One Million Robbers at Your Door
If there are a million robbers on the other side of the world, it’s unlikely to be a huge problem for you. Or at least it wouldn’t be, if social media didn’t give those robbers access to you so they can tell you how much they’d like to rob you, and if viral outrage didn’t make it entirely possible for them to learn who you are, and decide that they care.
If you have been reading Ordinary Times for long enough, you’ve almost certainly been directed to Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex blog, and may be familiar with his style and outlook. Back before our benevolent overlords gave the site a most welcome upgrade, it would occasionally appear in a sidebar that promised “dispatches from a perfectly rational spherical horse world”, or something to that effect. The posts are usually interesting, humorous, way too long, and often involve Alexander attempting to give some incredibly bizarre idea serious consideration.
Even if you’re Extremely Online, you may not missed a small disruption on the Twitters kicked off by this post, where Alexander laments that he had to close a thread on the subreddit for his blog, r/slatestarcodex. This was about six weeks ago, as I write this, which is long enough for a social media controversy to vanish from memory. Still, this mess is almost the perfect storm of misguided Internet outrage, one where it seems particularly easy to pinpoint what happened, and why.
The r/slatestarcodex subreddit suffered, as many fora do, from endless argument over certain perennially divisive topics, which Alexander says included “Trump, gender, race, the communist menace, the fascist menace, etc”. The moderators decided to stuff all debate of those topics in one thread, in order to contain the chaos. This seems to have been successful, for some value of “successful”:
Unexpectedly, the restriction to one thread kick-started the culture war discussions rather than toning them down. The thread started getting thousands of comments per week, some from people who had never even heard of this blog and had just wandered in from elsewhere on Reddit. It became its own community, with different norms and different members from the rest of the board.
I expected this to go badly. It kind of did; no politics discussion area ever goes really well. There were some of the usual flame wars, point-scoring, and fanatics. I will be honest and admit I rarely read the thread myself.
Alexander goes into a great deal of detail about what kind of people posted to the thread, and it sounds like a mixed but somewhat left-of-center bag, with libertarians making up the largest non-left group. The linked article contains pie charts, both because it’s that kind of blog and because it’s actually a pretty important part of the story. For what it’s worth, I’m not tremendously interested in litigating the content of the thread, or even reading it, because it couldn’t have justified what follows.
Alexander boils down the negative attention created by the thread to this:
People settled on a narrative. The Culture War thread was made up entirely of homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis. I freely admit there were people who were against homosexuality in the thread (according to my survey, 13%), people who opposed using trans people’s preferred pronouns (according to my survey, 9%), people who identified as alt-right (7%), and a single person who identified as a neo-Nazi (who as far as I know never posted about it). Less outrageous ideas were proportionally more popular: people who were mostly feminists but thought there were differences between male and female brains, people who supported the fight against racial discrimination but thought could be genetic differences between races. All these people definitely existed, some of them in droves. All of them had the right to speak; sometimes I sympathized with some of their points. If this had been the complaint, I would have admitted to it right away. If the New York Times can’t avoid attracting these people to its comment section, no way r/ssc is going to manage it.
One thing he doesn’t say, because he probably doesn’t know and likely has no way of knowing, is how many people settled on this narrative. There was another subreddit solely for making fun of him, and it had 2000 users. That’s a lot of people actively hating on a guy who doesn’t deserve it, but at the same time it’s actually not very many people at all.
If you selected a million people across the globe at random, it’s better than even odds that none of them would hate Alexander. He writes about a closely related phenomenon in an article called “Cardiologists and Chinese Robbers”, which I discovered because he linked to it to explain how critics would unfairly tar the as being “dominated” by a small number of people with gross ideas, despite the fact that the vast majority of participants rejected them.
People acting out of bad faith, or even jerking their knees at things that appall them, can easily find enough bad actors in just about any large group to justify negative sentiments about that group as a whole. I think, for what it’s worth, that Dr Alexander may be overstating the number of people who were acting out of bad faith when they constructed (or bought into) the narrative depicting the thread as a reactionary hellhole–the availability heuristic makes fools of us all. Nonetheless, there were more than enough people in the whole world to get bent out of shape over the thread. It’s sort of an ironic twist, in one sense, that a thread designed to contain disruptive conversation and render it manageable became an excuse to disrupt so much conversation elsewhere. But this tale is full of these twists.
Nonetheless, whatever the original objection, there were more than enough bad actors to make things incredibly unpleasant for Dr Alexander, stepping outside the bounds of any sort of decency to try to ruin this guy’s life over a reddit thread he didn’t really even participate in.
Some people found my real name and started posting it on Twitter. Some people made entire accounts devoted to doxxing me in Twitter discussions whenever an opportunity came up. A few people just messaged me letting me know they knew my real name and reminding me that they could do this if they wanted to.
Some people started messaging my real-life friends, telling them to stop being friends with me because I supported racists and sexists and Nazis. Somebody posted a monetary reward for information that could be used to discredit me.
One person called the clinic where I worked, pretended to be a patient, and tried to get me fired.
Dr Alexander says he had a nervous breakdown, and seems reluctant to complain too much about it. Still, while his reaction may not be rational, it does seem entirely human. We as a species plausibly evolved in social environments where people know maybe 100 people, give or take. If your community is about 100 people, 50 people hating your guts is a life-threatening problem. Our primate brains haven’t caught up to the reality where millions of people could, at least in principle, know about you, despite being scattered around the globe. You don’t have to have a predisposition to anxiety to be really upset by this (though doubtless one won’t help). The same availability heuristic that led some people conclude that the thread was full of reactionary horror can just as easily tell you that everybody hates you, and before long your brain may well be telling you that u are going to die if this doesn’t change.
But part of it is entirely rational. Dr Alexander reports that he has been doxxed, and people have contacted people he knows socially, as well as his employer, in order to fuck with him over his opinions. He says that he wasn’t fired, which is all for the best, but that certainly isn’t going to present this from being a profoundly unsettling experience. And it’s not like there aren’t occasional examples where the harassment escalates beyond what he experienced, with stalking, threats, and swatting which he’s almost certainly familiar with.
If there are a million Chinese robbers, it’s unlikely to be a huge problem for you, especially if you don’t live in China. Or at least it wouldn’t be, if social media didn’t give those robbers access to you so they can tell you how much they’d like to rob you, and if viral outrage didn’t make it entirely possible for them to learn who you are, and decide that they care.
Once, distant strangers would never have any way to find out about us, and that even local strangers, if they wanted to fuck up our lives, would have to invest significant effort, and possibly take significant risks, to do so. Now, though, every utterance on Twitter (or Reddit, or even Facebook…) can easily reach a global audience, and even a tiny fraction of a global audience can really ruin your day (and even your life) if all it takes for them to lash out at you is a click of a trackpad or a long-distance phone call.