Ted Rall: Online Haters, Witch Hunts and the New Mob Mentality

aNewDomain.net — This last weekend Ted Rall found himself in a bizarre place. It was uncomfortable, for sure, but not totally unfamiliar. He was the target of the equivalent of the Two Minutes Hate as depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Online haters and online witch hunts are running rampant — and the effects are devastating. A whole new mob mentality is evolving. Here’s what Ted Rall has to say about it.

The haters had a big problem with the way I draw U.S. President Barack Obama. I’ve been drawing him this way since 2009. But I’m not writing about that issue now. The column below is about what that experience and others before it have taught me about how to deal with online haters, witch hunts and, just generally, the whole issue. It’s about what I’ve learned in order to deal with the mob mentality that has emerged on the Internet in recent years.

Like other cartoonists I’m used to being a target of hot criticism. In particular, readers attack me over my “terror widows” political cartoons and Pat Tillman cartoons from 2002 and 2004, respectively.

I’d get furious rants during the grim years following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., particularly from bloggers on the far right of America’s political fringe. Some of these guys were calling for me to be censored, imprisoned, tortured, raped and/or assassinated.

Lovely. But I suppose it’s … nice … to be noticed.

But now, more than a decade later, I notice the anatomy of online hate — also known as the Internet pile-on — is different. How it’s changed reveals some intriguing changes to American political culture overall.

First you had the knee-jerk nationalism of the Bush years. That’s now changed to a form of political correctness on steroids under President Obama. And identity politics are running amok. Influenced by such social networks as Twitter, Facebook and Google+, even the comments sections of political-discussion websites have Like and Dislike ratings now.

That amplifies groupthink to a frightening degree.

And compared with what was going on in the Bush Era, when right-wing haters threatened the lives of lefties more than they did their livelihoods, now you have conservative Obama Democrats who are more-likely to silence and censor you than email you death threats.

For sure, the basic characteristics of TwoMinuteHate.com remain the same. Internet mob rule still relies on the power of suggestion. I mean, if people choose to follow a link that urges them to Click Here to See a Terrible, Horrible Witch, they’re more-likely than not to see, well, you guessed it: A terrible, horrible witch. What would you expect?

This is what I call the Comedy Club Effect. Think about it. Ninety-nine percent of stand-up comics aren’t even funny. Yet look around next time you’re in a show and you’ll see that most people laugh at most bad jokes. When you pay $30, plus a two-drink minimum to participate, you’re already preconditioned to have a good time. At a comedy club, that means laughing.

And so the people laugh. The mandatory alcohol helps, too.

Once, after I  was introduced as “America’s funniest cartoonist” at a talk in Chicago, I apologized for being late due to traffic from O’Hare. It wasn’t a joke. But everyone laughed.

Now, there’s a corollary of the Comedy Club Effect. And that’s when you’ve set things up so that people are preconditioned not to laugh, but to hate — hard and often. The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen experienced this when his “What if I were a bigot” musings — about New York Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio’s biracial family — drew calls for his firing. And it drew plenty of silly and unsubstantiated assertions that the column truly represented Cohen’s thoughts.

This wasn’t fair — it was the exact 180-degree opposite of fair.

If anything, white conservatives with so-called conventional views, rather than the progressives, should have been the ones who were angry at Cohen for attributing bigotry that conservatives hadn’t even expressed.

As any other target of online hate and media pile-ons could tell you, it is hard to deal with angry people who are yelling at you and, in a forum, aren’t open to anything you have to say. Explanations don’t help. Apologies don’t stop them. They just want to yell at you and pile on the hate.

Anything you say can and will be used, distorted and twisted against you in the court of Twitter.

Duck and cover. That’s a smart way to deal with it. Let your allies and fellow travelers run interference for you and defend your online honor. But your defenders won’t get far. Dissenting voices get shouted down, too.

