Arthur Chu has a brilliant piece at Salon about why the Internet is so susceptible to throngs of obsessive bullies who won’t ever ever ever go away.
The “vote” doesn’t end up being among everyone but among the tiny subset of people who really care about that question, which isn’t necessarily correlated with being right about that question–often, in fact, it’s the opposite.
The people who pay the most attention to these questions are the people who have some deep emotional investment in the issue at hand combined with a great deal of time and emotional energy to burn making their “voices heard” about it. That can happen on any end of the political spectrum, but in practice? It tends to be a space dominated by privileged reactionary jerks.
Why is that? Why don’t we have people who have some deep emotional investment in the issue at hand combined with a great deal of time and emotional energy to burn making their “voices heard” about it on our side of the question?
Well, having asked, I can think of one reason, but it requires changing Chu’s terms a little. I know I’m not willing to be one of those people (and I know neither are a lot of people I know), but it’s not because I don’t have time and energy for it. It’s because I don’t want to squander my time and energy on the kind of people who do that on the other side of the question – on privileged reactionary jerks, in short. It’s because I don’t want to squander my time interacting with horrible people. It’s that simple.
[W]hat’s somewhat true of real elections is overwhelmingly true of Internet elections. No public forum for comment can exist long without being taken over by “the trolls”–and while the trolls sometimes do things just for the lulz, like trying torig a Taylor Swift fan contest to force her on a date with a creepy 4chan dude, this kind of free-form anarchic subversion of online elections is becoming a thing of the past.
Today’s longest-lasting, most determined trolls have a real ideology behind their trolling, and it usually takes the form of a feeling of betrayal and resentment of the world around them and a knee-jerk rage against the idea of progress.
The worst trolls are almost universally hard-right conservatives, in other words, and they generally care about their pet causes with a breathtaking fervor that their enemies can’t possibly hope to match.
Or, again, their enemies may have the fervor, but they don’t have the stomach for horrible people. People consumed with knee-jerk rage against the idea of progress are not fun or interesting to talk to, and they tend to be abusive. It’s that simple.
Right-wing trolls can shout down everyone else because everyone else gets nauseated by the shouting while right-wing trolls don’t. Consider
the $800,000 raised on a GoFundMe for Memories Pizza in Indiana as an apparent no-strings-attached reward for being publicly homophobic from the nation’s homophobes.
Why? There are plenty of homophobic business owners in the country, and if you gave $800,000 to each of them even Mitt Romney would quickly run dry. Surely even in terms of objectively helping out their cause they’d do better giving that money to a political candidate or to a nonprofit pushing their goals.
But that wouldn’t give them the same level of attention as participating in the media-manufactured “controversy” over Memories Pizza–and it wouldn’t piss off liberals nearly as much. And those are the two major goals of the right-wing troll. Hence the fact that nearly every time anyone gets criticized by the “liberal media” they also get a huge wave of donations from trolls, even if they’re guilty not just of public homophobia but of gunning down an unarmed kid.
It’s like freeping. I’d forgotten about freeping.
I say that this kind of thing is “new” but really it’s just the right-wing Internet returning to form. Back in the mid-2000s we had the slang term “freep this poll.” It was a phrase used to rally posters on the Free Republic to mass-flood a poll or comments section hosted by some random website or local newspaper in order to create the impression of an overwhelming majority supporting their fringe-right views.
It’s what that Irish blogger’s new best friends do on his blog: they mob it to create the impression of an overwhelming majority supporting their reactionary views.
But people don’t realize how easy it is to distort the dialogue that way.
People still claim that the toxicity on comments sections or the skewed results of freeped polls and contests reflect reality, and use those claims to try to intimidate critics into silence.
Recently we’ve seen the results of freeping in an area particularly vulnerable to it, the Hugo Awards. For the less-geeky among my readers, the Hugos are the most prestigious awards in the field of science fiction writing, generally encountered as an approving blurb “From Hugo-award-winning author…” on the back cover of a book.
The Hugos are awarded by a popular vote. But.
but to vote you have to pay $40 for a “supporting membership” to Worldcon, the organization that sponsors the Hugos. Tons of people read science fiction; relatively few of them know how to vote for the Hugos; and out of those, not everyone’s going to drop $40 just to express their opinion about what they’ve read.
To vote on the Hugos you have to either know and care a ton about science fiction–or you have to be convinced that science fiction is part of the vast liberal conspiracy arrayed against you and make a disingenuous post calling you and your friends “Sad Puppies” over said liberal conspiracy. $40 is a lot of money to pay to express your opinions, even strongly held ones, about fiction you love–but it’s a cheap price to stick it to liberal pro-diversity elitists you hate.
And they did.
We should have learned a long, long time ago that “Just let the public give their input” is a lazy, useless and above all dangerous way to make decisions. If you want democracy you have to put effort into designing a process that actually makes sure your voting population matches the relevant population and to keep the process from being captured by bad actors. If that’s too hard for you, then accept that democracy is too hard for you and find some other way to claim legitimacy for the decision you end up making.
But don’t just leave your process open to the public and unguarded, unless you want The Comments making your decisions for you. Best case scenario, you end up with egg on your face that can be easily wiped off, like a bridge named after Stephen Colbert.
Worst case scenario, your public platform becomes a mouthpiece for the worst people in the world, who won’t give it back until they’ve run it into the ground.
This is exactly correct. Comments sections can go to hell if you don’t curate them. You have to curate them. The angry reactionaries pretend that’s a cowardly offense against free speech, but it’s not at all. It’s no more an offense against free speech than is the fact that magazine and newspaper editors select who writes for them, as opposed to just publishing whatever they’re offered.
You have to curate comments sections, and you have to keep in mind that hands-off comments sections don’t represent anything but whatever mob has seized them.