Digging deeper into two of the factors touched on in Amanda Hess’ provocative essay, “To Understand Why Hate Thrives Online, You Have to Go Back to the Beginning, ” published in Slate.com, may help to reveal the historical evolution of bigoted internet discourse.
On the one hand, Hess points to a philosophical position paper by John Perry Barlow, the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which celebrated the possibility of a communication space free of what some call “identity politics” – where all could be equal in colorblind/genderblind discourse.
“We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
Hess, secondly, points out the predominance of young white males in the internet space in the early days of the web, who embraced the flourishing technology of online communication, and who continue to find incursions of feminist or racial justice points of view to be a violation of their safe space and territory, reacting with negative communications.
Barlow, a white techno-libertarian, envisioned an internet that would be a free market not just of ideas and social intercourse, but a true free market in the economic sense embraced by Adam Smith fundamentalists. In this vision, we also see outlines of the flattened and idealist plane of social existence that comes with this economic philosophy – which posits that all strivers can achieve market success despite race, gender, orientation, or other social status.
“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us,” asserts the Declaration, and Barlow calls for a new “Social Contract” that would reset history and create it’s own rules for the new frontiers. This is essentially making an argument that this space would be free of historical encumbrances of identity, and that it should be. However, this assertion comes embedded with an implied stigmatization of anyone who asserts any differences in lived experiences due to real-world identity, and discussion of historical injustice due to identity online lead to being labeled as counter to the new order and a distraction from issues of importance.
This laissez-faire philosophy of speech and bigoted commentary can be encapsulated by this comment on the free market and racism by Keith Burris in the Toledo Blade, “…the antidote to hate speech is civil speech and the answer to ignorant speech is enlightened speech. Let speech answer speech.” What happens, however, when your speech is considered illegitimate in the space in which you attempt to assert your identity, because it is a violation of the implied freedom from identity and history?
Barlow, meanwhile, didn’t come to his philosophy in a vacuum, and neither did internet technology develop free of social context. The beginning starts in an earlier place than 1996. If we look to this previous historic period, we can dig deeper into this phenomenon and its political and economic roots.
The internet evolved from a network developed by the military, which was then adopted by universities for STEM research. In 1994, under the Clinton Presidency, the internet was released from federal control and privatized. Even then there were concerns that privatizing the internet, which might benefit from private sector innovation, could limit accessibility for underserved communities by becoming a billed service with no cost controls. “The danger,” Mr. Becker said, “is that you could have islands of connectivity, with providers who serve particular customers or regions but who don’t connect to other providers, because they’re not obligated under law to do so,” as reported by the New York Times in 1994. (Which is exactly what happened for individual consumers in the United States.)
This accessibility gap would go on to exacerbate an already established historical imbalance and bias. Just as the higher echelons of military command and STEM university programs were (and largely still are) the domain of white males, likewise – even as the personal computer came into American homes, the hobby of tinkering with computers was associated primarily with young white males.
Fast-forward 30 years – with the rise of fabulous wealth expansion, created by the privatization of the internet, blended with this techno-libertarian idealist mythos of an egalitarian social space that would come with internet access, and what do we see today:
“The trope of the successful high-tech entrepreneur is surprisingly similar across twenty-five years of technology development: young, brash, rich, famous, intrinsically risk-taking, innovative, and intelligent. In Silicon Valley specifically, the image of the entrepreneur that has persisted through thirty years of boom-and-bust cycles is almost always young, white, and male.” (Alice Marwick, “Silicon Valley Isn’t a Meritocracy. And It is Dangerous to Hero-Worship Entrepreneurs” Wired.com, 11/13)
“To some, online discussions about feminism and racism are seen as battles over the soul of the Internet itself.” writes Hess, in describing the hostility to users of color, women, LGBT, and other marginalized groups in their late entry to the world of internet and social media when confronting the users who already considered this space their territory. The white male can also safely say that the internet is also his property, given the abysmal employment, CEO, and venture capitalist demographics of Silicon Valley companies for minorities and women.
Hess notes an added complication to an internet already dangerously skewed toward a white male viewpoint: companies that profit from the amount of advertising click-rates they generate are actually incentivizing bigoted commentary by rewarding it with not being censured. “On an Internet built on the assumption that every contribution is equally valid, harassers are just as valuable as their victims. But as the harasser flames his victim into silence, he becomes more valuable than his target. In a recent essay, fantasy author Ferrett Steinmetz argued that, to a social media company’s “cold bottom line, a troll calling women names all day gets more advertising hits. He is a devoted user. And so they are loath to ban anyone, because these companies make money off of large user bases, and kicking someone off risks trouble.”
Right now, improving the discourse on social media platforms has been left to the individual companies. Which isn’t working, as the East Bay Express reported on Nextdoor.com, in that instance Black posters who pointed out racism are often the ones suspended and banned from the website, with a lukewarm response from the company. Meanwhile, while investigations into the lack of minority representation in tech companies have been given national attention, companies are dragging their feet in improving this situation. In addition to the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace of 30 years ago, what seems to be needed is an Internet Bill of Rights and also a Cyber-Civil Rights Act.
Photo: If Twitter is the chirping chatterbox of the Internet, trolls are its dark underground denizens. The collision of the two is driving a debate about the scale of hatred and the limits of free speech online. The furor erupted after women went public about the sexually explicit and luridly violent abuse they receive on Twitter from trolls. There are growing calls for action when their abuse crosses over into threats. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)