetings are pushing toward digital interaction, often establishing a conference hashtag right up front and, in at least one instance that I saw (on Twitter), offering to put a member’s Twitter handle on the name tag. I think CAMWS was interested in this being a thing at the meeting, but to the extent that the information was there it was somewhat buried.

There are certainly an issue of ethics when it comes to live-tweeting a conference, and the debate on Twitter moved in that direction, including one person arguing that, if done well, this sort of publication actually protects copyright because the idea is linked to the name. For whatever reason, the media presence from this particular CAMWS meeting was limited to a small handful of people.

Partly inspired by this debate, my Twitter “agenda” changed over the course of the meeting and thus my interaction with the meeting changed. Originally I was only going to do sporadic posts, but because of the external debate, I decided to do recaps of papers I saw. A lot of these tweets were developed back in my hotel room in the evening or in the airport waiting for a flight, but I was more assiduous about taking notes while in the sessions knowing that I intended to post them online later. Even so, I found myself struggling to find a consistent format on Twitter, particularly once I was posting more than one comment per paper, and trying to find a way to link the tweets about a given paper together. This was easier once I storified the whole thing, but I wanted to find a way to link on the main feed. Yet another reason to avoid the algorithmic timeline.

I almost called this post “Two Days of Minor Internet Celebrity,” because my conference tweets were picked up by Classics twitter writ large, including Rogue Classicist. This gave me ten new followers and spiked the “impressions” from a few hundred a day to fifteen thousand in two days. Those have since subsided somewhat now that I am falling into more usual patterns of activity, but it was nonetheless an interesting experience, no doubt aided by relatively few people tweeting from the conference and a relatively large number of interested parties who couldn’t make it.

As much as this was a good experience for me, I wish I had been more organized and prepared to tweet from the outset. I did put my twitter handle on my handout, but with so few people doing anything with it, I’m not sure this made an impression. This is not to say that I won’t put my twitter handle on future handouts, but that I might want to call attention to it, either myself or in the introduction in the future. As for the conference as a whole, there could have been a more concerted effort to foreground the hashtag and other social media opportunities in the program and packet. I heard belatedly that there was this information, but I was using the online program and often found myself searching in the page for names or topics, or otherwise skipping around, rather than reading it in a linear way. Similarly, if there had been hashtags associated with particular panels (as Hamish Cameron was adding to his live-tweeting, I think), then there would have been greater awareness that the conference endorsed social media outreach. That said, the conference had the single most important thing for this sort of engagement, which was wifi.

This is the first time I offered dedicated tweets from a conference, but it won’t be the last. As long as I am going to be part of this academic world, I plan to make the most of it.

2016 CAMWS Meeting: Storify

Via Storify, here my Tweets from this past weekend’s CAMWS meeting. In the next few days I will have a post working through various issues concerning social media that came up at the meeting–or, particularly the discussion that took place on Twitter with people who were following along from afar.