Internet Hatred Morally Repugnant, Hurting Democracy

| 1/21/2009 4:09:14 PM

Politics of HatredIn his inauguration speech, Barack Obama proclaimed an end “to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.” Judging by many internet reactions to the speech, that’s going to be difficult. A commenter on the website Hot Air reacted by writing, “F**k this RACIST swine Obama Hussein and his ape looking, lumbering wife.”

This kind of repugnant vitriol isn’t just morally reprehensible. Keith Kahn-Harris and David Hayes write for Open Democracy that it’s undermining the democratic potential of the internet by fueling political extremists and alienating moderates.

The hatred and alienation can be seen most clearly in discussions about the Middle East, according to Kahn and Harris. Conversations are dominated by passion and partisan agendas, causing comment threads to devolve into “self-obsessed and point-scoring politics.” The problems with this are twofold, Kahn-Harris and Hayes write:

First, it ensures that the more extreme protagonists on the ground are given moral support for their often violent struggles, their own passions fuelled rather than moderated by outsiders’ engagement. Second, those who choose or feel obliged to get involved in conflicts such as Gaza often do so in ways that are polarizing, dogmatic, repetitive and damaging to the space of democratic debate they choose to enter.

Convincing other people is less important than parsing minutia and scoring points. The threads are uninviting and unappealing to people who sincerely want to engage with the issue but don’t carry the same passions and baggage. Kahn-Harris and Hayes write, “In this sense such internet politics is not just self-defeating but also profoundly exclusionary.”

 Image by Joe Goldberg, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Listener
1/30/2009 1:04:48 PM

(1) It is ironic that, after eight years of slinging all sorts of mud at a certain U.S. president, this magazine should start in bashing lèse majesté the day after he is out of office. (2) Either anything goes when insulting political figures, or those political figures can find some way to censor any criticism of themselves, simply by finding some way to frame it as "unacceptable." (3) Instead of whining about being marginalized in online debates, moderate people should show a bit of backbone and jump in. Like when water is poured into whiskey, this alone will rein in an hysterical debate. (4) There is a simple solution to comment-space blather. It is called FORUM MODERATION, and it is used to great effect all over the Internet.

1/29/2009 2:21:45 PM

I definitely agree with this - often I avoid leaving comments even on articles and issues that I am very interested in because of just this problem. I was participating in a book discussion on another website about a book which had nothing to do with politics and even there, the discussion broke down into a vitriolic argument about partisan politics. It's difficult to make progress on any issue when the participants look at it like a win at all costs competition.

Tamara SM
1/29/2009 12:19:15 PM

I completely agree. I was on a comment trail that began from an article on how Obama might influence healthy habits that lead to a vicious discussion about smoking and discipline and ectomorphs and clear hatred and fear of the new administration. It WAS repugnant, and made me leave without commenting myself. I am passionate, and am just as prone as the next person to making a hyperbolic, vitriolic statement of my ideas; however, I then read back and EDIT! so that a reasonable discussion of ideas can ensue. I think people have forgotten that they're writing, not speaking, and can wait just a moment before hitting "submit."

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