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A free-for-all in the virtual town hall

  • 19 September 2018


It goes without saying that the internet is not the best place to have complex conversations, yet it's where we converse now. 'Don't read the comments' has become axiomatic. As comedian Aparna Nancherla tweeted, 'Grant me the serenity to not read the comments, the courage to not read the comments, and the wisdom to not read the comments.'

When acting deputy Greens leader Adam Bandt recently posted about his 'hot wife' on Facebook, a handful of people criticised him for sexually objectifying her. Those few comments would have disappeared down the feed had they not been amplified by other users, as well as the media that turned it into a story. This led to more comments — until the situation was diffused and the moment passed.

The controversy around the recent finals of the US Open, however, was far more complex. Not having watched the match — as undoubtedly the vast majority of us hadn't — reading the comments led to a confusing picture of what had occurred. Depending on people's politics, certain aspects were emphasised over others. The only thing agreed upon, if it was brought up at all, was that Naomi Osaka seemed to have her hard-earned moment of glory taken away from her.

Then along came the Herald Sun's cartoon of Serena Williams. As the discussion rippled across the internet with no consensus in sight, it became obvious that none of us win in such a scenario, aside from cartoonist Mark Knight and the Herald Sun (owned by News Corp). No doubt they gleefully counted on the inevitable outrage, high-fiving each other when their cartoon drew international attention.

When I was in an online fight recently, it didn't take long for it to escalate in a way that took me aback. Only a small number of steps were required before someone interpreted an action as being the exact opposite of what it actually was. There's a greater possibility of de-escalating an argument face-to-face whereas the internet is an intensely verbal space without non-verbal cues for context, so when people — strangers — interact there is every chance for misinterpretation, which may even be willful. Often we're not entering discussions with the same spirit, let alone understanding.

Seeing arguments unfold online certainly reflects the idea that we live in polarised times. Why is this? The reasons are many and complex but at no point before in human history have we been exposed to