Thursday 13 July 2017

Toward a Sociology of Political Abuse

Here we go again. Theresa May's announcement of an inquiry into the abuse of parliamentary candidates came a day before racist toff Rhodri Colwyn Philipps got sent down for Facebook threats against Gina Miller. What with the proximity to the anniversary of Jo Cox's murder and the declaration of war by, I'm not making this up, the Daily Mail against "hard left bullies", we've reached another of these crescendos where comment on internet abuse is glutting the web.

What does and doesn't constitute abuse? There is a fine line between abuse and rudeness, but it exists nevertheless. Straight up abuse looks like this. It's the crap that Diane Abbott has put up with for three decades, it's the rape threats, the death threats, the anti-semitism and racism. It is designed to denigrate, humiliate and, in some cases, put people in fear of their lives and mental well-being. It is an order different from the usual rudeness one finds in the cut and thrust of politics. Abuse is not losing your rag in a discussion, getting angry at a figure of authority, or bluntly and sarcastically stating the idiocies of an opponent's position. A simple "that's bullshit" is not abuse, it's rudeness and rudeness serves the politics, albeit occasionally counter-productively. Abuse however is antithetical to politics, it's linguistic violence for its own sake.

You know that already. Nevertheless, while all abuse should be condemned and discouraged not all abuse is created equal. Or, rather, abuse comes from different directions and depending on its point of origin, reflect certain positions that exist in the great out there. The job of a left wing social media strategy is to understand and explain in order to think about effective means of tackling it. Only those carrying a pall of bad faith or a small imagination assimilate this to excusing abuse. Secondly, the targets of abuse matter. It's public figures who attract the lion share of vitriol and there are no prizes for noting women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT folks cop the heaviest loads of flak. That in itself says something.

The basic distinction I want to make is between abuse from below and abuse from above. That doesn't imply the inchoate insults flung from the many at the few is progressive or some such nonsense, but it does have a distinctive character. Such abuse usually stems from a position of relative powerlessness. By this, we're talking the strange frustrations Western cultures weave about our social being. How we are made as individuals sees us flattered, talked up, seduced and, at least officially, empowered to make choices about our lives. Regardless of where you stand in the pecking order, that message is constantly reinforced by public institutions, work, and popular culture. To get on you have to adapt to these rules or you fail. And herein lies the problem. We are all set up to fail. A sense of lack, of something missing is fundamental to the conditions of life, and that's because while we are inculcated and hailed as authors of our own destinies we're very clearly not. The promises of individuality and freedom ring hollow in the age of anxiety, where the good life fills our minds from infancy and yet is put out of reach by limited opportunities, crap and insecure jobs, sliding living standards, a dearth of affordable housing, and the persistent, nagging sense everything is changing and you're having a hard time holding on. A sense of trying to take back control is sublimated into hundreds of different pursuits, including voting for Brexit, and for a small subset of people trolling and abusing public figures is one way of getting a purchase. Abuse offers a simulation, a simulacra of mattering, of being someone who counts - especially if the target responds or reacts. The unnoticed is suddenly noticed, even if they're hiding behind an anonymous handle and all they're doing is shitposting, success in getting a rise is still success.

There are two further subdivisions that can be made here. The first stems from a nihilist narcissism, of finding exhilaration and affirmation in abuse, a catharsis in attacking public figures, particularly if they're women, black, or gay. For whatever reason, their anxieties associates with scapegoats and bigotry, and these terms are mobilised to harass and shut down particular personifications of trends they deem unacceptable. Don't like black people and think they have no place in public life? Attack Diane Abbott. Think gay people have too much visibility and shouldn't be accepted? Owen Jones is the journo to go for. Jealous/threatened by women? So many female MPs, journos, and celebs to choose from. The second comes from anger. Yes, the nihilists are angry, but the key difference here is the former are happy/fatalistic enough to carry on as they are. The latter group are moving, and they're moving towards politics and in the direction of active engagement. For this group, abuse is a crutch, an inarticulate substitute for the feelings they cannot put into language. A fusion of anger, resentment and frustration - for whatever reason, and for whatever politics - is pushing them along and for some a phase of abuse is just that, a moment on the way to developing a political consciousness of some description. The danger is that abuse never entirely goes away and they might feel it entirely reasonable (and justified) to conjure up such terms and tones later on, that abuse is a legitimate weapon. Though that poses more for left, which is a politics about building anew, versus the right, a politics set on preserving the old.

From the bottom, the abuse flies in and swarms over their targets. Except for a rare few cases, it is almost entirely self-activating. There is no coordinating intelligence malevolently targeting certain people and unleashing the hounds, but frequencies of abuse go up and down depending on targets' media presence and, more generally, what's happening in the news. Again, should we be shocked David Lammy has received abuse and death threats for his Grenfell fire campaigning work? We should be, but we're not. Abuse on social media is almost banal.

