Internet Culture in the Trump Era

[Content Note: Internet harassment, rape culture, description of sexual assault]

One thought I keep coming back to about Election 2016 is that it all feels like the people who rage on the Internet about Rogue One and the Ghostbusters reboot have won.

I don't believe any single cause explains the election results and it is not my intent today to suggest otherwise. It's more that, in a way, I find that many of the post-election analyses I've read seem quaint in what is assumed about the electorate in the Internet age. Although I joined Twitter in 2009 and used it sparsely then, I picked it back up about a year ago. What I saw as I followed Election 2016 is that news and narratives happen very fast on Twitter - and related, so does the cruelty.

As Twitter users would live-Tweet the debates, they would instantly begin creating hashtags and memes about memorable moments and quotes. It wouldn't be until the next day, and sometimes later, that traditional media would catch up, running a story about a popular hashtag or quote. I annoyed my wife many times when she'd try to relay a bit of news to me only for me to inform her that people on Twitter had that conversation, like, 36 hours ago. Which is practically a month in Twitter time.

I began to see that people active on social media, and Twitter especially, were having different experiences of Election 2016 than people who were not. I find Trump's Electoral College win devastating for many reasons, especially because I place it into the context of Internet harassment culture. Traditional media (for now) somewhat care about "the alt-right," but I think many of us who have been engaged in social media for a long time have felt frustrated by many mainstream institutional responses (or lack thereof) to the ongoing, online radicalization of aggressive (often white) men.

Now, I wonder how (a) Internet's longstanding harassment culture might have contributed to the normalization of Trump's online (and offline) cruelty, and (b) what his presence might mean for Internet harassment culture going forward.

The Culture of Harassment

I find it odd that some in traditional media are still stereotyping liberals as out-of-touch Harvard academics and conservatives as rural, simple folk who can only access the "outside world" via telegraph and the Pony Express. The Internet has famously made us more connected than ever, able to directly interact with people holding every sort of opinion imaginable. I think many of us experience this as a mixed bag.

Pew Research Centers reports widespread Internet usage in the US, only slightly less in rural respondents (83%) compared to urban (88%), with similar disparities corresponding to income and education levels. Looking at social media, 67% of rural Internet users use Facebook (compared to 74% urban) and 15% of rural Internet users use Twitter (compared to 30% of urban). Nearly all social media users view or engage in political conversations with other users, expressing varying levels of satisfaction and annoyance about doing so (as we do).

That is, most Americans use the Internet, engage in social media, and are aware that the Internet is a place where political discourse occurs. On this basis, I contend that most Internet users likely also understand two things quite well:
  • Cruelty/harassment are widely accepted as part of the Internet user experience; and 
  • Donald Trump overtly used social media and the Internet to engage in cruelty as a political weapon (even if some would not label it as such).
I acknowledge that people of all political persuasions, and supporters of all candidates in this election, engage in cruelty on the Internet. What I believe is without precedent is the way that Donald Trump, acting in his capacity as a candidate for the highest office in the land, explicitly used social media to engage in harassment against his opponents and critics - a trend that has continued since his Electoral College win.

Because I believe many media companies have already profited massively by publicizing Trump's mean Tweets, I won't link to lists of his worst ones. But, by Googling them, we find that he has a well-documented history of using Twitter to question President Obama's legitimacy, to bestow stigmatizing nicknames on his opponents, and to engage in petty feuds with people who have offended him. Although many journalists in the 2016 Election were invested in a "both sides are just as bad" narrative, Hillary Clinton's campaign simply did not use social media in this way.

The media often reports about his bad Internet behavior, but like so much Internet cruelty, it's shrugged away because of a dominant consensus that the Internet is a place where bad things happen and that's that. I don't believe the Internet has somehow made us worse as people; it's just a platform that reveals who people are in this new-ish context where boundary-setting is often mocked as a sign of weakness and "political correctness."

I find a stark insincerity within the ridicule of those who want to make the Internet a better place.

