The rise of anti intellectualism online

Just how do politicians and Internet commenters alike win arguments without any facts on their side? William Allington wrote his thesis on it

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Art by Frankie Hossack

In 2010, a seemingly insignificant YouTube account was created by a young man named Brian, under the alias Godiscool2010.

Brian made a sporadic video diary, with no video getting more than a few hundred views. Yet inside these videos was the story of how a man’s life was ruined by YouTube comments.

YouTube comments have a deservedly bad reputation, but his life’s ruin was not due to profanity or abuse. Instead, these comments fostered a dangerous, paranoid idea that made Brian believe he was suffering from organised harassment or “gang-stalking”.

This was, of course, a conspiracy. Gang-stalking does not exist. Conspiracy theory blog “Gang Stalking World” defines it as “a systemic form of control, which seeks to destroy every aspect of a Targeted Individual’s life. Once a target is flagged, a notification is sent out to the community at large, and the target is followed around 24/7”.

In 2013, YouTube personality InternetAristocrat made a video documenting Brian’s descent into paranoia. One of Brian’s earliest videos showed his quirky, yet enthusiastic personality while he commented on some strange things that happened while he staged a lone protest against child abuse. Commenters on the video were quick to point out that this looked like “gang-stalking”, and theorised that Brian had become the target of harassment due to his protest of child abuse.

As time went on, the videos documented the alleged forms of harassment Brian began to feel he was facing from everyone – the police, his neighbours, strangers on the streets. They were tampering with his food when he wasn’t looking, playing air siren noises when he went upstairs and threatening to shoot him with finger-gun motions. Eventually, Brian made a video revealing that he had been institutionalised in a psychiatric ward, which he now saw as part of the conspiracy. In this video, and those which followed, he told his viewers they could never trust psychiatrists or psychologists; the only people they could trust were their friends on the Internet, like him.

The damage was done, and now Brian refused to trust the qualified intellectuals that could help him, in lieu of those that had enabled his paranoia. Ultimately, it was the Internet that enabled the formation of this anti-intellectual echo chamber – even with only a few hundred views on his videos, Brian still was drawn into this conspiracy theory. It stands to reason that the Internet can also help us fight such anti-intellectualism, yet there has been woefully little progress made.

Back when I was a wee lad in year 11, I undertook a major writing project for English on the Holocaust. I chose to research the history of Dr. Josef Mengele, one of the SS doctors that ran the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, and the non-fictional origin of the modern mad scientist trope. Yet the further I researched, the more online posts and articles I found, all suggesting that the Holocaust had somehow been faked, and that Mengele was a recurring trope in the hoax.

Driven equally by curiosity and disgust, I typed those career-defining words into Google “Holocaust faked?” Fast-forward eight years and I’ve finished my Honours thesis on online Holocaust denial, and begun my Ph.D studying online anti-Semitism.

Over the course of those eight years, studying Holocaust denial became a bizarre hobby of mine. It never failed to astound me how far people went to deny the most well documented genocide in history. In perhaps some grotesque sense of competition, the Holocaust denial movement has become one of the most well documented conspiracy movements in history, making it a prime choice for study on anti-intellectualism.

But what exactly is “anti-intellectualism”? In short, it is a series of movements that actively ignore intellectually supported positions; the positions supported by qualified academics and experts in their respective fields. Because no one person can be an expert on all things, the public collectively depends on these experts to know what to believe. Anti-intellectuals typically reject or ignore these experts and attempt to present their views as legitimate alternatives to the mainstream position.

Going as far back as the 1970s, the Holocaust denial movement put aside the typical conspiracy style pamphlets and adopted an air of academic sophistication. In 1976, an electrical engineering professor called Arthur Butz published a 554- page tome called The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. Drawing from Butz’s academic background, the book was extraordinarily well presented, with extensive footnotes, academic language, diagrams and well-structured arguments. This snowballed into the formation of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), a relatively benign sounding organisation, yet one that focused entirely on presenting Holocaust denial, or “Holocaust Revisionism” as a legitimate view on Holocaust history, often in the form of a pseudo-academic quarterly journal called the Journal for Historical Review.

