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our online ecosystem of inhumanity
and tools for living in it
The Internet I grew up on was as wholesome as that idyllic, bucolic, probably nonexistent farmhouse in America’s heartland where an apple pie cools on the window sill. Young love flourished and floundered in the fluorescent glow of AOL Instant Messenger windows. My classmates and I delighted in constantly reinventing ourselves, creating transient online identities on whatever new platform sprang up, unconcerned with the consequences of publishing our blurry photos and blurrier adolescent thoughts and unconvinced we might be embarrassed of them someday. We were warned about predators in chat rooms and on message boards, but nothing bad seemed to happen to anyone we knew -- and even with the world at our fingertips, it was still difficult to comprehend what was happening outside of the online communities we created.
It was naive, perhaps, but the Internet I grew up on seemed to be about bringing people together. I spent several years in high school and college in a band that played music about Harry Potter. Thanks to the power of MySpace and later, YouTube, we reached a built-in audience of thousands of fans who were eager to hear our music, despite the fact that it was initially recorded on a computer microphone and, save a few clever turns of phrase and catchy melodies, pretty mediocre. My mini music career is evidence that long before social media platforms sought to monetize users’ personal data, they really just wanted all the nerds of the world to find each other, and for a time, they did.
We were still convinced the Internet was a force for good as it powered revolutions across the Middle East. It was still potent at home, too. Pairing voter information with social media and email outreach was considered so crucial to Barack Obama’s victories that my early work supporting democratic activists in authoritarian countries centered around these tactics; if you might be arrested for holding a rally or going door-to-door, you could still reach your fellow citizens and rally them to your cause online.
Today, from our perch at the start of a new decade, it’s hard to believe that Internet was a reality. The same tools that were once used to unite people and highlight our common humanity are now weaponized by the unscrupulous and power-hungry who thrive on breeding division. Social media platforms themselves empower this behavior, capitalizing on users’ emotion and outrage, generating ever more clicks and ad dollars.
We are part of an online ecosystem of inhumanity.
It’s an ecosystem that legitimizes putting children in cages, peddling a narrative that their families were not fleeing gang violence, but bringing it to America. It’s an ecosystem in which duly elected members of Congress and U.S. citizens are told to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” simply for holding the President of the United States to account, as is their function in government. In this ecosystem, online hordes depict dedicated public servants as “swamp creatures” and upstanding immigrants as treasonous enemies of the state after they dutifully report on what they have witnessed during the course of their work. Here, female politicians are “shrill” and “unlikeable,” and 96% of deep fake videos are created not to interfere in elections, but to degrade women through nonconsensual pornography. It’s an ecosystem that requires thousands of underpaid workers to watch hours of violence and abuse so that millions more do not, and even then, some of the worst examples still slip through the cracks. And it’s not just one party, one religion, or one country, that lives in the ecosystem. It is all-encompassing, consuming and capitalizing on a climate of emotion and outrage.
How do we reinject humanity into online discourse, which today accounts for so much of our everyday communication? I don’t believe, for once, that this is a piece of the puzzle we can solve with education; there are plenty of highly educated individuals on Twitter who engage in inhumane behavior, calling upon their hundreds of thousands of followers to levy personal attacks at anyone who dare criticize them. Hot takes, those harbingers of Internet indignation, are exalted even when they’re bad, and the poster gets “ratioed.” It’s the wired version of “there’s no such thing as bad press.” The fact is, the social networks reward our online inhumanity, coronating the cruel and the crazy with followers and influence. The answer might be structural, then.
Platforms are tinkering with such ideas. This summer, Instagram rolled out a feature that asks teens “are you sure you want to post this?” before posting a rude comment. (It might be nice if they rolled it out for adults, too.) Ahead of the 2020 election, both Facebook and Instagram will make it more clear when content has been labeled as false by a third-party fact-checker, including by putting an overlay on top of the content that users must click to remove. They are also downranking pages that repeatedly share false information. But do features like these make a dent when Twitter allows clearly inauthentic accounts to be retweeted by the President? Or when Facebook continues to sell political ads that include lies, profiting off the ecosystem of inhumanity and allowing anyone who can pay to dictate the timbre of our political discourse?
