I keep reading reports that say Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are some of the most hated presidential candidates in memory. A recent NBC News/Monkey Survey poll reported six out 10 Americans dislike or even hate both of them. It's easy to confirm this feeling outside of media, too. Just look around. People everywhere—including a few billion people abroad—seem disgusted with the 2016 US elections.
However, I don't think people dislike Trump or Clinton any more than Mitt Romney or Barack Obama in 2012, or John McCain or any of the candidates before him. I think something more sinister is occurring. And I worry for 2020 and the future beyond that.
I believe a sneaky evil has grabbed hold of tens of millions of American minds and attitudes. People might all deny it, but it's happening anyway.
What is it?
Increased usage of social media and the internet has made us a nation of trolls. And there's no other good way to say it, but: Trolls are assholes.
The internet has turned us into belligerent critics
The amount of growth Facebook has experienced in active users from 2012 to 2016 is staggering. An extra 650 million members joined worldwide in that election cycle. In the same years, Twitter—the ultimate blow-your-top-outlet-without-thinking—has grown from 340 million tweets a day to over 500 million (or 200 billion a year). In fact, many politicians and similar public personalities weren't even on Twitter in 2012. Snapchat didn't even exist until September of 2011.
One of the things that worries me most over this phenomenon is that capitalism allows us make to money off trolling. Lots of money. Like the unsavory consequences of cigarettes, Facebook wants you to get in endless heated discussions with people you don't personally know and fight it out online. Every time you click and comment, their purse grows from ad sales.
Apart from the negativity of arguing with people endlessly, I'm constantly astonished by the things people say to me on social media—knowing well that I often read them. It's not the death threats I worry about from the psychos or mentally deranged—it's the normal people that scare me. Many have good jobs, college educations, and families, but they still say hair-raising stuff. And it's the fact they espouse this vitriol regularly. Here's a few:
Consider the facts. I'm 6'1, 200 pounds, and I work out every day. Very few people would ever say those things to me in person, because they don't know if I'm the type to smash their teeth in (I'm not, but millions of other large males might be).
The fact is we increasingly say things online that we never would say out loud—even if it's ostensibly against our evolutionary interest. Besides being highly uncivil, this shows deep unreasonableness to me. The internet has turned us into belligerent critics. It's a direct result of the narcissism social media breeds, and it's making us into haters of most everything.
As a philosophy major in college, I studied Postmodernism, whose pop theory says humans have deconstructed existence so much that what we're intellectually left with is abject skepticism. I actually agree with this a lot, and as a result I'm quite the existentialist. But this phenomenon of American trolling is going way beyond Postmodernism and what Sartre calls nausea. It's crossing over to a feeling of loathing.
This feeling abounds in the comments sections of sites like The Huffington Post, Breitbart, or Yahoo! News—each of which can get tens of thousands of comments a day. It's common for online users on these sites to read the story title first, then the comment sections, and maybe the article (if the comments warrant it). This worrisome trend is another symptom of our times.
Reddit is maybe the ultimate trolling site, where fighting it out with comments often seems the main purpose of the site—and few people read beyond the headlines. Reddit has gained a reputation as a troll haven where young people using aliases say most anything they want. I actually like Reddit for what it is, and I think it serves its purpose. But when I see its comment quality being carried over the discussion sections of The New York Times, I get distressed.
Some sites are through with comments, altogether. The site you're reading now—Vice's Motherboard, where I'm an occasional columnist—recently eliminated its comments section entirely. Other media is doing this, too. One reason sites are getting rid of discussion sections is the manpower required to monitor it. Employees and editors have to delete all the unacceptable comments (many of them racist, misogynous, and even potentially illegal if they're violent threats).This costs a lot of time and money for the publication.
When I was a child and feeling upset, my mom used to make me wait 10 seconds before I said something. It was tough. I used to want to blurt out things, and immediately express my emotions. But in those 10 seconds, a lot of transformation can take place. A lot of processing and reason can emerge. My mom was right to teach me to wait. I learned to be patient, and really say what I mean, and mean what I say.
Trolling isn't a disease, it's a symptom. We can stop it by disciplining ourselves to be more civil and by respecting the inherent psychological challenges of social media use. However, if social media and comment sections of websites keep growing more raucous—and they continue to be used by more and more people—we can expect a general hate in the world to increase, until we feel loathing at most everything.
Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.