Then along came the Internet. Holocaust deniers saw the clear value of the Internet as an information-spreading tool, especially for fringe movements such as their own. By the mid-90s, most of the key Holocaust denier leaders had created personal websites. A website for the IHR also sprung up, which served as easily accessible archives for the vast amount of Holocaust denial literature now published. Holocaust denial also benefited from being rhetorically malleable. Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, alt-rightists, anti-multiculturalists, anti-Zionists and fascists all adopted Holocaust denial as proof of their movements being unfairly delegitimised by a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Thus began a perfect storm. The Internet became a unifying factor for these previously isolated and splintered ideological movements across the world. Their echo chambers were formed, their online archives were built, and they further burrowed themselves into their anti-intellectual holes, waiting for more to join their causes.

In the traditional public sphere, if someone continued to push views that were false or problematic, eventually public consensus would lead to their views being denied a platform. A healthy public sphere depends on the ability to counter a viewpoint and to encourage it to be ignored. But, with the Internet, everyone has a platform, and anyone can find a community that shares their views, no matter how strange. And now, with the heightened value of online anonymity, the consequences for spreading false, problematic, and even harassing views are almost non-existent.

“The unfortunate truth is that we don’t need to feed the trolls; they’ve been doing just fine spreading anti-intellectualism without us.”

While it may sound contrary to the values of free speech in our digital society, the fear of real societal consequences for spreading false views was a fundamentally important part of the public sphere, encouraging people to second-guess spreading controversial or unsubstantiated views. The Internet has fucked that right up. This would be less of a problem if responding to and refuting anti-intellectuals online were straightforward, yet the convoluted design of online platforms has hindered that.

How does one respond to a YouTube video that promotes Holocaust denial? I spent many hours of my high school years trying to figure out. I tried commenting (dumb, I know), but too many videos simply disallowed comments, and those that did resulted in either me being ignored, or drawn into a time-wasting argument. I tried making my own videos directly responding to the claims of Holocaust denial. This was another time sink. Two days after uploading my videos, they were taken down, due to Holocaust deniers repeatedly flagging it.

At that point, I thought about those Holocaust deniers that had forced my video down. How were they so committed to this pseudo-intellectual idea that they were flagging any “anti-revisionist” video that surfaced on YouTube? It was not the key players of the movement, like Arthur Butz or David Irving, that were impeding my efforts. It was people like Godiscool2010, people like Brian. To believe in a conspiracy so wide that it could fabricate a genocide is not far from believing in an organised harassment campaign targeting you. Many of these people undoubtedly believed they were being targeted by this conspiracy. “The Jews” have always been convenient scapegoats in history for famines, wars and plagues. It is not a far step to then blame “the Jews” for your faulty internet connection, your late packages and your inability to get a job. This becomes the vicious cycle of an anti-intellectual quagmire – anti-intellectualism begins to take a toll on a believer’s everyday life. This toll is then twisted into further justification for anti-intellectualism. Once the rules of logic and evidence are thrown out the window, anything and everything can be used to justify their beliefs.

The design of online platforms has directly contributed to the rise of echo chambers. Comments on YouTube and Reddit are both made more viewable through the “upvote” system, meaning comments the already introverted community agrees with rise to the top more often than not. And while this is all happening, we are constantly reminded by the frustrating adage “don’t feed the trolls”. The unfortunate truth is that we don’t need to feed the trolls; they’ve been doing just fine spreading anti-intellectualism without us.

When I was writing my honours thesis, I was particularly interested in how Holocaust denial was spread through the work of an average troll. It was easy enough to follow the movement’s leaders who leeched off public attention, but what about the majority of the movement who cared about their reputation offline? Despite seven years of studying this phenomenon, I found myself astounded once again.

