THE BLOG
05/28/2014 12:44 EDT | Updated 07/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Internet Hate Bleeds into Real Life

2014-02-12-its_all_geek_to_me.pngSomeone who speaks out against the idea of an interracial couple on YouTube comments isn't just dabbling in racism; they're not summering in bigotry. That's how they feel, 24/7, and the internet gives them the false sense of power and anonymity that lets them get it out of their system, and then walk around in public knowing damn well they'd never be able to say those things to another human face. This mentality is known as the Online Disinhibition Effect, and it bleeds into our everyday lives with shocking ease.

cheerios

One of my favourite mantras about modern life is so simple, yet we seem to constantly forget it: We're all on the same internet. The internet that a teacher uses to tweet a topless photo of herself twerking is the same one everyone else uses to Google that same picture. Considering how much of our daily lives streams through Wi-Fi, it's amazing to me that people forget how permeable it all is. In an age where 13 million Facebook users have never touched their privacy settings (and even more have not set them properly), we still act surprised when something we posted in full view of the public can be found by strangers.

But this isn't about privacy, or net neutrality, or having the common sense to not tweet anything you wouldn't also yell in the middle of a dinner party. Like a lot of things this week, this is about online attitudes leaking into the real world, and how the sooner we recognize the distinction between the two groups to be illusory at best, we'll finally be equipped to be real about some hard truths.

People far morequalified than I have written on the direct ties between cultural sexism and the Isla Vista shooting, so I won't repeat their points. Instead, let's take a different angle on this: YouTube comments.

If you can think back to this time last year (or about seven years in Internet Time), you may recall an adorable Cheerios advertisement. It painted the lovely picture of a family bonding intensely over a bland breakfast cereal (Honey Nut 4 Lyfe). So that's why many were confused when media outlets reported a backlash against the ad. It turns out, a vocal minority of YouTube commenters were outraged at the ad's portrayal of an interracial couple; because, yes, this actually qualified as a controversy during the same time that Edward Snowden leaked the NSA documents to the world.

Here is the offending video. Please note that comments remain disabled to this day:

News of the racist backlash pretty much divided people into two camps, helpfully represented by the following images. To those unaware of how YouTube comments roll, it was a scandal that showed us everything wrong with the world today.

For anyone well-versed in the internet, it probably wasn't even the most hateful thing they had seen online that week.

There are a variety of phrases that attempt to explain the prevailing level of discourse on the internet. "Internet Hate Machine" is a popular one. "Don't read the comments" is the tongue-in-cheek mantra for anyone who creates on the web and it's pretty much the only way to stay sane once you reach a certain level of attention. At this point, it is expected that any given comments page of any given site will have something openly racist, sexist, homophobic, or in one way or another hateful. Seriously, don't take my word for it; here's a comedy article about it, and scientific study to boot.

The base level of interaction online is appallingly toxic; a sea of pure radioactive negativity that's simply too large for any one person to surmount. So, Iocane-powder style, we have collectively built up an immunity to the poisonous atmosphere that surrounds any sort of meaningful online interaction. It lets us survive, but we've arguably accepted a standard that would shock an outsider, as the Cheerios debacle demonstrated. But once the toasted oat dust clears, people brush it off as an isolated incident and move on. And that's where we're getting it wrong, time and time again.

Someone who speaks out against the idea of an interracial couple on YouTube comments isn't just dabbling in racism; they're not summering in bigotry. That's how they feel, 24/7, and the internet gives them the false sense of power and anonymity that lets them get it out of their system, and then walk around in public knowing damn well they'd never be able to say those things to another human face. This mentality is known as the Online Disinhibition Effect, and it bleeds into our everyday lives with shocking ease.

If we're all on the same internet, and the internet is becoming seamlessly integrated into every aspect of our lives, then this can no longer be shoved off to the side as "internet behaviour" or "trolling". It's simply human behaviour, and our collective belief that nobody really feels this way in real life lets this type of entitled bigotry flourish uncontested.

I can't claim that I know what websites Elliot Rodger frequented, what message boards he populated, or what comments he dropped around the internet. But I know plenty of communities where eerily similar sentiments are repeated ad nauseum. From Reddit's TheRedPill (link not included for all our sakes, trust me) to the comments of literally any article about race or women in comedy, purely toxic ideas are dismissed as the work of lone trolls, and so they continue to grow and survive. After all, while we act like they don't exist, they find not only support, but enforcement in like-minded individuals. You can't swing a broom without hitting a hater online, so to speak.

So as we assume the general toxicity of internet discourse will sort itself out, how much ground are we willing to lose to this supposedly anomalous threat? How many articles and videos will have their comments disabled in the face of a constant stream of hate messages? How many notable Twitter users (overwhelmingly female, but there's a universal standard of hate for anyone who creates anything online) will spend days wading through violent threats after daring to speak their minds?

And in the cases where internet hate spawns real world violence, how long will individuals insist that one cannot possibly beget the other?

It's All Geek To Me is a weekly column about geek culture, and how it's secretly all around you, influencing everything you do, forever.

Mike Sholars is a writer, editor, Twitter guy, and is tired of hiding his race while playing online games.