The World (Wide Web) is a Battlefield

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out…and meet something I don’t understand.

A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, “OK. I’ll be part of this world.”

-Sheriff Ed Bell, No Country for Old Men


It’s been hard to watch the news recently if you don’t have the comfort of being a fanatic. On the uneasy fringes of the lands of peace have always existed those lands of war, the same old hotspots where every so often the reporter in the flak jacket reminds those of us living comfortably in domesticity that the world outside is a chaotic battlefield. Social media lights up with rocket counters, wailing mothers, the too-familiar ski masked thug whose very being is faceless and represents all human cruelty. No matter where you turn, crisis threatens to boil over in conflict, conflict to all out war, and a challenge is issued to all who watch, like watching a playground fight from the tight ring of shouting voices: what do you say? Do you have a loyalty, a penchant for intervention, or do you just chant that old statement of fact which simply acknowledges (as I am doing now): fight, Fight, FIGHT!

So where do you stand as a citizen in the lands of peace? Do you stand back or take the plunge? Most have no intention of joining in as a combatant in any physical sense, only the truly motivated and those like the enabled young European fighters of ISIS or the Birthright Americans in the IDF have truly done so.  While you statistically probably do not fall into either of those camps, increasingly it is hard not to be drawn into wars that otherwise have nothing to do with you or your immediate problems, and in some cases you may be already in the trenches.

How have you been recruited? By digital means. Once the sound of guns is heard, do you rush to social media to publish your reaction or simply lament because you can’t see a right or a wrong? Do you think your domestic political order ought to be doing more than it is, or do you see this as just another black hole for your income and your products? People pronounce cowardice or fanaticism on you if you speak, and in turn, sentiments rise, twitter feeds are shared, and a string of articles from your respective rags of choice are chucked at dissenters. The beautiful chaos of democracy commences on the world’s accessible forums, spurred on by the poetic voice of the media (even at its most balanced), which feeds the debate and the rifts of discord. Even those who say “praying for everyone in Gaza/Ukraine/Iraq” are still participating in (to use Christian Science terminology) naming the evils. We are still on the playground, and still chanting: fight, Fight, FIGHT!

Of course this is all in the name of fostering debate and expanding the consciousness of the world. That liberal freedom of thought and expression is fantastic, but then you realize, like any liberal democracy, the stunning diversity of opinion and the sheer stupidity (in your own view) of the populace which opposes you. No one who watched the last two American elections denies the agency of Social Media (as ill understood as it is) in generating more democratic participation. In practical terms however, day to day, it feels often akin to the diarist Mary Chestnut’s pronunciation on the anarchy of competing political wills in a decentralized system: “Republics— everybody jawing, everybody putting their mouths in, nothing sacred, all confusion of babble, crimination, and recrimination …”. On Facebook, a field of combat with permeable fog of war and small unit tactics of commenting and friending/unfriending, individuals condemn individuals as (in less atomized societies off cyberspace), community attacks community.

Unlike the real world in which you probably do not shout political opinions loudly on the street unless you are in a group (informed by the fear of physical violence or fearing a culturally-awkward disruption of tranquility) the ease of accessing a message board, a platform designed to give you a podium to pronounce your opinions (What are you feeling? The Status box inquires, as if it really cared and you truly know), has made it easy for anyone to become an instigator or find their way to a speedy hi-speed horse which can carry you onto online warfare, with a sheath filled with 140 characters to launch from a Twitter-account. Like the Samurai of Japan, your lineage and name is read out, before you, with a simple @, can issue a challenge to personal combat. Like the Knights of Europe, your family, background, political allegiance, and religion is emblazoned on your escutcheon (See Profile).

After a hearty slog in the melee, (the home feed) against single or multiple opponents, the individual social warrior retreats into the group, literally, to receive the benediction of others, receive and ‘like’ the right information from the dedicated, so they can return to the fight as soon as they have some well deserved R&R (kittens at work-omg!! Also Netanyahu is a fascist). One can of course change political perspective or simply quiet down, usually because one feels awkward going further with ill-conceived metaphors, but the stubborn never seem to have difficulty finding others like them. Indeed they call out to each other with encouragement against people they have never met or know anything about. All they know is, to quote a brilliant caricature, Futurama’s Zapp Branigan, “that they stand for everything we don’t stand for. Also, they said you guys look like dorks.”

