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:


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.