The Virtual Colosseum: Overcoming Social Media’s Dark Side
October 18th, 2015
At its height the Roman Colosseum could hold some 50,000 spectators, truly a feat for its era. Even now, millennia after its prime, in a world of mountainous skyscrapers and sprawling stadiums, it remains a sight to behold. But just beyond its billowing arches and columns rests a nasty reminder of human cruelty: an arena atop a sea of imprisoned, sweat-soaked bodies, cut through with blood-rivers of men killing each other for the sound of applause. This is where, for centuries, Romans held gladiatorial games, deathmatches between competing slaves, so-called criminals, and, at times, ‘exotic’ wild animals. In the arena murder became socially acceptable sport. It became entertainment.
Today most might say we have evolved beyond the barbarity of killing for sport. In an acutely literal sense they would be right. Of course there are exceptions: Wealthy westerners still exoticize and kill safari animals, among others. And then there are those instances where the literal cannot apply: First-person-shooter games are market drivers in console gaming; the film industry rakes in billions every year depicting graphic violence; and sports like Mixed Martial Arts mimic the brutality of gladiatorial combat. Combined these trends paint a picture which suggests that while we may no longer cheer on death fights in ancient fashion, at least one relic of the Roman games endures — the applauding crowd.
New Colosseum. New Warriors. New Spectators.
In the 80s’, when my mother moved from Honduras to Mississippi, the Deep South was still a place with a fierce reputation of white supremacy. There were few brown Latinas, and like other Spanish speaking migrants of color they simply were not welcomed. For her I think it was too much, and there were too many unfulfilled promises. My father never told her his best friend was Milwaukee’s Best, or that he was broke. These were surprises. So when I was two, she left. It built in me an emptiness I never could quite place. I moved into foster care, back to my father’s, then to my grandparents’, and finally to my aunt and uncle’s. The moving made me yearn for consistency. As a teenager I began looking for community online, and to some extent I found it. In my early 20’s I started blogging.
Since then I have maintained a growing presence within social media. What was once an obscure blog has grown into a platform that though I envisioned, I never thought I would actually achieve. One follower became hundreds. Hundreds became thousands. And thousands became tens of thousands. To turn Biggie’s phrase “More money, more problems,” my blog’s growth meant more visibility… and more criticism. Such is to be expected, I assumed, since the age of social media has granted us access to say almost anything we want, and to say it to almost anyone we want. Naturally then a larger audience should elicit a more frequent response, and more frequent criticism. But lately it is the nature of what constitutes ‘criticism’ within the social justice community that disturbs me.
Let me recognize here and now that there are many brilliant activists doing social media work that is both impacting and inspiring, despite arguments made otherwise. Their contributions not only have shaped and molded landscapes to include greater voice for oppressed peoples, but they have helped pioneer new mechanisms of self-actualization and radical re-education. In no small part my own understanding of the world has been enriched by experiences online. So I acknowledge the potential value of social media for positive change is incalculable. But like with most tools so malleable, it has a dark side. Its potential misuse and abuse is equally incalculable.
During my time managing blogs, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages I have both seen and experienced that dark side. In spite of all its positive potential, social media has erected a sort of Virtual Colosseum, one without the carnage of blades thrusted into flesh, but where mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds are inflicted nonetheless. In this new arena I have seen popular social justice bloggers disregard all attempt at compassion or dialogue and viciously attack each other. I have seen deeply disturbing tactics wielded against fellow movement builders for downright dishonest purposes while followers, the new-aged spectator, enthusiastically inflame unchecked abuse among wounded people.
Specifically, I am referring to folks who talk the talk of fighting for justice but who — when the time comes to meet misunderstanding with clarity, to embody empathy in the presence of generational and personal trauma, to practice community and accountability — replicate the very oppressive behaviors inflicted upon them. This includes some of the most historically destructive tactics deployed against marginalized people you can imagine: gaslighting, bad-jacketing, doxxing, credibility and character assassination, impersonation, and attempts to eviscerate an individual’s personhood, all the while passing it off as legitimate ‘activism’ and ‘critique.’
Watching these exchanges hurts. In an era of COINTELPROs, political imprisonment, and mass surveillance, tearing each other down this way simply cannot be a part of building a future toward liberation. Waging war on another oppressed person never ends with our freedom. There is only more blood — and deeper trenches.
Blueprinting the Colosseum
When Roman architects designed the Colosseum they did so with the explicit intent of entertaining audiences through competitive spectacle. Social media platforms are not so dissimilar. By treating access to audiences as social currency, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and just about any widely used social media platform, are designed to incubate cultures of competition. Users are required to build access by generating attractive content, engendering a following over time. This creates an economy centered on a simple transaction: content for followers. It also has the effect of generating a false sense of scarcity, and characteristic of any economy based on scarcity, competition between dominant users who strive to preserve and increase their influence is crucial.
