Three Exemplary Tales
ONE: Your teenage son tells you he wants to become a woman. You confront this parental nightmare with the usual mix of bravado and bewilderment. You hope it’s a passing phase, and you send the kid to a religious camp – maybe others can talk sense into him. Instead, he commits suicide by walking in front of a truck, leaving behind a heart-rending note on Tumblr.
Suddenly the online moral police explodes with rage, and you are the target. You are reviled for the crime of anti-transgenderism. You hear no compassion for the tragedy, no sympathy for your terrible loss – only the roar of the digital mob, howling that you should be prosecuted because you “threw” your own child “in front of that truck.”
TWO: You are a distinguished 72-year-old biochemist, a Nobel laureate. While speaking extemporaneously at a conference of women scientists, you refer to yourself as a “chauvinist monster,” offer up a lame joke about the romantic distraction women present in laboratory research, and conclude with “I hope – I hope – I really hope that there won’t be anything holding you back, especially not monsters like me.”
Suddenly you’re at the center of a Twitter shitstorm. Your words at the conference are twisted and falsified – you now embody the “typical pattern of oppression” that has kept women under-represented in science. Your character, history, and past track record with women in science are ignored. You stand condemned before the mob of the sin of sexism. Your reputation is in tatters, and you are forced to resign from your faculty position.
THREE: You are the developer of brilliantly successful software code. You have just been promoted to CEO of your company. Suddenly a swirl of online hostility erupts around you because six years before you donated a thousand dollars to an anti-gay marriage referendum. This signifies that you “deny love.” You “enforce shame, misery, and frustration.” You deserve “nothing but failure.” You are a homophobe.
Ten days after your promotion, you resign, with your company’s abject apologies for having considered you worthy ringing in your ears.
Locke on the Web
The internet functions in the state of nature. Physically remote interactions between concealed identities means that anyone can say anything they wish, no matter how violent or repulsive, to anyone else. Large numbers have pushed this freedom to the limit. Death threats, on the web, are an everyday occurrence.
Not surprisingly, this environment offers asylum to many disturbed persons. I’m not interested in them here. My concern is entirely with the social and political dynamics that shape the digital mob.
John Locke believed that the state of nature promoted free association, and that free association engendered the laws and rules of behavior that ended the state of nature. So far, this has not happened with the internet as a whole. Free association occurs at an unprecedented rate, and voluntary communities have formed around an astonishing variety of shared interests. But these communities never coalesced into a digital commonwealth – in fact, quite the opposite has transpired.
Between communities, a wild Darwinian struggle, utterly devoid of rules, is waged for the most precious commodity in a time of information overabundance: attention. A similar scramble, less ruthless but no less chaotic, occurs for influence and authority within communities.
Here is a new thing under the sun. Influence and authority once belonged solely to great national institutions like the White House or the New York Times. Now such qualities are shared with ephemeral actors, whose credibility must be earned anew each day.
Murder Is Clickbait
The external struggle for attention elides smoothly into the internal competition for influence. Both are aspects of the same dynamic. The political web is a mosaic of sites, each seeking to convert the public to a particular point of view. Influence is gained by successful advocacy.
For reasons that bear looking into, however, the only acceptable form of advocacy – the only path to prominence – is negation. Fine arguments won’t cut it. The hero must slay the dragon. Opponents must be annihilated. Brutalizing the enemy gains the admiration of the tribe, and some degree of authority with its warriors.
Ambitious characters within a community have a personal stake in expanding and intensifying political conflict – that vicious struggle of each community against all. Locked in a strange embrace of convenience with their most unhinged antagonists, they fear their own community’s pleaders for calm and toleration. If peace were to break out over the political landscape, every aspiring zealot would be frozen out of the status quo.
That the object is to garner attention magnifies the pressure for extreme attitudes. It isn’t enough for you to prove that a teen suicide’s parents were foolish or misguided. You must accuse them of murdering their child, and demand prosecution. The point is to stoke up rage – not only in the like-minded mob behind you and in the hostile mob ahead, but in the mainstream, the public at large. To summon that tempest, you won’t hesitate to post praise for a racist murderer on Reddit or tweet under the hashtag #KillAllMen.
This may be about politics and ideology, but it’s also about numbers. The mob, from a certain angle, can look a lot like clickbait.
Rage and Cute Cats
Certain moral and psychological traits must gain wide currency before the political rant can go mainstream – a naïve faith in utopia, for example, and a corresponding fury against reality. But let’s put these aside for another time. Far more interesting, to me, is the mustering of the mob at the haunted crossroads of politics and information.
The internet didn’t invent political rage. It just lacks the power to compel good behavior, any more than it can compel good taste in all those millions of cute cat photos. At the most meaningful level, politics today is an attempt to change this – but it hasn’t changed yet. The forces stirring the pot of rage remain largely external to the web.
