When it comes right down to it, the Internet is basically wall-to-wall bum fights. Motivated by the barest of incentives–a handful of retweets, some upvotes and likes, or maybe just the fleeting rush from delivering a vicious jab of text and getting a rise out of someone–netizens everywhere are increasingly more willing to succumb to the blood frenzy permeating the comments sections and social media threads across the web and scrap viciously with each other in an exchange of insults and threats. And more often than not, that battle drum pervading the battlegrounds is being pounded away on by those sitting comfortably above the fray: celebrities with tens of thousands of weaponized followers ready to launch, media outlets whose business models thrive on conflict, or simply accomplished sociopaths who can leverage the mob mentality into doing their dirty work.
This phenomenon isn’t new, but much of it was attributed to (and thus written off as) the predictable formula encapsulated in what became known as John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (GIFT) which stated simply “Normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad.” Many people believed that the cure was simply to shine the light on people, and that if the anonymity could be removed, people would have to adopt a greater degree of civility. A number of popular websites required people to register and/or post under their real names so that they couldn’t hide in the shadows as they lobbed their verbal grenades.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not so much), attaching a name or face to one’s online presence did little to quell the vitriol. People on Facebook are still more than willing to tear into one another with their name, city, picture, and possibly more all available for the world to see. It could be that our country or our world is just so large, with so many people in it, that our mere insignificance amidst billions amounts to a default state of anonymity, which can be stripped away in a deathblow known as doxxing, in which a target’s real world information is laid bare for all to see. This can enable the masses to put tangible pressure on the actual person by making their words and actions known to that person’s employer or family. A striking example was when a news reporter confronted an FDNY lieutenant on the street with the lieutenant’s racist tweets in hand. But like most weapons, its outcome is dependent on who uses it and how. Doxxing is just as often used to try to intimidate someone into shutting up by emphasizing “we know where you live.”
Above all, it should be noted, one can hardly expect the interactions of the web to go better than those in meatspace when people can get face-to-face with someone and still be a fucking asshole. The seemingly reasonable bars of “can’t we all just get along?” or Wheaton’s law (“Don’t be a dick!”) may already be set too high. Human beings have a high capacity for jerk-dom within themselves and, let’s face it, there isn’t much accommodation for hugging it out within our “fight or flight” response to being threatened. When confronted with their boorish behavior, many such instigators are more apt to double-down on their behavior rather than apologize. Likewise the “do nothing” approach embodied in “do not engage” or “do not feed the trolls,” generally does little more than let one of the Internet’s greater fuckwads fire off shots unchecked, pummeling away intently until either mercifully getting bored or until they find someone willing to take the bait, thus passing the plague of themselves off upon someone else and leaving the original target worn down to some degree, even with the thickest of skins.
I am convinced that such a response (or rather, nonresponse) can’t be the best solution.
The last year or so has given rise to the term Social Justice Warrior (SJW), a moniker that has been slung into the bin with “liberal/conservative,” “white knight,” or even oldies like “rocket scientist” and “brainiac” that take what should be a complimentary identity on the surface and laces it with enough sarcasm and derision as to become an insult instead. In the wake of the popular term a Dungeons and Dragons referencing meme asked jokingly,
“Why does everybody have to be a Social Justice Warrior? Where are all the Social Justice Clerics?”
It was meant to be a throwaway gag, but it got me thinking about conflict on the Internet and the poisonous infusion of trolling into ideology. I spend a great deal of time thinking about bullying, about the many forms and manifestations of protest and debate, about the power of words, about human interaction, and about how realistic peace or pacifism can be. The “Social Justice Cleric” idea pointed me in a direction that I think might be able to help us alleviate some of the problems above.
[Let me interject at this point that I am by no means a shining example of best practices on the Internet (although I am trying to get better). I am often tempted to demonstrate the might of the pen versus the sword on a regular basis. I will probably need to regularly remind myself to take my own advice here.]