Some time ago I read an article that illustrated how ideas function similarly to money in a capitalist market. Likewise, in the arena of online activism we often treat the discourses surrounding our oppression how capitalists treat market share, vying to monopolize the discourse with our own lived experiences and intellectual prowess, to solidify our own positions, oftentimes through oppressive tactics. Individuals who can get others to invest in their ideas or lived experiences about a particular discourse obtain greater access to that discourse, wielding greater influence over it as well (the greater the following, the greater the ability to signal boost your own perspectives, or at least perspectives with which you agree). Popular activists can come to dominate online discussions this way.
Herein lies another problem. When conversations are dominated by those who have obtained large followings, the creation and enforcement of hierarchy emerges. This hierarchy revolves around not just competition for followers, but for credibility among those followers. Activists with large online audiences are thought to already have established their credibility — especially among the newly politicized — by showcasing their intellect. All too often, however, this showcasing takes the form of shutting down and/or delegitimizing other users’ ideas and lived experiences. To admit one might potentially be wrong, or even inaccurate, is to lose credibility and access to followers (social currency).
Preventing this loss of currency can become incredibly vindictive. People start treating each other like ruthless transactions, carcasses to step over rather than human beings actively engaged in dialogue or disagreement. After a while it can feel like survival of the fittest. Sometimes it is. Just as billionaires have enormous resources at their disposal to manipulate the flow of power and preserve market dominance, social currency enables popular web-based activists to maintain dominance over online discourses. So while the visibility social media enables can be a valuable tool for the proliferation of alternative media, marginalized voices, and radical re-education, how that visibility is obtained and maintained can be painfully problematic.
Moving forward we have to remember that most social media platforms were designed to replicate online the same culture of competition that dominates our lives offline. Unless all parties involved understand its shortcomings, it rarely will be a good venue for highly sensitive conversations, especially when tens of thousands of users can intentionally or unintentionally derail, misconstrue, misinterpret, falsify, or gaslight conversations.
Blueprinting the Spectator
Deconstructing the dark side of online activism and understanding its design still leaves unanswered the question of why we continue to participate. If we witness harassment and unprincipled behavior among online activists, why do we continue to follow along?
Neuroscientific studies have suggested specific parts of the brain and its chemical composition may affect an individual’s attraction to aggressive behavior. For instance, one study documenting violence in young males suggested that increased “neuronal activity in the amygdala,” the region of the brain that processes fear and emotions, “correlated with more aggressive behavior.” But, despite these and other findings, scientific consensus remains inconclusive. Where science has not been able to establish a firm relationship, historical account also seems to support the possibility that humans may be attracted to aggression. Revisiting the Colosseum, Seneca, a Roman senator and philosopher, wrote of mass execution:
“All the previous fighting had been merciful by comparison. Now finesse is set aside, and we have pure unadulterated murder… This is what lots of people prefer to the regular contests… And it is obvious why. There is no helmet, no shield to repel the blade. Why have armour? Why bother with skill? All that just delays death. In the morning, men are thrown to lions and bears. At mid-day they are thrown to the spectators themselves. No sooner has a man killed, than they shout for him to kill another, or to be killed. The final victor is kept for some other slaughter. In the end, every fighter dies. And all this goes on while the arena is half empty.”
The dominant explanation for these trends is to assume aggression and violence are inevitable to the human condition. Such assumptions can be vacuous and void of nuance. There is another possible explanation though: that an environment dominated by systems of power (think Imperialist White Supremacist Cisheteropatriarchal Capitalism) plays a significant — if not defining — role. And when we are not constantly aware of how it has imprinted itself upon us, we will replicate its mechanisms and values within our interpersonal and interracial struggles. We can take note of this phenomenon by revisiting how, through punishment and retribution, the state infuses itself to our ideas of justice.
In Discipline and Punish French author Michel Foucault retraced the origins of modern punishment to the 18th century scaffold, where alleged criminals (or simply targets of the state) were publicly tortured and executed. These spectacles of power and punishment were meant not only to reconstitute a momentarily injured state sovereignty, but also to inscribe that sovereignty — respect for it, adherence to it, and belief in it — within witnesses themselves who could then, through word or action, be its gospels (48). This inscription process, however, was not purely observatory. Participation manifested in at least two ways: the right to witness in and of itself, and the walk of shame to the scaffold where the would-be executed could be insulted and brutalized by the crowd. It is through these participatory acts that the state solidified its prescriptions about how power ought to be wielded, by whom, and to what degree. In short, through participation the state’s justice became the people’s justice.
