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.

Assorted Links

  1. We the Aggrieved– An essay on Inside Higher Ed about the partisan nature of this election and how “tribal” anything political has become. The author focuses on how both sides have been playing up the victim card.
  2. Like: Facebook and Shadenfreude– An article in the Paris Review that discusses one of the many issues with Facebook, namely that it does not distinguish between types of sharing, but rather categorizes all sharing as a positive experience. The author examines some of her own experiences on Facebook and discusses the triviality of the sharing and witnessing frustrating and heartbreak in others, more or less concluding that Facebook did not make her happier. I agree with most of her article, though it is also shallow on a few levels, including that she (evidently) has no plans to change her behavior vis a vis Facebook, and deals with some of the larger social implications of the online life in a tangential way.
  3. Two words: working wifi– A portrait of modern life–people huddled around a closed Starbucks, likely in order to use the free wi-fi.
  4. Chris Christie, Your Future President, Sandy Edition– Charlie Pierce at Esquire’s Politics Blog suggests that (by merely doing the right thing in terms of hurricane relief, ironically) Chris Christie is reaffirming his credentials as the early favorite to win the 2016 election. All he has done is praise the president’s leadership, take responsibility for disaster relief in his state, and tell people to get lost when they ask about politics.
  5. A Trip Through Hell: Daily Life in Islamist Controlled North Mali– A story in Spiegel by a German reporter who got permission to visit Northern Mali and see what hte condions were like under Ansar Dine rule. He suggests that there is growing popular unrest against the Islamic group which one of the people he interviews characterizes as a group of adolescents. Interestingly, one of the activists interviewed is female.
  6. Sandy zeigt, wie marode Amerikas Infrastruktur ist – From Joe, an article in German about the ailing nature of infrastructure in the United States. The article claims that nearly all infrastructure systems (power grid, roads, bridges, dams, ports, airports) are a problem, both susceptible to storms like Sandy, but also to more typical weather conditions. Of course, not modernizing the infrastructure will merely cost more money and hinder the economy in the long run (not unlike healthcare). The article does not cover every infrastructure issue I have with the US, but it also called attention to a few I had not considered, including that many ports may be too small to accommodate new generations of container ships.

All Art is Propaganda

One of the most attractive concepts of the base-superstructure dichotomy in Marxism is that some things hold traction and permanence, while others are constructions (rather than everything being a construct). Of course, this is a simplified version of Marxism, of which I am by no means an expert, but I find the distinction revealing. Propaganda, the art of a crafted message, is one of those most malleable things, , but while the most obvious propaganda is political, most propaganda flows implicitly from the individual–everything from clothing to food, to what beer or liquor you drink. I called this implicit propaganda because, often, the choices are not deliberate messages. I choose my beer by some combination of taste and cost, but in the beer summit hosted by President Obama, the brands were more traditionally politicized. Likewise with clothing–there is a message in each outfit–even if that message is “I don’t care” or “I want you to know that I don’t care.”

Orwell singled out art alone as propaganda because the audience for art is larger than the audience is for each clothing choice. Likewise, art is much more likely to be explicitly propaganda as the result of deliberate choices by the artist, while in personal propaganda there are more likely to be ulterior motives for the choices and some people will be more deliberate in crafting their message than others.

In the internet age, there is even a service, Reputation dot com, that promises to help protect your reputation online. The need for this service stems from the issues of permanence, legitimacy, and the speed of change online. The first two are what the sites advertises on, stressing how hard it is to remove malicious rumors online, and also that, online, anyone can post anything, which makes it difficult for users to determine truth from fiction (though the site does not seem to care about the truth of the matter so much as creating a positive image for the client). I have added the speed because news, information, and communication is happening at such rapid speeds that it is difficult to keep up–and easy for people to write a review in a fit of (any) emotion. Sometimes, it is easier to post online than it is to remember what you have said. But Reputation dot Com is correct that the internet has a lengthy memory.

Thus, there is a curious mix of new ideas, thoughts, and arguments, with many crackpot ideas still floating around and popping up. And all this has only limited policing or oversight. This means that publishing is much easier (note the self-publishing boom and the proliferation of blogs, particularly on websites of traditional news outlets). So, yes, the internet is a wonderful way of spreading thoughts and opinions because there is almost always an audience (for me: you!), but there is also a lack of authority to much of it (sorry, I’m just a graduate student who feels compelled to write from time to time–I am author, (sometimes) editor, and publisher). At the risk of sounding hypocritical and offending self-publishers everywhere, I often feel that self-publishing, while it serves to get some authors published who are truly excellent and find audiences, is more about a culture more interested in self-promotion and their own egos than about quality. Sure, crowd-sourcing novels can sometimes result in excellent books, but my gut instinct is that the amount of rubbish has increased out of all proportion.

In this, I am a snob. I have my own reasons for writing and publishing online, and some of it is that I feel that I have things worth being said and also that a self-published blog on my own site is different than publishing a book or working for a news outlet. I will stop here as I do not control the other actions of other people and people certainly have the right to publish online, but I fear that they are doing so at the expense of the authority of traditional publishing and print publishing (sometimes for very good reasons), and has helped bring about some of the journalism issues that have come about in the last few months.

