Over at the Guardian’s shiny new “the web we want” section there’s a veritable onslaught of the “problem – reaction -solution” method of manipulating public opinion. Several articles are currently running over there, all of which can be broken down into the following:
The problem is “abuse on the internet.”
The reaction is “this is killing democracy/harming minorities/destroying online communities.
The solution is…well, so far that’s only being discussed in hints and whispers. Posed only as leading questions, or elisions in the discourse. Shielded from us with interrogation marks and weighted silence. But it’s clear what it is. What else could it be?
In a piece titled Is it too late to stop the trolls trampling over our entire political discourse?, Owen Jones offers a classic example of the method being employed. He starts by citing a number of experiences of abuse he’s undergone as a Guardian columnist, which are intended to illustrate the problem.
It was a pretty standard far-right account: anonymous (check); misappropriating St George (check); dripping with venom towards “Muslim-loving” lefties (check). But this one had a twist. They had found my address and had taken screen shots of where I lived from Google’s Street View function. “Here’s his bedroom,” they wrote, with an arrow pointing at the window; “here’s the door he comes out at the morning”, with an arrow pointing at the entrance to my block of flats. In the time it took Twitter to shut down the account, they had already tweeted many other far-right accounts with the details.
Then there was a charming chap who willed me to “burn in everlasting hell you godless faggot”, was determined to “find out where you live” so as to “enlighten you on what I do to cocksucking Marxist faggots” and “break every bone in your body” (all because he felt I slighted faith schools). And the neo-Nazis who believe I’m complicit in a genocide against white people, and launched an orchestrated campaign that revolved around infecting me with HIV.
These things are obviously deeply unpleasant, and anyone would find them shocking and disturbing. But he assures us, this isn’t about asking for sympathy. It’s about making a “point.” Which is…
Political debate, a crucial element of any democracy, is becoming ever more poisoned.
In other words – the Reaction. Being Jones, and probably anxious to preserve some credibility in the real oppositional media, he equivocates even more than most around this touchy subject, running round in circles, pointing out one second that “social media has helped democratise the political discourse”…
…forcing journalists – who would otherwise simply dispense their alleged wisdom from on high – to face scrutiny. Some take it badly. They are used to being slapped affectionately on the back by fellow inhabitants of the media bubble for their latest eloquent defence of the status quo. To have their groupthink challenged by the great unwashed is an irritation.
There’s scrutiny of ideas, and then there’s something else. And it is now so easy to anonymously hurl abuse – sometimes in coordination with others of a similar disposition – it can have no other objective than to attempt to inflict psychological harm.
So, on the one hand we have the reality of a wonderful new open forum that “forc[es] journalists…to face scrutiny.” On the other we have some anonymous commenters hurling abuse. Is this supposed to be a painful ethical choice? New unparalleled public accountability versus a few trolls. Hmm…yes that is a tricky one. Jones is inventing a paradox where none exists. And he does it again…
Columnists could once avoid any feedback, other than the odd missive on the letters’ page. Now we can have a two-way conversation, a dialogue between writer and reader.
…the comments have become, let’s just say, self-selecting – the anonymously abusive and the bigoted increasingly staking it out as their own, leading anyone else to flee. Such is the level of abuse that many – particularly women writing about feminism or black writers discussing race – have simply given up reading, let alone engaging with, reader comments.
Being forced to confront opinions that collide with your own worldview, and challenge your own entrenched views, helps to hone your arguments.
sometimes the online debate can feel like being in a room full of people yelling. Even if others are simply passionately disagreeing, making a distinction becomes difficult….Is the effect of this to coarsen, even to poison, political debate – not just in the comment threads and on social media, but above the line, and among people who have very few meaningful political differences? I worry that people will increasingly avoid topics that are likely to provoke a vitriolic response.
In this fashion, whirling like a spinning top, Jones does everything he can to sink himself and us in a completely ridiculous faux dichotomy. Some of his attempts to provide counterweight to the obvious fact that the internet is a great force for freedom are merely silly, some are frankly dishonest (could anyone rationally maintain that hordes of anonymous trolls are forcing all serious commenters “to flee”?). All his equivocations are designed to make us accept a priori that real debate on the internet is being undermined by “abuse” and that something needs to be done about it. They are an attempt to make us accept there are some types of people that may not have the right to express themselves.
Not only does this make it more possible we will accept the coming attempt to impose draconian internet censorship (for trolls only of course), it also makes erstwhile liberals who pride themselves on their “left wing” credentials feel a tad less queasy when looking in the mirror. Owen is trying to convince himself as well as us that it won’t be real people with real opinions they’re disenfranchising, just a massive army of faceless, anonymous monsters out to be mean to women and minorities, just for the sake of meanness. ‘Yes, he wants us to think, ‘free speech is essential to the human soul and the survival of even vestigial democracy – but it’s being ruined by the trolls, so let’s just kill them quick so the lovely journalists no longer have to live in fear of someone telling them they’re wrong’
After all didn’t the man who said “I do not agree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it” just forget to add “unless you’re rude or loud, or make someone cry.” Didn’t the authors of the First Amendment that declared “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech” just accidentally miss out the bit about it only being the freedom to say nice things that everybody liked, and if people started being rude the whole thing should just be canceled immediately.
The important thing is we allow ourselves to join this faux debate and angst about it in ever-decreasing circles, using ever more tortuous, knotted arguments, turning and turning until we’re dizzy enough to get behind statements like this:
why would – for want of a better word – “normal” people seek to express political opinions if the quid pro quo is a daily diet of hate? Won’t those from private schools, where a certain type of confidence and self-assurance is taught, become even more dominant in debate? Will women be partly purged from the media by obsessive misogynistic tirades – I know of women who turn down television interviews because it will mean being subjected to demeaning comments by men on their physical appearance. Will only the most arrogant, self-assured types – including those who almost crave the hatred – be the beneficiaries?
See that, oh Reader. It’s called “sophistry.” And it turns anyone who resorts to it into a terrible negation of their best self. Just hope it never happens to you, or you too might find yourself telling the world you’re worried about the possibility that uncontrolled free speech might end up being elitist, because only men from public schools will be tough enough to go online while people are being rude.
But it’s his final paragraph that has the real kicker…
Online debate is revolutionary, and there are few more avid users than myself. But there seems little doubt that the political conversation is becoming more toxic. And it is democracy that is suffering.
Ah, there we have it. The first hint at the solution. Kill free speech to save “democracy” from the Troll Hordes. You heard it here – from Owen Jones.
The terrible thing is that Jones is a respected commentator, who has a considerable following and probably well above average financial security. He could have refused to take part in this macabre charade the Guardian has launched. He could have written an unequivocal piece pointing out that rudeness and abuse is the price we all have to pay for freedom of expression. That people, unfortunately, have the right to be jerks, even if we all hate them for it. That there are laws already in place to protect us from real threats, slanders and libels. And that only an idiot, or a man with an agenda would suggest this is even slightly up for debate.
But he didn’t. And that will remain a matter of public record. We hope he feels he made the right choice.