On the perils of social media

Stacey MacNaught: Social Media Icons on an iPhone 7 Screen (Creative Commons)

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian.


Ginger Gorman, Troll Hunting: Inside the World of Online Hate and Its Human Fallout

Hardie Grant; $29.99; 278pp

Sebastian Smee, Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age

Quarterly Essay; $22.99; –pp

In 2010 the journalist Ginger Gorman, who was then working for the ABC in Queensland, interviewed Mark Newton and Peter Truong, a gay couple with a five-year-old son, born to a Russian surrogate mother. The interview was framed as part of a series of stories on discrimination and its effect on the LGTB community, and in the course of it Gorman asked the couple if they believed that Australian authorities were suspicious of their efforts to bring their son to Australia because of their sexuality. Newton was unequivocal: ‘Absolutely. I’m sure that was completely the concern.’

Three years later Newton and Truong were sentenced to, respectively, 40 and 30 years in prison for conspiring to sexually exploit a child. A joint investigation by the US Postal Inspection Service and Queensland Police had exposed the pair as members of a global paedophile ring, to which their son (now ‘Boy1’) had been trafficked. Gorman, whose photograph of the convicted men would become a sort of visual shorthand for the story (they are sitting either side of their victim, whose face is now obscured with an ominous black disc), was of course profoundly distressed at the news.

But Gorman was in for another shock. For shortly after the sentencing, she began to receive scores of angry tweets from people who had read her 2010 article. Some suggested that she should have known better, implying that her liberal politics had blinded her to the real situation, while others were deeply menacing. (‘Your life is over’ read one.) Meanwhile a photograph of Gorman and her family found its way onto a fascist website. Understandably the journalist began to worry that she may be in danger of physical violence.

This episode is the starting point for Gorman’s Troll Hunting, an exploration of how the internet in general, and social media in particular, has facilitated (and possibly catalysed) the ‘spectrum of behaviours’ known as ‘trolling’. As Gorman suggests, that spectrum is a broad one. At the lighter end of the scale we find pranks such as ‘rickrolling’, where internet users are tricked into viewing a video of Rick Astley singing ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, while at the other extreme we find an open sewer of white supremacy, cyber-bullying, ‘RIP trolling’ and graphic misogyny. Overwhelmingly, and for obvious reasons, Troll Hunting is concerned with this nastier milieu, though ‘milieu’ is perhaps too gregarious a word to describe the gallery of cranks and loners Gorman calls ‘predator trolls’.

One of Gorman’s aims in the book is to take on some of the ‘myths’ about trolling: the idea, for example, that trolls are just losers, too frightened to face the real world, or that trolls can’t hurt you if you simply ignore them. To this end, she talks to a number of trolls, including the notorious weev (aka Andrew Auernheimer) and the more conciliatory Meepsheep, an energetic Wikipedia vandal. She also talks to some prominent Australians – in particular journalist Van Badham and high-profile lawyer Josh Bernstein – whose experiences at the hands of trolls put paid to yet another myth: that only the unduly sensitive are affected by their attentions. On the contrary, Gorman shows, the capacity of trolls to ruin lives is limitless.

There are some interesting things in Troll Hunting. The account of how journalists Elise Potaka and Luke McMahon (aka ‘the troll hunter’) were able to establish the true identity of the infamous troll Australi Witness is well told and illuminating, and the book contains many interesting details about trolls and their modi operandi. But the book is undermined by Gorman’s decision to frame it as a personal narrative. The countless references to her own state of mind frequently overwhelm the book, while her prose, in attempting to enact her emotions – through verbless sentences, sudden switches of tense and passages of italicised text – quickly becomes a major irritant. Gorman’s subtitle promises to take us ‘inside the world of online hate’ and anatomise ‘its human fallout’. But the fallout has spread back over the analysis in a way that isn’t helpful to it.

Accordingly the author’s conclusions are rather weak, amounting to little more than some thoughts on the importance of diligent parenting and some observations to the effect that the police need to raise their game and social media companies take more responsibility for the bile that is spread using their platforms. The idea that the popularity of trolling might mark a more general socio-political turn, as the Irish writer Angela Nagle argued in her book Kill All Normies, is not even broached, let alone explored. Concentrating largely on the alt-right and its periphery, Nagle set the irony and transgression implicit to trolling in the context of the culture wars, suggesting that those performative values have migrated from the left to the right as liberalism has become the dominant creed – a creed enforced, as often as not, through forms of social-media shaming. A liberal herself, Gorman misses (I think) this broader ideological dynamic, and in missing it misses out as well on an opportunity to connect these behaviours to the broader political situation. (What is Donald Trump doing if not trolling ‘official’ liberalism, to the delight of those it has left behind?)

While Troll Hunting sets out to analyse one aspect of online behaviour, Net Loss, by the art critic Sebastian Smee, assays the effect the internet is having on the human personality in general. Like Gorman, Smee is concerned about the ugliness ventilated on social media, but he is also alive to the ways in which those platforms engender a preference for performance and superficiality over introspection and emotional honesty. Such platforms, Smee argues, are actually quite bad at representing our ‘inner’ lives; for all that they have the ability to aggregate our personal data, their algorithms cannot reproduce the human personality in its most intimate aspects. But habituation to social media, with its open and ongoing invitation to curate our lives for the consumption of others, has changed our subjectivities. The face has grown to fit the mask. ‘[S]tare long enough at something that claims to represent you and it can come to stand in for that more inchoate, cumbersome reality.’

Notions of the ‘inner life’ are liable to attract either impenetrable philosophers or self-help gurus with wraparound microphones, and Smee is very wise, I think, to keep his distance from both of these constituencies. Declaring himself ‘agnostic’ on the question of whether the self is a material entity or one with its own ‘existential coherence’ (a ‘soul’ in the old money), he neither accepts nor rejects the view that ‘inner being’ is a ‘leftover of an exhausted and tattered humanism’. But that our sense of ourselves, and indeed of each other, is changing very rapidly as a consequence of social media strikes me as undeniable, and so the question of whether it is changing for the better is a sane and urgent one to ask. Though he notes that it can be therapeutic to indulge in the limited realities afforded by the new technology, Smee concludes (as per his title) that we have suffered a ‘net loss’ in this regard.

The conclusion is a personal one, born of a mind steeped in great art and literature but afflicted as well by the ‘passivity and inertia’ of life on social media. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Net Loss is to witness (and to share in) the excitement of the author as he re-engages with favourite passages from Anton Chekov, Saul Bellow and Iris Murdoch – passages that dramatise the feeling of being at once a social and a private self and thus serve as a sort of counterpoint to the flattened selves of Facebook and Instagram. Another pleasure (a more predictable one, for those who know and enjoy Smee’s work) is the way the visual arts are used to illustrate the analysis. The section on US video artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch is particularly fascinating. In Smee’s reading, Trecartin and Fitch’s work explores how the human personality is reconfigured – inverted even – in the age of online performativity. As he puts it: ‘Their characters are like literal incarnations of the avatars and clones of internet culture, the “selves” who spew vitriol, humour and random assertion, and unspool across YouTube comment threads and social media.’

Though Smee is not foolhardy enough to propose solutions to this new saturnalia, in channelling the spirit of contemplation he feels is under threat from social media he gives his readers a glimpse of what they’re losing. That he does in rich … Even many habitual users of social media recognise intuitively that greater connectivity in the digital sphere has engendered disconnection in the human one, and Net Loss is a smart and magnanimous exploration of this inescapable modern theme. I’d tweet about it, but I have to go and read some Chekov.