DID YOU KNOW: Lonely, insecure men are phenomenally vulnerable to toxic propaganda? It’s true! Painfully true. And over the past few months, academia has been investigating the ways in which social media has been gamed to rally these men. The latest to make a significant impact is “Weaponizing the Haters: The Last Jedi and the Strategic Politicization of Pop Culture Through Social Media Manipulation,” by the University of Southern California’s Morten Bay. From the abstract:
This study examines a collection of tweets relating to a much-publicized fan dispute over the Star Wars franchise film Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The study finds evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments. The likely objective of these measures is increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict, thereby adding to and further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society. Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the U.S. alt-right movement, as well as the Russian Federation. The results of the study show that among those who address The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson directly on Twitter to express their dissatisfaction, more than half are bots, trolls/sock puppets or political activists using the debate to propagate political messages supporting extreme right-wing causes and the discrimination of gender, race or sexuality. A number of these users appear to be Russian trolls.
It’s that last bit that’s provided the neat, shareable hook—but in that sharing, Bay’s findings have been distorted for maximum dismissability. In less than a week since being published, “Weaponizing the Haters” was being used to let disingenuous—and dangerous—men off the hook for their ugly behaviors indulged under cover of easy anonymity. Men who look a lot like me. Men who, if I’m being totally honest, were me, once upon a time.
And while I avoided the sort of radicalization that has claimed a number of my peers, I see a massive disservice in treating Bay’s findings as simple scapegoating of Russian trolls. Sure, Russians may be playing us, but that’s only because we’ve spent decades playing ourselves. “Geek Culture” has been training its ranks to become perfect marks for grifters like these, turning out lonely, insecure men who respond like rescued puppies to any reassurance they’re just as smart and special and necessary as they’ve always wanted to be. But in order to figure out how we got here—and how to fight against it—we have to go all the way back to the late ‘90s.
If it seems weird that Star Wars is being used as a tool to help indoctrinate maladjusted men into antisocial movements, it shouldn’t. Much of America’s current online experience was built from blueprints of early internet successes—a fair number of which were achieved, believe it or not, via coverage of the Star Wars prequels. Online aspects now seen as normal, even traditional—like comments sections (the primordial ooze from which social media as we know it first crawled,) the ways I’m allowed to behave in those comments sections, what passes for “news,” the placement of the bar for “reporter,” and how I reward bad actors for their lax “newsgathering” practices—were first established through attempts to create and financially exploit “geek culture” and “the fan community.”
The three original sins of the internet, now accepted as "truths," passed down generationally and treated as institutional:
1) Nothing here counts.
2) You're not really you.
3) Cruelty is currency.
Yes, these "truths" pre-date the mad rush online caused by the availability of broadband and self-determined communities (like Star Wars fans) gathering (metastasizing) online. But that era, and the enticement of that outsized fanbase, helped cement those "truths" as self-evident, pointing the way to decades of casual, accepted abuse of anyone who wasn't an aggrieved, insecure man like me, who didn't agree with me, or who weren't sympathetic at all times to me.
The internalization of those lies presents itself in the way I still casually separate "real life" from my time spent on the internet, as if the internet isn't the primary communication tool for hundreds of millions of people. In the way I might choose to adopt a falsified personality and cartoon avatar to engage in a one-sided role-playing game I “win” through constant refreshing of my feeds—looking less for opportunities to improve understanding and more for free dunks on busted hoops lowered to eight feet.
A false perception of “nerd” as a legitimate minority status took hold as lazy justification for feeling I was unjustly persecuted for my hobbies (I wasn’t) and thus entitled to easily-abused anonymity—an entitlement that extends to stripping anonymity from those who are actually socially persecuted, who need that anonymity to safely operate online. In these spaces (many of which became some of the internet’s most popular), personal responsibility was a sucker’s game: If you sign your real name to your words, if you put your real face next to those words, well… what did you expect?
