Friday, November 11, 2016

Trolls, Social Media and Extreme Politics

Trolls, social media and extreme politics

Every one thought trolls were harmless. Maybe it’s in the nickname. Half way between a garden gnome and a creature in Lord of the Rings. Comment threads and social media feeds were their lairs. Spaces to vent anger, racism, sexism, terrorism. Where any extreme view and violent fantasy could run rampant. No one was policing trolls comments. Like plucking grey hairs, if someone did slam one account down, three more would grow in its place. The anonymity of the Internet revealed humanity’s hidden frustration and foulness.

Rather than view the troll as a real valid thinking individual, we dehumanised them. We could imagine the troll as a spotty teenager who couldn't get laid or an angry office worker taking their anger and boredom and lack of autonomy out on the screen. Yet in the wake of Brexit and the election of Trump, trolls don't look harmless anymore. Social media may not be the cause of extremist thinking but it has fed it. Negativity has flourished first on blogs and then disseminated via news feeds on Facebook and Twitter.

Trump is President of the Trolls. His political speeches became an extension of his Twitter feed. Unedited. Unrepressed. Short, fast, retweetable, immediate thoughts shared with the public in seconds. Out of his mind and onto the screen. Would Trump have become president if his fans didn't feel he represented the every man? He was just like us, wasn't he? He even tweeted at 4 in the morning when he couldn't sleep, like the rest of us.

I first noticed the relationship between social media and extreme political views it in August 2014. My Facebook news feed was filled with a wave of hatred and anti-Semitism in the wake of the Israeli invasion into Palestine. It started with some comparisons to the Holocaust. The next thing liberal open minded people - artists, fashion stylists, photographers, musicians who were my acquaintances and friends - were posting strange blog posts with increasingly violent content. I saw images of Jews being lynched. I saw people quoting 1930s fascist speeches. I was so upset by the content hitting me like an algorithmic wave, I couldn't sleep. I decided to get off Facebook and deleted 1500 ‘friends’.

Yet I stayed on Twitter. I grew to love Instagram. I slowly began to dabble with Facebook again. I was choosy with who I followed. Whose feed I wanted to glimpse. I increasingly created a bubble of my own interests - an echo of my view of the world. After Brexit I realised I was not the only person to create a buffer of like-minded virtual souls around me. What became clear is people with opposing views - the slight majority - were also doing the same thing. We were all living in an echo chamber of our own politics. There was none of the even-handed political detachment that journalism and the law was said to uphold. Newspapers increasingly began to echo the extreme anger of the troll. Headlines (largely from Rupert Murdoch’s empire) were written in troll speak. The world became binary - us versus them, good versus bad, right versus wrong. The whole concept of a referendum was made for this atmosphere. There was no nuance. We lived in world where there was only a yes or no without any discussion of the in between. ‘You’re wrong and here’s a death threat to go with it.’

In contrast, a wave of petitions became to emerge online - a social media version of good fairies. I signed numerous online petitions - against war, protect the NHS, stop Monsanto, save the bees. I would receive passionate emails from 38 degrees and They felt like positive ways to have a little say and reminded me of the Amnesty International letters I would copy and sign and send off as a teenager to save someone lingering in a foreign jail. I imagined children who wanted to change the world presenting these heart felt petitions on the steps of Downing Street. Yet nothing seemed to quite come from these notes sent into the ether. No serious political change. When over 4 million people signed a petition for a second Brexit referendum, people were calmly sent a transcription of the discussion between 20 people in a closed doors meeting in a back room ignoring the request. If 4 million digital signatures have no effect, that online click form of resistance isn’t working.

Meanwhile, social media companies have said nothing. In fact, it was in their favour to keep quiet. They want our shock, our outrage. They want us to post lists from Buzzfeed and blog responses to media stories. These all increase advertising revenue. Youths in Macedonia began to create fake pro-Trump websites in order to entice Facebook thread clicks which earned them pocket money. As Adam Curtis recently in an interview with the Evening Standard. “The fact is that angry people click more and clicks are gold dust, clicks are the measure of success for all corporations and media platforms. So the more angry you get, the more you actually keep everything stable. Your anger fuels those systems.”

So where does that leave us and what can we do? Leap off of social media like lemmings of a cliff? In ‘Fuck Off, Google’, a chapter in the The Invisible Committee’s last book ‘To Our Friends’ they present an alternative.  “Understanding how the devices around us work, brings an immediate increase in power, giving us a purchase on what will then no longer appear as an environment, but as a world arranged in a certain way and one that we can shape. This is the hacker’s perspective on the world.” We have to shape and change and take control of the virtual structures of the internet. We need to pull ourselves away from private companies with strong financial stakes. We need to create a brave new virtual world.

(c) Francesca Gavin 2016

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