Power as spectacle takes on a wholly different form within social media, but if we have any phenomenon similar to the scaffold it would be call-out culture. To be quite clear, unlike the scaffold, call-outs can be marshalled to positively enact the will of the oppressed. In these instances it can be an indispensable tool for speaking truth to power, but like the media form it inhabits it too is malleable and subject to abuse. When wielded against fellow oppressed people, and without understanding how violence has been inscribed within us by hegemonic systems of power, it becomes a platform for punishment and retribution which invites the insults and brutalization of a virtual audience.
Think of it as a modern walk of shame. Spectators today use uniquely designed tools — likes, upvotes, reblogs, doxxing, dragging, etc. — to transcend passive observation of punishment into active participation. Here, as Foucault said, “Power is exercised rather than possessed; it is not the ‘privilege,’ acquired or preserved, of the dominant class, but the overall effect of its strategic positions — an effect that is manifested and sometimes extended by the position of those who are dominated” (26). When oppressed people watch or participate in destructive behavior toward one another in the name of social justice, in some way our values, and perhaps our pain, feel reaffirmed. We want to believe we are doing something powerful by adding our voices to already fraught conversations, and in fact we are; but at times it less the reestablishment of justice and more the reactivation of oppressive power dynamics.
It is also important to note that living within these power systems, when time to rest means potential death, and a place to heal means an ever elusive liberation, we are forced to carry our personal and generational trauma everywhere we go. In the arena of social media this carryover has a cannibalistic quality. Without time and space to suture our wounds the blood loss never stops. Heated disagreements between oppressed people take on the tone and feel of an attack, until finally, when all hope for reconciliation has evaporated, we devour one another. At such a point we have fallen back on dominant mechanisms of power, onto its value system, not only because of our own exhaustion, but also convenience and expedience. It may not be in our nature, but it certainly is second nature.
What follows then must be a path forward which centers the synthesis of both righteous anger and vigilant compassion.
Hurt People, Hurt People
When my mother left she took my heritage with her. And so my first understanding of the world filtered itself through my father’s eyes, and through his prejudices. Without my mother’s face to remind me of what and who I was I learned to hate myself, to hide my lips and straighten my hair, to befriend white face-paint. Memories of Honduras, aunts, uncles, and cousins eroded into a sea of nameless ghosts. In place of the memories I might have kept my father’s anger grew in me, an anger that spoke in the language of patriarchy. I learned to replace my loss with aggression rather than to move through my feelings. My heart searched for belonging, a place to call home where I felt surrounded and seen. It still searches.
I live with these struggles every day. They are scars sewn within me, projecting themselves around me in unseen spaces everywhere I go, like shadows within shadows. I don’t always know they are there, until something stirs and I am reminded. Sometimes it feels like sadness. Sometimes I remember the anger first. And sometimes, despite my best efforts, I lash out. I know I am not alone though. There are millions and millions of us fighting these battles, and what is so vital to our survival right now is that we learn how to navigate each other’s pain. Reading a piece my partner wrote recently, I came across a quote by Kai Cheng Thom which I think speaks to how difficult this process can be:
“The sociologist Kai Erickson once wrote that collective trauma is “a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together [. . .] so that ‘I’ continue to exist, though damaged, and ‘you’ continue to exist, though distant and hard to relate to. But ‘we’ no longer exist as linked cells in a larger communal body.” Simply put, if a group of people is traumatized — terrorized — enough, they will cease to feel connected to one another. This disconnection is a defensive response, an attempt to shut off the pain of being associated with the group. As a result, we become withdrawn, isolated inside the story that we are alone and without hope.”
The trouble with social media is it cannot replace what it means to feel genuinely connected to community. Community cannot be built through infinitesimal moments, what amount to digitized transactions. And it cannot be built beneath the hierarchies of social currency. At best the glimpses into each other’s oppression it affords can enable a shallow — albeit useful — awareness. But awareness of someone else’s oppression through the occasional glance of its expression, the tiny bit shared through a blog post or a tweet, is to be a passenger on a train moving through the coastline of time: After a moment peering into the horizon we claim to have beheld the ocean when instead we should ask how far does it stretch, how deep does it run?
Womanist and poet Audre Lorde put the challenge of reclaiming our communal body well: “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressor’s tactics, the oppressor’s relationships.”
Between the old and new Colosseum one difference towers above the rest: Gladiators rarely had a choice in fighting each other, but we do. In spite of our environment, we can choose to continue to replicate with each other the oppression we say we are fighting, to be the crowd that inflames it, or we can make the effort to see each others’ pain more deeply, to be compassionate, to create space for our collective healing, to problematize our joint liberation, and to understand what it will take to achieve it.