One of my guilty pleasures is reading comments on social media
Yes, the cynical part of me loves to judge people who write stupid things online.
Usually, it’s harmless fun. Some dude writes a totally senseless comment, and the Internet buries him for it. Yay, positive bullying wins!
But sometimes, it’s not so simple. Some dude has a racist/sexist/religionist idea, mixes it up with some half-truths and stereotypes, writes it well, and suddenly he has support. Lots of people jumping in on how they totally feel the same. Yay, terrorists win!
This is usually when I get angry. How can these people not realise how wrong they are? What must their parents think of them!? Where do these people even come from!!?? What kind of SICK SOCIETY do we live in!!!???
If you’ve been getting angrier online in recent times, hopefully, this one will help you understand why. And maybe, we will even have some ideas on how to fix things.
The virality machine and death of journalism
Let’s start by revisiting how the Internet was supposed to work.
People thought it would be like a modern version of the newspapers: write good, truthful articles and lots of people will visit your website, leading to advertisers paying money. Readers get good content, websites make good money, and the journalists happily maintain good jobs.
Of course, this wasn’t how it turned out.
The greatest thing about the Internet was now anyone — not just media companies who paid journalists to produce quality content — could share their views to the world.
Think of how difficult it used to be for someone to get on national TV, versus how easy it is to go viral on social media today. In human history, there’s never been a time where so much content is available. There’s never been so much trash either.
Remember the media companies who were supposed to be guardians of quality and journalistic principles? Many of them died long ago, while the remaining ones are struggling.
Journalists today deal with a terrifying question: "Do I spend two weeks on a thoroughly-researched article that might not even be shared once, or do I jack up 10 ‘Which Avenger: Endgame Character Are You!?’ quizzes" today?
One is high effort, questionable value. One is low effort, high number of clicks/likes/shares. Everyone wants traffic. Everyone wants to go viral. But in our lust for cheap clicks, what are we sacrificing?
Selling out leads to the extreme
“Lighten up Aaron,” you say. “So what if the Internet is full of silly quizzes and transgender-Snapchat pictures? It’s not like they hurt anyone?”
But the “get traffic at all costs” principle actually has some terrible consequences. It’s fine if it’s just Fat Thor memes, but the Internet is now being hijacked by #fakenews.
We’ve all seen lies and propaganda that are aimed at pushing a certain agenda. Because in a world where engagement is worth more than truth — with almost no consequences if you’re caught — why wouldn’t you lie, cheat and swindle to get more attention?
And so the Internet of today has come to be: a place where extreme opinions get amplified. Where moderation and the art of making fair, balanced arguments have become forgotten. Where being “savage” is celebrated. A place where algorithms and editors purposely shove sensational and controversial content in our faces.
Why bother with a headline that says “The consistent way to get financially stable and prepare for retirement”? F*ck that when we have “Work From Home: GUARANTEED 5-Figure Income in 6 Months!!!” LIKE AND SHARE!
Living in one-sided bubbles
It gets worse.
Remember those algorithms that purposely show you specific types of content? Like if you’re a 20-something who adores BLACKPINK, you keep seeing skinny Korean girls grinding all over your feed. Social media companies do this because it drives your attention. Then you get addicted, use their app more, and they make more money.
But not only do the gods of social media show you viral content, they also track your activity. Whose posts do you like? What videos do you share? Even what kinda girls you like to stalk. And thus the great Social Media Intelligence in the cloud knows more about you than your mother and girlfriend.
Over time, you start seeing more and more content that’s tailored specifically for you. You start living in this Internet bubble where you see things mostly from one perspective. And because it’s a perspective that you like, it keeps growing stronger in your mind. Especially dangerous if all your friends — both online and offline — are similar to you and share the same beliefs.
The scary thing is unless you know and trust someone from outside this bubble — you won’t even know you’re living in one. You think the world is exactly like how you perceive it inside your black/pink bubble.
Consider Dean, a fictional teenager who’s lived his whole life under the teaching of racist parents and demotivated teachers. Dean doesn’t score well at school and has few friends. He’s not from a rich family either. By all society’s conventional standards, Dean’s a loser.
As you might expect, he spends a lot of time on his phone. His only friends live in the same small bubble where they blame all problems on people of a certain colour And one day he just says "F*ck it, I'mma lash out at this unfair world via Twitter and say exactly why race A is our enemy." Which is of course what one million other angry teenagers are silently thinking about too.
