I’ve been trying to work out why pretty much everyone treats everyone else like pricks on the internet, and also to figure out how far verbal violence online is starting to spill over into what we must for the sake of our sanity regard as the real world. For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it is the face to face encounter with the other which gives birth to ethics and hence to the development of moral and social codes of behaviour. I suspect that the fact we increasingly interact via screens allows us to hide from that encounter and avoid the vulnerability, the threat of fellow feeling it engenders.
Discussing serious subjects online is almost always a total waste of time: the weak links that bind us mean that if a discussion gets too awkward or we stand to lose face, it’s easy to disappear back into the ether. There’s little risk of commitment and thus a lack of mutual obligation, not only to others but also to ourselves insofar as we abandon our duty of solitude. Technology frees us from the need to reflect on our thoughts and deeds. (Few of us are blameless in this regard, as Oliver Burkeman explores here.)
Sherry Turckle talks of the hope of the early days of the internet, in which protecting our identities could seen as be a positive thing, allowing us to explore other ways of being in a (to borrow a phrase from the then-future) safe space, with no risk of physical violence. But it’s become clear that the exploitative form of our relations offline, all the exploitation and bullying and pornography that in our day-to-day encounters we manage to get on in spite of, determines what happens online, and in turn the form of our online lives influences our social lives.
As the internet has developed (but not matured) I’ve noticed a spilling over of violence, as digital threats become embodied in physical encounters, like a fist or bullet coming straight through the screen. One obvious form this takes the form is doxxing, sharing address details of online antagonists (which the British fascist Tommy Robinson is endeavouring to turn into a form of entertainment), but there’s also the cases of sexual abuse facilitated by apps such as Uber and Tindr. The internet is an embodiment of Labi Sifre’s assertion that violence is never just physical. The film ‘Unfriended‘ is a very literal but not entirely trivial example of how online threats can transgress the boundaries of the hyperreal.
In that case the identity of the online tormentor is not clear; he or she may even be from the afterlife. As things stand, we can often track who is trying to turn online rage into offline violence. Anyone happy to dismiss the role of Russian trolls in seeking to undermine US democracy would do well to reflect on this. Charlottesville was a rally of internet trolls who’ve come to see fascism as a natural extension of their online tastes and habits. Much far-right bullying and deliberate disinformation is for to have derived from the teenage hate forum 4chan. Four or so years on from Gamergate, rape and death threats against any woman who dares to speak out against non-approved targets are increasingly coordinated. In an unerringly similar way, Isis seduces its potential recruits using online tools, mostly Snapchat and Skype. While it’s comforting to think of such platforms as forming us into an inclusive global community, the fact that terrorist attacks are planned and coordinated via Whatsapp rather takes the shine off the whole enterprise.
For anyone wanting to argue that World War 3 has already broken out online, metaphors abound, from ‘sniping’ to ‘troll armies’ to ‘weaponising anger’ to ubiquitous talk of ‘entrenched’ opinions. Political debate is often adversarial, but social media has opened up many more fronts, partly thanks to its dehumanising tendencies. The adage that the first casualty of war is truth is particularly apt to describe the ‘post-fact’ age. Maybe that is how we see our online interactions with strangers: as a battlefield in a tribal war. Certainly the polarisation of news sources, with each side only exposed to its own propaganda is very evocative of wartime. Although, given that I’m using the very same media I’m condemning, I’m obliged to mention the benefits, and acknowledge that the end of net neutrality in the US is a frightening prospect, right now I think that anything that reduces the attractiveness of the online world may be a good thing.
The effects on children is one subject that’s close to home for two reasons, partly because I’m currently teaching in a high school where the abuse that digital media makes possible is having horrendous effects, and also because we have a very young daughter whose face lights up at the sight of a smartphone and who will, unless we’re extremely careful, soon start demanding to be hooked up to Youtube. The notion that the chief danger the internet poses to children is exposure to predatory pedophiles is a hackneyed one, but stories from Mexico of young girls being seduced by men who then sell them on are are not just apocryphal.
The internet is amoral because it reduces that basic recognition that Levinas identified. It’s a cartoon representation of reality, so all the bullying that goes on social media is cartoon violence. Until, suddenly, it isn’t.