We know that civility in human interaction, whether online or off, doesn't "just happen" among people with differing opinions without boundaries being established. We know that when boundaries don't exist or aren't enforced that the mean people win (that's partly why boundaries exist). We create the conditions for civility by building the appropriate structures. Courtrooms have rules of decorum and procedures for this reason. Boardrooms develop rules of order. Debate participants, at least in high schools and colleges, are held to format requirements. Even in boxing and martial arts, participants fight according to agreed-upon rules, and it's often a grave taboo for these rules to be intentionally violated.

And yet, with the Internet, we see a widespread norm of "anything goes."

An entire language is built upon defending this culture of harassment. Use of specific vocabulary terms signifies that the speaker is part of this culture and that, although they believe themselves very strong, they also say they are oppressed by boundary-setting (what they call "the thought police"): "SJWs," "cucks," "political correctness," "censorship," "butthurt." These are words that mean little, or something very different, outside of a specific context of Internet harassment culture.

The twin arguments within this culture are that (a) the world simply doesn't have time to be empathetic to SJW concerns because there are more important issues in the world and (b) there is somehow time to develop a special dictionary of harassment terminology and engage in said harassment to shut these SJWs down.

I acknowledge that the cultivation of civil Internet spaces is hard to do well and does actually take time. Creating rules and moderating forums takes human, financial, policy, and technology resources, resources which many companies frankly do not invest, or they do invest but struggle with finding appropriate balances in keeping users safe. I also believe that the tech industry's much-discussed culture of excluding women and minorities plays a role in the widespread failure to prioritize this issue.

I wonder, has this too-casual, too-libertarian attitude about Internet harassment bled over into offline space, condoning Trump's grotesque presidential bid? How often do we hear, "Avoid the comments" and "Don't feed the trolls"? How often do we read another article about another woman getting harassed off of social media, with the platform taking no meaningful action to address the issue? How often do you read the comments, even after the most benign, non-political post ever and see an entire storm of the most bigoted shit unfold before your eyes?

I'm under no illusion that politicians or the populace were civil before the Internet age, but I do believe even just 15 years ago a candidate who mocked a disabled reporter, was on record calling women "fat pigs," and admitted on tape to grabbing women's genitals without their consent would have been disqualifying traits. Yet, as this weird (but that's another post) article on transparency suggests, some equated Trump's cruelty with authenticity, which apparently made him "a rare commodity in American politics: someone willing to communicate candidly with minimal self-censoring."

The cruelty is accepted because it's seen as "real" but also, I argue, because it's of a type that is so very common on the Internet and so devoid of consequences for people who engage in it.

Internet Culture Going Forward

What does it mean now to have a President-elect who engages in Internet cruelty, without apology, and who has this cruelty amplified to his millions of Twitter followers and by everyone who reports on and retweets it?

For one, isn't it all so.... awkward for cyberbullying initiatives, particularly government-sponsored ones, to exist? How would Melania Trump have absolutely any moral capital with which to address this issue, as she has said she wants to? How does the government have moral standing on this issue, more broadly? Do as we say, not as your President does? The rules don't apply to him!

Two, as someone long interested in the topic of Internet civility, what I've learned is that cyberbullying is widely thought of as kids inflicting harm upon other kids, sometimes to very tragic ends. When adults do the same sorts of things to other adults, the lingo transforms from "cyberbullying" into subjective matters of interpretation that are placed in tension with other people's free speech "rights." (Scare quotes because people get very confused about the First Amendment).

The free speech "rights" of those with more power in the scenario, or on the platform, usually trump other people's safety concerns.

I believe Trump's Electoral College win to be a significant moment in the Internet harassment narrative. It certainly seems like the mean people have won, for now, and yet I'm always more concerned with the voices we lose because of the Internet's privileging of cruelty. Trump and his fans are at war with political correctness (aka, empathy), while his thin-skinned reactions to Saturday Night Live parodies suggest that he himself expects all the empathy.

I wonder what it would look like for Melania to truly take on cyber-bullying.

I imagine that, in the Trump era, some people will be seen as worth defending. If you criticize Donald J. Trump, you're probably just not one of them.

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