by Dan Barron, March 2018.
During the ultimately tragic melee that was the Charlottesville monument protest, one of the protestors attempted a remarkable metamorphosis. Separated from his fellow white supremacists, and pursued by counterprotestors, he takes off his white polo “uniform” and announces “I’m not really white power, man – I just came here for the fun.” While we should doubt the sincerity of such a disavowal made under threat of violence, his words also speak to the current moment in politics.
The “fun” that the protestor found in white supremacism and neo-fascism would likely have its genesis in his online life. On the anonymized forums that are the alt-right’s primordial ooze, provocation and induced controversy are valued as the apex of humour. The internet and its consequent revolution in communication provide a perfect arena for this kind of “fun”. Online, without the wider context that accompanies in-person communication, the sincerity of a message becomes incredibly difficult to determine. Furthermore, on fully anonymized forums such as 4chan, sincerity is extinguished at its most basic conceptual level. Someone posting that “Hitler did nothing wrong” could be joking, entirely serious, or some combination of the two; but in such forum where the text is stripped of all context, its sincerity or otherwise becomes so inscrutable as to render the concept virtually meaningless.
Furthermore, sincerity no longer matters due to the rise of a technology-centred relativism. The internet’s rise to becoming an all-encompassing feature of life in the Global North has given a particular vitality to this relativist tendency. Online denizens occupy an opinion-attention economy, in which the desired good is attention, and the only unit of currency by which to gain attention is a radical or strongly-worded opinion. And there are just so many opinions that it’s easy to become jaded, and give up on the idea of any being genuinely correct. This fatigue, when combined with the mechanics of social media services, also encourages the formation of “filter bubbles”, where an individual is almost exclusively exposed to opinions similar to their own.
In the opinion-attention economy of virtual life, humour and outrage are the emotions that most effectively draw attention. The dearth of the usual context has the effect of blurring or flattening the landscape, rendering only the bright, bold tones of laughter and anger discernable. The kind of “fun” that attracted the above protestor to Charlottesville strikes both targets: ordinary people find overt white supremacism highly offensive, and to the protestor such apoplexy constitutes a source of mirth. Nestled within online communities where anonymity provides freedom from repercussions, espousing such beliefs might just appear as “fun”, akin to a more extreme version of confrontational and inflammatory stand-up comedy. However, the line between “funny” and “serious” is a mercurial one, and what one finds humorous can often lead to more concerted preoccupation with the underlying ideas. Inside the anonymized chambers, what might begin as playful needling of political sacred cows comes to echo more and more with an appearance of serious truth. “Hitler did nothing wrong” initially may only be funny to some due to being outrageously inflammatory and false, but gradually the sentiment is co-opted and given credence by actors of indeterminate insincerity. Inside the pressure-cooker of the opinion-attention economy, what is increasingly perceived as a kernel of truth inside the joke eventually bursts forth.
How can society move to overcome this tendency toward online extremism, and return to valuing sober and even-handed reflection over sardonic acrimony and vitriol? While this is only the beginning of the answer, I believe that understanding one’s online life as explicitly part of a collective rather than as purely individualistic expression is a valuable move. Unlike the vast majority of situations encountered in real life, online communities are mobs, and thus exhibit a mob mentality. It is by this collective nature that humorous remarks coalesce into serious positions. If attention continues to be the primary individual good, then trying to scream above the cries of the mob will always encourage inflammatory and controversial opinion.