This is the language of a predator blaming the prey. And this was the foundation upon which the “community” of the internet was built. An atmosphere in which the mere presence of a woman was consent to abuse by default, where the empty motto “Don’t feed the trolls” rose to prominence as a legitimate preventative measure. When the people setting rules of conduct are lonely, invisible men, it only makes sense we’d promote a “golden rule” that asks you to pretend hurtful people aren’t really hurting you, and whose “proper” implementation only serves to normalize emotional abuse.
1) Nothing here counts.
2) You're not really you.
3) Cruelty is currency.
This is the foundation our internet stands on.
That the most disruptive realization of those lies would manifest in online gaming spaces is also not surprising. Star Wars is such a cultural behemoth that thousands of other hobbies and interests can (and do) Venn diagram with it, and gaming is one of its biggest overlapping circles. From that circle came the most damaging, destructive example of community engineering: Gamergate, an embodiment of the “useful idiot” concept as a social movement, whose origins are steeped in misogyny and opportunism.
Gamergate begat Ghostbusters-hate, which morphed into ComicsGate, and with the release of The Last Jedi, these chickens are finally back home and roosting in the Star Wars universe, a fandom that—despite large increases in diversity reflecting the well-reviewed, highly profitable films being made by and starring more diverse people—is still largely considered the province of “nerdy” men.
And now we know that Russian trolls are preying on those men, as they prey on other men: using them to sow discord and promote a divisive, depressing and despairing national atmosphere. The comments section is essentially where we live now, and a literal Russian troll ran on the Republican ticket and won the White House.
Lonely, insecure men thrive in this environment. I know I did, and I'm not even anywhere near as successful as many in my peer group at parlaying performative white dork jackassery into a career. I exploited my participation in online Star Wars communities to gimmick my way onto the radio; I further exploited "geek pride" as an empty-yet-burgeoning cultural phenomenon to maintain mid-level success at that position. I'm certainly no Wil Wheaton or Chris Hardwick, but I saw what they saw, what people like Ethan Klein, Joe Vargas, and Mike Stoklasa have seen, what Ethan Van Sciver, Richard Meyer, and Grace Randolph see now: There are thousands of easy marks like me still out there, people eager to substitute popular culture for old time religion, and aching for someone to accept their misguided loyalties. This could be you, provided are willing to feed me just two more "truths:”
1) You're smarter than everyone else.
2) I will be your friend.
This “friendship" is a transactional facsimile: I give you pageviews (or buy your shirts, or read your book, and I never forget to like and subscribe) and you supply me a quick ‘n’ dirty ego massage and the empty sham of tribal acceptance. If this sounds like the same basic cult-of-personality grift run by right-wing radio and sports talk godheads, that’s because it is. The target demographic has simply shifted from sedentary men listening to Rush Limbaugh to a buzzing swarm of fedora'd bullseyes custom-made for hateful exploitation.
We live in the United States of Dunning-Kruger, a fetid field of “self-educated” dilettantes shrieking from sea to shining sea, addicted to confirmation bias and allergic to reading. (Reading just gets in the way of tweeting, and tweeting is what gets you crowdfunded.) The internet is full of people like me, or like the person I used to be—people who believe their right to a pop-culture opinion supersedes anyone else's rights to anything at all.
False pride is a very useful lever for manipulating a guy like me, who measures self-worth by the amount of trivia I know, who gauges my status as a human by comparing myself to “sheep.” This isn’t just a pop-culture thing. This is also the hubristic stance usually assumed by, for example, people who swear Jill Stein wasn’t a wasted vote. Or Bernie Bros.
That implicit cultural permission to dehumanize others is then made explicit by grifters seeking to exploit me financially—and by operatives seeking to weaponize me politically. It might read as silly to suggest that white supremacist sentiment is sown in online communities built around children's entertainment, but once you recognize the grift for what it is, and the transaction at the core of it (I'll accept you, I’ll be your friend, I’ll make you feel as special as you think you should be, please subscribe to my Patreon to own your enemies), the slippery slope to full indoctrination becomes apparent.
Online fandoms aren't separate from society, they're microcosms residing within it. Their smaller size provides opportunities to fit in and interact for those, like me, who are uncomfortable socializing. Online fandoms—beyond being safe places to enjoy deep-dive conversations about pop-culture minutiae—are social training wheels, squeezing larger, more complicated concepts like civic duty and rehabilitation into simpler-yet-still-impassioned debates, like, say… whether Rey should save Kylo Ren, or let him fall.
