The internet, supposedly the ascendant space of liberal values – if the net neutrality camp is to be believed, it’s the home of the free exchange of ideas and commodities. But whose ideas? And whose commodities? When we approach the web as a political sphere, the online world becomes somewhat murkier: we see parallels of the same hegemonic structures which govern offline life, in sharp relief.
This is nowhere more prevalent than in the culture of online comments. Recent research published in the Guardian is edifying, if not obvious: you are more likely to be abused online if you are a woman, queer, or an ethnic-cultural-racial minority. While this research is targeting the world of online journalism, it is equally evident in other forms of interaction. The prevalence of revenge porn shows us the insidious depth of this power. Online harassment parallels clearly offline cultural norms: street harassment, rape and sexual abuse all have their web 2.0 editions, and are equally (if not more – consider the public nature of the internet) harmful.
Anita Sarkeesian’s insightful examination of sexual violence and misogyny in videogames was met with an extreme hostility: the subsequent ‘GamerGate’ scandal shows us the power of the digital realm to rally against threats to the supposed-liberal identity structure. A suggestion that digital culture is a boys club is a great way of proving that it is. (See the response and judge for yourself.)
Digital culture, then, directly parallels the silencing tactics of the ‘real’ world. Political interaction is governed by the views of the orthodox minority: the liberal, free-speechers who in one breath defend the right to offend as a necessary part of the ‘battlefield of ideas’, and simultaneously decry othered liberal movements against the police state thanks to their ethnic/racial slant. Case in point is the Black Lives Matter movement of North America. It’s the Bill Clinton paradox. While on the one hand, liberal values require black civil rights as a basic tenet of the superstructure of capitalism (wherein black civil rights become commodified as a tool of white liberalism to subvert the radical character of Black liberation movements), the threat therein is the destabilisation of the political sphere through the same civil rights which subvert political hegemony through the addition of new voices. Predominantly, these are voices of the outside: voices that do not mesh with the world that white liberalism has shaped since its violent birth in the European revolutions of the nineteenth century.
It’s fitting to consider the French, here. The ‘Je Suis Charlie’ pseudo-movement should reveal to us the basic character of the netizen. The rallying cry of ‘free speech’ attracts transatlantic (and, indeed, transnational) attention. Whether or not the vicious attack on the Hebdo offices (a horrendous act of violence) represents a free speech issue, to frame it as a free speech question provides a great opportunity for Othering. WE, the French (and, by extension, the subject as the French-substitute), are in opposition to THEM, the Muslim world (and, by extension, the object of political correctness, the censor, the intrusive government, etc).
It could be argued that the Guardian comments research reveals that the liberal character of the online world is a facade. But in fact, the research simply reveals the contradictions of liberal doctrine. Repealing 18C? Bad. Dangerous. Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish obscene cartoons? Good. Freedom becomes valuable online when it allows us to preserve the status quo. When it threatens the political order, such as the subversive Sarkeesian suggestion that video games featuring rape are toxic, there’s a hue and cry, and a subsequent witch-hunt. To paraphrase and (slightly) bastardise John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette, freedom is important to us precisely because it’s not. Because it’s so arbitrary, because it’s so abstract, liberal doctrine can paint anything from drawing the prophet Mohammed to ‘downloading’ (stealing) music and films as a freedom-question. The contradiction can then be presented thus: online interaction gives us the chance to abuse international students anonymously, and at the same time, in quasi-radical organisations, organise Occupy protests.
Freedom, then, is not the freedom to subvert and question the order, or the political hegemony – in fact, online, doing that is a great way to get targeted by 4chan. Rather, it’s the freedom for white, bourgeois, twenty-something males to enact a certain liberalism.
We should, of course, defend the right to a free internet. But this involves restructuring the culture of the digital world.
A truly free internet is one in which columnists don’t face abusive comments based on their sex, age, or colour of their skin. Rather (to appeal to the same freedom-values of liberalism), it’s the open space for exchange of knowledge and ideas. The wiki-world we’re entering is an opportunity to reinvent political discourse. Already, it is doing so. Access to information informs voters in a way previously impossible. ABC’s fact checker used to mean cutting through the spin was as easy as a Google search.
But freedom-questions can only be answered by a radical rethink of how to approach hegemonic structures, which exist as much online as in the real world. By destabilising the liberal net through radical intervention, a better digital culture is possible – one which represents the entirety of the internet user-base, rather than a small subset. Even Bernie Sanders’ Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) successes should give us a view of a potential new internet user: quasi-radical, post-liberal. Disenfranchised, at the very least, and ready to be heard.
In other words, don’t give into the trolls. They’re just nerds, who’ve had their day, and are clinging to power, stabilising the political status quo. Fight for a better internet. See you in the comments.