Why Does Hate Thrive Online?

The roots of Internet culture provide a few clues. 

Hate Online.

Online, all users are part of “the global conversation of bits,” according to an influential 1996 manifesto.

Photo by Tammy54/Shuttestock

In 1996, John Perry Barlow published the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” Barlow wrote. “Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” Online, the “legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us,” he continued. Barlow envisioned an Internet where all users are created equal—male or female, rich or poor, sweetheart or asshole. “In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.”

In real life, Barlow comes from Wyoming. He’s a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and a white male libertarian. Read one way, Barlow’s declaration gives marginalized communities permission to speak truth to power. Read another, it discourages women and people of color from discussing their bodies and identities online while emboldening others to bully them into silence. Upon publication, Barlow’s declaration “spread like kudzu through the electrical wires of the virtual world,” Businessweek reported. Within months, it had been republished across the Web 5,000 times. Nearly two decades later, Kate Miltner, who studies online structural inequality at the University of Southern California, recognized Barlow’s words “echoing through the #GamerGate controversy.” It was almost as if the Web had been calibrated from the very beginning to allow a bigoted harassment campaign to flourish.

Why does hate thrive online? In a roundtable discussion published recently in Social Media + Society, Miltner and a crew of fellow digital culture scholars attempt to answer that question by identifying the historical roots of Internet trolling, bullying, flaming, and harassment. One culprit: The flattened perspective promoted by early Web activists like Barlow—which seeks to erase power politics, social context, and physical cues from digital culture—may force users to speak louder and harsher in order to be seen and heard. University of Sussex digital cultures professor Tim Jordan argues that because online “markers of identity” are “inherently unstable, unlike the body or timbre of a voice,” they “have to be stabilized by being heard consistently.” On the Internet, women and people of color are forced to constantly articulate aspects of their identity that are often obvious in face-to-face communication or already established in personal relationships where identities remain stable—you already know which participant in the discussion identifies as black and which has had an abortion. Meanwhile, their haters need to spew insults constantly in order to be consistently “recognized” as opponents of a marginalized group.

But Miltner argues that the offline identities of early power users may be more important to the structure of the Web than the mechanisms by which those identities are translated online. “Historically, both the gaming world and the Internet were the provinces of a particular type of geek masculinity that sprang from the male-dominated, rational-scientific environment of early technocultures,” Miltner writes. (I’d add “white-dominated” to that list.) These early power users had their own motivations for erasing social context and body talk from the digital space. In an article about the concurrent rise of Gamergate and “the Fappening,” published in New Media & Society this month, University of Illinois at Chicago communication professor Adrienne Massanari notes that men branded as geeks are grappling with their own set of cultural prejudices and personal insecurities that situate them as weak, sexually undesirable, and socially inept and that some fight back by “valorizing intellect over social or emotional intelligence.” Now, as “women, people of color, and people of varying levels of technical expertise assert their rights to participate and engage in these spaces on their own terms,” Miltner writes, “we witness backlash from those most deeply entrenched in these communities.” To some, online discussions about feminism and racism are seen as battles over the soul of the Internet itself.

Barlow has since expressed ambivalence about the ideas laid out in his 1996 manifesto. “We all got older and smarter,” he told Reason in 2004 when asked to reflect on his early tech writings. But the ethos he articulated still lurks within the structure of the Web. Now, as social media companies have been built to monetize what Barlow called the “global conversation of bits,” billions of dollars are riding on the maintenance of that structure. University of Leicester media professor Alison Harvey argues that “campaigns of abuse and harassment can be understood as the creation of value” on social media platforms, where “hate—like sex—sells.” Massanari notes that Reddit’s “traffic increased exponentially” when photos of nude celebrity women proliferated on its platform last year. Writes Massanari, “There seems to be a deep reluctance of the part of the administrators to alienate any part of their audience, no matter how problematic, as it will mean less traffic and ultimately less revenue for Reddit.” Recent attempts to reform the platform look a lot like what Harvey refers to as “cheap gestures toward corporate responsibility.” Though Reddit ostensibly banned revenge porn earlier this year, users are still free to post whatever images they please; the onus is on the subjects of the photographs to discover the violations and request that Reddit remove the images after the fact.

On an Internet built on the assumption that every contribution is equally valid, harassers are just as valuable as their victims. But as the harasser flames his victim into silence, he becomes more valuable than his target. In a recent essay, fantasy author Ferrett Steinmetz argued that, to a social media company’s “cold bottom line, a troll calling women names all day gets more advertising hits. He is a devoted user. And so they are loath to ban anyone, because these companies make money off of large user bases, and kicking someone off risks trouble.” By 2004, Barlow had recalibrated his brand of technolibertarianism to take aim at how corporations were co-opting digital culture for their own benefit. “Most libertarians are worried about government but not worried about business,” he told Reason. “I think we need to be worrying about business in exactly the same way we are worrying about government.”