Plus: Yet another book giveaway!
|Mar 20||Public post|| 6|
A while back there was a somewhat esoteric internet controversy involving Erik Kain, a video game and TV writer at Forbes. One day, a social-justice-oriented Twitter figure with a bit of a following accused Kain of being “one of the original founding members of the alt-right,” the alt-right, for those lucky few unfamiliar with the term, being a racist far-right movement that spreads its hate online, often in irony-soaked ways designed to appeal to young people.
Kain isn’t one of the original founding members of the alt-right. He is a liberal. Claiming Kain is one of the original founding members of the alt-right makes about as much sense as claiming I am one of the original founding members of The Beatles. Understandably, Kain responded with a bit of anger and indignance that someone had publicly claimed he was a founding member of a movement centered around the dissemination of meme-y racism.
What was fascinating to me was what happened next. A bunch of people popped up on Twitter to denounce Kain, but none of them responded to the actual claim that had sparked the fracas. Rather, they exhumed and recirculated all sorts of old gripes and grievances, many of them related to their belief that Kain hadn’t been sufficiently critical of GamerGate in his coverage of it (for what it’s worth, in a Twitter-direct-message conversation Kain said that he felt that that was more or less a fair criticism with regard to one early article he wrote on the subject). Soon the conversation had nothing to do with whether Kain was, in fact, a founding member of the alt-right. Rather, the participants seemed to be responding to a different question, posed implicitly: Is Erik Kain Good or Bad? For those deeply invested in this controversy, it appeared to be quite important to yell — well, to tweet, at least — Erik Kain is Bad!!!!!
I found this weird. Maybe I’m naive, but I feel like if someone makes a big, bold claim that X is true, the subsequent conversation should revolve around X. If I claim that Donald Trump one time dropkicked a puppy into the Pacific Ocean, it seems important that people respond to that claim rather than to a bunch of other claims like Is Donald Trump a good person? or Is Donald Trump a good president? The idea that he dropkicked a puppy into the Pacific Ocean — which, to be clear, I have no evidence to support, though on the other hand A Lot Of People Are Saying — is quite specific and would seem to merit discussion and evaluation!
I’ve been thinking a lot about both the Kain episode and others like it lately — situations in which people aren’t arguing about what they should be arguing about — and I think the easiest explanation is that different people on the internet are operating from very different sets of norms. One way to understand these sorts of controversies is to posit two different sets of norms: accuracy norms and rightside norms.
Accuracy norms are about, well, accuracy: People who subscribe to accuracy norms are most concerned with spreading true claims, and with debunking false ones. Rightside norms are about being on the right ‘side’ of a given controversy: People who subscribe to rightside norms are more concerned with showing that they are on the right side of a given controversy, and that the people on the other side are morally suspect, than they are with accuracy, at least in a zoomed-in sense.
I’m using phrases like most/more concerned with, which allow for some wriggle room, intentionally. I don’t think you can cleave people neatly into those who are only concerned with accuracy and those who are only concerned with rightsidery. But I do think you can broadly divide most people into one of the two camps, generally speaking.
During Kainghazi, anti-Kain Twitter users with a penchant for rightsidery seized hold of the conversation. They flooded Twitter with all sorts of claims about Kain that had no connection to the bizarre and wrongheaded notion that he is a founding member of the alt-right. It seemed important to bash him performatively, for the rightsiders to heap up as much evidence as possible of his deep moral failings. It wasn’t about the actual claim that sparked the controversy. Rather, it was about dividing the world (or Twitter, at least) into Bad people who might ‘defend’ Kain — read: point out that a false claim had been leveled at him — and Good people, who understand that Kain is Bad, full-stop. The fact that the whole thing was launched by a plainly false accusation ended up being totally irrelevant to the ensuing conversation. Because for people who subscribe to rightside norms, the actual truth value of an actual claim often doesn’t matter. Rightsiders are so into an urgent sort of groupishness that specifics are often too much detail to worry about.
I think rightside norms are pretty bad. And it’s interesting to examine how the incentives that prevail online promote these norms. If, at a friendly real-life dinner consisting of people who spend too much on Twitter, you claimed Erik Kain is a founding member of the alt-right, your dinnermates would either look around uncomfortably or gently push back — “I didn’t love his coverage of GamerGate, sure, but isn’t that a bit different from the idea that he founded a hate movement?” You’d be hit with that feeling of having said something members of your group disagree with.