The website Reddit is split up into smaller communities called “sub-reddits” which are formed around certain topics (eg there are subreddits on sport in general, hockey, Australia, video games, feminism, history). The subreddit for the Holocaust, referred to as /r/holocaust, was run by a Holocaust denier, who worked to make sure any content that wasn’t Holocaust denial was deleted from the community. It turned out that the guy who ran the community was a “power-user” on Reddit, who basically created as many subreddits as possible to ensure he could control whatever content was posted on them, and would even “trade” ownership of communities as bartering chips. I wanted to see if I could restore /r/holocaust to a place where people could go to be informed about Holocaust history and even share family experiences. What ensued was a wild ride of controversy involving me forming a bizarre “alliance” with other moderators and ex-moderators, including those from the historical subreddits of /r/history, /r/badhistory and /r/askhistorians, left-wing subreddits such as /r/shitredditsays and /r/circlebroke, and even those from the xkcd webcomic and Iran subreddits, both of which were controlled by this same poweruser.

We tried to leverage the Reddit administrators to give the communities to their userbase. Yet as noble as it felt and sounds, it didn’t amount to much. The guy got banned six months later for something completely unrelated, but he’d appointed enough anti-intellectuals to the /r/holocaust subreddit so that it still remains a den of Holocaust denial.

Nonetheless, I learned many valuable lessons from this experience. The first is that too many of these online platforms are broken when it comes to meaningful discussion. YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, even Facebook, are all too easily splintered into echo-chambers where discussion against the norm is easily ignored or taken out of context.

“If someone had commented “gang-stalking is bullshit and here’s why” on that 2010 YouTube video, maybe Godiscool2010 would have never gone down the road he did”

One of the best examples of anti-intellectualism online affecting the real world is Donald Trump. The anti-intellectual populist has a nine per cent truth rating on Politifact and has a history of pushing disproven conspiracies like Birtherism.

There is no doubt that memes, “circlejerking” and other internet phenomena have helped wave problems like “the truth” away. The Trump subreddit is extraordinarily popular, makes heavy use of memes, and, until the Reddit administrators changed the website algorithm, their posts were dominating the front page of the website every day of the week. The most frightening thing about this phenomenon wasn’t Donald Trump (surprising, I know), but that these communities were serving as a “gateway” to other forms of anti-intellectualism.

Despite all his faults, anti-Semitism is not present at all within Trump’s presidential platform. Yet there have been almost daily examples of anti-semitism in the Trump subreddit, including a meme mocking the number “six million” (a common Holocaust denier trope) upvoted to the front page. This phenomenon goes all the way back to Trump’s twitter, where he can use the 140-character limit as an excuse against providing any sources, evidence or further support to his bizarre, anti-intellectual and bigoted claims. Trump’s greatest strength is his ability to promote his brand, and now his brand is being used to promote all kinds of anti-intellectualism online.

So what do we do? What can people do against such reckless ignorance? Well first we can say a big fuck-off to the line “don’t feed the trolls”. Because even if you don’t believe the statement, there’s nothing stopping some poor kid coming along and buying into it. Ultimately the current platforms are too poorly designed to foster any kind of counter to the propaganda spread by anti-intellectual movements, meaning that we need to start working on new platforms. One of the best examples of these platforms is Snopes.com, which deals with refuting urban myths and rumours. Snopes.com’s model makes it easier than ever to respond to anti-intellectualism online. It may not seem like much, but dropping a link to a Snopes refutation may make the difference in someone believing vaccines cause autism or not. Ultimately, it is up to us – the university educated population – to respond to these trolls online. We may not change their minds, but we need to do our duty to help prevent others being radicalised by anti-intellectual views.

In 2006, Dr Nick Terry from the University of Exeter bemoaned that “professional historians have left the internet wide open for colonisation by deniers”. Ten years on, the situation is worse. The belief that ignoring an idea will make it go away is no longer viable in a digital society. And, ultimately, this is about people’s lives. If people get drawn into a conspiracy theory or anti-intellectual movement, they may be digging themselves into a hole of self-delusion that they may never climb out of again.

Brian’s belief in gang-stalking ruined his life and pulled him into a community where he no longer believed he could trust the people who could help him. If someone had commented “gang-stalking is bullshit and here’s why” on that 2010 YouTube video, maybe Godiscool2010 would have never gone down the road he did. Every hateful, ignorant and absurd comment on the internet is potentially a seed for someone buying into a destructive ideology. I hope that sounds scary, because it is.