}

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Moths to a flame


For reasons ordinary people can’t comprehend, some people in the USA are utterly and pathologically obsessed with Hillary Clinton. She was in New Zealand for a speech yesterday, and had lunch with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The photo above was sent out to the media by the Prime Minister’s office, and was published online by them, as well as on social media by various journalists, among others (the one above was shared on the Instagram account of the NZ Labour Party. Once it was online, the comments—some quite unhinged—started flooding in. It looked as if an alternate universe in which Hillary had become US President, or was a candidate for something, had suddenly replaced our own. It was weird.

There are many theories about why the USA’s rightwing—and part of its leftwing—can’t stop obsessing about Hillary. Some argue the obsessed have some sort of personality disorder (or similar problem), but I think that’s just using popular scapegoating as a means of explaining (or attacking). It seems to me that the most probable explanation for why real people—as opposed to bots and trolls—can’t move on is that the USA’s politics is now so divided and toxic that they simply can’t. They spent so much time and energy literally hating one person that they couldn’t stop now, even if they wanted to. And they clearly don’t want to.

To be sure, this sort of bizarre obsessive behaviour isn’t unique to rightwingers, but when leftwingers do this, they move on. A good example is that the leftwing was obsessed with attacking Bush the Second when he was in office, but once he was gone, they promptly forgot about him. The same will almost certainly happen to the current occupant of the White House, depending on the circumstances of his departure, possibly, and we’ll have to see if the Left engages in this sort of bizarre behaviour once he is finally gone. In any case, the rightwing never stops, never gives up, never moves on.

On any given day it’s easy to find hundreds or thousands of comments attacking President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or other prominent Democrats or liberals. They appear on the websites of mainstream newsmedia, on social media, Facebook Pages—petty much anywhere. I absolutely cannot remember the last time I saw someone on the Left attacking Bush the Second—unless it’s part of a larger attack on “the establishment”, maybe, which includes all Democrats (sometimes even Bernie!).

This serves a larger propaganda goal, that is, to delegitimise the opponent, to make them seem weird, evil, or just yucky compared to the preferred person or party. So, the professionals among them deliberately keep up the relentless attacks on Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and other Democrats and liberals because it serves to weaken Republicans’ opponents by making them seem awful compared to Republicans. Ordinary rightwingers merely echo the propaganda fed to them and help spread it, probably without even realising (or caring…) that that’s what they’re doing.

However, a huge problem we have with this is that it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s a real—and really delusional—person from bots and trolls trying to stir people up for whatever reason (trolls don’t always play their game as part of partisan political strategy). Unless we’re targeted personally, this may not matter, but the rightwingers’ attacks pollute our social media timelines either through sharing (often because they’re just so outrageous that they’re unintentionally hilarious), or they show up in a comment thread to something we’re interested in.

I don’t like seeing a lot of trash lying around in public, and sometimes I’ll stop to put it in the rubbish bin. I do the same on the Internet.

Every single time I’m on Twitter, I see some political Tweet (Right or Left) that’s stupid, delusional, blatantly racist/misogynistic/homophobic, or sick. When I do, I Block that person. I do that so I’ll never see their Tweets again (I see “Tweet Unavailable” if they respond so a Tweet I do see). They’d never have any interaction with me, anyway, so it’s not about that, just about keeping my own timeline trash-free and excrement-free.

I’ve done the same thing on Facebook when I’ve seem similar comments left on pages I follow, but that’s much more rare. It’s not that Facebook users are better behaved than Twitter users—they’re not. Instead, I just stopped reading comments on many pages I follow. That’s not as easy to do on Twitter, where it’s common for trolls to barge in on a discussion going on among people you follow. However, this is also the very reason I seldom look at Twitter any more: It’s just too toxic and filled with trash and excrement.

In the case of this particular photo, the Hillary Haters™ have been out in force. There were countless attacks levelled at her in response to a Tweet from NZ journalist Henry Cooke, and even Labour’s Instagram post got typical comments. In both cases, however, there was some pushback.

The larger point here, really, is that as with so much else in politics these days, this behaviour is not normal. These people aren’t making reasoned critiques, they’re not offering thought-out positions or commentary, they’re not even expressing an opinion in most cases—they’re just regurgitating propaganda slogans and engaging in drive-by bullying. Their obsession with Hillary is way out of proportion to what a truly rational person would do, all to score points of one sort or another, just as any primary school bully might do.

This sort of behaviour is what turned Twitter, a once-promising place of discussion and information sharing, into a toxic cesspool harbouring monsters: The permanently outraged, the constantly angry, the delusional, the pathologically irrational, and the bullies who get joy from tearing others down, and who go looking to attack anyone at any time, usually for no rational reason whatsoever. Facebook is quickly becoming the same.

Hillary Clinton didn’t create this toxic atmosphere, and after decades of enduring unhinged attacks, she’s used to it. That’s not the point. It’s all the rest of us caught in the crossfire of shots fired by irrational and unhinged bullies. There’s got to be a way to stop this, or, at least, to have online discussions without the bullies trying to destroy it every time. I can’t imagine what the solution could possibly be. But we need to figure it out.

And the Hillary Haters™ have REALLY got to get over it.

Related
Stuff live-commented on the event, and included Tweets on the night.

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