Divide and rule: the dark side of parallel digital cultures

The internet can seduce us into like-minded bubbles of people like us. But isolate communities can be easily influenced, and turned down a darker path…

We are all soldiers in an information war. It’s just that many of us don’t realise it yet. And worse, we’re sometimes being recruited by those we think of as friends and supporters. And that’s what makes this phase of our digital evolution so dangerous.

It’s very hard to see yourself as a soldier when you feel like you are just hanging out with like-minded friends. And that’s what the internet has always been good at; at eliminating geography, and allowing connection by idea rather than by proximity. But that’s where we are, and it’s worth thinking about how we got there, and how we might move forwards.

For many of us who came online in the 1990s, one of the sheer delights of cyberspace was your ability to find people into the same things you were into. It didn’t mind how obscure your passion or hobby (or, lest we forget, fetish…) was, somewhere there would be a web page, chat room or mailing list supporting it.

All of a sudden, anyone with access to a dial-up modem could do something only available to people in the largest cities previous: associate based on ideas. As a teenager growing up in rural Scotland as a huge fan of Doctor Who, I looked longingly at the conventions and meet-ups happening in the big cities, but which were unavailable to me.

A decade later I was chatting with fans — and authors — of obscure tabletop games in a way that was inconceivable to my teenage self.

These little bubbles of extra-mainstream culture formed into parallel worlds of culture, without the mainstream world noticing.

The Gaming Petri Dish

Gaming is one of the best examples of parallel worlds of culture that are huge in scale and impact, but which mainstream culture under-estimates. If you follow much of the mainstream media, you would barely know that it — and eSports in particular — were such huge business. The fact that it has developed its own media, its own broadcast channels (through streaming) was highlighted at NEXT by TL Taylor’s compelling talk.

But that very closed-off nature has been the problem. Rewind half a decade, and gaming was the incubation chamber for many of the disinformation and political tactics later used in the rise of the extreme right across the West. A movement that was known as Gamergate, shared many key figures with the later alt-right movement. And similar techniques have since been exported by people on all ends of the politics spectrum.

A community is not inherently a good or a bad thing. It depends on how porous its borders are. The tighter they become, the more likely it is to be heading to a dark place. At its most toxic that grows into things like incel culture, where young, sexually-frustrated men gather, support each other — and develop a psychologically damaging view of women and sexual interaction. The results can be tragic.

We now know that the internet is the battleground for an information war. It’s become too easy for these culturally isolated communities to become radicalised. I can barely open Twitter at the moment, because it’s become a battleground for organised brigades of political loyalists to insult each other, rather than a space for discussion.

New recruits in the culture war

An acquaintance noted that the official BBC account for my teenage favourite Doctor Who is besieged by people decrying “political correctness” every time they post, simply because the lead character has become a women. But when he tracked those accounts back to source, he found profiles of people who are very keen on Donald Trump and making America great again, rather than British sci-fi shows. In fact, to judge from their profiles, they have no interest in show at all, only the culture war they have been recruited into.

Geographical isolationism and the othering of non-proximate people that comes with it has been the source of probably the majority of human conflict — until now. It turns out that ideological connection may be even more powerful in doing this. We’ve seen evidence of that, too, throughout history. There is very little in life quite as dangerous as a group of people who are convinced they are right, and who refuse to listen to opposing views.

Once they are mobilised as a unified force, bonded through connections forged as friendships, they can be powerful, focused and ruthless.

And we’ve built a tool that amplifies this effect. It’s rather bowel-loosening, when you think about it, isn’t it?

So, perhaps after 25 years of delighting in the internet’s ability to make connections based on ideas, we need to find ways of connecting on other axes, too. The beauty of geographic connection was that it did force you into contact with people who you disagreed with politically – and created social consequence for taking those disagreements to extremes.

If we, as a set of societies, are to move forward from this rather dangerous time in our development, we need to find ways of enjoying the great potential that digital connection offers, without letting those around us be consumed and radicalised by it.

Enjoy the parallel worlds of culture – but make sure that you, and those you love, are not trapped in them.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash