Rational and balanced opinions are scarce in comments sections across social media platforms. When Cathy Newman's interview with Jordan Peterson hit the broad light of...internet, it was considered a flop rivalling The Room, or Sharknado. After Theresa May's speech yesterday, a real improvement on her previous excursions into Britain's post-EU future in terms of detail, responses from people I don't even think of as 'internet trolls' were dangerously selective in their attempts to criticise her leadership. Nigel Farage told The Telegraph that May showed absolutely no emotion and proved herself a weak negotiator by effectively ruling out the possibility of 'no deal', rather than accepting a 'bad deal'. Such tired rhetoric.
Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are only platforms, right? Highly debateable. Nevertheless, the content they host has nurtured a culture of sensationalism that threatens to strangle critical thinking until it lets out its final breath. We'll soon discuss 'critical thinking' as a period in history, succeeded by the age of 'reactionary trolls and bigots'. What often begins as a well-reasoned critique of a certain event quickly descends into a soundbite, passed on through comments sections without a shred of insight.
In this wonderful tradition, Newman's interview with Peterson went from being described as an example of an interviewer failing to properly listen to her subject's views, to provoking serious attacks on her integrity and decency both as a journalist and human being. I wonder if these attacks are genuine or not: I've certainly never had a conversation in real life with someone who says such disparaging things about Newman, a fundamentally professional journalist who conducted one bad interview. But truthful or merely inflammatory, these views emerged from a place of pre-existing, but comparatively legitimate, criticism. Reactionary trolls appear to thrive in this environment.
I read a compelling article months ago that envisioned Donald Trump's core voter-base as lonely basement dwellers, who organised protests and collective action through 4Chan, a site similar to Reddit that effectively houses the most reactionary and aggressive of souls. The article suggested that Trump epitomised the 'American loser' through his failed investments, widely disdained beliefs, and failure to be accepted by the political elite. Trump, according to this theory, provided an incentive for these basement dwellers to emerge from the darkness and elect a President who could represent their skewed view of society, and embody their crippling fear of rejection.
Donald Trump's presence encouraged, and now openly incites, the same kind of unfiltered hatred that the internet indiscriminately hosts. Violent, countercultural or fundamentally flawed beliefs have been catapulted into the mainstream by the strange process which reduces factual arguments into meaningless soundbites; and, even more alarmingly, the power of relative or complete anonymity.
While social media giants continue to play the 'platform' card, I sit and watch people debase themselves with incoherent comments, often fuelled by misdirected rage. Meanwhile those who ought to know better, such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, use their public profile to selectively hone in on facts that align with their worldviews, reduce complex issues into tasty soundbites, and stifle the pursuit of truth and understanding that lets people be truly free.