Violence and the Internet

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.

Is this a transitional object I see before me?

This is the opening paragraph from the book ‘Post-Truth: How bullshit conquered the world’ by James Ball:

The US government stockpiled 30,000 guillotines, stored in internment camps – including one in Alaska large enough for two million people – ready to wipe out Second Amendment supporters at a rate of three million an hour. Trump supporters at a New York victory rally chanted, ‘We hate Muslims, we have blacks, we want our great country back’. Denzel Washington endorsed Donald Trump – and Trump actually won the popular vote in the US election, despite the mainstream media telling you otherwise.

I’m sure you can see the item in that list that ‘triggered‘ me. Within seconds I was already drafting an outraged response to shout into the ether. Even though I knew full well that I was reading a book about fake news, I dearly wanted the report in question to be true. As the Italian phrase has it, ‘Se non è vero, è ben trovato’, or as they say in Jamaica, ‘If it not go so, it go near so’. I dismissed those stories that conflicted with my worldview immediately. It took concentrated reflection – System 2 thinking – to realise that the headline which had raised my hackles must also have been false, and then some more mental work to understand that many faced with the same set of headlines would have had the exact opposite reaction, would have found the fake news story about guillotines similarly compelling – and, in a way, comforting.

This blog is not a fake news outlet. Everything on this site makes a claim on the truth; I’m not Paul Horner or Beppe Grillo. Satirical articles are clearly labelled as such. Although satire aspires to be (like Picasso said of art) ‘the lie that tells the truth’, I’m aware that the kind I feel compelled to write sometimes cleaves too close to the truth. Headlines such as ‘NRA condemns mass murderer: ‘Poor guy, must have had a bad day or something’‘Mail editor Paul Dacre to be knighted at long last’ and ’21 facts that PROVE Donald Trump is NOT racist’ are designed to mislead, and I’ve come to accept that any such misinterpretations and any accusations of spreading ‘fake news’ are largely my own responsibility. After all, 59% of shared articles are not read by the person liking or reposting them. Anyone writing online should be aware of how their ‘content’ contributes to the deluge of bullshit. This site doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but among millions of others that are deliberately misleading.

According to James Ball’s taxonomy of potentially dodgy sites, this blog falls into the category of ‘extremely partisan’: it mostly tells people what they want to hear. Nonetheless, unlike operations such as Breibart and The Canary it makes no pretence to be a news site. I found it amusing that when my post about Trump snapping went viral people were arriving at my site by googling ‘Is Internet Coincidence reliable?’. That particular post triggered people’s sensibilities at just the right moment, and probably fed illusions that Trump’s reign would be over before we knew it, a momentary bad dream. The fact that such an assumption has been revealed to be bullshit doesn’t, I think, mean that my argument was bullshit, but it does indicate a lack of political acuity, as further evidenced by headlines such as ‘A prediction: Trump will tweet in favour of Catalan independence‘ and I’ve put money on it: Rees-Mogg will be the Tories’ answer to Corbynism’. At the end of the day, Brian, this is not a very reliable source of information. Thank God it’s just a blog.

In any case, the principal currency of the internet is not information per se. Google and Facebook aren’t, contrary to the boast of the former, ‘organising’ but rather editing what we find according to a set of ambiguous but consistently amoral and manipulative criteria. The real dollars don’t lie in accurate detail, but in headlines and pictures which may be misleading but do connect with that sweet spot between outrage and pleasure. Breitbart understands this very well – although by no means all of its stories are outright fakes, the posts that get shared the most are the blatantly dishonest ones, instantly transmissible as memes – and once the lie has been embedded into an emotionally arresting image, the ‘information’ it contains cannot be countered by rational argument and fact-checking. The internet thus resembles a playschool, decorated in colourful images with clear, simple messages, a place where everything has a familiar and reassuring meaning. Everything we see on social media tells us: these people feel the same as I do. As for encountering other perspectives, we are slowly realising that the conversational model has little to do with dialogue and much more to do with either reinforcement or confrontation. No one changes their mind because of an internet debate, a meme, or a piece of satire. In fact, there is abundant evidence shows that the online sharing of opinions reinforces and possibly even polarises entrenched points of view. One word I haven’t noticed in the articles and books I’ve read about online identities is tribal, but it seems to me that the affirmation of belonging to a particular group fulfills that atavistic need.

So why write satire, or why for that matter produce any internet content at all? Principally, if I’m honest, to cheer myself up. It’s satisfying to feel that I’m part of a tribe, that I have a few twigs to throw on the campfire. It consummates a basic human need for belonging. It’s gratifying to see that people like and share something I’ve created, to the point, inevitably, of becoming, as John Kelly said of Trump’s relationship with Twitter, a ‘habit’. I use my device, as I think most people do to varying degrees, as a source of emotional support. Posting online is one way of feeling that I exist and that my existence matters. Thus I can relate to Trump’s apparent need to feel triggered. To paraphrase Sherry Turckle, I post, therefore I am. This is not, I recognise, a healthy or a mature condition, but neither is it a rare one. The internet is in its adolescence, so it’s inevitable, if not exactly natural, that so much of it resembles ‘Lord of the Flies’. Hopefully phenomena such as 4chan and characters such as Milo are symptoms of a development which is not permanently stunted. That’s not to blame the state of affairs on the young: neither I nor Donald Trump, to choose two random examples, are ‘digital natives’.

As it happens, over the last few months I’ve become a keen student of the process of human physical, emotional and intellectual development. Like my first experience of university, this often involves manic bursts of impromptu studying at very irregular hours. For example, when she was between four and five months old, our baby daughter, who had previously slept, well, like a baby should, developed trouble getting to sleep and staying there. In desperation, responding to advice we’d obtained, oddly enough, online, we tried ‘controlled crying’: letting her cry herself to sleep in her cot, with our reassuring interventions taking place at longer and longer intervals. The method is controversial – some believe that babies should never be allowed to cry, ever*. The most cunning element of the plan was the deployment of two fluffy characters called Bunnywunny and Bunnywunnywunny. With their help she was almost immediately able to sleep for ten or so uninterrupted hours. BW and BWW were examples of comfort or security objects, or as Douglas Winnicott called them, ‘transitional objects‘, which teach infants to rely less on their parents and to start developing emotional independence and their own sense of ego/self. Since then, whenever she wakes up at night, they are the first thing she grabs for. Feeling comforted by their presence, she immediately falls back to sleep.

Some of this should ring a bell, unless that is you’ve got your brain turned to silent or vibrate. Freud argued that the primary function of dreams is to allow us to go on sleeping. As we transition towards a reality which for so many will resemble a living nightmare, it seems to me that the role of our devices is to provide us with emotional comfort, and to enable us to control our waking dreams.

*These seem to be the same people who don’t believe in protecting children from disease.