Don’t Blame Anti-Establishment Politicians For Vile Online Abuse

Internet Troll - Cyber Online Abuse

Taking offence in the behaviour of a politician’s online supporters says a lot more about your view of that particular politician than the uniquely “hateful” nature of their fans

What do Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage all have in common?

Nothing to do with their political views, obviously – you would be hard pressed to imagine four more different politicians, both in terms of style and substance. But they do share something more fundamental in common: the fact that their supporters are uniquely derided as being angry and intemperate, even sexist or racist trolls, especially when compared to the supporters of their more established rivals.

How many times have you heard a wounded, thin-skinned Westminster media type complain in hurt tones that they have received “vile online abuse” from crusading Ukippers or SNP-supporting Cybernats? And this is nearly always followed by the accusatory observation that the journalist or media star in question has never been so insulted or abused by supporters of the other mainstream parties or candidates.

You have likely seen or read this lament numerous times in one form or another. Typically, they will conclude – either explicitly or by inference – that there must be something uniquely awful and unacceptable about that particular party or candidate’s views, something which either attracts a disproportionate number of crazy people, or else makes otherwise good people behave in reprehensible ways.

Here’s the Telegraph’s James Kirkup raising an eyebrow after receiving a less than loving and nurturing response from online UKIP supporters, in a piece rather preciously titled “Why are UKIP supporters so rude and horrible?”:

A brief glance through the comments sections of the Telegraph website will show this is not an isolated incident; hostile and personal remarks are a common feature of online discussion about Ukip-related stories and columns. My email inbox tells a similar story.

I’m not alone here. There is nothing unique or special about me, no individual quality that attracts such strong feelings. All of my colleagues who cover Ukip and Mr Farage regularly receive such vitriol, and several of them get it in much larger volumes than me.

[..] I’m increasingly convinced that Ukippers are one of the political groups whose members are disproportionately likely to go in for online bile. (Scottish Nationalists are another; I haven’t had the pleasure of their electronic company for a while, but in a previous job I got to know the “cybernats” fairly well.)

Kirkup’s piece is actually fairly generous – he goes on to praise Ukippers for their passion and commitment, although it comes across in a rather condescending way.

But there is no such generosity in this farewell to the Labour Party from Barbara Ellen, who took her leave after finding herself unable to cope with the fact that her preferred centrist wing of the party finds itself temporarily out of favour for the first time in decades.

Smarting from the “howling gales” of disagreement she encountered, Ellen raged:

Still the Corbynista circus refuses to leave town, with one troubling result being that the term “moderate” is starting to look tarnished and devalued – deemed too centrist, restrained, temperate, cautious. Never mind that this describes most of Britain – or that this culture of moderate-baiting is hounding people like myself (lifelong Labour voters) out of the party. Like many in the great disenchanted Labour diaspora of 2015, I don’t feel remotely “Tory lite”, but nor do I feel that there is a place for me in this brutal and monochrome, but also silly and over-simplistic, “with us or against us” regime.

And maybe there’s a faint hope that by leaving, by voting with your feet, you’ll finally quietly reasonably (moderately!) make your voice heard. It’s a sad scary moment when “moderate” starts feeling like a insult. I’d have thought that moderates were the bricks and cement of any political party – without them, the extremes become unmoored, sucked into howling gales of their own making. The leftier-than-thou can taunt the departing “boring”, “gutless”, “Tory lite” moderates all they like. In the end, we were necessary and we’ll be missed.

The media’s hysteria about boisterous and sometimes deeply unpleasant online political discourse reached its peak with their coverage of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign, with endless finger-wagging remarks about how the actions of a few anonymous knuckle-dragging trolls supposedly make a mockery of Corbyn’s “New Politics”.

Here’s the Spectator’s Sebastian Payne rending his garments in anguish at the fact that some unhinged Corbyn fans happen to say some very unpleasant things online:

It was meant to be about open debate and discussion, consensus through dialogue. But so far, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party and the arrival of the so-called New Politics has resulted in division and a lot of abuse and bad feeling. In light of last night’s vote on Syria airstrikes, Twitter and Facebook have been exploding with extraordinary levels of comments and abuse that no one, MPs or otherwise, should be subjected to.

For example, hard-left groups such as Lefty Unity, have been using Twitter to stir up agitation against the MPs they disagree with.

The article goes on to cite a tweet listing the names of Labour MPs who voted for military action in Syria, and calling for party members to deselect them. Remarkably, Payne presents this as some terrible affront to civilised behaviour rather than precisely what should happen in a democracy: MPs making decisions in public, and the public judging MPs based on those decisions. The horror!

Unfortunately, our default reaction is increasingly not just to sit back and mock the individual trolls (justified), but to then also make the lazy assumption that the internet trolls somehow speak for the wider movement or supporter base (much less justified). Everyone enjoys seeing an ignorant verbal abuser put back in their box, but we are being intellectually lazy if we then go on to believe that people like the anonymous idiot silenced by JK Rowling are representative of general UKIP or SNP opinion.

Cybernat - Online Abuse - Trolling

Exactly the same phenomenon can now be seen in the United States, where supporters and media cheerleaders of Democratic establishment favourite Hillary Clinton are lightning-quick to accuse their opponents of sexism, and to refer disparagingly to supporters of socialist rival Bernie Sanders – alas, a white male – as the “Bernie Bros”.

