The online public sphere, an environment of vitriol and ridicule

The photo above shows two teenagers passed out on the street in one of the busiest nightlife areas of Quito, Ecuador, likely from excessive alcohol. If someone posted this photo online, and wrote about how they tried to get law enforcement officers to stop and help them, with 4 pairs of police completely ignoring them until a fifth pair, motorcycle police, finally stopped and attended to them, what would your reaction be?

If it would be to criticise the police that didn’t stop, and/or the other people around seemingly oblivious to the two teenagers, and wonder how any society or community could get to the stage of simply ignoring two young people in such obvious need of assistance, then we probably have a few things in common. And I would have hoped, would be amongst the majority.

Or would your reaction have been to personally insult and attack the person posting the photo, telling them that they had no right to criticise the situation, that if the poster had a problem with the situation then they should be the one to deliver the solution, even if the poster was (acceptably) drunk from a night out and not in a condition to be doing such – especially when there were a number of far more qualified law enforcement officers in the immediate vicinity? Oh, and then to follow that up by criticising the poster for being drunk at all, as if THAT was the problem, rather than the two passed out teenagers being ignored by everyone around them.

I experienced this second reaction from a number of people when posting this photo and story to a Facebook group for Quito expats. To say that these comments came as somewhat of a shock to me would be an understatement. Though perhaps I shouldn’t be so naive.

Hitler, Stalin, Nazi Germany, and running a Facebook group in Argentina

Adolf Hitler instigated the death of 6 million Jews during World War 2 in Europe.
Joseph Stalin was a violent dictator who’s reign oversaw the death of tens of millions of citizens and foreign enemies of his state.
I help to moderate a Facebook community group for expats in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

A sample of the insults that have been directed either at me personally or to the volunteer admin group as a whole:

  • “Hitler”.
  • “1940s Germany”.
  • “Stalin”.
  • And the most recent effort brought out “Oberführer“.

With over 5,000 members and growing rapidly you can imagine there’s a very wide range of viewpoints and opinions that we need to cater for, as there would be in any group of this size. We do this in part by having some basic rules and guidelines on members behaviour within the group, such as asking that members should search the group first before posting in case their question has been answered previously, and includes getting group member input on some of the rules such as for how many advertising posts members can post per month, as a couple of examples. All pretty straightforward and understandable… you would think.

Yet implementing these fairly understandable rules has elicited the above kinds of insults from a number of people. Usually from those who want to advertise their business and service rather than answer the questions of other members, of course. But sometimes from those who simply can’t be bothered to read the rules at all, the rules they agreed to when they joined the group… and their reaction at being politely reminded to do so?

“It’s like 1940s Germany…”.

The public sphere

The idea of the public sphere emerged in 18th century Europe, which the most well known communication theorist on the matter, Jürgen Habermas, defined as a “society engaged in critical public debate” that occurred within a public space outside of the control of the state, where individuals could exchange views and knowledge and form public opinion.

The basic idea in layman’s terms is that the public could discuss a range of topics in a critical but constructive manner, with the objective of forming some kind of consensus or agreement that would improve society.

With the advent of the Internet, and the ability to communicate and engage in real time with people from around the world, you would presume this would allow for exponential growth of the public sphere, and help to bring further understanding and acceptance of others from very different cultures and backgrounds.

Which, to be fair, has happened in certain instances.

But what has also grown exponentially are those whose main objective online seems to be to seek out those with differing views and opinions than their’s, and rather than create a constructive dialogue where they convey their alternative viewpoint and seek some level of mutual understanding and acceptance of each other’s opinion, instead want to direct insults and/or ridicule of a personal nature to those conveying an alternative viewpoint. Or as it has come to be known online, “trolling”.

The relative or in some cases complete anonymity of the online public sphere must be the main factor contributing to the extreme nature of some of the personal attacks that occur. Of the incidents I’ve either experienced or observed, in the majority of cases it’s fairly apparent that the language being used the attacker is not the kind of language they would ever use if they were talking to you face to face. “Cowardly” is the term that most easily comes to mind on many occasions.

And hence in many instances this has completely changed the nature of the “public sphere”, from one of constructive and intellectual discourse with the aim to seek improvement within society, to one where those that may have the desire to do so are often drowned out by the vitriol of those who have no real desire to do anything but reinforce their own viewpoint as being the only valid one.

So in effect we stagnate, or worse go backwards as a society, as more and more online users with perfectly valid and potentially constructive ideas and theories, become less and less likely to share those ideas and theories with others, at the risk of all out attacks from these “trolls”.

So what is the solution?

In truth, I don’t know. When I first entered the digital industry in the late 90s, in the early days of the initial growth of the public Internet, I recall being very optimistic about how this new global communication medium would change the world in a positive manner. I thought it had to, as the main factor behind most societal and inter-societal problems often originates from ignorance of the other. Surely being able to talk in real time to someone on the other side of the world would help you understand their point of view?

Instead we now have online users for the most part accessing online information through narrower and narrower channels, and seeking out those channels that reinforce rather than challenge their own world views. And anything that intrudes on their narrow window they seek to push out or ignore completely. Or in the case of online communities, engage in personal attacks aimed at those with differing viewpoints in order to silence them completely.

We saw the “dumbing down” of the more traditional medium of television over the latter decade of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, as more and more news and information programs were replaced by entertainment and “escapist” programming. And indeed the news that did survive had to become pseudo entertainment rather than news programs. Are we now seeing that same dumbing down of the online channel, with more and more online users wanting to be entertained rather than informed, with any new information being the enemy to their online objectives?

My optimism for the future has dimmed somewhat since the late 90s.

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