Sci-fi's right-wing backlash: Never doubt that a small group of deranged trolls can ruin anything (even the Hugo Awards)

Lazy democracy is like an open comments section -- left unmoderated and unguided, the worst people take over

Published April 6, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

Broward County Canvassing Board member Judge Robert Rosenberg stares at a dimpled punchcard ballot November 23, 2000 during the recount of the 2000 presidential election.        (Reuters/Colin Braley)
Broward County Canvassing Board member Judge Robert Rosenberg stares at a dimpled punchcard ballot November 23, 2000 during the recount of the 2000 presidential election. (Reuters/Colin Braley)

One of the false promises we’ve been made that people keep buying into is that the Internet is a “democratizing” force, that the digital world gives us instant access to the real vox populi, that the simple fact that anyone can leave a comment, or answer a poll, or submit an entry to a contest means that everyone does, and therefore opinion of “the Internet” is everyone’s opinion.

This is obviously false. It’s obviously false for the same reason that crowd-funding randomly decides to give one guy in Ohio hundreds of thousands of dollars for potato salad and why huge blatant hoaxes can stay up on Wikipedia for five years unchallenged, and why random, not-particularly-charismatic people become “celebrities” overnight for no good reason.

It’s obviously false in the way that comments sections actually representing “reader reactions” as opposed to a horrific cesspool of three people shouting racial slurs at each other is false. Everyone who says “Never Read the Comments”--which, these days, is anyone with any sense--is implicitly admitting the promise of Internet democracy has failed.

The problem with democracy in general isn’t so much that people are “stupid” or “evil” or the other nasty things that people who rag on democracy like to throw out, it’s that there’s a ton of decisions to make and people are busy. The “vote” doesn’t end up being among everyone but among the tiny subset of people who really care about that question, which isn’t necessarily correlated with being right about that question--often, in fact, it’s the opposite.

The people who pay the most attention to these questions are the people who have some deep emotional investment in the issue at hand combined with a great deal of time and emotional energy to burn making their “voices heard” about it. That can happen on any end of the political spectrum, but in practice? It tends to be a space dominated by privileged reactionary jerks.

People who study real elections know all about this. In fact, political strategists count on it--the fact that there’s a ton of people who can only be bothered to vote every four years rather than every two is exactly why there’s a conservative tilt to midterm elections and why some voices have called for compulsory voting to eliminate the disproportionate influence dedicated voters--who tend to be “values voting” zealots--have on Congress.

But what’s somewhat true of real elections is overwhelmingly true of Internet elections. No public forum for comment can exist long without being taken over by “the trolls”--and while the trolls sometimes do things just for the lulz, like trying to rig a Taylor Swift fan contest to force her on a date with a creepy 4chan dude, this kind of free-form anarchic subversion of online elections is becoming a thing of the past.

Today’s longest-lasting, most determined trolls have a real ideology behind their trolling, and it usually takes the form of a feeling of betrayal and resentment of the world around them and a knee-jerk rage against the idea of progress.

The worst trolls are almost universally hard-right conservatives, in other words, and they generally care about their pet causes with a breathtaking fervor that their enemies can’t possibly hope to match.

And the lack of scruple that comes with such breathtaking fervor means that the perversions of online democracy this creates leave vanilla trolling in the dust.

Let’s be honest, for instance, the Potato Salad Kickstarter’s success was a kind of crowdsourced trolling--a kind of collective lashing out by Internet denizens fatigued by the sheer volume of earnest Kickstarter pitches on Facebook and Twitter every damn day and finding it cathartic and hilarious to give money to something that was proud of how meaningless it was.

And yet the potato salad guy still only made $55,000, which (excuse me) is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. It’s nothing, for instance, compared to the $800,000 raised on a GoFundMe for Memories Pizza in Indiana as an apparent no-strings-attached reward for being publicly homophobic from the nation’s homophobes.

Why? There are plenty of homophobic business owners in the country, and if you gave $800,000 to each of them even Mitt Romney would quickly run dry. Surely even in terms of objectively helping out their cause they’d do better giving that money to a political candidate or to a nonprofit pushing their goals.

But that wouldn’t give them the same level of attention as participating in the media-manufactured “controversy” over Memories Pizza--and it wouldn’t piss off liberals nearly as much. And those are the two major goals of the right-wing troll. Hence the fact that nearly every time anyone gets criticized by the “liberal media” they also get a huge wave of donations from trolls, even if they’re guilty not just of public homophobia but of gunning down an unarmed kid.

I say that this kind of thing is “new” but really it’s just the right-wing Internet returning to form. Back in the mid-2000s we had the slang term “freep this poll.” It was a phrase used to rally posters on the Free Republic to mass-flood a poll or comments section hosted by some random website or local newspaper in order to create the impression of an overwhelming majority supporting their fringe-right views.

When Stephen Colbert had his fans flood the voting for a bridge in Hungary or the new module of the ISS to get it named after himself, he was doing so in his persona of an O’Reilly-esque conservative icon--he was engaging in the poll-freeping regularly practiced in earnest by the Fox News set.

