The Only Way To Win The Culture (War)Game Is Not To Play

The photo above stems from the latest Internet Culture War blowup. Like all Internet Culture War incidents, the mere fact that we are entertaining a false-flag scenario as a serious possibility for some of what is going on speaks volumes about how deeply strange and recursive all of this is. There are layers upon layers upon layers. I cannot vouch for the veracity of the screenshot -- once one accepts that a false-flag might explain the worst aspects of social media fights, one also has to accept the possibility that evidence of the false-flag is itself a false-flag, and so on. Unless you like Haskell or Lisp, think carefully about leaping down this particular rabbit hole -- especially when the evidence comes from a murky and ephemeral forum like 4chan. Nonetheless, whatever the truth of this particular case, the unfortunate fact is that following Internet Culture War disputes for years forces everyone to become at least a little bit conspiratorial. There exists copious evidence that something like the screenshot at top has occurred in the past. I will not discuss such evidence, however, because it is both common knowledge to those who have followed Twitter and other platforms' descent into barbarism since 2013-14 and those who do not follow each and every granular detail likely will dismiss it out of hand as being too fantastical or strange. [0]

Nor is this essay intended to convince anyone about the veracity of any particular kind of evidence or the rightness or wrongness of one side or the other. You already have strong opinions about such things, so it is more useful to explain -- in abstract and general terms -- what such opinions might be overlooking. What I do hope to suggest to you is that participants in these fights are often playing into a cycle that ultimately is not desired by the vast majority of people who participate in discussions on Twitter and other forums. So why, then, do these type of fights keep occurring? It is not new, after all. There is a vicious cycle that has been repeating in various blowups on the Internet for a very long time (in Internet time, which is between 1-5 years). This essay is, in other words, a conceptual model of the core Internet Culture War tendency, circa 2016.

The cycle consists, roughly, of six discrete steps (though some of them are iterated in a loop-like procedure). The progression from Step 1 to finally 6 cumulatively creates opposed factions that are convinced that the other side is completely evil, pathologically deceptive, and deserving of whatever ills fall upon them in the course of the Internet Culture War fight. Unfortunately, the only people who really benefit are trolls that enjoy wreaking havoc and personalities that want disputes on the Internet -- no matter how small or petty they may be -- to escalate into ideological total wars. But enough of that. Here are the steps.

Step 1: There exists some contentious issue (the prototypical example of which being abortion) that cannot be resolved by science, the facts, or anything else of the sort because there is no objectively "right" answer to a normative question. However, reasonable people may find each other's views repulsive but nonetheless are in theory capable of something resembling halfway-civilized discourse. As is the tendency with most Internet arguments, harsh and vituperative words are exchanged, allegations of bad faith are made, and sooner or later someone is compared to Hitler. What happens next, though, is different. Many Internet fights have polite but very harsh arguments. Others end up degenerating into name-calling and insults but peter off as the participants realize that there isn't any point in fighting further or the forum admin locks the thread. Instead of either outcome, what happens instead is dramatic escalation.

Step 2: Professional trolls of varying ideological backgrounds (to the extent that many trolls can even be said to have an coherent ideology in the first place beyond the desire to cause chaos) [1] from Internet message boards and other areas where culture war agent provocateurs are known to congregate join the fight and things accelerate from 0 to 60 in seconds. Both core sides of what is becoming an increasingly multi-sided and byzantine dispute swap allegations of online abuse -- some of which is often very real but all of which is also often very difficult to trace, attribute, or assign causal responsibility for. Demands are made by both sides to the other to condemn aggressive entities believed to be acting as proxies of the other side while simultaneously shrugging off demands to acknowledge attacks against the other side by people that the other side believes to be proxies of the other-other side. None of these demands are yielded to, and supposing someone complies with them spoilers can always (as with the Middle East or Northern Ireland) re-instigate the fight with a provocative act designed to scuttle any kind of de-escalation efforts.