And if someone can insert themselves into these maladroit microcosms, find me flailing around, and teach me to accept that cheap, transactional “friendship” as substitute for meaningful interaction, I’ll become addicted to my own warped sense of self-importance. Because to acknowledge the vast overinflation of value in my disposable opinion is to allow the briefest moment of real self-awareness. And real self-awareness is anathema to those three foundational lies.
And that brings us back to now. Where Russian trolls can foment so much discord online because too many of us refuse to even begin entertaining the idea that our individual opinions aren’t necessary, or that our thoughts do not possess any intrinsic value, regardless of how we might have “carefully” arrived at them (Read: “I listened to a podcast in the background while lurking Reddit, and collected some stray catchphrases that make me sound pretty smart ’n’ shit.”)
One of the most useful data points in these studies relates to the size of these negative groups. They’re remarkably small, especially for the amount of noise they make. In both Bay’s study and in Bethany Lacina’s similar study for the Washington Post, out of all the people shouting about The Last Jedi to either its biggest fans or to its filmmakers, the people spending north of 10 hours to critique one movie (or cut up its action figures) on YouTube, the people calling for boycotts and swearing they’re working, the number of people legitimately upset at the film’s quality—all of them, together, appear to hover around 10-15 percent of The Last Jedi’s audience, and half of that number are likely right-wing trolls or potential Russian operatives and/or bots.
There are ways to matter in the world. Online acts of casual bullying and self-congratulation aren’t those ways. And if all I have to prove my good standing are 30,000 tweets-worth of lazily regurgitated hot takes coughed up from behind a cartoon avatar and a “cleverly” chosen nom de plume, then I make myself vulnerable to a pair of truths that have, of late, been used to increasingly powerful effect by notable creatives and social justice advocates who have realized directly responding to my disruptive, angry, attention-thieving behavior is not just unavoidable, it’s imperative:
1) You don’t matter.
2) We don’t care.
This is the one-two punch that most effectively rattles guys like me. Because it speaks directly to that entitled, unearned privilege I rely upon every time I barge into someone else’s conversation and handwave their hurt and abuse away so as to redirect all the attention back to where it rightfully belongs: On me, and also on my brilliant and unique opinions on space wizards.
The effectiveness of Russian trolling campaigns, or Gamergate, or Comicsgate, or this newest, weirdest, Star Wars-iest gate (one that is, reminder, focused on a children’s film about magical space wizards) partially relies on the injection of propaganda into the discourse, but it also depends on my willingness to voluntarily diminish and deny this political manipulation, to provide bad actors acres of cover in the shadow of my giant insecurities, for reasons that typically go like this:
“I don’t want to acknowledge my arguments are being hijacked by right-wing, white supremacist, Russian trolls. That’s unfair to me. It threatens my cardboard self-image, that someone could so unfairly ignore the very important thing I have to say about porgs. I’m not a Russian. I’m smart. Not dumb, like everyone says. I’m smart, and I deserve respect. So instead, I’m going to argue that none of this Russian shit is real and you’re making it up, or blowing it out of proportion, because you’re too scared to address the real issues about why so many of these women are suddenly in Star Wars. Especially the purple-haired one in the prom dress. Why didn’t she just tell Poe her plan?”
And if I have so little faith in the strength of my (stupid) argument about how “Luke Skywalker would never throw away his lightsaber!” that I deny observable, academically-studied reality? Then I’ve earned it when someone who actually does something meaningful with their life turns to me and says “Guess what, Fredo?”
1) You don’t matter.
2) We don’t care.
This is how deplatforming works, and deplatforming absolutely works. The best way to “not feed the trolls” is to spotlight them, step on them, and scrape the remains off your shoe on the front porch before closing and locking the door again. Deplatforming has severely kneecapped Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulous, and Glenn Beck. Spreading purposefully poisonous and violent rhetoric is not an inalienable right, and as the numbers prove, the majority of people in America disagree with those ugly sentiments. (They also really liked The Last Jedi.)
