Hate in the Media
“In the course of a few years," writes Michael Gerson, "a fringe party was able to define a national community by scapegoating internal enemies; elevate a single, messianic leader; and keep the public docile with hatred while the state committed unprecedented crimes. The adaptive use of new technology was central to this achievement."
That party? The Nazis. That technology? Talk radio. But Gerson's subject is not talk radio or the Nazis, but the vast expanses of the Internet. "User-driven content on the Internet often consists of bullying, conspiracy theories and racial prejudice," writes Gerson, which is interesting, as I thought it consisted of porn and teenagers holding party cups. "The absolute freedom of the medium paradoxically encourages authoritarian impulses to intimidate and silence others," he continues. "The least responsible contributors see their darkest tendencies legitimated and reinforced, while serious voices are driven away by the general ugliness."
That doesn't describe the Internet I know (unless, for some reason, you don't think Autotune the News is a serious voice), but the Internet is big, and Gerson might visit parts I miss. "The exploitation of technology by hatred will never be eliminated," he concludes. "But hatred must be confined to the fringes of our culture -- as the hatred of other times should have been."
What's striking is that this doesn't really describe the Internet. Hateful voices remain on the fringe. And they stay on the fringe. The beauty of the Internet is that it's pretty much all fringe. Controlling a Web site or a blogspot domain is not like controlling a radio station or a television network.
Gerson's examples, in fact, come from comment threads, which virtually disproves his thesis. But there is a major medium where the hateful voices sit firmly in control of the content, and it's the same medium that begins Gerson's remarks: talk radio. And, to a lesser extent, cable news. That's where society's most hateful conspiracy theories sit and fester, where its most explosive lies are recounted and amplified, where its least responsible elites have control of the means of production. I don't worry about jewhater429, the 97th entrant in a comment thread. I worry about Beck and Limbaugh and Savage.
Photo credit: By Ron Edmonds – The Associated Press
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