Step 3: High-follower accounts, media personalities, pundits, and reporters of mass media outlets suddenly and dramatically take sides, allying themselves with both camps (though not symmetrically -- there is usually a tilt towards one faction, even if it is slight). Culture War (TM) is declared, and the ideological stakes are raised to a point where no one can afford to back down or accept an outcome other than the utter and total annihilation of the enemy. One cannot, after all, compromise with Those People. Anyone that tries to take a step back and de-escalate is branded as an useful idiot for Those People. [2] No one wants to be seen as playing into the hands of Those People, especially when it seems like members of one's own tribal group/kinfolk are fighting on the front lines against Those People and suffering enormously for it. Are their sacrifices to be in vain? As the fight continues, all kinds of other larger social and political struggles become seen as tied to this particular fight on the Internet. Hence, progress in those external struggles -- whatever their ideological orientation -- becomes tied to one's willingness to take up a keyboard and mouse (or laptop trackpad for those of you without desktops) and enlist in the "army." Those who do not are mocked as weak and irresolute cowards whose mild milquetoast mewlings can be safely ignored.

Doge is good; cate is eeeevil

Doge is good; cate is eeeevil

Step 4: As the fight escalates, it becomes a mainstream media matter. Thinkpiece after thinkpiece is penned. Academic studies are released. More and more progressively high-profile individuals and outlets all become committed, and the ideological stakes rise. People with very little or no direct connection become involved because they see it as deploying to a new front that has opened up in the Culture Wars which is in need of fresh troops to fight on it. None of this produces any kind of resolution, because of how difficult it is to find clear heroes or villains to rally behind, each side's tendency to reduce their opponent to a threatening stereotype and punish attempts at de-escalation, the security dilemma of knowing that if one backs down it might be exploited by the enemy, and the fact that no one can really "win" except the trolls or clickmongers who profit off of escalating the now-intractable disputes accelerated by the aforementioned trolling. At a certain point, the Internet Culture War fight -- like nuclear missiles hurtling towards Washington and Moscow in a Cold War nightmare scenario -- cannot be recalled. There is only the inevitable strike impact and secure second strikes from the ideological equivalent of the assets that escape the first strike. And the reality of living with the equivalent of an ruined post-nuke landscape full of horrors that defy the imagination.

Step 5: At this point, we repeat steps 2-4 until the following occurs:

Step 6: The worst and most depressing step is the part where you try in vain to get your friends to refrain from sharing culture war red meat on their feeds in the hope that you can stop them from playing into the hands of the trolls that largely instigate and escalate such fights and the click-hungry personalities and publications that in particular escalate them beyond the point of no return. Watch as your friends leap into taking sides anyway because slacktivism. [6] And at this point you accept that Neil Postman was right and that you were wrong. [7] Technology really is making us stupid; we're puppets in the hands of people that, with a tug of the strings, turn us into animals attached to keyboards. Human rationality is weak and powerless compared to the siren call of shitposting. I do it. You do it. We all do it. And we won't stop.

Here comes your mindless distraction from reality

Here comes your mindless distraction from reality

If you think there is a better way to resolve our differences online than to watch 1-6 seem to repeat over and over again in a variety of social, political, and cultural Internet contexts, you are not alone. But I don't think it matters what any of us think. It's going to happen again anyway. So if there is a "Step 7" to this cycle it is retweeting mindless memes to distract yourself from the endless and pointless fighting and your inability to do anything to halt it. HERE COME DAT BOI! O SHIT WADDUP!


[0] If you are curious, start browsing snapshots of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other social media forums as well as threads in such forums on varying points of view regarding each Internet dustup. You will find evidence of posts similar to the one that Yglesias screenshotted, though the ultimate truth of what happened in even old disputes is still elusive if impossible to reach altogether.

[1] C.F. the "some men just want to watch the world burn" remark in Batman.

[2] This is a paraphrase of Julian Sanchez's posts on epistemic closure, though more specifically the last major one.

[3] See David Auerbach's piece on this.

[4] [Auerbach, again, has more on this](

[5] And perhaps for good reason, given that Twitter seems to have no problem making partnerships with foreign authoritarian states but balks at allowing the US intelligence community to use services connected to it. Twitter itself is by no means a neutral actor in any of these disputes in general.

[6] There are some people that think slacktivism is an enabler of social change. That may be true in some circumstances, but it also feeds into the tendency being described in this essay.

[7] C.f Postman's book Amusing Us To Death.