Internet

“…the platforms most flamboyantly dedicated to a borrowed idea of free speech and assembly are the same ones that have struggled most intensely with groups of users who seek to organize and disrupt their platforms”

It is worth noting that the platforms most flamboyantly dedicated to a borrowed idea of free speech and assembly are the same ones that have struggled most intensely with groups of users who seek to organize and disrupt their platforms. A community of trolls on an internet platform is, in political terms, not totally unlike a fascist movement in a weak liberal democracy: It engages with and uses the rules and protections of the system it inhabits with the intent of subverting it and eventually remaking it in their image or, if that fails, merely destroying it.

But what gave these trolls power on platforms wasn’t just their willingness to act in bad faith and to break the rules and norms of their environment. It was their understanding that the rules and norms of platforms were self-serving and cynical in the first place. After all, these platforms draw arbitrary boundaries constantly and with much less controversy — against spammers, concerning profanity or in response to government demands. These fringe groups saw an opportunity in the gap between the platforms’ strained public dedication to discourse stewardship and their actual existence as profit-driven entities, free to do as they please. Despite their participatory rhetoric, social platforms are closer to authoritarian spaces than democratic ones. It makes some sense that people with authoritarian tendencies would have an intuitive understanding of how they work and how to take advantage of them.

This was also a moment these hate groups were anticipating; getting banned in an opaque, unilateral fashion was always the way out and, to some degree, it suits them. In the last year, hard-right communities on social platforms have cultivated a pre-emptive identity as platform refugees and victims of censorship. They’ve also been preparing for this moment or one like it: There are hard-right alternatives to Twitter, to Reddit and even to the still-mostly-lawless 4chan. There are alternative fund-raising sites in the mold of GoFundMe or Kickstarter; there’s an alternative to Patreon called Hatreon. Like most of these new alternatives, it has cynically borrowed a cause — it calls itself a site that “stands for free speech absolutism” — that the more mainstream platforms borrowed first. Their persecution narrative, which is the most useful narrative they have, and one that will help spread their cause beyond the fringes, was written for them years ago by the same companies that helped give them a voice.

John Herrman, “On Technology”, The New York Times Magazine (27 August 2017), 21.