Indulge me, for a few minutes, in some light conspiracy thinking.
A while back The Washington Post reported A ‘liberal teacher’ became a conservative enemy for a viral Vegas tweet.
[Sean Hannity] mentioned a tweet that he said had been sent his way. It was written by “a teacher,” can you believe it? Hannity paraphrased the tweet: “Oh they’re probably Trumptards. I hope only Trumptards were killed.”
But she doesn’t exist. There was no Tweet. It was a hoax.
It didn’t really matter. I’ve written before about Twitter’s toxicity, and the rise of people and organizations who seem to be selling outrage in bulk. The angry mob descends upon the offender across multiple mediums and asks questions later.
This phenomenon isn’t new. The “Social Media Experts” (see also: fresh college grads in 2010 who found an early-career opportunity in the middle of a recession) used to warn that a public opinion crisis could form seemingly in the blink of an eye.
I’d assumed that the mobs were genuine. Some were activists trying to get a message across or their friends fired up. Some were using Twitter to blow off steam. And some people were just mad, you know?
I’d assumed that the mobs’ victims were more or less real as well. Some were also blowing off steam, telling a tasteless joke, or just putting their foot in the mouth the old-fashioned way.
Maybe that was true. It’s not anymore.
Today The New York Times ran an OpEd from a guy who started reporting Neo-Nazi trolls for pretending to be people they hate.
The con goes like this: The impersonator lifts an online photo of a Jew, Muslim, African-American or other minority — typically one with clear identifying markers, like a yarmulke-clad Hasid or a woman in hijab. Using that picture as a Twitter avatar, the bigot then adds ethnic and progressive descriptors to the bio: “Jewish,” “Zionist,” “Muslim,” “enemy of the alt-right.”
False identity forged, the trolls then insert themselves into conversations with high-profile Twitter users — conversations that are often seen by tens of thousands of followers — and proceed to say horrifically racist things.
This is incredibly clever.
Suppose the fake-teacher’s tweet wasn’t a troll. Suppose it was someone deliberately trying to put fuel on the fire. Perhaps they wanted to discredit their opponents, or they profit from the Rage Machine in some way, or because they’re a Russian spy trying to introduce chaos.
The infrastructure for this already exists. All you have to do is pick a group of people you want to infuriate, and tailor a Molotov cocktail of asininity to their liking.
And a Rage Industrial Complex™ is just waiting to gobble it up. Believability is moot. Importance is moot: any nameless bozo identifying with a particular group (NRA, Jews, feminists, Trump enthusiasts, actresses, Minnesotans, BLM, American Dental Association) is an adequate straw man to unleash the dogs upon.
We know for a fact some people are doing this. We know who some of them are. We know some of their motives. We don’t really understand the scale yet; it’s always bigger than it looks.1
And we don’t have a clue how to stop it.
Neither does the tech industry, much of what still thinks they’re a neutral platform with no obligations to the social problems they’ve created.
Part of me understands their hesitation. This is hard. It might be impossible. It’s an adversarial game, like fighting spam or hackers. The rage-mongers will respond to attempts to defuse them.
Then I see Twitter’s calendar of changes to their abuse policy. It includes “we still start banning accounts for organizations that use violence to advance their cause.” Starting November 2017, if you want to have a terrorist organization, not explicitly advocating for violence on their platform won’t be a valid defense.
It only took them 11 years to reach that conclusion, and it’s a significantly easier dictum to enforce than dealing with malicious rabble-rousers.
I’d like to think that this nonsense won’t persuade anyone. So what if @AngryProgressiveTaecher [sic] is an outrageous jackass? We’ve met many outrageous jackasses and they come from all walks of life.
Unfortunately we live in a world that had an actual moral panic about Satanic worshipping child abuse less than 30 years ago. I wouldn’t bet against gullibility, especially when it’s aimed to sow distrust and foster lingering suspicions, and distort the perception of public opinion. That’s a much lower bar than convincing serious people that daycare centers are full of devil-worshippers.
For the rest of us, it’s a reminder to be deeply skeptical.
I for one miss the good old days when our greatest concern about people on the internet is that they might all be dogs.