The Politics of Social Media Hate Mobs
Linda Sarsour is a longtime activist for racial justice and civil rights, but conservative websites are branding her a terrorist, hoping to delegitimise the massive worldwide opposition to the Trump regime.
On Twitter, the hashtag #IMarchWithLinda has been trending all day, but users are also taking the opportunity to attach it to tweets that call Sarsour a Jihadi, a member of Hamas, a proponent of Sharia Law, and in some cases just an excuse to post photos of severed heads. Were people always this crazy or did social media trigger something new in the human psyche?
Hate mobs on social media have become the norm and will only get worse until we get a grip on this. If not we as individuals, then the owners of Twitter, who once proudly took credit for the Arab Spring. Humanity is clearly not ready for unfettered free speech. Not when a Congresswoman, Katherine Clark, is called an "ugly cunt" and whore who "should be shot" after voicing concern about online harassment.
A feminist writer I followed on Twitter recently left the platform, explaining that she was tired of trolls tweeting that she was "too fat to rape." Others have left Twitter at least temporarily after death threats resulted from a seemingly harmless tweet about Beyonce.
I know from personal experience how upsetting it is to be targeted with hate by total strangers. As an opinionated blogger, I'm not afraid to piss people off. But I was unprepared for weeks of obscene comments after mocking a popular "fashion influencer." At first I was kind of amused by how nuts people could get over something that stupid, but things quickly got out of hand. People taunted me about my personal life, my children, and most tellingly, about my vagina.
Why the vagina hate, I still have no idea. I guess that's where people go when their hatred springs a leak. I now know that mob hatred can take a decidedly misogynist tone if you own a vagina. I'd like to find a study on how many trolls are preoccupied with penises, just to figure this out.
Remember Justine Sacco, the PR woman who tweeted a bad joke about AIDS in 2013? The tweet took 15 seconds to type, and it nearly destroyed her life. She lost her job, her reputation, and the respect of her family. Two years later, she joined a dating site, where she was outed and berated as the author of the notorious tweet.
What happened to Sacco has been called the Culture of Shaming by writer John Ronson, who experienced a minor bout of it himself when someone posed as him on social media.
I think that hate mobs have something worse in mind than public shaming. The ferocity of the hate seems almost primal, albeit insane. When journalist Julia Ioffe wrote a profile of Melania Trump for GQ magazine, Mrs. Trump complained on her Facebook page about "inaccuracies." Ioffe was then targeted by Trump supporters, who tweeted anti-Semitic death threats and pictures of the Holocaust to teach her a lesson.
What lesson did she learn? That people are crazy, that people hate Jews, that Twitter is not a safe place? Here's what psychologists have learned about Internet trolls. They tend to fit a profile called the Dark Triad. The Dark Triad is a trifecta of negative personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and subclinical psychopathy.
Here's where it gets really fucked up. In studies, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, interestingly, the relationship was specific to trolling behavior. Enjoyment of other online activities, such as chatting and debating, was unrelated to sadism. Thus cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.
Well, everyday sadism should be an oxymoron, but I guess we have to face the reality in front of us. The anonymity provided by the Internet has unleashed this everyday sadism in ways that may shake our belief that people are basically good. Or another way to look at it is that humanity is no match for Twitter.
Either way, #IMarchWithLinda, but each time someone tweets something at me that makes me feel bad, I block them. The slightest hint of a threatening tone, that's it, blocked. Until we are better in command of our dark impulses, the blocking mechanism is our best defense. Don't be afraid to exercise it, liberally and often!