The use of the internet by more and more people to participate in the political culture of this country and worldwide has made more extreme and radicalized nearly everyone who engages in it. People with whom you’d seldom have an interaction with in your every day, walking around life are suddenly in your social media stream, which is, for better or worse, the new physical “body”. Reactions to invasion of social media space with unwanted political dialogue provoke the same kinds of reactions as a physical assault in people, complete with physical reactions on the part of both participants. Evidence of this is everywhere, perhaps even in your own interactions, where suddenly a high school friend from long ago is an Enemy of the Republic, or a racist, or whatever other slurs are thrown about with casual regularity.
These types of extreme interactions serve the interests of the state and its control, although it may appear at first that this is merely a pushback against traditional strangleholds over media or thought. It is true that now many outlets on news and opinion can flourish on the internet, but there are negative aspects to consider also. This is not an attack on the current ease with which information can spread, but an examination of the degrading of political dialogue.
My focus is the extreme, angry, or what we can call weaponized web dialogue (WWD), designed to provoke or harm. Let’s immediately disconnect this from the term “trolling”, which we define mainly as one designed to insult, and typically is a one off or drive-by and a limited interaction, but does share some characteristics with WWD. I also am not asserting that persuasive attempts or explanatory disagreement are WWD, they are clearly not, and don’t share in the key characteristics of WWD.
WWD is present everywhere, on Facebook, on Twitter, on other platforms. It happens amongst friends, strangers, and anonymous hurlers. You’ve seen it. Seldom influential or effective, the three goals of WWD are:
1.) Silence the target
2.) Produce Anger in the target
3.) Discredit the target in the eyes of others
Some may also engage in WWD against a celebrity or notable person to gain attention for themselves, as an influence strategy that hopes for a response. This by itself may be ok or individually advantageous, but the use of these types of tactics is largely self-defeating, because it more than likely will just increase your “weaponized” following, which is unfortunately of a much lower quality to real followers, not to mention the effects they have on the author. A key point about the use of WWD is it will change both attacker and victim.
Let’s consider now the effects of WWD on the person using it. As an intrusive or contentious act, WWD requires the person to find or be exposed to a target. Sometimes, this requires the person to hunt for a suitable target, other times the target will be someone they know or follow and who suddenly takes a disagreeable turn. WWD is then initiated against the victim.
Whatever the outcome of the interaction, both the aggressor and typically also the victim are left with an opinion of the other that is extremely negative, especially if the victim engages with the attacker. Another important effect is that is leaves, within both, the feeling that there is an ever present and large population of people very much in opposition to your own ideology.
The reality distortion mechanism of social media makes threats appear larger, opponents more numerous and amplifies the sense of danger from extremism. These feelings of ill will persist in a way an in-person interaction or a phone call wouldn’t, as the nature of social media is that there is an ever-present nature to your relationships. In the weaponized environment of political social media discourse, there are no nonverbal signals, intonations, or other subtle cues that would allow one to more easily back down, nuance, or modify a controversial opinion. This in itself leads to more extreme communication. Words are also chosen very carefully in order to convey meaning first, rather than nuance or subtlety, and the victim or the audience often interprets the words as plainly as they are written, without a context that may not even be offered but considered. Worse still, the apologies or return to normalization of the relationship that often occur in real-life don’t easily or as readily occur online, especially when there’s no risk of running into the person in their real-life. The ease with which the person to person relationship breaks down is one of the key negative effects of WWD.
This alternate, social media universe, is increasingly inhabited by everyone and their political thoughts, and has become a cesspool of dialogue. The vitriol that spews forth by seemingly normal, well-adjusted people, as they launch assault after assault against their friend’s coworker, whom they’ve never met, about whether the inaugural crowd size was larger or smaller in some year, is unprecedented in its effects on the overall political culture.
The hate filled rhetoric that exists on all sides of the political spectrum, obsessed with ever present enemies, raging at corporate outrages or now, more commonly, at outrages over identity politics (by all identities), leads to a general misery by those who practice it. Social media and WWD has increased the numbers of both left and right extremism groups, but also has decreased the bounds of normal, non-weaponized political dialogue.
Giving into the temptations of WWD, you may find yourself on the road to the same, unhappy misery. There’s another danger in using WWD, it is a reality warping device for all participants.
Despite lots of anecdotal evidence, I know of only one person, a Trump supporter who shuns the use of technology, who can claim without qualification to have been certain that Donald Trump would win the presidency. This person is very interested in politics, and talks to a wide variety of people daily, attempts to talk to strangers regularly, and is curious about life in general. He may talk with close to two or three hundred people a week at length, all very different in their backgrounds. He relied on nothing like the data put out by official media outlets or universities to draw his conclusions. His ear was more to the ground than those in this weaponized space. If, however, you received your evidence about the happenings of life primarily through Twitter, you may have been caught totally unaware of this.
WWD serves the interest of the state or state control because it frays and destroys the relationships and connections between individuals. It reduces people to data, it anonymizes interactions, and breaks down the real links that form the relationships important for a free, well-functioning society. WWD also increasingly divides into two, opposing and vitriolic camps, many of those who engaged in social media initially for nearly the opposite reasons, to better connect with themselves, to form deeper relationships with the people they know, and to connect to the world. While there are controls over these interactions built in to all social media platforms, consider that blocking or defending an uncle without some realization on their part that this has happened, and creating a feeling of something lost or perhaps the fear of that fallout in the “real” relationship, will stay your hand. Peculiarly, WWD may continue over time between real life acquaintances, but might not be acknowledged openly in public, in face to face interactions between the two parties. In the case of non-acquaintances, the costs for not backing down from such a disagreement are also very low, typically the loss of a follower or being blocked, whereas in-person disagreements will result in ongoing awkwardness if they are terminated without just cause or for some frivolous reason. The pride of the person admitting a fault or a failing of logic is higher than the cost of blocking a person and moving on.
What is the difference between honest dissent, persuasion attempts, and WWD? The key difference is the motive of the person initiating the interaction. Does this person feel a need to explain something honestly so that someone else will understand? Is there respect involved in the statement? Are both sides engaging in the appropriate forum for this disagreement? These are the key differences between normal interactions and WWD.
What if the person who is being target with WWD is a genuinely bad person (say, Che Guevara had a Twitter account)? What if he lies about something, am I expected not to speak out?
In considering the answer to this question, consider both the frequency with which you engage in WWD, the effectiveness of its use, and its effect on the attacker.
If every time that Che Guevara Tweets something, you say something, then your primary motivation is probably not the preservation of a personal relationship, nor is it to influence his opinions, rather to influence the opinions of your own audience. The use of Che Guevara as a foil for this purpose may still be under our WWD formulation, and this serves as your primary motivation (with the other three criteria listed above as subordinate), it’s effects on you and how you see the world will be no less mitigated, especially when considering the likely backlash from Che Guevara’s loyal fan base.
The breakdown of the person to person relationship caused by WWD, the polarization of the population due to social media, and the creation of vast social media echo chambers that reinforce biases, all serve the interest of the state and move the society towards increasing authoritarianism.
In considering the effects of WWD on both attacker and attacked, it is difficult to reconcile the use frequent WWD tactics for persuasion purposes. In its worst form, where use is frequent, the reality distortion and radicalization of the attacker will likely occur, which also won’t help in persuasion efforts. The use of WWD should be rejected, or at very least limited, on grounds that it is totally ineffective at advancing the libertarian message, will radicalize all participants and warp their perception of reality, and lead to more authoritarian views.