By now the story is so familiar the particulars are irrelevant. Perhaps a tragedy has taken place. Perhaps a debate has boiled over into controversy. Emotions run high.
Under these circumstances, everyone has a reaction, and the internet provides a medium for everyone to express that reaction in public. For some, the internet offers a venue for the construction of a persona, a presentation of a best self. For others, it provides a cloak of anonymity, facilitating confession and catharsis. Both of these tendencies find their purest expression on Twitter, where every utterance is distilled to its most essential form, and virality elevates particular utterances in an economy driven primarily by random chance. These tendencies have been given names.
The first has been called “virtue signalling,” a phrase that originates in antipathy towards social justice activists from the far right, but has caught on among a wider audience. Whatever its origins, the term describes a behavior that is apparent to many who do not share the politics of those who coined it. Its purpose is to demonstrate the moral superiority of its practitioner. To show that the person who posted the meme or the quote or the profile photo with the flag filter is better than the average person.
The second is called “shitposting” in its general form, or “trolling” in its targeted form. Its purpose is to cause damage. Unless you’re a pacifist or a prude, there’s no reason to consider this inherently unacceptable behavior — some ideas are justly the target of irreverence. But this practice is also used to hurt people, sometimes out of malice or bigotry. This is an outcome that Twitter’s management has never done an adequate job addressing.
You might say that all behavior on Twitter falls into one or the other category. Mike Nichols said that every scene in a movie is either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation. On Twitter, perhaps everything you post is either virtue signalling, trolling, or shitposting.
No form of media is so effective as Twitter at causing its user to dissociate from reality. The stream of information flows at such intoxicatingly high speeds, its reference to the external world can become tenuous. The tweet-form lends itself to an ironic mode that can sometimes be difficult, if not impossible to parse. This results in the peculiar rhetoric of the internet alt-right, the ironic expression of sincerely held racist beliefs.
But again, this problem affects the rest of us. It can be hard to remember that tweets are about real events, and that the usernames and avatars represent real people. The volume of information on Twitter requires the awareness of a number of people that may not have precedent in human history. As recently as the early 20th century, how many people spoke to you in a lifetime? Twitter users probably surpass that number every day.
As a result, single utterances or single users are collectively selected for general consideration. The funny, cute, or profound tweet that goes viral, that everyone discusses. Or, in some cases, the user everyone collectively decides to hate.
Let’s say someone makes a bad joke. The nature of humor is to flirt with taboos; if you tell someone enough jokes, you will eventually offend them. Famously, Justine Sacco offended enough people with a joke on Twitter that it destroyed her life. This is an event that has recurred endlessly since.
The mechanics of this process are a combination of all of Twitter’s modes. In the context of an emotionally charged event or debate, a particular utterance by a particular user is elevated to the level of a paradigmatic signifier. It then becomes possible to signal virtue through trolling. Any feelings about a specific event, or about the whole set of people implicated, can be targeted at one person. An outlet is provided for feelings formerly stifled by lack of direction.
Of course, it won’t help. It won’t rectify a tragedy, because the person being targeted is not actually responsible for the tragedy. Its benefit is introjected by the attacker. It satisfies a sort of bloodlust, while at the same time functioning as self-exoneration. It inverts the famous Biblical parable: because I have cast this stone, it says, I am therefore without sin.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the worst possible human impulse. Yes, it’s a minor iteration of it. But look at what’s taking place. It’s the formation of a mob in opposition to an individual, that holds that individual responsible for collective guilt and seeks to alleviate it by causing pain. The only goal the mob achieves is to force that one individual to pay penance for the crimes of the community. The achievement of catharsis through blame. The colloquial term is scapegoating.
That individual may well be guilty of something — aren’t we all? It may even be something indefensible. But what is gained from the mob’s treatment of that person? They may suffer reduction of their quality of life, but that will not raise the dead. Nor will it yield a more just society, because the mechanisms that reduce the quality of life are categorically the tools of injustice.
Let’s say an act of terrorism has taken place, and someone we’ve previously never heard of makes an insensitive joke about it. We, the good people of the internet, spring into action. We troll that person, malign that person’s reputation. We contact that person’s employer. We get that person fired. We make sure that person’s name is permanently associated with the worst thing they ever said — one that there is no doubt countless other Twitter users also said, but no matter. We’ve triumphed. The offense, and the offender, are vanquished.
What will happen when the dust settles? The terrorists who targeted innocent people will not be affected. Powerful politicians will take advantage of their actions and the deaths they caused with truly corrupt cynicism, arguing in the racist calculus of modern geopolitics that it will now be necessary for innocents in other countries to die, in order to respond to the terrorist threat. In spite of this far more offensive act, they will keep their jobs. The person who tweeted the bad joke, however, will lose theirs. The cumulative effect of the attack on that person will be to increase national unemployment by a single digit.
There will, however, be one benefit. The members of the mob will have satisfied themselves. They will now have evidence in support of the belief that because someone is worse, they are better. In the process, they will have satisfied a base desire to take down an enemy.
Human civilization makes allowances for these behaviors; in fundamentalist religious ritual, in imperialist war, in punitive criminal justice. These practices are not only condoned, they are often valorized. The members of the mob are no worse than the rest of society.
But they are mistaken if they believe that they are any better.