We are entering an era when our digital lives spill out uncontrollably into our “real” lives. Whether or not you believe these two are separate, I would wager that the mass of humanity still sees a wall between Facebook and talking face-to-face at a PTA meeting. But a few people don’t.
It’s these people – people emboldened by the seeming anonymity of the Internet and the ability for things that happen there to have real-world consequences – that have hijacked national discourse. They are the hackers who sway elections, who break civil contracts, who leak pictures of us naked. They are the eggs and Tumblr-posters who call each other – and others – the worst of slurs. They are the ones who sit behind their keyboards and rail at the world or, worse, pull the strings to which they have access from their secret places.
The folks spreading outrage on the Internet – the outraged Facebookers, the alt-right, the vociferous VCs who don’t know when to shut up – are hacking the system. Hackers aren’t what they look like in the movies and they aren’t 400 pound men in their basements. They are people who have been given a megaphone and prefer to burp and curse and shout into it rather than help. They are the ones who yell “Jump” to the man on the bridge because of his implied weakness.
I watched the rise of Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter with great interest. Each one of these groups tried something different. Pinterest hoped that people would be civil by banning violence and porn. They are floundering at best. Facebook hoped that people would be kind because they had to use their real names. This did not happen. Twitter let anyone say anything, primarily because it was too hard to police the millions of tweets swirling through the database every day. That also backfired.
Why? Because while the rest of us are sharing photos of cats, posting updates about our vacations, and Tweeting jokes there is a small contingent that is using these tools to spread disinformation and vitriol. I cede that our right to free speech is sacred but that doesn’t mean we have to be assholes.
And when free speech warriors are called out for their actions they lash out. They create massive botnets designed to force people out of the discussion. They SWAT you, they hack you, they shut down the means of communication through denial of service attacks. Not because it is right or because it makes sense but because it’s fun, it’s lulz.
I call this 4chan politics primarily because the tactics used by Anonymous are now being hijacked by people with less moral fiber. Anonymous tried to attack evil. Those that use Anonymous’ tricks are doing evil.
Why are so many people emboldened to speak their minds about race, gender, and equality? Because they feel they have been given the power to do so not by any political change but by the very tools that brought about that political change. Further, because most people don’t see the overlap between online and “real life” it is not a pressing problem. But it is.
I recall an interview with a reporter who was being actively trolled on Twitter. He turned off his account for a while and someone asked him to turn it back on to see if it was still happening. In an instant vitriol against him and his family started flowing onto his feed.
Perhaps he’s being too sensitive. It is, after all, just a social network. But these tools are powerful and important and to hijack them is to hijack a mode of discourse. If someone stood outside this reporter’s house and called his wife a whore the police would be called and we’d think that person insane. If it happens online we think it doesn’t matter.
This is an era of 4chan politics because the digital is now affecting the real. The things we say have weight and, like some strange game of Tron, our physical lives are being sucked into the computer. Once we could cancel our subscription to the daily paper if we didn’t like the news. How can we cancel our subscription to the defining medium of the 21st century?
Humans talk to each other. Monsters rage at each other. Let’s pick a side.