​How to Raise the Level of Online Debate in 2016

Don't blame everything on the trolls – it's everyone's fault that the internet is in such a mess.

by Sam Wolfson
08 January 2016, 8:01am


The idea of the internet troll as a grotty men's rights activist in Milwaukee, gently marinating in his own smegma and Cheetos crumbs, make us feel safe. It's easy to deal with online criticism or abuse when you don't respect the people dishing it out. Indeed, the original grotty blogger stereotype was largely propagated by Hollywood, which felt its control threatened by the pirates and self-appointed critics of the web and hit back by portraying the people behind computer screens as weak, friendless teenagers.

This fiction bears resemblance to other imagined villains in our society: the racist as a white-van driving skinhead who has their house covered in Union Jacks or the sexual offender as a real-life Milk Tray man waiting in the bushes. Of course, there is a minority of true-to-type offenders who fulfil the cliché, but often we cling to these stereotypes so that we can other them, failing to realise that the real ills are a lot closer to home.

Of course, online abuse from a minority of perverts and partisans continued in 2015, but they were not the ones most responsible for denigrating the level of debate online. Rather, it was traditional publishers, social media companies, professional antagonists and the general online reader who found ways to push helpful discussion wildly off-course.

There were endless examples of this in 2015, from the transformation of #BlackLivesMatter from a statement of fact to a point of contention to the harassment of Ellen Pao, the new Reddit CEO, who tried to shut down some of the site's uglier threads – "transfags" and "CoonTown" for example – and was met by horrifying opposition, often racist and misogynistic, by the site's users.

Yes, much of this was led by people with a particular passion for hatred, but Ellen Pao's resignation only took place after regular users started to boycott parts of the site and it was the racialist rancour of a tranche of top-level politicians, police chiefs, and mainstream journalists that pushed the public perception of Black Lives Matter from a protest group born out of anger and grief to a quasi-terrorist organisation.

On more trivial issues, the level of discussion has become simply inane, as ClickHole and the real web become harder to distinguish between. From a humour-free article about which UK shops sounds like rappers, to Buzzfeed basically opening a Left Shark bureau, the ravenous content black hole made schmucks of us all.

A selection of Buzzfeed's Left Shark content

All of these new tenants of online discussion - indignation, losing the thread of debate, content for the sake of content - came to a head in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, where outrage seemed to overtake grief as a more direct way to express mourning. While shots were still being fired at the Bataclan, people were on Twitter imagining how the coverage was going to play out in the tabloid press or complaining that people only care about the Paris attacks because they happened in a Western country.

Then on Monday 16th November, with some bodies still being identified and families yet to be contacted, the British newspaper the Independent ran a story headlined Got a French flag on your Facebook profile picture? Congratulations on your corporate white supremacy. It was a piece that argued that those who had shown support for the victims of the attack by using the Facebook feature to overlay a tricolor on their profile picture were "essentially saying that white, Western lives matter more than others" and that Facebook resembled the "Front National's image bank". It seemed painstakingly antagonistic, and immediately slapped up on the site's front page, becoming one of their most read articles.

The piece's author was Lulu Nunn. It was her first article for the Independent, her first news-based piece for any major publication (a lot of her previous writing experience is poetry, which appears on her personal website, and an arts journal she runs called Hoax).

One of the democratising things about the internet is that we don't have to listen to the same tired voices spouting the same opinions, and that some of the best made points come from inexperienced or unlikely sources. But the way the article is presented there is nothing to show that Nunn isn't one of the paper's staff comment writers, or an expert in any field of international politics. Rather, it seemed like a big publication are letting someone take the hit for their traffic bump, something which has become commonplace in the post-Samantha Brick era. It means that the most zealous, exaggerated views get top billing on the biggest websites, while the websites themselves are able to deny any editorial culpability. If there was any doubt of the paper's lack of commitment to the piece, below it appeared the line: "For the other side of the argument, click here," linking through to the exact opposite view, delivered with equal gusto, published at the same time by the same newspaper. Because everyone is right on the internet.

Reflecting on the article now, Nunn tells VICE: "The piece was never about telling people how to grieve but rather just advising them to think about how they react to really complex sociopolitical affairs. But I knew it would provoke the insults and trolling which inevitably follow any article that challenges people's views, particularly one by a female writer. One guy offered to sell me to an 'Isis sex camp'. Other people, who wrongly assumed I was a person of colour, threw racist abuse thrown at me."

