Monday 14 October 2019

Abby Ohlheiser: 'Does yoga hold the answer to war of the worlds online?'

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'If Twitter really is hell, what does it matter if the dial controlling the intensity of our torment clicks from 11 to 12?' (stock photo)
'If Twitter really is hell, what does it matter if the dial controlling the intensity of our torment clicks from 11 to 12?' (stock photo)

Abby Ohlheiser

The joke about Twitter is that it is hell, a bad website where the #Resistance, the pro-Trump Internet, members of the media and certain politicians jockey for attention and control of the "narrative" (or, barring that, just create an alternative one).

Specifically, Twitter is Dante's fifth circle of hell, in which the wrathful fight endlessly in ships on the River Styx while the sullen gurgle in the muck until the world ends.

Here is what the wrathful fought about recently: Does the president know what a hyphen is? Should Twitter have suspended the account of a far-right militia that spoke of a "hot" civil war?

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And, of course, the developments at the core of it all: reports that President Donald Trump might have tried to strong-arm a foreign government to kneecap a would-be presidential challenger, Joe Biden, and that Democrats might try to impeach him for it.

It's an escalation of stakes many believe will cause the end times of online outrage and misinformation.

But if Twitter really is hell, what does it matter if the dial controlling the intensity of our torment clicks from 11 to 12? Will we even feel the difference?

There are signs that Impeachment Internet is the same but more. Conspiracy-driven memes are already ping-ponging back and forth between the fringes and the conservative mainstream - all of which is then covered by the rest of the media.

Meanwhile, #Resistance Twitter feeds its own memes and conspiracy-driven speculation into the mix. The president himself tweeted about "civil war", an idea that is central to, among other things, the rhetoric of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has claimed for years that the United States is on the verge of a new civil war.

Trolls on 4chan and other fringe boards are echoing the demands of Trump and other prominent conservatives by trying to unmask the government whistleblower whose reporting set the impeachment inquiry in motion.

"I am already seeing the disinformation and misinformation tick up," said Brooke Binkowski, the former managing editor of Snopes, a website dedicated to investigating and dispelling popular myths.

The misinformation spike will hit a public that has grown accustomed to the intensity, even as it has left us exhausted and irritable.

"This reminds me, in a strange way, of yoga," wrote Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication at Syracuse University who studies media manipulation and troll culture, in an email.

"What happens when you practise regularly is that you create space in your body and mind - more space for deeper stretches, and more space for more awareness."

"What the Trump era requires," Phillips said, "is a kind of dark psychic yoga that also creates space. More space for more vexation, and more space for more tolerance for that vexation."

We've been stretching for a long time. Misinformation online often feels like déjà vu. The specifics might change, but the mechanisms remain the same.

Pizzagate was a baseless conspiracy theory that went viral just after the 2016 elections; it accused a Washington pizza place of harbouring a paedophile ring with connections to the Democratic Party.

The pattern repeated with QAnon, a sprawling conspiracy theory that also accuses high-profile Democrats of being involved in child sex-trafficking.

In both cases, the theory moved from the fringes to the mainstream due to the aggressiveness of the pro-Trump Internet and the curiosity of the mainstream media.

"They are already invoking Hillary Clinton and George Soros as blame/explanation for what's happening in Ukraine, for god's sake," Binkowski wrote.

Soros is a billionaire liberal philanthropist long viewed by the right as a bogeyman. "They are the exact same as what got pushed on us in 2016. It's insulting, really."

© Washington Post

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