The difference between warrior and cleric, I soon realized, had to do with escalation. It’s one of the most primitive of instincts. He hits me, so I hit back. She hits hard, so you hit harder. As many a parent knows, “who started it” is rarely definitive, and almost never plays into the outcome or resolution. A defender who jumps in to stand up for someone else is little different from a warrior if the defense is being rooted in the form of attacks or counter-attacks. All a defender/cleric really needs to do is insulate the target from harm.
As nebulous as the landscape of the Internet may be, there is still a terrain in play during what may be these unnecessary fields of battle. One can very easily assess the two or more sides standing across from each other hurling barbs. And, most of the time, there is a very primitive battle strategy at play — gang up on an opponent and try to grind him/her down by the sheer weight of the opposition. One can almost picture members of the crowd, “standing up for what they believe in,” circling themselves around particularly abrasive trolls and trying to stamp out their flame.
But there are two problems with this strategy. First, being in the center–and thus the center of attention–is often rewarding to trolls. Often, the more people a troll can pull into the skirmish the more successful the troll feels. It’s why you can easily find so many instances of the digital equivalent of “walking down the wrong street” where lone voices camp out in forums of vastly differing ideology just to poke the hornet’s nest as often as possible, safe and detached (in most cases–see “doxxing” above) from the threat of bodily harm. And even if the online version of the body, the username or login name, gets banned the troll can always make another, ready to stoke the furnace again with little consequence, like a crash test dummy for online arguments.
The second problem is that “surrounding” trolls or coming at them from all sides elicits the same response online as the real-world analog does–it’s harder for them to walk away. If a bunch of people form a circle around someone, challenging them, the odds of a peaceful resolution is basically nil. Unless someone opts to give the presumed jerk in the center an out, that presumed jerk is going to have to go through someone to leave of their own volition.
So here’s what I propose: Yes, go ahead and stand up for the little guy, the marginalized, your brothers and sisters of the world. Stand firm and stand tall for what you believe. But when you stand up to form up your line of defense or circle your wagons as a group, you need to circle up NOT against the enemy, but around your friend. Do not stare down your antagonists but draw up your allies. If some misanthrope levies a charge of “brainless, worthless libtard” into your midst, I challenge you to resist riposting with some banal retort against an “idiot racist conservatard,” and instead look inward upon those things and people which matter to you and say “not worthless; they mean plenty to us. Not stupid; they regularly inspire me” without bring the other side into it at all. Instead of lazily chucking the low-hanging fruit of Clinton or Obama across the aisle, reinforce why Trump or Pence or whomever shares your values. They can insult Trump all they want; the president is never going to read their scathing comment on YouTube. They’re really after you or others like you. And if you rally around each other, they’re not going to get you.
As more and more of you circle up, standing up for instead of standing up against, you leave the impotent trolls to either pit their singular venom against the groundswell of affirmations, or to fully embrace their greater fuckwad nature and start in on every member of your phalanx individually, each attack of which should only invoke further rallying cries to each other that never actually return fire and, yes, never engages directly in return. You merely bring yourselves together to keep yourselves strong and resilient, like an armadillo’s plates.
Note that this “circling up” is vastly different from the erecting of near-unassailable ideological fortresses or “bubbles” that already exist on the Internet where, emboldened by the countless forces of like-minded members and given space to speak freely, the angry and frustrated are encouraged to berate and denigrate others in absentia and mutually wallow in their own frothy bile. It may be a cesspool, but unless it’s strewn over where you live and work it isn’t your problem to worry about. This is not about what’s happening in the houses of our “wild west” digital town, it’s about what’s happening in the town streets and the town hall.
Right now, the oligarchs of the country see you as little more than arrowheads, primed and fired, dulled and re-sharpened, spat in droves back and forth as waves of aggression to pinion or perforate anyone who would dare set foot in the middle grounds and loosed by archers who remain tucked away in relative safety of their towers, fighting a war ignited between those who make the bows and those who make the bowstrings. Do not let yourselves be used this way. Spare these instigators your points and, in doing so, give them only the shaft.