I prefer writing on paper because edits and changes have permanence. I just crossed out four lines , something that would not appear on a typed file (though the paragraph and a half I added in the actual post do), but here and now I see where I had an issue with my though and/or writing. On paper there are necessarily drafts and edits; typed, everything and nothing is in a final form. Perhaps this is fitting for a generation that often seems to have an innate understanding of postmodernism.

One of my concerns here is that the internet enables this uncertainty and enables one or more shell personae (in my younger years I went online and engaged people under a variety of aliases, particularly for some online games). It has not yet reached anything like Neal Stephenson’s digital world in Snowcrash, but while the internet is transparent to tech people, for most people it is easy to put up that shell and to be someone who they are not offline. Everything is propaganda, and nowhere more so than the internet.

Legacy

I am an addict. I am addicted to facebook, to the blogs I read, to AOL Instant Messenger, to Google. To ESPN and the web-comics I read. I am addicted to the internet. The internet has so permeated my life that it is an extension of who I am, so bound up that to sever that link would be a testament to willpower. But I am not sure I can do it, I am not sure that I want to.

These are off the cuff remarks, ruminations while in a spiffy coffee shop (Mudtruck) in mid-town Manhattan. They stem from a number of sources, including another friend drawing back from Facebook, an upcoming movie about web-life versus real-life, conversations about culture and modernity while walking through Time Square, an article about loneliness and green living–to name just a few.

Life has always been about struggle and competition, whether this took the form of struggle against (and working with) the elements, or people, or nature or yourself, it is a constant struggle. Often the best solution is to work with the object of struggle, but the struggle remains. Further ambition, a goal to struggle towards provides inspiration for living, even if that ambition is (externally) to sit in front of a computer screen all day, it is likely (internally) to accomplish an particular feeling or to become an 80th level druid with the best healing capabilities on the server. Some ambitions are loftier than others. I am simply an observer of the realm of the mind, but not everyone is Alexander or Caesar or Napoleon, and to be honest that is probably a good thing. Nonetheless I am comfortable in saying that everyone has ambitions of one sort or the other, whether they know it or not, and those who do not have given up. That last group will hopefully be given motivation by those who love them, commit suicide or otherwise pass away. Morbid, but true.1

One of the most consistent ambitions people have is to leave a legacy. For some that is pioneering technology, or political office, or literary accomplishment. For others that is teaching people, or having children. This is so much the case that I wonder sometimes if there is something about sentience that pushes us to make a mark on the world, to be noticed.2 In the world of internet this urge appears through web presence. This includes facebook, youtube, google, and yes, blogs. This is not necessarily a bad thing and for many people this is great. I use most of the above and for one purpose or another, though usually to keep in contact with my loved ones who are not immediately available to me. More than anything else this is why I doubt I would be able to pull out at all, much less altogether.3 At the same time the more I use these things the more I feel I am caught in a real life matrix. In general I feel out of touch with so much of what makes modern America just because I don’t watch tv and I like this feeling. In a similar way that I am made uncomfortable by organized religion I am made uncomfortable by American consumer culture. It feels like a natural conspiracy, rather than an organized one, bent pulling a veil over our eyes and getting us to spend money. It is overwhelmingly successful.

Internet, especially these social networking sites provide a platform from which to scream your message. Pictures, thoughts, conversations are all enabled through these networks, foisting on others your life. Incidentally facebook provides a convenient mechanism to simply ignore those aspects you dislike–I ignore a number of games, including farmville, castle age and mafia wars, plus a handful of people. At times, though, this feels like yet another competition, another shoving match for attention. But leaving this mess behind will make me disconnected. Clearly not everyone will disappear for me if I did this, but enough would that I question the decision. This is ever more evident since my use of facebook in and of itself is not a health or societal detriment. I am not chopping down any more trees for its use, or drilling any more gulf oil.4 I am not Super-sizing myself, nor am I driving anywhere to do it. Facebook is a tool of procrastination and one networking. If I can conquer the first, the latter is a positive.

And still I may need to withdraw to drag myself from this matrix.

The day has not yet come where I give up online presence. It may never come. Likewise the day has not yet come where I give up technology and it probably never will. The day that is drawing speedily closer is the one where I give up everything unsustainable, everything corporate. Already I am making an effort to avoid the trappings and excesses–the unnecessary bags, containers, plastic silverware, grease, fast food, etc. I still want a legacy, I want to make my mark, but if mine is the same mark as a billion other people, how is that different from not leaving one at all?


1If you are feeling ambition-less, unmotivated or otherwise need a reason to keep going, please call me and I will give you some. Trust me, I have too many ambitions for my own good.
2Alternately this could be an urge more basic that manifests itself in more dramatic fashion due to sentience. Either way my point stands.
3Not to mention that I suspect my advisor would kill me if I stopped using email. And that Ancient History/Classics professors are notoriously bad with technology–as though the field needs more challenges to its survival in the 21st century.
4No, the trees suffer from my habits of taking notes on paper and hand-writing papers before typing them.


Post Script: The use of the term ‘matrix’ was deliberate and a direct reference to the original movie by the same name. The later movies in the trilogy expanded the allegory presented, but the concept itself is a message about technology and the most basic stages can be seen in the internet world that people voluntarily put themselves into, only to find themselves unable to, or unwilling to pull out of.