The Viral Ugliness of Internet Trolling

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right by Angela Nagle

Angela Nagel is an Irish social critic specializing in the subcultures of the on-line interactive world, something that this reviewer and probably most readers don’t do. Tracking the logic warping feedback loops of troll wars is time-consuming and baffling, so read the book. Out of all the goofiness, the book does reveal how personal on-line attacks lead to psychological depression, and how they poison public discourse.

Nagel tries to show how dark humor undermines proponents of “liberal” policies without trying to refute their messages. A favorite ploy is portraying someone as a self-pitying victim, unworthy of respect. Almost all attacks are personal, meant to discredit at best, and at worst, reduce the mark to insanity or force them into hiding through threats. She tries to show how alt-right uses the dark side of the internet.

Kill All Normies begged negative reviews. Few thought that Nagel made her case about the rise of the alt-right. Her understanding of American politics is shallow. She did not explain movements like Black Lives Matter, but dived into how groups try to outdo each other as victims of transphobia, fatphobia, or whatever. “Righties” like the book; “lefties” ding it.

But the main message seems to stick. The old media and its creative classes’ hold over cultural sensibilities kept unraveling until it crashed in 2016, replaced by on-line, instant content producers and Twitter trolls. Anybody outside this media doesn’t get its insider jokey negativism and upchucking of all cultural restraints. No video, symbol, or language is too vulgar. The 2012 viral Kony video is an example of the carnage and chaos.

Jason Russell made Kony to promote Stop Kony, a movement to oust a truly bloody Ugandan militia leader, Joseph Kony. It went viral; over 100 million views. It stirred support until the backlash began.

Native Ugandans and regional experts picked on the video for gross oversimplification, inaccuracies, and emotional manipulation. Ugandans said it focused on the filmmaker, not their real problems, or on Kony’s victims. Western critics eager to show righteous superiority disdained Kony’s inauthentic virtue. The uproar turned ugly, and Jason Russell had a very public breakdown, arrested for public nudity and much worse. Videos of him in this state also went viral.

This cycle of performative politics repeats, over and over. Feel good concern is displaced by deep cynicism and a hunt for hypocrisy. When that is found, it’s exploited for public humiliation. There is no aim or objective other than to debase anyone who dares to promote anything that they propose as social improvement. One name for this is “slacktivism,” empty, meaningless support of social goals. A variant is “clicktivisim,” clicking on-line support for a cause without actually doing anything else to support it.

One tidbit Nagel uncovers is the probable cause of the suicide of Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism, reviewed two issues ago, and a serious, insightful critic of the existing system from a cultural view. In his on-line world he was mercilessly trolled and threatened as a symbol of “left-wing misogyny,” whatever that is.

Only five years ago, advocates of social media in a new age were extolling the possibilities for networked organizations and a meshing of cultures. They did not foresee how vicious and manipulative people would abuse it. Still don’t.

If you read the book, be prepared for graphic descriptions of revenge porn remarkably similar to the kind of thing you’d see on a website such as Nu Bay, bizarre threats and insults, and urgings to violence. Anything mainstream, any cultural norm of respect for other people is “political correctness” to be violated as much as possible, meaning that anyone gaining followers is subject to ad homonym attack.

Asked why they engage in cyber mayhem, most perpetrators can only say that it is a way to relieve themselves of any inclination to conform to anything. By taking irony to its extreme, have fun messing up pompous agendas. This reminds the reviewer of an academic treatise written 50 years ago by a Chinese scholar on China’s history of cultural change. All major shifts were preceded by periods of aimless rebellion in dress and speech, signifying that the old order no longer made sense to the rebels.

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