The intertwining of identity with political and cultural power

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You probably didn’t even notice when you stopped receiving a phone book.

The last time I remember seeing one was in the lobby of our apartment building in New York City, where there at one point appeared a big stack of shrink-wrapped Yellow Pages — a telephone directory focused on businesses, for those too young to remember. It must have been 2013 or so? But there wasn’t even any effort to provide a white pages — a list of actual people you might want to call — just the Yellow Pages, for which businesses had paid for big ads and therefore a product was expected.

As you might expect, no one tore into the shrink wrap to remove a heavy stack of ads, given that the ad-free version of the same thing was one Google away.

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This was a large part of the change that made phone books unnecessary, of course. It used to be that finding the number of the store on the corner or the parent of a kid in your kid’s class meant opening a drawer or cabinet in your kitchen and pulling out the most recent index of phone numbers for your town or region. It was in a real sense a community directory, a list of people near you and how to get in touch with them or even visit their house. But then we got the Internet and then phones that could store numbers more easily than a Rolodex, so publishing a giant book on cheap paper every year offered diminishing returns. They stopped doing it, and you probably didn’t even really notice.

Something else happened at the same time. The communities with which we engaged grew from our neighborhoods and our workplaces into the entire world, if less intricately. The Internet and social media provided us the opportunity to engage with people across the planet. Celebrities. Scientists. Politicians. Friends. People who shared our interests. Of course we still have literal, real connections with people we know, including people in those categories. But now we also have these other tendrils reaching out through our computers and phones and connecting us to people we would never have known in the phone book era.

If you extend the analogy, though, you can see the problem that arises. If you were feuding with someone in 1980, they might call you or send you a letter or perhaps even show up at your house to pester you. Those were containable inconveniences. Toss the letter in the garbage; get a restraining order; change your phone number and make it unlisted. That was an option, having your number be unlisted from the directory — a step that cost money and was the exception to the rule. It was almost anti-social. But this problem could be addressed.

On the Internet, harassment is much less easily addressed. You can block someone on social media, sure, or send their emails to your junk mailbox. But they can simply create a new persona and begin again. And they can leverage the scale of interactions against you, rallying others to similarly bother you, rendering at least some portion of your online environment toxic for some period of time. The scale that makes desirable interaction possible makes undesirable interaction equally possible. And since anonymity or pseudonymity is neither opt-out nor costly but instead an either-or choice when creating a new account, it’s difficult to track or even consistently identify bad actors.

Something else happened about a decade ago that is pertinent here. In 2014, a group of developers and critics began espousing more diversity in video games. That triggered a massive backlash that leveraged the connectivity of the Internet to abuse and harass a number of public targets, most of them women. This was dubbed “GamerGate,” and it established a pattern by which groups of anonymous individuals gather and bully their perceived opponents with the aim of frustrating, scaring or silencing them.

GamerGate also bled into the real world, with the targets of harassment having their phone numbers and addresses published to either be annoying — crank phone calls, ordering pizzas for delivery — or to be dangerous, like making verbal threats. At the extreme, harassers would tell local police that an armed standoff was in progress at the target’s address, a process called “swatting” after the SWAT teams that harassers hoped would be sent in response.

The publication of personal information got a term of its own: “doxing.” What was once common practice in a community — knowing who someone was and how to get in touch with them — became a threat, thanks to the fact that making that information publicly available to the world at-large introduced a risk that didn’t exist in the phone-book era.

At its heart, GamerGate was about exercising power, as is so much abuse. Critics and developers hoping to change their industry ran into amorphous, anonymous opposition laced with misogyny and racism. The Internet made that opposition powerful not simply by being heard but by facilitating harassment. And it took little time for that asymmetric response to be deployed in the fight for political power in the United States.

The 2016 election was toxic in unprecedented ways. Donald Trump’s candidacy elevated an aggressiveness that often overlapped with race, religion and gender. But the lessons of GamerGate were applied broadly, with those challenging what they saw as the powerful establishment using coordinated harassment to try to mute or silence politicians and members of the media. Sometimes this was explicit in its racism or white nationalism. Often it was just groups of users realizing that they now had a way to humble or annoy those with whom they disagreed or those they believed to be obstructing their desired course for the country.