But because Colbert’s pranks were in the more anarchic-troll spirit of freeping, which was more about creating a big good-natured public spectacle than deliberately manipulating public opinion, that angle of Colbert’s stunts was largely forgotten. A practice that should have been buried forever as absurd after Colbert showed how easily one demagogue with a following could screw up voting on something as innocent as a bridge in Hungary lives on. People still claim that the toxicity on comments sections or the skewed results of freeped polls and contests reflect reality, and use those claims to try to intimidate critics into silence.

Recently we’ve seen the results of freeping in an area particularly vulnerable to it, the Hugo Awards. For the less-geeky among my readers, the Hugos are the most prestigious awards in the field of science fiction writing, generally encountered as an approving blurb “From Hugo-award-winning author…” on the back cover of a book.

The Hugos aren’t a private award given by a handpicked jury, nor are they a massively publicized vote where everyone who’s in the know votes every year à la "American Idol" or a presidential election--the two cases that make a vote difficult to freep.

Instead, they’re done by popular vote, but to vote you have to pay $40 for a “supporting membership” to Worldcon, the organization that sponsors the Hugos. Tons of people read science fiction; relatively few of them know how to vote for the Hugos; and out of those, not everyone’s going to drop $40 just to express their opinion about what they’ve read.

To vote on the Hugos you have to either know and care a ton about science fiction--or you have to be convinced that science fiction is part of the vast liberal conspiracy arrayed against you and make a disingenuous post calling you and your friends “Sad Puppies” over said liberal conspiracy. $40 is a lot of money to pay to express your opinions, even strongly held ones, about fiction you love--but it’s a cheap price to stick it to liberal pro-diversity elitists you hate.

Freeping with clicks in order to troll the liberals is one thing--freeping to give money to a horrible person to troll even harder, another. But giving money en masse to an organization you dislike so you can subvert and take over that organization? Who’d go that far?

That’s actually the oldest tradition in freeping of all. It predates even the Internet.

My favorite story I learned in the trenches as a D.C. tour guide--equal parts hilarious and despair-inducing, as all good history is--was the story of why the Washington Monument remained unfinished for 40 years, from 1848 to 1888.

In a nutshell, because the Washington Monument got freeped. The Washington National Monument Society, trying to raise funds, allowed contributors to have a stone carved with their name added to the monument in return for a donation (an 1800s “backer reward”).

They made the mistake of accepting a donation from Pope Pius IX, at a time when the cultural reactionaries weren’t riled up about the gays or the feminists but against Irish and Italian immigrants, back when they didn’t give themselves silly labels like “Gamergate” or “Tea Party” but helpfully called themselves “Know-Nothings.”

In response to the outrage of having a Catholic stone inside an American monument, the Know-Nothings stormed the monument grounds, stole the stone and threw it into the Potomac River. They then proceeded to game the system of membership in the Washington National Monument Society, buying themselves memberships en masse--again, membership dues aren’t much of a barrier when you’re striking back to save your country from degeneration--and electing themselves leaders of it.

They then demonstrated the key way Internet democracy failed: After the initial “viral” wave of donations from Know-Nothings themselves passed, funding for the Washington Monument dried up because normal people were freaked out by the Know-Nothings (for good reason). The Know-Nothings’ reactionary zeal proved to be of little use in actually getting a monument built, and they totally failed to do anything with the monument for the next few decades until finally after the Civil War the government had to take over and fix it. (Funny, how often the story ends that way.)

Whether the self-titled “Sad Puppies”--a name not quite as transparent as “Know-Nothing” but a good deal funnier, so let’s give them points for that--will fare as well having taken over the voting function of Worldcon is an open question.

I will point out that if you look at the Hugo Awards’ slate for this year you’ll see a record-breaking six nominations for John C. Wright, including three out of five of the best novella nominations being stories written by Wright.

Wright, a man so essential to the state of science fiction in 2015 that he doesn’t have a single bestseller, he’s signed with a micro-publisher based in Finland with a total of eight authors on its roster, and I’m the only person I know in real life who’s heard of him. Mainly because I hate-follow his incredible rants about how everything from the Syfy Network to "The Legend of Korra" is too gay for him to tolerate.

I’m not saying that a version of the Hugo Awards that regularly gives high honors to marginal writers mainly known as right-wing cranks will ruin literary science fiction as a field. I am saying that the unfinished stump of the Washington Monument was an embarrassing symbol of failure that, for decades, made our nation a laughingstock, and that that’s what tends to happen when you have a “democratic process” that’s easily hijacked by deranged reactionary zealots.

We should have learned a long, long time ago that “Just let the public give their input” is a lazy, useless and above all dangerous way to make decisions. If you want democracy you have to put effort into designing a process that actually makes sure your voting population matches the relevant population and to keep the process from being captured by bad actors. If that’s too hard for you, then accept that democracy is too hard for you and find some other way to claim legitimacy for the decision you end up making.

But don’t just leave your process open to the public and unguarded, unless you want The Comments making your decisions for you. Best case scenario, you end up with egg on your face that can be easily wiped off, like a bridge named after Stephen Colbert.

Worst case scenario, your public platform becomes a mouthpiece for the worst people in the world, who won’t give it back until they’ve run it into the ground.

By Arthur Chu

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Books Fantasy Gamergate Hugo Awards Science-fiction