Before you can say “Rum Pum Pum,” Dean gets 1,000 retweets and his moment of Internet fame.
You and I may brush off emotional writing like bad dad jokes. But to Dean, this is his first time ever “succeeding” at something. Suddenly, this becomes important.
“Wow, if I keep writing racist tweets — I’ll become popular!”
Let’s keep doing it.
Losing in real life
“What a loser,” you say. “Doesn’t Dean have anything better to do with his life?”
Unfortunately, he doesn’t. The thing is, you and I live in a completely different bubble from Dean, a different world. You’re probably educated and (still) have what economists call social mobility — the opportunity to get rich — if you play your cards right.
In Dean’s world — there’s only poverty, struggle and anger. What’s there to hope and strive for? Why not just drown yourself in porn, online games or raging on social media?
You know how governments try to keep economies stable, so everyone has enough food and shelter? Yeah, it’s so we don’t have violent people rioting in the streets. But in recent decades, only the elite 1% has gotten much richer, while everyone else, including the poor and the middle class has struggled.
Dean’s angry today, that’s why he’s such an asshole on the Internet. But if we don’t fix this situation where everyone apart from the elites struggles — we’ll all be much angrier soon.
We will all be Dean.
Fuel to the fire: fear
So we have an Internet that rewards extreme opinions and a world where people struggle with money. Guess what turns this situation from bad into a clusterf#ck?
Politics. Or more specifically, politics of fear.
Watch enough movies and you’ll believe that hope is stronger than fear. But read enough history, and you’ll see that fear has always been used to control people.
Politicians have been playing this game since forever. The unethical ones try to make you scared of things you’re sensitive about:
1. Majorities with lots of privileges fear they’ll lose their rights to immigrants.
2. Men — who’ve always been in control — fear that women go to university, earn money and not listen to them any more.
3. Religious people fear that religion loses its influence, society becomes immoral, and everyone goes to hell.
When you’re scared, you get angry. Perfect for Mr. Unethical Politician to portray himself as the righteous defender of whatever you’re so scared of losing.
He makes extreme statements that don’t make sense. Even lies without guilt. Only caring about getting people scared and angry — then using that to get power.
Ugly. But the uglier thing is that it works.
The road to moderation
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
Everything is f*cked so what’s the point? Why these 1,800 words today?
Because we once believed in something called moderation. It was the principle on which many great countries — including this one — was founded on. In fact, it’s still in all of us, but maybe we just need to remember.
The Internet and nasty politicians may encourage black-or-white thinking: “It’s always one or the other — either you’re with us or against us.”
1. Team Liverpool or Team Manchester
2. Conservative or Liberal
3. 100% religious, or an infidel
But this actually doesn’t make sense. If you think about it, most of life is a f#cking middle ground. We don’t always need to take sides and fight to the death.
So here’s what I propose
Practical tips for anyone who wants to rekindle moderate ways, and maybe even expand their mind. Because not only will moderation make society better for everyone, it’ll also help you win more in life.
How to win more with moderation
1. Stop accepting things without thinking. Stop reading trash articles at trash websites. Actually read further than headlines — which are purposely designed to trigger you.
2. Pay for quality journalism. Read more quality books. How to tell the difference between trash and quality? Practice critical thinking.
3. Stop hanging out with only people who look, feel, and speak like you. Go out of your way to mix with people who are different. Yes, it’s scary — but otherwise, how will we ever understand each other?
4. Start challenging your own ideas. Stop looking for evidence that what you already believe is right. Start looking for evidence that what you believe is wrong. Remember back in school you learned hypothesis - experiment - truth? This may be the most unnatural thing you ever have to do, but it’s the basis of rational thought.
5. Start taking more personal responsibility. If you’re losing in life, stop blaming others. Start taking action so you can win more.
6. Stop allowing fear to control you. Start believing in hope.
The world needs moderation
In a world where extremism seems to be rewarded, even celebrated, it might seem like there’s no point taking the middle path.
But without moderates, society would collapse. The world owes as much to you as it does the loud voices on every other side. Probably more.
So for all you moderate people who’ve kept your heads down and your voices soft for so long, maybe it’s time to step up and ask the extremists on every side to sit the f#ck down and listen for once.
Don’t let the extremists win. Don’t let the bad politicians poison.
And make your better, wiser voice be heard. Because you deserve it too.