The strange desire to beat people up for making a mistake online.
Things happen fast on the internet. On Saturday, we posted an amusing ‘stranger than fiction’ story about the Blazing Saddles TV show, a story that I’d been aware of for some time and had read about through various sources. To my surprise, the piece blew up that evening and throughout the next day – I honestly didn’t think that it was such an unheard tale or that Blazing Saddles was that popular. By late afternoon, some Twitters commenters were taking me to task over my assertation that such a film, with its repeated racial insults, would not be accepted today – these responses ranged from sighs of “not this again” to “this is just a figment of your right-wing imagination”, to which I might point out the removal of TV shows like The League of Gentlemen, Little Britain (both a lot less extreme in their content) and – until public outrage caused a rethink – Fawlty Towers from media platforms. It’s not unreasonable to think that the language in this film would horrify people now. But that’s perhaps a matter of opinion and a longer discussion for another day.
By the end of the day, I was getting messages telling me that this story is, in fact, satire – a spoof story that people took as the truth and repeated as fact. There was no TV series beyond the pilot film. The evidence for this was links to sources claiming to reveal the providence of the story – you’ll find those links in the comments of the original piece if you care to follow up. I posted an update, and as of now, I have no idea what the actual truth of this story is – the waters have been muddied enough for every claim to be just that, a claim. Maybe that’s what happens when you float a fiction into the wider online world, as we’ve seen only too well with the spread of fake news.
Nobody likes to be wrong, and we certainly don’t like to think that we’ve fallen for a dupe. But I’m certainly not on some self-pitying, woe-is-me rant. What was interesting to me was the nature of the comments from those who already knew better. While some people were polite, if occasionally terse – some of those people left comments you can now check – others were pointlessly aggressive, as if knowing The Truth not only made them better informed but also gave them carte blanche to be rude and angry. Tell me I’ve been duped or fallen for misinformation, point out the providence for your claims, and I’ll appreciate it – or at the very least, I’ll reference both sides of the story and let people believe whatever version seems most plausible. But if you angrily tell me that I am an idiot and some sort of Donald Trump level purveyor of lies, then I’m probably not going to engage with or pay attention to you, especially over something as relatively trivial as the existence or not of a lost TV series.
This all feels like the internet in a nutshell. Any sense of reasoned discourse has been cast aside in favour of people who definitely know better than you, but who are oddly angry about it. I know that when you see things that you know are incorrect being repeated, it must be frustrating, but the sheer lack of perspective shown by people who become immediately furious over anything at all that is ‘wrong’ hints at a bigger problem than simply urban myths being taken seriously. It’s something that infects the whole of the internet but runs rampant on social media where a person’s version of the truth is the only truth, and anyone who thinks differently is not just wrong, but positively evil. I’d say that there is a warped pleasure that some people take in telling others that they are wrong, but in truth, there seems to be no pleasure involved at all – it’s just sheer rage that someone doesn’t know everything that you do, that they don’t agree with everything that you think – that someone is wrong on the internet. Perhaps it is anger borne of both frustration and a sense of superiority because sadly, no one is ever going to share all your opinions or know every bit of ephemeral trivia that you do. Worse still, they might not even care.
I understand it, really I do. I once became apoplectic when the BBC reported that the BBFC had only ever banned eleven films, a weird bit of misinformation that can be traced back to Twitter. I did, however, manage to avoid telling the writer that he was a no-nothing moron because I guessed that the British censors are not his specialist area of interest. I can become irked when I see someone posting about a story that I’d written about months earlier and getting a lot more likes for it – validation from our peers is always good. But I manage to restrain myself from angrily calling them thieving plagiarists or malicious liars on their Twitter threads or the comments section of their website because common sense says that there are a bunch of us sharing similar fascinations, and we’re going to discover the same curiosities quite often – there’s perhaps a certain rivalry in getting this useless nonsense out there first, but no one has ownership of it. And if they have more followers than me, then that’s just the way it is. So I certainly get the sense of superiority that comes from knowing something that someone else doesn’t, the joys of oneupmanship. But I have seen people furiously holding on to public information as though they have some legal ownership of it; websites expressing outrage because someone else uses an image that they have no copyright ownership of in the first place; people who bury rare finds because they don’t want anyone else to have it (though do want everyone else to know that they have it); and a certain proprietorial possessiveness of information, even though the moment we publish any new fact or trivia, that information effectively becomes public domain.
The absolute fury people have over incorrect facts – not because they were duped, but because they know something and you don’t – is especially baffling, though. There is a way of disagreeing, and a way of informing people that they are wrong that is consensual and informative, and it might just end up with them taking you more seriously than if you just shout at them about it. But we increasingly live in a world where everyone is angry that other people don’t know everything that they do – “how could you be so stupid?” they demand, rather than simply sharing the information and expanding knowledge. We also live in a world where no one wants to be wrong, which is of course why there are still so many sources – who I’m guessing will have been corrected in the same way that I was – reporting the Blazing Saddles story as fact even now (because yes, we did look at a few different sources before writing that piece), and why even when you confront people with actual contradictory evidence – be it about films, conspiracy theories, alternative health claims or political falsehoods that they use to demonise their opponents with – they will twist, turn and deny rather than even look at the counter-claims, for fear of undermining their entire belief systems. We see this on social media all the time when outrage is shown to be misdirected or completely manufactured, but few of the journalists, celebrities or everyday gobshites who expressed their fury will retract or even acknowledge the new facts; often, in the face of conflicting information, they simply double-down. because if one thing makes people angrier than being right, it’s having someone tell you that you are wrong.
Look, we all make mistakes. We all believe things that turn out to be wrong. No one knows everything about everything. It’s certainly time that people began to admit that more. But similarly, there is no need for people to be so aggressively angry when they are correcting misinformation and mistakes. I can’t believe that I almost find myself yearning for the days when people would correct you in a self-satisfied, smug manner, but that seems a lot better than being insulted and abused every time you make an honest mistake. The constant atmosphere of social media in particular – and the internet in general – would be greatly improved if people didn’t feel the need to shout at anyone who has a different opinion or simply isn’t quite as clued up on specific subjects as they are, because what goes around inevitably comes around – no one knows everything, so it might be you, Mr Expert, on the receiving end of abuse soon enough, because if one thing is certain, it is that people who are so absorbed with always being right will invariably turn out to be very, very wrong at some point.
I’m aware that, in the grand scheme of online abuse, death threats, name-calling and angry self-righteousness, all this is very small potatoes. But It seems to all stem from the same mindset, the desire to prove yourself better than other people and not so much trying to change hearts and minds as browbeating them into changing their minds and admitting that they are wrong before shutting up. Perhaps we ought to remember the old saying: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. More to the point: no one likes a bad winner.
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