I don’t have the answer to this problem. It’s huge and hulking. But I also don’t feel totally helpless about it just yet, partly due to my own experience online over the past year. I faced some of the worst online abuse I have ever encountered and it changed my approach to online interactions. I’m sharing it with you today in the hope that individual actions over time might lead to a kinder, more humane Internet.
My approach to online interactions might be summed up as “engage in good faith, if that’s possible” (or maybe just “don’t be a dick, and that’s always possible!”). The rules are simple:
No ad hominem attacks. Disagree with the argument, not the person. When posting something even a little salty, ask yourself: “do I really want to post this?” If you have an inkling of doubt, the answer is probably no.
If someone you don’t know pops up in your mentions, only engage with them if they are doing so in good faith. If their second reply shows they are not engaging in good faith, mute the thread and move on. Indications of good faith include:
They have an authentic profile picture and/or use what seems to be a real name and a normal sharing pattern (that is, they seem not to be a bot, troll, or general shitposter);
Their question or comment is inquisitive or curious, not combative;
They don’t show bias in their initial approach (ie no #MAGA or #RESIST rhetoric is prevalent right off the starting block).
To that end: mute liberally. Whether a thread, an account, or a subthread -- if you feel yourself getting upset about something happening on the Internet, mute! Close the computer! Take a walk! It’s not worth it, and you’re contributing to the ecosystem of inhumanity by engaging. (I find muting is preferable to blocking for run-of-the-mill accounts because it gives them one less thing to rage about; they will never know if they’ve been muted. Of course, if an account is being abusive, it should be reported and blocked.)
If you feel you’re talking past someone but it’s still worth engaging, move the conversation to a Direct Message, where you have more room to explore details and the stakes are lower.
Finally: the Internet is not just for hot takes, bad news, and flame wars. If you like a piece, an author, a picture of a dog, whatever, SHARE IT. Tell the person why. You might make someone’s month. (Speaking of which, NPR’s Ari Shapiro interviewed my dog. You are welcome in advance.)
These rules are Twitter-centric, because that’s the platform on which I spend most of my time, but they could apply to most other platforms, too. I haven’t always been successful at applying them; I am human, and I get mad. But these days I delete a lot more tweets than I send. It’s something I aim to keep up in 2020, because if recycling, turning off the lights, and flying less frequently can help save the environment, perhaps everyone being a little nicer online might lead to a better online ecosystem, too.
a new year’s note to subscribers
Happy new year! I am sorry I’ve been scarce these past few months. All of the things I study came crashing into Washington in the form of the impeachment inquiry, and I’ve been extraordinarily busy. Thank you, as always, for your continued support. If you want more of me, here are a few things I’ve done in the last quarter of 2019 that you might enjoy.
The Washington Post
“The real impeachment bombshell? How to pronounce ‘Kyiv.’” November 21, 2019.
“Yes, Trump released the aid to Ukraine. But the damage was already done.,” November 15, 2019
“Five myths about Ukraine,” September 26, 2019
POLITICO Magazine: “The Ukrainian President Isn’t Trump’s Stooge,” September 26, 2019
Fareed Zakaria GPS: “What in the World: the CrowdStrike Conspiracy Theory,” November 17, 2019
Amanpour: “US Democracy Can Be Bought,” October 17, 2019
I also led the compilation of the Wilson Center’s Big Tech in 2020 voter guide, which lays out every presidential candidate’s public stances on disinformation and social media regulation issues.
In 2020, this newsletter will come to you in the form of a monthly missive much like the one you got today. If there are any topics you’d like me to explore, feel free to reply to this email and let me know.
Thank you, and best wishes for a happy and healthy new decade.