A Dark Look at the Internet-Outrage Economy

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The internet: There are lots of angry people on it. Twitter, with its easy means of amplifying messages and intentionally constricted method of communicating, is a natural outlet for this anger. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that people are profiting off of Twitter’s potential as an outrage engine. Jill Filipovic’s piece in Cosmopolitan, focusing on the right-wing website Twitchy’s tendency to send hordes of angry conservatives into the feeds of anyone with a Twitter account unlucky enough to find itself in the site’s crosshairs, is a useful — if depressing — examination of the dynamics that lead to hateful internet pile-ons.

Filipovic, who often writes about issues pertaining to feminism and reproductive rights, includes a list of the charming tweets she received after being the subject of a Twitchy post:

I’d like to meet her at the Cape and shove the guacamole down her throat. Maybe they can ‘harvest’ her,” came one response.

“Translation: I have sand in my vagina, I’m an abortion ghoul, & I’m getting shitfaced on box wine,” came another.

“I just hope Jill Fullapoovic just keeps her legs together. Girl, DON’T REPRODUCE!”

“Were you discussing optimum means of harvesting and selling of baby parts while drinking your wine? Choke on it.”

“Jill, Jill, Jill. So beautiful on the outside, so heinous and ugly on the inside. Shame.”

BITCH the baby is STILL MOVING after an abortion. I hope you choke o guacamole BITCH.”

“You are the epitome of Satan. In fact, I think you are Satan.”

“monsters are to be hunted … To extinction.”

It’s easy to read this as an indictment of organized right-wing outrage campaigns, and it’s true that Twitchy is one of the more organized, effective sources of twitstorms out there. But it’s also useful to think about this stuff in a broader context, in terms of the nuanced characteristics of online life that lead to this sort of behavior.

These sorts of pile-ons occur in part because it’s “cheaper” than it’s ever been to register your displeasure at someone — how long does it take to rattle off a hateful tweet? This greatly, greatly expands the pool of people available for any given anger campaign; compare the ease of Twitter to the relative difficulty — keeping in mind that just a few extra steps can deter someone from completing a task they don’t care all that much about — of seeking out someone on Facebook or via email (not that those tools aren’t used to harass people too).

On the other side of the equation is the target. Suddenly, their feed is a river of sludge because of attacks that are mostly invisible to their friends and followers online because of the way @ mentions work on Twitter (that is, you have to look hard to find a given user’s mentions rather than their normal stream of tweets). As Filipovic explains, some users called out by Twitchy simply have to leave Twitter for 24–48 hours — a time-out that’s an increasingly big deal among media types who are on Twitter 24/7.

Here’s the brutal reality at work:

Cost to Twitchy to highlight a Twitter post or user it finds outrageous: Less than zero, probably — the site benefits, overall, from being known as a surefire source of things to get angry at liberals about, and each individual post doesn’t take much work.

Cost to a given user to send someone a hateful tweet: Almost zero — it takes five seconds to scrawl off an outraged tweet, and in almost all cases the authors of these tweet enjoy a complete lack of accountability as to their content, because the chance of Twitter taking any action, or of the angry tweet leading to their own online reputation taking a hit, is almost zero.

Cost to the target: Potentially days of annoying and/or angry, and/or threatening tweets, to the point where they may have to leave Twitter for a bit.

There’s no easy way out of this. As Filipovic points out, even if Twitter was adept at banning truly abusive or threatening users, and it isn’t, many of the individual tweets don’t rise to the level of being bannable anyway. They’re just cheap insults slung at a writer in a moment of anger — receiving hundreds or thousands of them, though, takes a toll.