Internet debates are providing a way for more people to engage with politics. But bringing debates online has created a new forum for ugliness, tooby Julia Blunck / August 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
In her book The Hour of the Star, Brazillian writer Clarice Lispector said that all of us ask ourselves “Am I monster, or is this what means to be human?” Writing in 1977, she was decades away from widespread use of the internet; the question, however, seems to be increasingly applicable to it. We live in furious times. This is fairly obvious with even a most passing glance to recent events: Trump’s election, Brexit, and the shattering of traditional social democratic parties across Europe, replaced by more radical ones. All of these events are linked through a common feeling of anger and frustration with the current system. And although this unrest is manifesting everywhere (television, campaigns and even daily conversation), nowhere does this anger seem as clear as it does online.
Politics used to be thought of as something only boring intellectuals cared about. Now the picture has changed: it is the subject of thousands of internet forums, threads and social media pages. Uninterested parents, dispirited young people, and others that would have just looked away now not only engage with politics, but actively participate in it, angry with what they perceive as an establishment out of touch with their needs. On the internet, power and notoriety comes to those who know how to channel this frustration, whether they be journalists challenging the government’s response to Grenfell or the leftist outlets whose heavily partisan writing dominated Facebook in the run-up to the June general election.
But while this ramping up of online discussion has been good—after all, mass engagement in politics is essential for a proper democracy to function—it has come with an ugly side. Online anger is not created equal: some of it justified, with comment spaces serving as a means for catharsis over issues such as austerity or the financial crash. Yet the internet has empowered other voices, too. Sexist, homophobic and racist hatred are flung against opponents, sometimes in rancid hate speech that would shake even people who have fought it for years, and sometimes in insidious, “dog whistle” attacks which appeal to racist tropes while maintaining an air of plausible deniability. A recent shocking video of Diane Abbott describing what she endures only shows us the surface of what is hiding online.
While not all of this abuse occurs in political debates—sometimes, the assaults are over seemingly…