It isn’t surprising that online discourse is so consistently toxic. Human speech may have evolved, in part, as a means of gossiping, and for thousands of years our species has exhibited a keen interest in yelling at, insulting, and spreading rumors about one another. The online world, as a result of both the anonymity and the various social and network incentives it offers to users, makes it easier than it has ever been to rant and rave at the evilness of one’s enemies.
Some corners of the internet are more civil than others, of course — there isn’t perfect overlap between “internet communication” and “insane internet communication.” But in those communities most marked by paranoia, anger, and rumormongering — and there seem to be more of them each day — it’s worth peeking in and trying to unpack exactly what’s going on.
When you dive into these communities, certain patterns emerge. One I’m particularly interested in is the Irrelevant-GIF Outrage Cycle, or IGOC. It’s wreaking havoc on people’s abilities to have productive conversations with one another. It’s convincing people that everyone they disagree with is a mindless zealot. It’s never going to end.
This Facebook post raising the alarms over a supposed pro-ISIS rally by Dearborn, Michigan, Muslims is an example of an image that sparked an IGOC. As I wrote in December, the image comes with the text, “These are isis flags and isis supporters folks but the media has not reported because of politically correctness [sic throughout]:
Here’s how IGOC works: First, someone posts a GIF making some sort of argument to an online community, whether Twitter, Reddit, or whatever else (technically it could be a JPEG or a PNG, but let’s not be nerds about it). The GIF’s argument impugns some person or group. But that argument — and this is crucial — is irrelevant. Either it’s simply false, it reflects a fringe opinion on the part of a member of the group being attacked, it was created by a troll in the first place, or some combination of the three. In the case above, the GIF is irrelevant because it’s false — as I showed, the photo in question was from an anti-ISIS rally.
But because of how ideological communities work, many if not most of the image’s target recipients fail to grasp this. Instead, they are outraged: How could [feminists/liberals/the government/Bernie supporters/whatever] be so [dumb/evil/hateful/whatever]? So that’s the second stage of the IGOC: fury at what’s contained in the GIF and/or its accompanying text, often manifesting in the form of comments about the GIF in question.
Which leads us to the third stage: The hunt for more evidence that the group in question is dumb/evil/hateful/whatever. Pissed off at the GIF’s horrors, more people get drawn into the crusade against feminists or liberals or the government or whatever. They head further down the rabbit hole of anti-whatever content. They marinate in their own juices. They “investigate” the targeted group to find more evidence of the horrors it has inflicted and/or posted to Tumblr. Meanwhile, trolls, naturally fans of drama, realize that they can simply create this sort of content to get a rise out of people.
Sometimes, an irrelevant image is so outrageous, and offers such stark proof of a group’s awfulness, that it gets multiple spins through the IGOC. Take the almost-certainly-troll “feminist” Tumblr called “Destroy the Patriarchy”! One post features a screencap of a real tweet from a woman named Karen Ingala Smith in which she writes that “Anybody pushing a gender neutral approach to domestic - or sexual - violence is just a male violence enabler.”
The author of the post then continues:
Domestic abuse requires one to have actual institutional power. Without that you cannot abuse someone.
The man can always leave the home. He may leave behind his money and his possessions, but being a man, he can always get all that back. A woman has no such privilege: if she tries to leave, she is eventually murdered.
Women strike men in self defense, men strike women to reassert control.
Most importantly, gender neutrality ignores the fact that women are not violent unless provoked. Women are nurturers and peacemakers, and in violence, they are defenders. Men are privileged and see women as their property, and in violence, they seek control. So women cannot be domestic abusers. Self defense against the Patriarchy is not abuse.
This isn’t a particularly compelling satire even of the most radical feminist argument. No one who matters, anywhere, is arguing that men can’t be abused or that “women cannot be domestic abusers.” This is almost certainly trolling.
