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Face it: The Internet is a very rude place. It always has been

The kind of harassment that public figures face on social media is frightening

Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race for the U.S. Presidential elections — arguably the slowest race of all time — last week, leaving her online supporters in a moral quandary. While Warren was busy unwinding by appearing on Saturday Night Live, the kooky comedy sketch show Americans seem to love so much, her supporters were tying themselves in knots trying to decide who to vote for. The argument being widely made against Bernie Sanders, despite his policies aligning the most with Warren’s (from whatever little I understand of the weird world of American politics), was that Sanders’s very vocal online support club was rude.

The Bernie Bros, as they’ve come to be called, have built up a reputation of being loud, self-righteous, obnoxious, and rather mean on the Internet — many of them spent the past few months referring to Warren and her flock as “snakes”. Like lawyers in a bar, Bernie Bros tend to be a bit much. And thus began yet another round of the great civility discourse. Is being polite necessary in politics? Is being mean worse than being morally on the wrong side of things? And on it dragged.

Circular squabbles

The navel-gazing around language is annoying, for starters, because it saddles the argument with red-tape. The debate is reframed. Concerns about foreign policy and public healthcare are then replaced by how civil and friendly a fraction of a candidate’s support base happens to be. Like when you know you’re right about something, but you accidentally call the other person an idiot, and the argument instantly flounders into farce.

More importantly, these circular squabbles ignore a fundamental premise: that the Internet is a very rude place. It always has been. It is anarchy, it is chaos, it’s lord of the flipping flies. Even the kindest, gentlest, purest souls will turn into absolute monsters online when someone insults their favourite film. Find an innocuous, wholesome recipe video on YouTube, scroll down, and in the comments, you’ll stumble on Salman Khan fans in a bitter fight with Hrithik Roshan fans, followed by an old-fashioned India vs. Pakistan showdown. A few years ago, the Twitter account of Chris Hoy, a British cyclist, would be inundated weekly with outlandish abuse by raging football fans angry at decisions made by an English Premier League referee named, well, Chris Foy. Somewhere in the recesses of the Internet, there are people fighting right now over whether gluten intolerance exists or not, and losing their minds over it.

Insult humour

Long before 24/7 social media, before old people discovered the Internet, kids used to prowl online discussion forums — usually around shared interests like film or music or sport — and pick fights with strangers. They would insult each other, call each other names, “roast” and “own” each other in elaborate, nonsensical “flame wars” over minor disagreements. Reddit became a centralised place for the disenfranchised in this way, while the truly dangerous people went to the worst place on the Internet, called 4chan. Insult humour — sometimes just insults, no humour — lies at the very heart of what the web is about.

To be clear, I’m not exactly a fan of the toxicity that’s so widespread online. It’s amusing from a distance (as long as I’m not at the receiving end), but I wouldn’t miss it if it disappeared overnight.

And, more seriously, the kind of harassment that public figures in India face on social media — especially if they’re women or from marginalised communities, and particularly if they speak out against the establishment, and specifically from right-wing supporters — is frightening. It’s terrifying to see how brazenly anonymous criminal threats are made on a daily basis. That’s the extreme version of it, where it spills over into targeted harassment and real-life danger.

At the core of it all lies a kind of dissonance. There was this vague set of dotcom rules that people followed if they felt like it, because the Internet was not actually “real life”. Everyone just shrugged at how angry and insufferable people were online. But then the Internet became very much a part of reality; everyone’s on it, literally, all the time. Its real-world implications are set against a fluid moral centre and an anarchic elasticity. In good times and bad, it remains philosophically untameable. And so we go around in circles, perpetually putting out new fires with a pichkari.

The author and freelance culture writer from New Delhi wishes he had studied engineering.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 2:36:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/internet/face-it-the-internet-is-a-very-rude-place-it-always-has-been/article31059759.ece

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