It is fascinating to see the flame wars; by simply expressing conviction, taking a righteous dose of narcissism and mashing it with values and convictions, informed or otherwise,  we get a real “war among the people” to use Rupert Smith’s term. As the web expands its delivery systems, despite attempts to shut down dissent and bring down net neutrality, the social media battle-space has been explicitly acknowledged as an arena by militant groups looking for recruits (a tactic that has sent ISIS many a good soldier) or for international recognition, as the ease of editing and access to a digital information marketplace can obfuscate any issue to the nth degree by a flood of indistinct pictures with uncompromising captions and sound-dubs. Those surrounding Cliven Bundy’s ranch not only tweet religiously over the possibility of Obama-ordered domestic drone strikes, but also have stated they will put unarmed women among their gun wielding front lines so the cameras will capture federal agents gunning down innocents; an astonishing parallel to the scene on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (though the irony may be somewhat lost on these individuals).

Such can of course bite one in the ass if done incorrectly: witness the gaff of the Separatists who shot down the Malaysian Airliner (a military equivalent of the Anthony Wiener texts), but it can always be denied through the power of conspiracy, which the web has done nothing but facilitate to a gross extreme. Such obfuscation confuses and leads to the sort of ‘all sides are to blame’ reaction which is only natural in such a complicated situation, which arguably can do more damage than it does good. Too often it means the guilty can carry out their work and the innocent can become embittered in cycles of horrible retributive violence (witness Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq). This is only abetted by the ills of incorrect logic and skewed perceptions which are bounded about in the electorate and public at large through the means of uncontrolled cyberspace.

The appeal to the thinking individual (literate enough to use a computer at any rate) demands a response, and it also turns us against the people we thought we knew and liked when they give theirs. Even if we don’t give an opinion or participate in the debate, we do (unless we’re so narcissistic we go on social media and ignore everyone’s profile but our own, thus defeating the point of a social network) observe what others are saying. We are still encouraged to not talk politics in person because it was impolite to ruin a nice dinner with heated conversations about the Corn Laws or the New Deal. Yet now (and this extends to everything political), you wear your beliefs on your sleeve so hard because it is great to find that community that agrees with you and you feel you can be honest with, at least as honest as any opinion you feel it worthwhile to get worked up about is. You are encouraged by the platforms to make those connections and expand your social purview using this amazing tool. You are shielded by a strange anonymity of being you, saying what you think, but not seeing any immediate consequences except on a screen.

It is hard to be academic online because you are dealing with a community of people who do not agree that all questions should be had in the purely theoretical. It’s not an extraordinary failing, its human nature. You have a cousin in Israel, you view the Ukrainian Separatists as having legitimate fears about the new partially-right wing government, etc. It’s hard not to invest emotionally, as so much of mass media and politics is wholly based on emotion. Facebook is not the platform of instrumental rationality; it is the platform of daily travail and shared experience. You can attach a little emoticon to give a spin on the mundane description of your activities. “Made chicken soup-feeling creative” or “just detonated a carbomb-feeling unstoppable”.

In terms of war, it does effectively speed the creation of the conditions for everyday war-making: it divides whole populations of thinking individuals into camps, speeds the ability of fanatics and instigators (or, more worryingly, the bored and under-socialized) to upset people’s sense of calm and value-system, and leads to that most dangerous thing: hurt feelings. As Maya Angelou well observed: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’   Emotive feelings and value-based rationality is the key to incitement for otherwise unbiased or unconcerned people, and social media directly targets those values and tells you to express them (and defend them) to others.

Yes social media helps bring people together to do great things like bring down murdering tyranny, find warlords (well, trying), and dance to Happy en masse. Yet its filled with fools, paranoid schizophrenics, homicidal maniacs, advertising robots, government monitors, people who can’t spell, terrorist agents, and anyone who has the ability to get online and past a censor (where one even exists). We are all participating in the far-away wars in our own homes and feeding the spread of the fire. This blog, for instance, has done that on numerous occasions. The only question then remains: what does one do about it?

Unfortunately, here (of all places) is where I don’t have an opinion.

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