The plague of awful people posting appalling ideas and empty accusations in order to boost their own profile and make money.
For a little while, I rather stupidly assumed that the people who post provocative Hot Takes on Twitter were at least genuine in their beliefs, however ignorant, misguided or even dangerous they might be. Call me naive if you must. Perhaps though, once upon a time, they really were posting honestly held opinions. After all, we all probably have contrary ideas that are outside the mainstream, albeit it often of the more trivial kind. Me, I think the Star Wars films are empty, juvenile rubbish, but my thoughts – in fact, anyone’s thoughts – on movie franchises are not really important. The world will not be changed by my distaste for space operas. But the Hot Takes that we increasingly see go beyond the mere “I like/hate this thing that everyone else hates/loves”, to envelop socio-political point-scoring, and are less about expressing an opinion as they are about spreading belief (perhaps not even the actual beliefs of the writer) as fact, pushing misinformation – either blatant lies or simply twisting of facts – in the hope that enough other people who want to believe it will buy into it to make the post go viral. But this isn’t simply a case of propaganda spreading – though that is certainly a part of it. No, there is increasingly a rather more cynical and – ironically in many cases – nakedly capitalistic side to this.
The willingness of people to posit the unthinkable, to deliberately misinterpret and deceive, to seek out thought crime, use misdirection like a magician and stoke up hysterical conspiracy theories only makes sense when you realise that it is being done for those most old-fashioned on reasons: greed and power.
Look at someone posting something outrageous, misleading or provocative on social media that has achieved some sort of viral load, and you can pretty much guarantee that right away, there will be a tweet or post pinned to the top of the replies that is helpfully pointing people at their Patreon, their Etsy, their webshop or some other way of making money. Hey, fair enough – we all have to eat, and we live in uncertain times. But it feels, increasingly, as though these Hot Takes exist solely to help promote a money-making concern, with no regard for what the insincere, cynically tossed-off post might trigger. And so we get out-of-context photos and videos that we are told – often with no more evidence than the original poster’s word – show someone transgressing one of society’s taboos. We might be told that the someone has been making a racist or transphobic comment, perhaps, or committing some violent criminal activity during a BLM protest (because if there is one thing that brings both sides of the political divide together in perfect harmony, it’s the ability to accuse those that they have already dehumanised of terrible things on without a single fact to back it up).
This is often public shaming with no more solid evidence than was used against witches in the middle ages; but then, social media is our new witch-hunting platform – and there is money to be made from being the first one to point the finger. Outrage spreads quickly, but if you are the first person to uncover the crime, then all roads and all credit lead to you. If, down the line, evidence turns up to discredit your claim, no matter – you can be sure that it’ll be buried by the same outlets that first amplified your accusations, and most people will never know (or care about) the truth. Lives may be destroyed, but the accuser rarely looks back – and if they do, they will still find a way to justify what they did. By then, they have moved on to another point of outrage. For them, it’s just a game and a way of boosting their power and influence.
The Hot Take is often more opinion-based than factual, a wild supposition that is thrown out there for the world to ponder. They are the internet commenter version of the ideas that political think tanks would float, giving the parties that they were aligned with enough distance to say “of course, we have no plans – at present – to turn the homeless into dog food” even as the idea is publicly floated to see just how much support it might have. Can we get away with it? What’s the worst thing we can propose before being forced to make an apology? And will this outrageous suggestion make our other, not quite as outrageous suggestions suddenly look more reasonable to the public? Hot Takes are all about testing the waters, and increasingly about making a name for yourself as a firebrand opinion-maker in a world awash with opinions from every Tom, Dickhead and Harry. Become an influencer. Get those donations. If you are an academic – and far too many of them are – take another step towards tenure. Secure that book deal. Gain more followers. Be important.
It’s not so much stupidity as appalling cynicism; the hope that everyone will jump on board with your Hot Take because it either taps into something that they already want to believe – the confirmation bias of believing your political opponents to be subhuman at work – or because you have couched it in a way that makes anyone who disagrees into the ideological enemy. So if you say that Thomas the Tank Engine is a hotbed of fascism – a Hot Take actually posited some months back that doesn’t even seem particularly wild any more – you can do so knowing that the Right Wing will, with Pavlovian predictability express their outrage at the suggestion, meaning that anyone else who questions this as perhaps being a bit of a stretch can also be dismissed as an Alt-Right Nazi, regardless of their long Left Wing political history – people now are only as ideologically pure as their last tweet. So go ahead and write about how Paddington Bear is a TERF – you don’t need any actual evidence and what’s the worst that could happen to you? Plenty of people will agree without even reading your 280-character finger-wagging argument – because no one likes to be left out or appear to be on the wrong side.
Of course, these Hot Takes ultimately do nothing to further the cause that they allegedly support. Every extreme idea that is ludicrously removed from the lived experiences of ordinary people – even the people that you are allegedly being the champion of – damages the cause that it supposedly fights for, alienating those you need to bring on side; Hot Takes burn bridges rather than build them. Not that this matters to the person pushing these ideas, because ultimately, the only cause they really believe in is their own self-promotion. In that sense, internet firebrands are not too different from professional politicians – self-important, power-hungry bullies who are utterly convinced that they know better than everyone else, caring little about who they hurt on their way to the top. For most of them, ‘the top’ is still a pitifully low rung on the ladder of life, but that doesn’t matter – social media has created such narcissists that even being a low-level influencer is good enough, especially if you can convince enough people to fund you so that you can carry on with your vital work of posting withering memes or uncovering some vast conspiracy to spread 5G signals through chemtrails.
Not for nothing was right-wing gobshite Katie Hopkins pushed to make ever more outrageous posts in order to maintain her position as the number one agent provocateur- because there is always someone else, someone with even Hotter Takes, coming up behind you. In a race to the bottom, social media firebrands must always look over their shoulder, lest someone more vitriolic, more righteous or more angry comes along to steal their thunder. When they finally go too far, no matter – someone else will emerge to pick up the slack while the older poster ‘takes time out for a moment of reflection’ – in other words, waiting in the wings until everyone forgets what an utter soulless cunt they previously revealed themself to be, allowing them to make a triumphant return, sometimes now preaching from a new moral high ground that they scarcely deserve even if they have gone on the road to Damascus. Genuine humility is nowhere to be found because in the end, these are people who still believe themselves to be much more important and informed than everyone else.
It’s a depressing world of insincerity, ego and ruthless ambition, and the more attention – positive or negative – that we pay to these sociopaths (and no matter how virtuous they claim to be, they are all sociopaths), the more power we give them. It’s hard not to respond when we see someone making outrageous and appalling claims, but for our sanity, we really need to stop giving them what they crave.
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