Anything they say will be similarly twisted. And yes, they’ll get accusations for being your toadies. In the end, they’ll get ground down, too, because haters will barrage them with endless demands to repeat themselves until, finally, they fade away. That’ll leave your attackers and their hundreds of comments online — all of which will remain forever searchable in the future for might-have-been employers.

There’s no way to win. All you can do is conserve your energy and wait until the mob moves on to burn down someone else’s house.

No matter what, commentors have strong opinions — even about, for example, cartoons they haven’t actually seen.

My latest imbroglio brought me into contact with such relatively recent additions to the PC canon as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining.”

According to the Urban Dictionary, whitespaining is:

the paternalistic lecture given by whites toward a person of color defining what should and shouldn’t be considered racist, while obliviously exhibiting their own  racism.”

And according to the Urban Dictionary, mansplaining is:

… the tendency of some men to mistakenly believe that they automatically know more about any given topic than does a woman and who, consequently, proceed to explain to her — correctly or not — things that she already knows.”

A more lucid definition is for the suffix that is “‘splaining.” Geek Feminism defines that as:

a form of condescension in which a member of a privileged group explains something to a member of a marginalized group —  most particularly, explains about their marginalization — as if the privileged person knows more about it.”

As a white male, in other words, I easily get how irritating it would be to hear a white guy like me tell someone who isn’t white or male about his experience as a disadvantaged minority.

But I can’t know how he feels.

This all is true. But the trouble is that, on sites like Daily Kos, where the majority views are pro-Obama and pro-Democratic Party no matter what, the cries of “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” are tools these folks use to stifle not condescension, but disagreement.

Back to the controversy over the way I draw Obama, the founder of Daily Kos refused to weigh in with his opinion over whether he believes I am racist.

“Don’t be that white guy telling African-Americans what is and isn’t racist,” sayeth Markos Moulitsas. 1300 comments or so later, after someone finally asked: “If white guys have no right to voice an opinion about racism, I’m curious if minorities expect white guys to say anything at all about racism (except for racist statements, of course)? After all, if your opinions simply aren’t welcome, can you really expect people to engage in a debate?”

Daily Kos is one of so many sites that have adopted the Facebook-style Like and Don’t Like rating systems. Viewers are able to click a plus or minus sign to recommend or hide blog entries and individual comments, too.

Items with more thumbs up add to a poster’s digital “mojo” on the site. Items with more thumbs down get hidden from view —  and subtract from mojo. Run out of mojo and you can’t post anymore. You are unpersoned. Just like in Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Link aggregator Reddit demonstrates the problem with this system: Post cute kittens and watch your ratings soar. Post anything controversial — say, anything about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and the hates will cancel out the likes.

Reddit is a place where anything less than totally insipid goes to die. I assume Reddit’s people like it that way.

At Kos they call this inanity “community moderation.”

It sounds democratic. In practice, the Recommend/Hide system is toxic, stifling and distracting.

It prompts long threads of navel-gazing comments by people complaining about one another’s hides and recommendations — with threats of getting even for them. Wait, what are we talking about again.

And there are secret Facebook pages for various gangs of Kossacks, who swoop into certain posts to wreck or hide them into glory or oblivion, as the case suits them.

It sounds silly. This is what happens when people have too much time on their hands.

Silly as it is, it’s dangerous, too. This manipulation of what once was free and open online political discussion has a real-world effect: It crushes anything that disagrees with the hive mind — a collective mentality that becomes more lockstep because of it. And it kills anything new or interesting.

Worst of all, casual browsers could be forgiven for thinking that nothing new or interesting exists — or for taking issue with this mainstream and generic viewpoint, like the unquestioning support for Obama at Kos.

I posted a blog defending myself and explaining why I draw Obama the way I do — to Kos.

It received lots of recommendations and attracted hundreds of comments. Only problem is, it’s gone now. Pro-Obama Kossacks “hide-rated it.”

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the Internet was supposed to turn out like this.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in New York, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.