Glenn Greenwald does a superb job of debunking the myth that Bernie Sanders supporters are uniquely sexist or misogynistic among political supporters over at The Intercept, writing:

Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate. Therefore, she has far more supporters with loud, influential media platforms than her insurgent, socialist challenger. Therefore, the people with the loudest media platforms experience lots of anger and abuse from Sanders supporters and none from Clinton supporters; why would devoted media cheerleaders of the Clinton campaign experience abuse from Clinton supporters? They wouldn’t, and they don’t. Therefore, venerating their self-centered experience as some generalized trend, they announce that Sanders supporters are uniquely abusive: because that’s what they, as die-hard Clinton media supporters, personally experience. This “Bernie Bro” narrative says a great deal about which candidate is supported by the most established journalists and says nothing unique about the character of the Sanders campaign or his supporters.

And the same blindingly obvious truth hits closer to home with the media’s reaction to – and coverage of – Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership:

This exact media theme was constantly used against Corbyn: that his supporters were uniquely abusive, vitriolic, and misogynistic. That’s because the British media almost unanimously hated Corbyn and monomaniacally devoted themselves to his defeat: So of course they never experienced abuse from supporters of his opponents but only from supporters of Corbyn. And from that personal experience, they also claimed that Corbyn supporters were uniquely misbehaved, and then turned it into such a media narrative that the Corbyn campaign finally was forced to ask for better behavior from his supporters.

Time and again we see establishment candidates and their fans in the media reaching for the smelling salts and clamouring to tell us how insulted and distressed they are, simply because something they said or wrote happened to tap into the coarsing vein of popular anger against a political establishment which grows remoter and more self-serving by the day. But we should recognise this for what it is – a cheap attempt to shut down the debate by rendering certain political ideas unthinkable or unsayable.

It is very much in the interests of centrists within Labour and the Conservative Party that people should fear policies with a genuine ideological twist to them, be they from the Right or the Left. When their entire pitch to the electorate consists of fatuous promises to be the most competent managers of our public services, as thought Britain were nothing more than a rainy island of hospitals and job centres, anything which attempts to inject some inspiration, ambition or bold thinking into our political debate is to be greatly feared, and thwarted at all costs.

Hence the continual efforts to portray Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wingery, something which would have been considered perfectly normal in 1986, as beyond the pale of acceptable thought in 2016.

Hence the sneering, virtue-signalling attacks on Ukippers, who have been shamefully portrayed by the media as a bunch of grunting, uneducated, economically “left behind” losers who wrap themselves in the Union flag because they are somehow more scared of change than a “normal” person.

Hence the apocalyptic predictions of those opposing Scottish independence, warning that Scotland would become some kind of tartan-clad North Korea if they went their own way.

Now, this blog believes that Jeremy Corbyn’s left wing policies are utterly wrong for Britain, that UKIP does have a certain unsavoury element within it, and that Scottish independence and the breakup of the United Kingdom would be a tragedy. But I don’t for a moment assume that the virtue of these ideas can be judged in any way by the behaviour of their most crude and sociopathic advocates. And nor do I attempt to suppress the expression of those ideas by linking overheated rhetoric on social media to any one particular idea, candidate or party.

All of which makes you wonder: If the establishment are so self-evidently right, if the centrist parties and politicians do indeed have a monopoly on Good and Pragmatic Ideas, and if anybody who proposes the slightest departure from the status quo is a juvenile dreamer or a tub-thumping populist, why not let the arguments speak for themselves?

If the establishment have the facts so overwhelmingly on their side, why do they not limit themselves to patiently explaining why Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage are wrong on the issues? And at a time when political engagement is falling and faith in democracy ebbing, are the Corbyn critics and Farage haters really saying that they would rather people were disengaged than back a radical candidate?

This blog would argue that there is a certain nobility in all of the populist insurgencies currently roiling the political landscape in Britain and America. Whether one agrees with them or not (and there is often much to vehemently disagree with), they are at least attempting to drag us out of a stale and timid political consensus which has delivered prosperity for many but also failed too many of our fellow citizens.

Or as this blog remarked last year:

It is very easy to sit smugly on the sidelines, throwing the occasional rock and taunting those who risk hostility, ridicule and contempt as they struggle to find a way to make our politics relevant to the people. Anyone can be a stone-thrower. But it’s another thing entirely to roll up your sleeves, join the fray, pick a side or – if none of the available options appeal – propose new political solutions of your own.

Ukippers and Jeremy Corbyn supporters have often been steadfast in their political views for years, and as a result have languished in the political wilderness while those willing to bend, flatter and shapeshift their way toward focus group approval have been richly rewarded with power and success.

The “Bernie Bro” phenomenon in the United States and the centrist Labour hysterics about the antics of a few offensive people are nothing but a choreographed backlash from the establishment, whipped up by people who are happy to hijack issues like feminism and use them for their own short-term political advantage, or do anything else to disguise the yawning chasm where sincerely held convictions and beliefs should reside.

So, when you see a bunch of prominent, well-connected people feigning horror at the way in which people with whom they disagree are comporting themselves on the internet, your first thought should not be to dismiss the idea or candidate whom the obnoxious trolls support, but rather to question the real motives of the people weeping and rending their garments because they have been spoken to rudely on social media.

It may turn out that the trolls are still wrong, as well as being obnoxious and offensive. But many times, it will likely transpire that the people making the most fuss about the way that a particular candidate or party’s supporters are behaving also happen to have the most to lose in the event that those ideas gain a wider following. And their sudden desire for comity and a more respectful public discourse is cynical at best.

So what do Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage all have in common?

They are all flawed.

They are all willing to say things which make them wildly unpopular with large swathes of people.

Without their boldness and tenacity, few of us would still be discussing their top issues and obsessions – be it genuine socialist politics, Scottish independence, immigration or the coming EU referendum – and our politics would be left to the stale old two-party duopoly.

And none of these politicians, whatever their flaws, deserve to be judged by the online behaviour of their most angry, antisocial supporters.

Bernie Sanders - Refutes Bernie Bros

Top image: “#GamerGate is the future of troll politics”, Techcrunch.com

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