Learning to Read on the Internet

The internet has made the world effectively smaller and made communication almost effortless and nearly instantaneous. This connectivity has done much good, but we are also learning about the ugliness it has helped to usher in. Namely, we are learning that the internet has become the perfect tool for radicalization. This was perhaps first made clear to many in the West when ISIS created an internet presence to radicalize disenfranchised Muslim youth in the West, but in response white supremacy has found a transnational and ephemeral home on the internet as well. The rise of online white supremacy is not new, yet recent events have shown how it has become more refined and sophisticated in recent history.

The role of the internet as a tool to spread white supremacist propaganda and create terrorists has become a way in which some have tried to understand the recent Christchurch terror attack. Kevin Roose, in a New York Times article, writes that the Christchurch shootings were “a first” because it was “an internet-native mass shooting, conceived and produced entirely within the irony-soaked discourse of modern extremism.” Roose notes that “the language used to describe the attack before the fact framed it as an act of internet activism.” The terrorist’s manifesto reflects this. His own language has been characterized by his cynicism and sense of irony, while being intentionally devoid of meaning at times. Intent is deliberately obfuscated and the terrorist challenges us to find a meaning by referencing memes that are, by their nature, empty. As a result, the natural attempts to search for meaning in tragedy becomes a joke that only his sympathizers are in on.[1]

This brings to our attention that the world is a different place with the internet. Platforms which emphasize anonymity have fostered a mode of communication which purposefully defies interpretation. Images and text are reduced to information, digitization strips ambiguity from data, and interpretation is denigrated since the act of interpretation acknowledges nuance and complexity rather than acquiescing straight-forward calculations. The philosopher Byung-Chul Han notes that knowledge is characterized by “inwardness” and is “gained against a resistance.” Said another way, there’s an opacity and natural obscurity to genuine knowledge that requires mastery to understand. However, we tend to favour data over knowledge. But the language of data has “no inside, no flip sides,” it is shallow and seemingly requires no interpretation. Actions, likewise, become “data-driven processes which takes place without any autonomy… of the subject.” Agency is stripped away because data-driven processes are meant to simulate simple and predictable equations of cause-and-effect.[2] In addition, social and political bodies “are stripped of narrativity, direction, and sense.”[3] Context is a vital component to knowledge and accountability in both individuals and groups.

In the irony-soaked discourse of the internet, the acontextuality of extremism is weaponized. Context and interpretation requires insight to discern and effort to communicate, while disinformation is easily spread in just a few words. A moderator from a Reddit community (or subreddit), called AskHistorians, highlights this when discussing the subreddit’s stance toward Holocaust denial. Johannes Breit writes:

“It takes [deniers] little effort to formulate a wrong assertion, but it takes historians a long time and a lot of words to refute one. Our early attempts to engage on these points have shown that length and nuance do not play well on the internet and do not interest the deniers. [Their] point… is not to debate facts. It’s to have an audience hear denialist lies in the first place…. To gauge whether a person is malicious or merely ‘ironic’ is a futile exercise, for to give Holocaust deniers’ positions a platform is to disseminate their propaganda.”

Breit notes that the techniques of Holocaust deniers is informed by tactics used in the early 1990s which targeted university campuses.[4] Yet the technology has also changed how extremists are made because, as Roose writes in his aforementioned article, “[t]here is no offline equivalent of the experience of being algorithmically nudged toward a more strident version of your existing beliefs, or having an invisible hand steer you from gaming videos to neo-Nazism.”[5]

Readers need to adapt to technology and relearn how to read. The terrorist shooting in Christchurch demonstrates that the internet has become a place where white supremacy can ignore borders and find a home anywhere where there is an internet-connected device. It also draws attention to the tools of the trade: irony and memes reduce knowledge to bits of data for easy and quick consumption and encourages readers to turn away from more complex forms of communication. The language demands drastic actions and shuns ambiguity: perceived invasions demand violent responses. Individuals flee like cowards or, perhaps even worse, are herded to echo chambers, where there can be no interpretation and no questioning. Any attempt to reinterpret the presented data, to question its validity, or merely present the wider context is actively policed against. In echo chambers stock phrases and memes become the primary mode of communication because they are vapid. Genuine conversation is the enemy of echo chambers because conversation acknowledge relationality, insight, context, and narrative. Genuine conversation would bring accountability and agency into the simplistic equations which seemingly govern our world.

There is no one way to re-educate ourselves. Conversation, community, and an openness to nuance are good starting points. Yet conversation is scary in a world where disagreement is treated as a personal attack. Community is hard in a social media driven world that focuses on “likes” and “upvotes” rather than meaningful interactions. Nuance requires one to admit that the world might be too complex for the simple equations we have learned to default to when faced with a dilemma. But it’s becoming clear that we need to change our habits if online platforms are designed to profit from and foster our worst traits. In the word of Bad Religion: “we’ve got shiny new tools for ancient impulse we can’t even understand.”[6] The task before us is to learn and understand.

[1]. Kevin Roose, “A Mass Murder of, and for, the Internet,” New York Times, March 15 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/15/technology/facebook-youtube-christchurch-shooting.html (Accessed March 22, 2019),

[2]. Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, trans. Daniel Steuer, eBook edition, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018), 8.

[3]. Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society, trans. Erik Butler, eBook edition, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 29.

[4]. Johannes Breit, “How One of the Internet’s Biggest History Forums Deals With Holocaust Deniers: And How Facebook Should, Too,” Slate, July 20, 2018. https://slate.com/technology/2018/07/the-askhistorians-subreddit-banned-holocaust-deniers-and-facebook-should-too.html (accessed March 26, 2019).

[5]. Kevin Roose, “A Mass Murder of, and for, the Internet,”  

[6]. Bad Religion, “The Kids Are Alt-Right,” released June 20, 2018, Epitaph Records.