How Facebook will enable the Brownshirts

A few weeks ago — in the calm, sensible world where it looked like the U.S. would buck the global trend toward nationalist authoritarianism — I got into a heated political exchange with a friend-of-friend on Facebook. Over Trump, of course. This Friend-of-Friend — call him “Chuck” — turned out to be more than a little unhinged. After a sharp comment or two, he threatened my job, citing connections he had within my employer’s management, stating that he’d tell them essentially false things about what I’d said to him.

I don’t know if it was genuine or simple bravado, but I felt legitimately threatened. Facebook knows my name, my employer, my residence, and I’d chosen to make much of this information public — thinking, perhaps naïvely, that the people who found me on Facebook might like to know these things about me. I hadn’t anticipated that people on Facebook would use that information to threaten me.

I reported this threat to Facebook’s abuse team, but they ultimately declined to take action. I’m not sure why they felt Chuck’s threats didn’t violate Facebook’s Terms of Service — I’m fairly sure that threatening someone’s job should count as a violation. I’m not sure if they bothered to check Chuck’s commenting history (he had deleted the most explicit threats by the time Facebook reviewed my complaint). In any event, the threat was made, it is for all effective purposes still extant, and Facebook did fuck-all about it.

In an age of Trump, most of us are focusing on the most obvious parallels to the Nazi era, looking to precedents both in Europe and the U.S. We compare a rumored Muslim registry to Nazi Germany’s registration of the Jews; we compare the plan to deport 2–3 million immigrants in an unprecedentedly short period of time to the Japanese internment; we post and share stories about hate speech and graffiti occurring on the streets. But we need to gird ourselves for the brownshirts of the information era — the alt-right stooges of Bannon, the Breitbart readers, the Pepe-flag provocateurs out for lulz. Because they are coming for us. That is why Trump placed Bannon so centrally in his administration.

Mainstream culture does not understand troll culture; and I worry that, as a result, we will lack institutional strength precisely where we need it. We need to be able to withstand the wave of doxxing, google-bombing, and online harassment that will effectively silence Trump’s most ardent and effective critics and create an appearance of public consensus of support for the man and his policies.

Right now, you might feel emboldened to post an incendiary anti-Trump public status on Facebook. But what happens when the wrong person gets wind of it? Are you going to feel quite so bold when some anonymous group of people decides to take you down a notch by smearing you online? By doing everything they can to figure out your address and make you feel like some crazy person might actually want to do you physical harm?

This is how Trump will silence his critics. He will take his Twitter-cannon and point it at his targets, and his aim will serve as tacit endorsement to the alt-right and Pepes: “Attack.” They will come for his critics with death threats, pages upon pages of misleading google hits, publicized home addresses, etc. And this community of attack dogs will urge each other on, in a constant game of oneupsmanship, with “success” measured in terms of your public contrition, your silence. Trump himself will only target his most prominent critics but, rest assured, the community will come for anyone they deem a worthy enough target, regardless of prominence. You are either the “enemy” — in the view of the alt-right — or a lulz-worthy target — in the view of the Pepes.

How do we fight this? I think we have to do three things. First, we have to take it seriously. Facebook and Twitter cannot turn a blind eye to this kind of harassment. And when we receive threats to our person, we should report them to the authorities — local police and possibly the FBI — rather than choose to remain silent. Most of these threats are unlikely to be “genuine” in the sense that someone will literally come after us, but unless we treat them as fully genuine, the trolls will have no repercussions for issuing them.

Second, we have to not take it seriously. If you are an employer or an HR person or a person in authority, you have to be prepared not to believe everything you read or receive from the internet. The alt-right and Pepes have already begun proving their capacity for deception, by circulating images of anti-Trump protests that have been doctored to malign the protesters. We simply have to become more sophisticated about how we process information circulating online. The trolls are counting on our being unsophisticated, for their techniques to work.

Third, use pseudonyms wherever possible in your online life, pseudonyms as dissociated from your real-life identity as possible. Facebook makes this effectively impossible, if not completely counterproductive. But Facebook is not the only place where criticism of Trump needs to be voiced.

Chuck’s threat wouldn’t have me second-guessing my public Facebook behavior if I could believe that Facebook would have my back or if I could trust that my employer wouldn’t just take Chuck’s word for it and would instead seek to talk to me for my side of the story. But as long as Facebook and Twitter are hands-off in how they manage this kind of harassment, and as long as my name is out there and potentially smeared with a “top hit” at the top of any current or future employer’s search results, the trolls behind Trump have all the power they need to enforce an enduring obedience in service of Trump’s agenda.