Naturally, though, the angrier corners of the internet didn’t get the joke. Last week a screencap of the post was published on KotakuInAction, the Gamergate subreddit, with the headline “The most dishonest and hateful against men post I’ve read this month.” In the comments, it’s clear that many readers believe what they’re seeing, and view the Tumblr post as confirming what they already knew about feminism: “I’m speechless… utterly speechless… First sentence, and… idk… Like, I want to make a quip or joke or something… but I can’t even fix this amount of stupid…,” wrote one. Another wrote: “‘Feminsts’ are dishonest as hell like that: any other day, women are empowering themselves and are proud stronk wymxn who don’t need no man, but when it comes to domestic violence, women are always the poor innocent victims, and they are NEVER violent for no reason, so they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions, because they are oppressed and are just lashing out against the white cishet PatriarchyTM oppressing them. [sic throughout]”
That wasn’t this particular Tumblr post’s first ride around the block. Here it is six months ago on the Tumblrinaction subreddit, garnering 115 comments. It was eventually added to that subreddit’s tellingly lengthy list of known troll blogs which submitters are instructed to ignore, because the subreddit is interested in actual Tumblr dumbness. Here it is garnering an angry retort from another Tumblr blog a ways back (the reblogger thinks the original poster is a “bitch”), with hundreds of likes, notes, and reblogs. This isn’t white-llama-black-llama-escaping-the-zoo virality, but a lot of people spent a lot of time getting mad about a blog post that was, in all likelihood, written specifically to piss people off rather than to make any sort of actual point about anything. And, along the way, they got convinced that “feminists” think men can’t be abused, nudging what is already a trash-fire internet discourse on that subject further into spittle-flecked inanity.
Let’s not act like as though it’s only reactionaries who engage in IGOCs, though. Just earlier this week, Tim Robbins tweeted this out:
Suffice it to say there is no actual evidence of election fraud in this image And yet the IGOC commenced anyway: When a GIF announces to you what you already know — that dark corporatist forces are swirling around the Democratic primary with the goal of stealing it from its rightful winner, Bernie Sanders — the proper response is not to question, but to share.
Much of this, of course, goes to the weird credibility we lend GIFs, or screencaps in general. Whereas a link can break, or the text on the other side of it changed, an image is “permanent” in the sense that it can be rapidly circulated in a stable way. GIFs are a staple of “proof” in conspiracy-minded communities (at its peak, Gamergate produced some legendary IMGUR links “proving” a massive, far-reaching conspiracy on the part of games journalists to sully the gamer identity), and it makes perfect sense that they are often the preferred way of communicating information about one’s enemies: In most cases, they require little cognitive processing to absorb; they skirt Twitter’s character-length requirement; and they are more visually striking than regular text. Whether or not they’re true doesn’t matter, because of course they’re true.
More importantly, the structure and incentives of social media reinforce IGOC tendencies. Because it is so effortless to retweet or share, and because we are more likely to do so when we are emotionally aroused by content, these outrage cycles will percolate forever. When you’re a member of an online community committed to what you view as some social good, it feels good to participate in the identification and ridicule of your enemy, especially if all your online buddies are. There are zero factual standards for what does and doesn’t get published on social media. It’s all determined by how outraged the content in question makes people, and the extent to which it fits into deeply carved cognitive grooves.
In other words: The debunkers here don’t have a shot. They are a tiny whisper during an angry orchestra’s crescendo. Online, content telling an outrageous story — Hillary is stealing the election! Feminists don’t care if women beat the shit out of men! — will always, always, always win out, and usually win out exponentially, over people asking Wait, are you sure this makes sense?
IGOCs are just one part of this broader story, and they usually don’t involve mega-viral images. Usually, it’s 100 shares here, 2,000 there. But in the aggregate, this represents an astounding, depressing amount of time spent yelling at phantoms. There are legitimate arguments to be had about feminism and ISIS and the Democratic primary. But IGOCs, like so many other features of ideologically driven online networks, seek to ensure that meaningful conversations between people with differing views rarely, if ever, occur. Discourse becomes not a halting, incremental, awkward attempt to forge some sort of common understanding based on a shared understanding of what reality is, but rather a relentless investigation into the other side’s bottomless, incomprehensible nefariousness. For connoisseurs of this sort of thing, the internet presents an all-you-can-eat buffet: There will always be another GIF telling you your enemies are stupid. There will always be another outrage, because those people just don’t get it.