But online things are so, so different. Dedicated Singal-Minded readers will recall Brian Earp’s theory that a lot of internet outrage stems from the fact that on sites like Twitter, there is a deficit of “passive negative” feedback — the skeptical body language and other cues which indicate, at least to sufficiently socialized humans, that maybe they are beginning to bumble down a rhetorical road best left untraveled. There’s none of that on Twitter. In addition, there’s something like the opposite — you will often be punished for expressing reasonable, majority opinions. During the heat of the Kain blowup, any member of the anti-Kain social-justice-oriented cohort who had said “Really, guys? Come on…” would have immediately been dogpiled. “You’re defending Kain?” the dogpilers would have asked. Or: “So I guess you’re a GamerGate sympathizer now?” This isn’t normal behavior in real life, but on Twitter it definitely is.
If you’re in a group in which rightside norms prevail, you face a weird set of incentives:
1) It will often harm your group standing to point out that a false claim is false
2) It will often benefit your group standing to pile on a figure who has been unfairly accused of something by broadcasting evidence pertaining not to the claim in question, but to his or her broader (ostensible) moral worthlessness
3) It will often benefit your group standing to punish those who seek to debunk false claims against ‘bad’ figures
Imagine experiencing all this over and over, outrage after outrage. Because every day there’s a new outrage that must be responded to — whaddya gonna do, sit on the sidelines? You can see how in the long run, especially among people who spend too much time online — that is, exactly the sorts of people who become deeply involved in third-tier internet controversies like Kainghazi — this could skew one’s approach to understanding the world, weighing evidence, and so on.
...Right? I could be wrong about this. Let me know if I am, or if somebody else has already figured this out more tidily than I have. I’m open to the idea that I’m missing something, or that this general model could use some further refinement.
Book Giveaway: No One Man Should Have All That Power
On April 9th, a book called No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World is being published by Abrams Press. It’s written by Amos Barshad — disclosure: we know each other a bit, mostly from a weekly basketball game — and it looks extremely intriguing:
Amos Barshad has long been fascinated by the powerful. But not by elected officials or natural leaders—he’s interested in their scheming advisors, the dark figures who wield power in the shadows. And, as Barshad shows in No One Man Should Have All That Power, the natural habitat of these manipulators is not only political backrooms. It’s anywhere power dynamics exist—from Hollywood to drug cartels, from recording studios to the NFL.
In this wildly entertaining, wide-ranging, and insightful exploration of the phenomenon, Barshad takes readers into the lives of more than a dozen of these notorious figures, starting with Grigori Rasputin. An almost mythical Russian mystic, Rasputin drank, danced, and healed his way into a position of power behind the last of the tsars. But not every one of these figures rose to power through lechery or magical cures. Barshad explores how they got there, how they wielded control, what led to their downfall or staved it off, and what lessons we can take from them, including how to spot Rasputins in the wild.
Based on interviews with well-known personalities like Scooter Braun (Justin Bieber’s manager), Alex Guerrero (Tom Brady’s trainer), and Sam Nunberg (Trump’s former aide) and original reporting on figures like Nicaragua’s powerful first lady Rosario Murillo and the Tijuana cartel boss known as “Narcomami,” No One Man Should Have All That Power is an eye-opening book from an exciting new voice.
As a student of behavioral science and human folly, this is extremely up my alley. So I’m going to devote an upcoming newsletter to a Q&A with Barshad about his book. I’d like you, my trusty readers, to provide at least some of the Qs, and as incentive for you to do my job for me, I’ve been told I can give away three copies of the book to subscribers who submit questions I end up using.
Please keep your questions capped at, say, 30ish words, please keep them open-ended enough to make for interesting responses, and please send them to email@example.com with ‘Rasputin’ in the subject line. I’ll pick my three favorite and we’ll go from there.
Follow the rules of this giveaway or I will take control of your mind.
Questions? Comments? Responses to this newsletter that are really about other stuff? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Today’s lead image is of a 1959 Utrecht garbage situation, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.