Some are commercial. Political sites like Gawker and Jezebel on the left, and Drudge on the right, need advertisers to survive. A look at Alexa shows sharp spikes and drops in their popularity, translating into profit and loss, or even life and death. The big, ostensibly neutral platforms like Facebook and Reddit, which churn with vast volumes of political rant, also feed on traffic.
The lure of clickbait extends beyond personal ambition to the bottom line. Scandal and controversy are time-tested, pre-digital marketing devices.
Truth by Terror
This is not to deny the sincerity of the outrage. Ranters may be drama queens, but most are sincere. The digital landscape, in fact, is rotten with sincerity. The mumblers and fence-sitters, the doubters and questioners, have been marginalized or silenced. So have the moderate voices: they are afraid of retribution, afraid of the shitstorm, so they watch their words. The epic contest on the web pits sincerity against sincerity.
The name of this game, of course, is politics. When applied to information, the object is intellectual hegemony: the triumph of your story above all others. This can be accomplished by persuading the public or by terrorizing it. Mainstream political organizations toil in the real world, face to face, vote by vote, to convert every last member of the public. At some point, the diffusion of their story must reach a natural limit. Persuasion grinds to a halt.
Precisely at that point, the mob is born.
The imposition of truth by terror is the reason for being of many online communities. Anger, for them, is a permanent condition, and they come alive only when they lash out. This is true for all denominations, though with unequal effects. Like the left, the right will terrorize with abandon – heaping rape threats on feminist gamers, for example. But the left alone seems able to destroy reputations and careers. I am unaware of any case in which – say – a gay CEO resigned because of pressure from Christian groups. (If such cases have happened, I’d be interested in hearing about it.)
On the darkling plain of information, power flows from rhetorical superiority rather than the barrel of a gun.
The left in recent years has elaborated an aggressive rhetoric around new political constructs like “hate speech” and “protected groups.” By endowing these constructs with the force of law, it has aimed to erect an impregnable wall around its favorite stories while silencing the opposition’s. To some extent it has succeeded, particularly among Millennials and in politicized institutions like government and the university. Faced with a militant orthodoxy, the unpersuaded are intimidated and trim their opinions accordingly.
This takes place in the real world where flesh-and-blood people meet, work, and vote, while the internet mob hovers, immaterially, beneath the horizon.
Left – Right – Wrong
I also nurse the following suspicion: that rage is our last unifying and organizing principle, and the mob is the only possible incarnation of this principle.
Let me explain.
I have already touched on the astounding growth of voluntary communities made possible by the new information environment. There are over 850,000 subreddits alone. The process can be understood to be one of fragmentation and disintegration. Entropy is at work. Great industrial entities like the political party and the daily newspaper have fractured along a vast number of fault lines, and the public is happy to pursue its true interests among the ruins.
To conjure “left” and “right” in politics, as I have done, is to perpetrate an analytic misdemeanor. Left and right are 18th-century categories. The landscape today teems with political war bands rampaging on behalf of their tribal topics of interest. Many of them are loosely affiliated with the old left and right – in the sense that, say, PETA adherents pertain to the one and the anti-feminists of “Gamergate” to the other – but just as many escape these labels altogether.
Fragmentation is continuous, as anyone with insight into the sectarian mind would predict. Schism inspires more schism, entropy builds on entropy: at times the political web feels as if even the voices inside your head have staked out irreconcilable positions.
Massive levels of energy would be needed to reverse the tide of entropy and end the decay. That energy used to be generated by the political process – but the political process depends on political institutions, and it is the institutions that are disintegrating before our eyes. There is no help from that quarter, or from any other source within an established order that is bleeding away legitimacy and authority.
Anti-Entropy and the Mob
So I return to my suspicion. Rage is potentially viral. Condemnation, repudiation, negation, if conducted at a high enough pitch of intensity, can unify the patchwork of war bands, ignite the mob, and produce enough power to leap from the virtual to the real – to the material world where political action must occur.
This describes the first Obama presidential campaign. It was a spasm of rage against the Bush administration. It also describes the Tea Party in 2010. It was fueled by anger at the Obama administration. American politics now come alive only when rage provides a beating heart, and the mob is on the march. The rest is just the grating sound of broken institutional machinery.
I called this a Darwinian struggle. In natural selection, many are called but few are chosen. For every enraged mob that comes to our attention – in the tales above, for example – we’ll find an untold number of sociopolitical shrieks and howls that sank without notice. The angry din of the web has an organic cause.
Virality, that lightning-fast diffusion of a story, is baffling, and follows unpredictable paths through the digital landscape. Online political players, however, clearly believe that sincere rage and strident tones are necessary ingredients of the viral formula. Only by mobilizing and leading the mob, they perceive, will they fulfill their political and personal ambitions.
If I’m right in all of this, we should expect the intersection of politics and information to grow angrier, louder, and more prone to persecution with every passing moment – or at least until we realize Locke’s prediction and attain that happy state, the digital commonwealth.