Some have seen how few the “haters” number not as reassuring, but alarming, because the amount of focused, targeted abuse haters can dish out certainly doesn’t feel small as it’s happening to you. (Or to Kelly Marie Tran. Or Daisy Ridley. Or Ruby Rose.) But this populace of stunted creeps being small of stature isn’t an invitation to mutter “don’t feed the trolls” and ignore the problem—it says that the problem can be effectively fought. That it can be smothered to death, provided a wide enough pillow.
Unfortunately, people like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, and organizations like Google, don’t seem particularly interested in voluntarily denying their platforms to bigots, sexists, and Russian trolls. And that’s because leaders of these platforms are also tainted by those three fundamental lies. The massive economies of Silicon Valley are, in many ways, built on those lies. The vast majority of those who control the internet are, themselves lonely and insecure men, acting in the way we’ve become accustomed to lonely, insecure men acting on the internet.
1) Nothing here counts.
2) You're not really you.
3) Cruelty is currency.
These men could part with some of their earnings to employ much better moderation (or any at all, really), helping foster an atmosphere that protects the marginalized and promotes empathy, sympathy, and compassion instead of routine cruelty and practiced pretension. They could assist in deplatforming my peers who persist in not mattering as loudly, as exploitatively as we can. But compared to Twitter engagement numbers and targeted Facebook ads, they see no worth in doing so. Acquiescing to misappropriated, misused anonymity, not to mention harassment and aggression, is considered necessary to their business models.
But there are tools available to counteract their cowardly inaction: Depending on effective community moderation is almost always an exercise in futility, so blocking is extremely useful and highly recommended. Hashtag advocacy—while open to superficial derision and easy mockery—has repeatedly been proven to work. Now, I don’t know if this next one (or this entire essay, really) will be that useful in striking any necessary chords—maybe it’ll just be another burst of methane from yet another self-important, middle-aged know-it-all beardo—but one of the most useful tools belongs primarily to me and my fellow insecure, lonely men, and it is counterintuitive to everything we believe about how we’re supposed to act, both in our daily lives and in online spaces:
Shut up and let other people live.
My opinions are never as important as I think they are, and my personal experiences are not the default. Insecure, lonely men like me frequently don’t know what the hell we’re talking about, and we certainly haven’t done a whole hell of a lot to deserve our massive overrepresentation in the larger discourse. We don’t (well,) actually need to enter other people’s conversations, and our disruptive presence isn’t validating or helpful.
We should listen and read carefully—not simply to accumulate future regurgitations of “content” to help bolster our "personal brand"—but to learn. To empathize. And maybe, if we can devote effort to getting out of other people’s way, we’ll learn to get out of our own way, too. We’ll learn that giving up our ill-gained space isn’t the harbinger of destruction we reflexively believe it to be. That sharing spotlight—or even surrendering it completely—and providing megaphones for marginalized voices doesn’t distract or detract from our receiving love and understanding, it multiplies it.
But that can only happen if we let go of those three lies we’ve built our personalities around, and if we stop gorging on poisoned rhetoric in a futile attempt to deny the fact we don’t matter as much as we believe we should—as we believe we’re owed.
Because the truth is that so long as I tightly cling to those three lies, I don’t matter. At least not in the ways I want to, and not in the ways that make anything better. And if deplatforming works, it’s likely time for me to volunteer for that duty. Because while I might (erroneously) believe depriving the discourse of my presence would do it irreparable harm, it’s much more likely that whatever it was I was going to say for the sake of my measly five RTs and 25 hearts is going to be said better by someone who actually knows what she's talking about, with a much larger audience—and as a result, will reach many more people who need to hear it.
Guys: We aren’t the stars of this story. We’re the supporting cast. And if we really want to matter, then we need to cede the stage and stop playing these roles we’re not suited to. We need to stop talking so much, start listening, and let people move out from under the suffocating shadow of our towering insecurities, give them space to just live, while we get to work on cutting ourselves, and those shadows, down to meaningful size.