Gaza, Slacktivists, and Internet Shaming

This isn’t about theology, but it’s certainly about ethics, along with some sociology and current events. FYI, there are some cusswords below.

The conflict in Gaza is probably the most complicated international event in history. I’ve been reading about it for years, and I honestly have very little sense that I actually know what’s going on. People who’ve been studying it for decades often claim that they know what’s going on, except that opinions and analyses of the situation are so divided and contradictory that it’s hard to find two people who agree entirely with a theory about what’s going on. People within the nations of Israel and Palestine are divided amongst themselves about what’s going on, and especially about what could stop it.

Nobody really knows what’s going on – not even the people who live there. None of us can see the whole picture, and I think that’s part of why it’s so difficult to follow: this is actually many different conflicts rolled into one, but everyone seems to think it’s about one nation against another. It’s not that simple, and I sincerely wish that people would stop producing videos and blog posts and infographics that try to simplify it. Maybe if you read all of them you could avoid being misled. Maybe.

So nobody knows what’s going on, but as the great sage once said, opinions are like assholes, and there are plenty of assholes on the internet. Or something like that. So it seems that everyone on the internet not only has an opinion about the issue, but they hold opinions about it that are so strong that they feel the need to religiously defend it, shaming and demonizing anyone who would dare disagree or present the issue from a different perspective. This kind of behaviour is pretty standard in politics, but I think that the internet is magnifying it, and I think I know why.

There is a thing called the “Online disinhibition effect,” perhaps better known as the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. It was noticed back in the 70’s on CB radio, and it’s only gotten worse in the digital age, but it’s summed up well by Penny Arcade’s “GIFT”: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad. It was later adjusted for clarity: Normal Person – Consequences + Audience = …well, you get it. The anonymity of the internet makes us feel like we can say and do whatever we want, and the normal social inhibitions we feel go out the window. We’re willing to say things online that we would never dream of saying in public or to someone’s face.

So this leads to another equation, wherein the political ostracism and censorship of others who don’t hold our views gets magnified via the internet:

Normal Person – Consequences + Self-righteous Political Fury + Audience = …well, Total F-wad just doesn’t seem to cover it. To quote Fancisco de Goya, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” On issues like Gaza, we become self-righteous monsters. I think that’s probably the worst kind of monster. We’re getting into megalomania territory, on a scale as big as the internet.

Yesterday provided me with a good example of this. A leader in a group I’m a part of wrote a blog post about Gaza, and before I’d even had a chance to see the post, there was a petition showing up on the wall of my Facebook group asking for his immediate resignation. So, I tracked down the blog post in question – which wasn’t very easy, as I had to log into a closed-group website and search for it – and read it expecting…well, the comments I had seen about the post before I read it said that this guy was blaming Gazan civilians for the conflict, and legitimizing genocide. I was underwhelmed by the post itself. First of all, it’s a blog post. It’s fairly poorly written, as if he were just getting something off of his chest – definitely not an official news release on our group’s letterhead! Second, the dominant theme of the entire post was his sadness over the entire situation. The post didn’t blame anyone except Hamas (though it expressed sadness that Hamas had managed to be democratically elected as a government), and it certainly didn’t legitimize genocide (though it expressed sadness that Israel would have to retaliate on a greater scale if Hamas continues its current tactics and attacks). The level of subtext that people needed to read into this post in order to make it offensive is astounding, yet the first three comments on the post each said things like “I’m shocked and disappointed…” and “I’m leaving this group and withdrawing all support.” I’d link you to the post and the comments, but I’m far too embarrassed on behalf of the entire group.

So I went back to my Facebook group’s wall and commented on this petition post, explaining why I wasn’t going to sign the petition: that I believe that everyone has the right to an opinion, that this person wasn’t speaking for the group (as several disclaimers made clear) and that we as a group can’t hope to accomplish much if we’re quick to disown and censure (and censor) our members. This morning, the post I had commented on had been removed (taking my comment with it) and then re-posted (without my comment). Others have also had their comments deleted, from the look of things.

The level of hypocrisy is astounding, but understandable given the social psychology at work. The issue itself – the conflict in Gaza – is powerful and intense, inviting powerful and intense opinions and reactions. Those reactions, like the parties in the conflict itself, disagree about the nature of the conflict, and get lumped in with the parties of the conflict itself – i.e., people have “chosen a side” simply by holding an opinion. This creates an in-crowd bias, or an “us and them” mentality. This psychological phenomenon allows us to completely dissociate with people who aren’t in our group or on our “side” of the issue, ignoring or reading into what they say rather than seeking to actually hear them. This is what lets someone see a comment about the Israeli right to self-defense as a call for genocide, or support of aparthied. This is also what lets someone see the calls of extremists for the death of all Jews as representative of all Palestinians, or even of all Muslims. Both sides of the issue are able to completely demonize each other with the same deliberately inflammatory claims: terms like “genocide” and “holocaust” may or may not reflect what’s actually going on there, but they serve the function of equating their opponents with Nazis. It’s Godwin’s Law, without actually saying “Hitler”. Why are people okay with implying that people they don’t know, either here in North America or on the other side of the world, are Nazis based on simply holding another opinion about the most complicated conflict in history? Because of the GIFT, or Online Disinhibition Effect.

A fascinating thing about the internet is that it is lawless, but that it is also self-policing. The internet is a web of smaller communities, and each one of those communities has social rules, written and/or unwritten, and it polices itself primarily through some members shaming others. In a healthy internet community, all it takes is for a senior member of the community (usually signified by the number of starts under their name on the forums) to tell someone that their conduct in the community is inappropriate. Sometimes moderators ban repeat offenders, but that doesn’t usually have a very strong effect. Far more powerful is when senior members of the community will point to delinquent behaviour, and pick it apart to show how childish and foolish it is. If this is done tactfully, it can actually be a feature of a relatively healthy community; those delinquent members of the community tend to change their behaviour in order to earn respect in the community, and in turn will break in the new delinquents, who either leave or grow up. So while I normally don’t approve of shaming others, it seems to be the most effective tool on the internet for bringing people under control within a community. It can actually control GIFT.

The trouble is, not every part of the internet is a community. Some parts are so big and unrelated to any particular group that they’re no-man’s-land, and the imposition of social rules and the reinforcement of shaming simply don’t apply. That’s where GIFT comes in most strongly. A news source is an island, under constant barrage by pirates and outlaws with no real hope of controlling the comments section. People take news stories from there back to their smaller web communities, or more controlled social spaces like Facebook, and sometimes they take the lawless GIFT-inspired rhetoric with them. Then, even a relatively controlled and healthy community can become inflamed by it. The complete lack of social control (i.e., shame) in no-man’s-land informs our opinions, and then we reinforce those opinions within our more controlled group through shaming.

Which is how a group founded on democratic principles and positive politics has its members shaming their president and demanding his resignation because he shared an opinion on the most complicated c0nflict in history and not everyone within the group agreed with him.

I can’t blame people for this. It’s a social-psychological phenomenon, we’re all victims of it, and we all perpetuate it. That said, we need to rise above it. We need to have values that override the GIFT, and primary among those values, we need to see people as people. Otherwise, the conflict in Gaza will consume the whole world. Our anonymous self-righteous demonization of those we disagree with won’t save us from each other, and it certainly won’t help Gaza.