“The last man in the world was irretrievably stuck with his delusions.”
― I Am Legend
The problem with our currently fractured and sectarian identity politics is that we all – all – want to believe that our opponents, be they real or imagined, are monsters, and we’ll cling like limpets to any evidence that emerges to confirm this. Even when that ‘evidence’ is debunked.
There’s a lot to be said for the dismantling of the influence of the mainstream media, which has never been above twisting the truth, selecting evidence and outright lying, but lets not fool ourselves into thinking that the spread of social media and the proliferation of New Media has somehow opened us up to the truth. In fact, you are more likely than ever now to be manipulated by a selective headline, a short-burst tweet, a carefully cropped soundbite and an out-of-context video than ever before, especially because there’s a good chance that you won’t be receiving this from a supposedly objective news outlet, but from a partisan source who is determined to stoke outrage and secure those juicy clicks. That can be an activist, a politician, a celebrity or just one of thousands of people who click ‘retweet’, pausing only to add “let’s expose these fascists” or suchlike, often without even bothering to read the news story that has been spun from someone else’s selective post.
All too often, the story is more than we are told. Sometimes, a brief quote that sounds shocking can make sense when placed into context. An outraged Tweet can be explained as someone’s self-serving and wilful misinterpretation of a comment – let’s remember how, recently, cynical activists and lazy journalists tried to derail actor Viggo Mortensen’s career because he used the N-word in the context of a conversation about how unacceptable the word was, a nuance missing from practically every furious tweet I saw that was keen to slate him as, at best, an unthinking white man wallowing in his privilege, and at worst as a virulent racist. Watching him desperately trying to contextualise his comments to people who had already made their minds up, before having to apologise and so admit to some sort of guilt, was like seeing a bizarre tragicomedy playing out.
Sometimes, a 30-second video clip can be made to look like something it isn’t, especially if the accompanying post tells us what we are seeing. Let’s not forget that partisan sources have good reason for de- and re- contextualising images, and that the camera – still or video – can not only lie, but lie better than any person. That reinterpretation of the truth is then often made worse by a series of Chinese whispers (we can still say Chinese whispers, right?) that further remove it from the truth, while stoked anger and fury ensures that the lie will outlive any reality.
The fact that we are constantly being misled means that we should always remember to be cynical about something that we are told to be outraged by, especially if it comes from sources that have a political or social axe to grind. These will not be the news sources that we can trust, even remotely – and especially if it is a source that shares our socio-political outlook. It’s difficult, because we are hard-wired to believe the members of our tribe and to accept their claims as gospel. But the truth can rarely be found in 280 characters or a clickbait headline at the best of times, especially when it comes laden with an agenda.
The irony is, there’s undoubtedly some great, dogged journalism out there devoted to finding out the facts behind the headlines, but few people see it. It usually takes a little time for a story to be probed, researched and explored, and who has time for that? Social media is full of the TL;DR generation – people who will proudly boast that they didn’t click on a story. All they need to know is in a headline and the accompanying subtweets. They’ll watch a video that is two minutes long but not bother to sit through the full length piece that proves the selective edit was misleading. And more depressingly, this isn’t just short attention spans and laziness. They often don’t want to know the truth.
We can all make mistakes and be caught up in falsehoods. The sensible thing would be, when the truth of a situation is eventually revealed – which it sometimes is within hours of the initial outrage – that we admit to being wrong. Or at least to jumping the gun. But too many people are increasingly determined to cling onto their initial beliefs. If a story is debunked by the ‘other side’ – a writer, an activist or a researcher who we have decided is affiliated to the far right or the far left (and depending on where they place themselves, that can be anyone who is not fully on board with everything the outraged believe) – they will often ignore this new evidence, or worse still, go out of their way to rubbish it – even though their entire knowledge of the issue at hand has come from third-party sources in the first place. Their belief in the Truth has been immediately formed, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will change that. They know that the original claims are the truth, and all the evidence they need is their own personal beliefs. It’s confirmation bias run rampant, where the only corroboration needed is a personal suspicion about the individual or institution in question. How often do you see the perpetually outraged hold up their hands and say “hey, that story I was furiously tweeting out to my followers the other month? Turns out it was nonsense. Sorry about that.”