Then there is abuse from above, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Again, we find ourselves looking at two different sorts that differ in form but accomplish the same thing, more or less. Our friends The Daily Mail and the tabloid press have done more than anyone to poison politics in this country. They demonise ethnicities, nationalities, they pruriently ogle semi-naked teenagers while attacking (liberal and left wing) women for defying their twisted conventions on what being a woman is supposed to be, and they properly monster fleeting or long-running hate figures. Even 17-year-olds are fair game. This abuse is read every day by millions of people and gives succour to the nihilists. Every time they attack Diane Abbott, that marks open season. Every feeble expose of "hard left" activists stirs up and mobilises its mob. The consequence of all this fear mongering and hate goes beyond providing an ideology bank loaning out bigotry for social media abuse, it helps cohere the base of the Conservative vote. It may be in long-term decline, but it cannot be dismissed. The other consequence, of course, is those receiving the orchestrated abuse have to waste time erecting defences and dealing with it.

The second is the next rung down, that is the minions of established politics and the media. While mostly not as overtly foul as a Paul Dacre op-ed, politicians and pundits have used their platforms not just to harass and bully, but also direct abuse coming up from below as well. They may have public spats with other names fairly frequently, and that usually pulls a train of abusers behind them, but they are likely to assist the demonisation of whole groups of people and some times highlight an ordinary Twitter user for a going over. They effectively try and make use of asymmetry, of the media power they find expressed in their following, to drive normal people out and disrupt their opponents. As established figures they tend to lean toward the right and cynically manipulate their followers, and therefore abuse, to keep them going. This is especially important as professional commentary is in crisis, and not just because the general election completely confounded their expectations. It's because in a world where everyone can be a commentator, no one can be a commentator. Social media menaces them and their old media bosses with existential threat, and at an instinctive level they know it.

These distinctions are analytical. One should not confuse the things of logic with the logic of things, and they dovetail and overlap. But they offer ways in to thinking about where abuse comes from, why people do it, and what ultimately can be done about it. Abuse therefore is a political question and demands a political, not a technical response.


SimonB said...

Your analysis makes sense. Does it come from research or is it theoretical?

When May starts to express concerns about how we common people use the Internet I suspect that curbing our online freedom is on the agenda again.

Boffy said...

There is surely a difference in some of the abuse. Most of it comes from trolls, some is loose language.

For example, the fascist who knifed and shot Jo Cox, obviously acted with real political intent. But, when Jo Cox herself had previously said that she had "Put the knife in Jeremy's Chest" I doubt many LP members took this literally rather than metaphorically.

In my experience in over forty years its usually the right who engage in the violence and bullying, particularly the far right, but also the right within the LP.

As far as the verbal bullying and so on, my guess is that the majority of those involved on the Internet have no political affiliation whatsoever. They are just trolls, sad people sitting behind a keyboard who just get a kick out of being able to hurl abuse at people in a way they would never be able to do in real life for fear of getting a good kicking themselves. A look at the saddos that have actually been arrested for such trolling backs up that impression.

Even yesterday, looking at the aristo who was jailed shows the same impression of a social inadequate.

In fact, I'd guess you could go on to almost any forum on the Internet, whether its aimed at football, entertainment or whatever and you would see the same kind of mindless trolling, aimed at just provoking ill-tempered interchanges that have little or no point.

I doubt the actual threats to people have changed much, because people in public life have always been open to attack either verbal or physical, and the gutter press have made their fortunes out of being able to verbally attack and defame not just people in public life, but wholesale anonymous, usually fabricated attacks on immigrants, benefit claimants, lazy car workers and so on. Its just that the Internet has democratised what already existed, and made it more visible.

I've never seen the point of Twitter anyway, and in fact the constraint of 140 characters is just encouraging people to post instantaneous mindless crap, and to do so in an increasingly pointed manner. As for the internet trolls, you quickly learn who they are whatever pseudonym they use, and the easy answer is to use the scroll button to go past their crap.

Shai Masot said...

Tom Watson does not deserve to be called a big fat duplicitous tub of Tory-lite lard on social media. Not every day, anyway.

James Semple said...

"The job of a left wing social media strategy is to understand and explain in order to think about effective means of tackling it."

God bless you, sir, for your innocence.

MikeB said...

For me, alienation is the most relevant dimension of this discussion.

My grandmother grew up in a tight-knit mining village in South Wales. The sense of collective belonging was intense. For example, I well remember how a woman with chronic psychosis used to wander from house to house; at each she was welcomed in and given a cup of tea. Everyone knew her and everyone accepted some responsibility for caring for her.

On the night before my grandmother married my dark-skinned grandfather, someone left a golliwog on her front step - classic trolling, pre-internet.

How far is political abuse an expression of a collective anxiety, a need to create the Other, a break from collective responsibility for each other?