Nunn later posted her original, unedited version of the article which seemed considerably less provocative than the version that ran on the site. "I do think that the article was sensationalised and given a far more contentious, self-righteous tone than my original; news platforms must know when they're editing articles to come across more aggressively that they're also driving more abuse to the writer; more rape threats and sexual abuse if she is a woman, more racism if the writer isn't white, and this leaves a really bad taste in my mouth." Soon there was a debate about the nature of editing and journalism and so, as ever, in a time of international crisis, the internet was now three times removed from the main story, discussing its own workings rather than the world outside.

At around the same time as Lulu's piece, a Channel 4 foreign correspondent Lindsey Hilsum wrote a blog called "We Cover Bomb Attacks in Beirut too but you Show Less Interest". In it, she writes:

"I wasn't in Beirut during last week's bombing, but I was for one in November 2013 in which 23 people were killed. I see that 80 people recommended my blog and video story while 29 retweeted it. Compare that to the response my colleague, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, got when he challenged the movie director, Quentin Tarantino, on the use of violence in his films: 3.52 million views on YouTube and rising... It's not that we don't cover bomb attacks in Beirut and elsewhere, but sometimes the viewer shows less interest."

So often anything posted online that is funny, personal, heartfelt, examines the minutiae of our existence, gets into the subtleties of our popular culture, tells us something about our humanity is met with a loud screaming "WHAT IS THIS? WHY DON'T YOU WRITE ABOUT THINGS THAT MATTER? EVER HEARD OF SYRIA?" Self-evidently the people begging for more international reporting are not snotty 17-year-olds only interested in video games and wanking, but self-declaring intelligentsia.

But Hilsum's blog highlights perhaps the big duplicity in online criticism. The internet is the most quantifiable institution in history – every click and hover is measured in perpetuity and analysed and broken down a hundred different ways. So while people might say there should be a more high-brow and unsentimental internet, the stats show that's not really what they want.

So how can you improve the discourse of our online habits this year? First, stop commenting on the types of posts you don't like, telling people you think what they're doing is dumb. If you want to see more of a certain kind of writing, then vote with your clicks. Publishers are heavily influenced by traffic – what no one is influenced by is the comment section under an article about someone's personal life, full of heartless and patronising remarks from a group of faux-intellectuals placating themselves with the caps lock key.

Consider where an article comes from before you post to your Facebook under a hailstorm of exclamation marks. The internet has been an empowering tool for teenagers and young people but that doesn't mean they should be judged for their Tumblr posts like it was a supreme court ruling. Consider too, that what you're reading was written about a topic or for an audience you might not fully understand, before you launch into the comments of an article on the evolution of Chicago footwork with your searing "all sounds like a construction site to me" snark.

In the instances where you are unable to stop yourself wading into the online melée, provide a proportionate response. In Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed there is example after example of people who did questionable things – tweeted a politically incorrect joke, falsified a few lines of an interview – being met with scores of rape threats, violence and painful attacks on their work and family life. The punishment inflicted on them wildly outweighs the crime they committed and only serves to refocus the debate on to internet bullying and away from their original misdemeanor.

On NOISEY: Stop Saying It's "Brave" For Artists To Confront Trolls About Their Appearance

Don't wang on about trolls and online abuse and then tweet "@FirstCapitalConnect TRAIN WAS 20 MINUTES LATE, I DON'T FUCKING PAY MY RAILCARD FOR THIS YOU HUMAN URETHRA BUBBLE" as if tweeting at a big company doesn't mean there's some poor social media lackey who has to read caps lock abuse all day. If you're really committed to people being less of an arsehole on the internet, then be less of one yourself.

Finally, don't equate what's on "the internet" as what you see people posting on Facebook, if your whole feed is "23 Sherlock gifs that show why Mondays are THE WORST" and xenophobic "#ProudToBeBritish" memes, that is just a reflection of how shitty your friends are. Start hiding people from your timeline and suddenly you'll see a whole different internet.

Of course, there is some internet abuse that comes from exactly the people you think it does. Men's rights activists, red-state racists, gamergate misogynists and general pig-headed bigots. Nearly always, their hate is aimed women and minority groups. Abuse from these people can be as relentless as it is hurtful, no only when it descends into personal attacks and threats of violence, as it often does, but also when anything you do online is followed by a trail of patronising disparagement.

But we can't do anything about these people. We can't abstain from them, because they exist in the same forums we all use to work and interact, that for many of us are essential to what we do. We can't reply to them, because that's what they want. We can only block them, report them to the police where appropriate, and realise that a sad fact about the modern world is that we will all have to grow thicker skins against strangers who want to upset us.

What we can do is raise our own level of discussion so that the internet valley between us and them is so vast that they feel nothing but exclusion and powerlessness. We can change how we respond to each other, and what we respond to, and improve the way we communicate online. You can start right now.


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