Yes and no on vicious online commenters

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, August 3, 2010 14:50 EDT
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Matt Zoller Seitz, in his usual wannabe contrarian way, has an article up at Salon about why he thinks that anonymous comments do the public a service, by showing how ugly, vicious, racist, misogynist, and mean-spirited Americans can be if they don’t feel like they have to be held accountable for their actions. I find some of his points intriguing, though I have to point out that it’s easy for a white dude to see it all as a big science experiment, because he’s blinded to the way that hate speech reflects actual threats of violence and oppression in the real world for many people. For instance, take this quote:

You see this phenomenon all over the Internet, including Salon, which, despite having some of the smartest and most articulate commenters on the Web, has also attracted its fair share of vitriol.

The picture he paints, of a comment section that has a balance of smart commenters and mega-assholes, isn’t evident when the writers are female, and especially not when they talk about anything relating to women’s rights, female sexuality, anything under the general umbrella of “women’s issues”. Then there are few to no smart and articulate commenters, because they are completely drowned out by a chorus of men who literally seem to have nothing to do all day but find uppity women that they hope to berate and belittle until they give up on life. Having this sort of detached view of these kinds of comments is a luxury for a man who doesn’t have to worry about encountering these commenters in the real world.

That said, I do think Matt is half-right. On one hand, he’s right that the world of vicious online commenting should give us a peek into the way that ideas actually transmit in our culture. I wouldn’t say that the things people say online in comments are limited to arenas where they don’t have to deal with flesh-and-blood people. Actually, I think a lot of online comments reflect the sort of things many Americans happily say behind closed doors or in email forwards. But either way, Matt’s right that the viciousness of online anonymous commenters shouldn’t be waved off as just so much noise, but is a good indicator of how large numbers of people actually think. (He says how “we” think, which isn’t right in the slightest. “We” aren’t a world of people who take glee in the idea of Mel Gibson beating the shit out of his girlfriend, for instance. The people who swarmed to YouTube to root on domestic violence are far from speaking for the country.) Before the existence of online commentary, it was hard to explain how widespread certain notions are to people who perhaps don’t confront them on a daily basis. But nowadays, if you’re confused about why, for instance, a St. Louis jury would decide that leaving your house and going to a bar means that you don’t get to say no to being in porn, you can turn to the swarms of misogynist blathering online for a good indicator of how easy it is to stack a jury full of people that think the price women should pay for the “crime” of having fun while being young is sexual assault. In years past, it was more of a mystery why so many Americans vote for Republicans against their own best interests. Now we have piles of online evidence that many of them are just assholes who vote Republican because it’s the reliable asshole party. These are people whose idea of “self-interest” is sticking it to everyone else, particularly women, gays, and non-white men.

Matt dwells on the idea of the real self vs. the mask when it comes to this discussion:

When a person comments anonymously, we’re told, they’re putting a mask on. But the more time I spend online the more I’m convinced that this analogy gets it backward.

The self that we show in anonymous comments, the fantasy self, the self we see in the mirror when we fantasize about being tough and strong and feared, the face we would present to the world if there were no such thing as consequences: That’s the real us.

The civil self is the mask.

Again, I reject being looped into this “we” and “us” talk. And I think Matt oversells the notion that people who leave, for instance, misogynist vitriol in the comment section on YouTube are nice to women in their real lives. On this issue alone, I have to point out that the world has plenty of men who beat, abuse, and sexually assault women, and I imagine there’s a lot of overlap between that category of men and men who go online to defend men who beat, abuse, and sexually assault women. I’ve often noted that it’s unlikely that all men who go online to scream and carry on about how women who claim they were raped do so out of a sheer delusional belief that there’s some kind of unjust tarring of men going on, but that many of them have ulterior motives. This is why I can see that it’s hard to have scientific distance from the people spilling vitriol online. It’s because it’s unreasonable to think that it stays online, that it is just a matter of people who act right in the world living out a power fantasy online.

I agree with Matt that vicious online commentary shouldn’t be waved off as so much noise, but that it can give us insight into why things are the way they are in this country (i.e., raw hatred and bullying are major political motivators). Still, most people basically refuse to see it, and instead tend to downplay the numbers and the impact of people who dump this crap everywhere. Plus, a lot of what drives chaotic, trolling assholes online is their seething resentments, and they see disrupting conversation as an act of petty revenge. There’s no real reason to indulge them in this, and so I support mainstream media online that has moved towards comment registration and flagging systems. Having productive conversations online is more important than getting minute to minute reminders of how nasty some people are. Plus, there will always be swarms of unmoderated commenting zones that provide the reminder of how sick and twisted some Americans are, if you need a reminder.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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