Russia’s efforts to shape the online conversation that year drew attention to how social media companies in particular operated that loop in this broad environment of harassment. Facebook and Twitter began to crack down on those who had been repeatedly flagged for harassing people or sharing false information. In part because conservatives are more likely to share misinformation, in part because the companies’ decisions to limit the reach of problematic voices was opaque and in part because conservatives began noticing and amplifying the idea that they were being targeted, a narrative emerged that these tech companies were trying to silence the political right. Suddenly, online anonymity wasn’t simply a way to limit consequences — it became part of the broad battle against the elites trying to control the world.

For decades, the mainstream media has been included in that cabal of elites by those on the right. This is certainly driven in part by the fact that large media outlets tend to be centered in Democratic cities. It’s also driven by the fact that this centralization occurred in the first place. Just as local personal information migrated from phone books to the World Wide Web, so did local news migrate to a shared national or global space. Media outlets became national entities.

But the pushback against the media as hostile to the right has also been driven by explicit efforts to reject the objectivity that the media aims to provide. Trump’s rationale for labeling the media “fake news” and “enemy of the people” was explicitly that he wanted to undermine confidence in its reporting. His transformation of the Republican Party and America’s political right more broadly included crumpling the idea that media scrutiny is a necessary part of wielding power. Instead, he and his allies championed the idea of challenging the media both directly — by unrelentingly questioning and undermining its choices — and over the long term by establishing channels for information sharing that wouldn’t apply that scrutiny.

This is the point made well in an essay published Wednesday by writer Alex Pareene. Pareene was responding to outcry over The Washington Post’s report assessing the impact of a pseudonymous Twitter account that has reversed the GamerGate workflow. Instead of gathering allies together to go after a target, the account Libs of TikTok was gathering up targets to present to an existing set of allies. This isn’t new; sites such as Twitchy and prominent Twitter accounts have for years served as clearinghouses for identifying targets of harassment. What is new is the rapidly accrued prominence of the account and its focus on unknown LGBTQ+ people.

That The Post identified the account’s owner was derided as “doxing” by her allies and that The Post reporter on the story had sought to interview the account owner directly was seen as some unique intrusion on her privacy. Reporters quickly pointed out that this isn’t the case; it’s simply how reporting works. But Pareene argues that, generally, this was not the actual issue being raised.

“These people on this ascendant right don’t just have different ideas about the role and function of journalism; they don’t just believe journalists are biased liberals; they don’t just believe the media is too hostile to conservatives,” he wrote, “they are hostile to the concept of journalism itself. As in, uncovering things dutifully and carefully and attempting to convey your findings to the public honestly. They don’t want that and don’t like it and are endeavoring to end it as a common practice.”

In other words, this is not simply a misunderstanding of how and when the media makes decisions about identifying individuals even at the most basic level. It is, instead, a continued rejection of what the media does.

This goes hand-in-hand with the broad decline in confidence in institutions generally, not just the media. One of the most prescient essays I’ve read in the past 20 years was one by Lawrence Lessig that ran in the New Republic in 2009. In it, Lessig warned that the broad availability of information facilitated by the Internet posed a downside risk of making it easy to gin up outrage by cherry-picking objections to highlight. This has to come pass in a general sense, with accounts such as Libs of TikTok elevating random people as a way of mocking the political left. But it also applies in specific cases, with isolated examples being used to try to discredit an institution’s work at large. There’s so much out there that it’s generally trivial to cobble together some sort of argument against whatever target you pick. And then it’s simple to overwhelm those who rise to the institutions’ defense.

Here we step back and contrast the moment now with the phone book era. Then, the community was small and allowed to be intimately familiar with one another because the risks of that intimacy were contained and addressable. Now, familiarity is cast as objectionable in part because the community is large and interlaced with unaddressable antagonism and because aggregated anonymity is its own form of power.

I don’t have a solution. There’s no returning to phone books, for a variety of obvious reasons. Anonymity has an important role online and in real life. But it is worth bearing in mind what our current understanding of identity facilitates. You don’t need to be reminded that I have prejudices here as an employee of an institution that’s been targeted as described above. But it does seem important to be clear-eyed in assessing how this change has affected the country and the world.

Even anticipating the response such an assessment will likely engender.

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