In 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.”