These Trying Times
August 12, 2018
It seems as if Charlottesville was several years ago. It was a shock, seeing Nazis and white supremacists carrying torches on the campus of the University of Virginia campus, then invading the town carrying guns and the kind of gear that you’d think belonged to an angry offshoot of the Society for Creative Anachronism, unleashing threats, violence, beatings, and even murder. There was outrage, but since then there has been a strange drift toward accepting white supremacy. It’s fueling candidates for office. It shows up on talk shows where hosts say America won’t be America if we don’t get rid of immigrants.
This is nothing new. What’s new, I think, is the way in which social media and journalism are trying to negotiate new forms of expression and argument in the midst of the vast and immediate distribution of text, images, and video through new channels. I’m trying to figure out how to help students understand the information they encounter, and our usual discussions of evaluation of sources simply doesn’t apply without a broader grasp of the sociotechnical moment we’re in. Understanding events like Charlottesville and the hate-inspired violence that keeps happening is likewise impossible without understanding the ways information outside the library flows.
In a Twitter thread the SF writer John Scalzi says arguing with alt-right racists in good faith is impossible because they have turned argument into a game. “They’re slapping down cards from a ‘Debate: The Gathering’ stack and the only goal is taking heads . . . If they lose, they shuffle their cards and go on to the next thing. If others lose, their life takes a hit.” Knowledge and facts are beside the point. The point is to win, and facts just get in the way. Scalzi advises us not to play their game.
Sarah Jeong, a law and technology writer whose work I have long admired, used to play the game. An avid user of Twitter and a woman of color in a realm where misogyny has long been gamified, she was frequently mobbed and harassed online. Sometimes she responded with sarcasm. That would seem a reasonable response to attacks that are baseless and offensive: turn them inside out and toss the insults back. But since The New York Times has added her to their editorial board, some of her sarcasm has been ripped from its context and used to pressure the Times to drop her. Not happening, but her sins will be brought up in comment threads for who knows how long.
Jelani Cobb unpacks the vacuity of charging “reverse racism” when a person of color fights back, but thinks Jeong should have taken a different approach because people get hurt when public figures engage with the bigots who are trying to undermine them. The bigots “understand the current debate around free speech and social media not as an attempt to create parameters of decency around public dialogue but rather as part of a board game in which each side attempts to remove valuable pieces from the other’s team,” he writes. Virginia Heffernan takes a different tack. If you hire someone to provoke thought, they shouldn’t be punished for being provocative in their public life. But when the subject is racism, Cobb argues people on the sidelines get hurt. The all-too-predictable reaction to a person of color defending herself serves “to strip away the moral authority of people belonging to a vulnerable group, in order to make the spurious argument that they’re too compromised to hold anyone outside that group accountable.” Like judges whose parents were born in Mexico: impossible for them to be objective.
Another thing riling folks up at the moment is whether the action Facebook, Youtube, Spotify, and Apple have taken against Alex Jones, conspiracy theorist and luxury outfitter to survivalists, removing his rage-filled, fact-averse rants, is a slippery slope. Won’t it threaten everyone’s freedom of speech if Nazis can’t march through Holocaust survivors’ newsfeeds? Will it give the conspiracy theorists an authentic reason to complain?
Twitter is the outlier. It claimed Jones hadn’t violated its policies It turns out he has, but oh well. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, said Twitter would not rule on whether something was false or not, it was the media’s job to argue with Jones and prove him wrong. “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions.”
But in an era when the president (who says things on Twitter that would get non-celebrities suspended) repeatedly tells his followers not to trust the news, this is a ridiculous statement. Moreover, it’s asking the press to call attention to nonsense that has created real harm. (For example, the parents of a child murdered at the Sandy Hook massacre have to live in hiding because Jones’ followers physically harass and threaten them. Jones’ attorneys say they are public figures, and therefor the bar for defamation is very high, even though their current notoriety is due to Jones whipping up his followers by claiming their son’s death was a hoax and they are acting for a government plot.) There’s a strong argument to be made that the press should not be amplifying conspiracy theories by reporting on them in detail and dignifying manufactured nonsense with fact-checking.
We haven’t yet found a sure-fire way to recognize and counteract the gamification of discourse by people who don’t care about facts or fairness, so white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and money-making conspiracy theorists who practiced their rhetorical games in shadowy parts of the internet before going mainstream have been able to make reasoned discussion impossible. As they leave their computers to show up at places like Charlottesville or Comet Ping Pong Pizza or at a Trump rally, they’ll find new followers. And despite their home-made armor and jokey-offensive T-shirts, they aren’t just playing games.