Instead of accepting that a story has more to it than the original narrative – that we might have been misled by emotive headlines, fatuous claims and news outlets that are now so lazy that they fill their websites with stories scoured from social media scandal, without making even the slightest effort to examine the story properly – the morally upright will double down on the original outrage, now expanding it to include the debunkers, who they’ll condemn as also being Nazis, misogynists, SJWs or whatever. They might even, if forced to begrudgingly concede that the original story was not one hundred per cent what they thought, claim that in the bigger picture, they are still right – that, OK, the people shown as hateful bigots were possibly not being hateful bigots at that precise moment after all, but as they’re part of a group who have hateful and privileged views on everything, they are still not innocent victims of misreporting. They deserve everything that is thrown at them anyway. The doggedly outraged believe that even if the facts in any particular case don’t turn out to be as originally claimed, the claims still represents a larger whole – that for every falsely accused, there are a hundred genuine cases – and so their anger is still justified. That anyone pointing out that a particular accused person is actually not guilty of a crime is actually an apologist for that crime, because they’ve picked up on this one miscarriage of justice (it’s rarely just one, of course) rather than look at the bigger picture.
Or they convince themselves that the witch hunts and condemnation, however unjustified and exaggerated they might have actually been, are fine because it doesn’t really hurt anyone – that the people being wrongly attacked can shrug it off and get on with their lives, because they are not oppressed or victims in the wider scheme of thing. We all like to believe that our enemies are (a) less human than us, and (b) thick-skinned enough to shrug off relentless mob abuse. They won’t lose their jobs, their friends, their entire sense of self over a false accusation. There are plenty of stories, several found in Jon Ronson’s essential book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, that prove the lie of that comforting belief.
We’re all at risk of doing this from time to time – of trusting a headline that chimes with our instincts and not pausing to think. We should know better, because after all, who hasn’t seen through the lie when it has been directed at something we believe? Who isn’t furious when widely disproven untruths are still trotted out as fact to attack something or someone we agree with? We see the harm that these lies cause, and hopefully we will pause to think the next time we see someone being dragged through the kangaroo court of social media. But some people have a Pavlovian reaction to headlines again and again, no matter how often they are shown to be far from the truth. They still unquestionably believe those on ‘their side’, even when irrefutable evidence that those reporters and Tweeters are neither unbiased or honest is shown to them. Even when the lie is impossible to deny. This is psychopathic behaviour.
And all those who spread the outrage in the first place – the original poster, now often benefitting from a boosted profile and increased followers, the news sites that have pandered to the political beliefs of their readers – will quietly ignore the objective truth or the contrary evidence. Few places delete stories that have been proven wrong; few run follow-ups that correct the errors. By that time, they’ve moved on to the next bit of click bait outrage. Tweeters, meanwhile, will often show their true colours, posting hate-messages and veiled (or unveiled) threats to anyone who dares disturb the narrative that they have created for themselves. Moral outrage requires absolute belief in your own infallibility – if you accept that you are wrong about one thing, it risks bringing down your whole belief system. Identity politics, being part of a greater whole, and crusading across the internet in search of blasphemers is often all people have to make themselves feel important or worthwhile. They will cling to this sense of moral superiority at all costs, even that of the truth.
After all, it’s one thing to be taken in be steamrolled outrage and caught up in mob shaming. It’s quite another to admit that maybe you were wrong – worse, that you, as part of the mob who piled in to destroy the life of someone who allegedly said or did something terrible (as a joke or sincerely – the differences no longer even matter), are probably the bad guy here. Everyone who tweets someone’s employers or school or family members, everyone who name calls and insults and threatens and bombards hapless and often innocent victims of internet shaming likes to see themselves as morally upstanding and righteously Woke, a champion of the greater good. But like the sincere but deluded anti-hero of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, these keyboard warriors are all too often actually the very deranged, hate-driven monsters they claim to oppose.
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