Mark Edmondson
Mark Edmondson
An Englishman in Denmark
Nov 20, 2020 15 min read

A Survey of Culture War Weapons: How Social Media Harms Consensus Politics

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Image owned by Luc Viatour

Culture wars have always been around, but nowadays social media has enabled the ability to scale them out to an unprecedented degree. The structure of how content is shared means exposure is possible on a global scale, as well as there being more data available on how consumers can be influenced. The values of the (American) social media platforms also feature, influenced by their own economics, philosophies and governments.

These platforms are not healthy for political debate as I will argue below, a belief that means I work to avoid politics on those platforms by unfollowing or blocking political activity. However, I sacrifice the impression that I care about those issues, so this article explains some of my reasons on why I think current social media and politics are a bad combination.

Symptoms of a dysfunctional political debate

Increased polarization of opinion is encouraged by how social media platforms engage users. Personalised ‘filter bubbles’ mean that users on the platforms experience a reflection of reality that is different from others, reading news only confirming their own bias. When exposed to differing beliefs it is often framed by enraged peers denouncing its content, content that reads like a denial of an assumed objective established reality. This denial of ‘reality’ helps reinforce that the other side peddle in lies and perhaps more importantly that they know they are lying. Trust is destroyed along with chances to compromise. Both sides think they hold the only Truth.

There is also the concept of signalling, which is about confirming which side you are on. As well as combatants subscribing to positions of their own group, there is a need to strongly signal you are not associated with the enemy. This can be efficiently achieved by publicly dismissing or attacking positions on the other side, not aiming to win the argument but only to show where you belong. In fact, the more visibly outraged you can make the other side, the stronger the signal to your peers that you are one of them. Many professional trollers rely on this to make an income.

xkcd - Duty Calls - https://xkcd.com/386/

This means a lot of online ‘discussion’ is essentially useless for aims of changing actual points of view or practical change of policy, and is more for the benefit of the participants self-identity. What may be worse is that a published position on social media may replace actual real action to address the underlying issue. Brands advertising their diversity in adverts but not actually hiring or paying minorities the same wage is one example, which helps fuel the distrust that the other side doesn’t actually believe in the cause, and are just taking positions for selfish image reasons.

Non-Aggression Pacts in Culture Wars

I argue that engaging in these attacks are a problem in itself, as a principal must be that political compromise and listening to others point of view is a necessary first step to create a stronger society for all. Until we have the ability for everyone to live in personalised universes that match our newsfeeds, we must find ways to co-exist. This is not to say that truths must always be ‘other sided’ with lies. But it does demand that we examine why the other side exists beyond “they are stupid”, and to identify the reasons how they arrived at that position. Co-existence is obviously not achieved by thinking the other side is “evil” and your point of view must be imposed on them for their own self-good.

This is also not healthy for your own side. Peer policing exists and those in the centre are most at risk at not keeping up with the current party line, the penalty for failure leaving you branded as a conspirator. This encourages default positions to get more and more extreme - the Brexiteer’s movement to harder versions of Brexit over time is an example.

This has left a widening political centre that is less vocal than those on the extreme wings in the fear they will be branded as an outsider (see ‘cancel culture’), a weakening society as minority views become louder and existing institutions get discredited and a disregarding of a silent central majority.

Another example are the Trump and Brexit votes from 2016. An outraged Left could not see why someone on the Right would want to vote for such disruptive changes, as they believed the majority were benefiting from the status-quo, and the media agreed.

The betting markets on Brexit before and afer the vote - by Emile Servan-Schreiber

Yet it could be said it was a failure of the Left to make those supposed benefits available to everyone that caused enough wide-reaching resentment for voters to reject the status-quo, and vote for any disruptive change that may or may not bring them more benefit. Those voices should be heard, and not dismissed or shouted at until they change their mind, yet as labels of Main Stream Media and Alternative Facts show, people do not feel represented by institutions and have lost trust in them. Politicians recognise that and turn the resentment into votes, even if paradoxically they are entitled and part of the very institutions they tout as being unfit.

I also want to be clear that I think both sides take part in this war: it’s not for example the innocent Left defending attacks by the Right. An easy way to see that is to look at the language used by the Left at a section of society whom perhaps the Left feel should be on their side but are not. Usually poor white people. For them is reserved the harsh rhetoric such as rednecks, chavs, poor white trash, gammons etc. which hastens those people to feel like they are underrepresented.

Add to this mix third parties who have an interest in destroying democratic institutions. Consensus weakening is an active goal being encouraged by enemies of democracy, who use the ability to automate social media reactions and the failures of the social media platforms to police themselves to drive a wedge between online groups, in many cases creating sock puppet accounts on both sides of the debate to facilitate it. The actual points of view are immaterial - stirring up conflict, mistrust and getting people to disengage are the win conditions.

To help identify this, and as a bookmark on current trends that rapidly change, the list below will attempt to document phrases and concepts that each side of the culture wars uses. The easiest source for these is to look at what the sock puppet accounts are saying, which are at the moment fairly easy to identify.

From nortonlifelock.com study linked above

Culture War Weapons

This is a tough list to try to curate from a neutral, central point of view and is uncomfortable to write as it feels like it is bound to piss someone off. I’ve tried to keep it to the insults and slurs directed at the other side.

I’m not naive enough to say that there are not people with extremist positions alluded to in the slurs, but my point is to amplify and label everyone on the ‘other side’ to those extreme positions is the abandoning of the centre, consensus politics that is needed to improve society.

Quotes are actual examples I’ve taken from social media

Naturally I do not necessarily agree with any of the quotes, they are used as illustrations.

Left weapons for use on the Right

  • Stupid racist - A problem when discussing immigration policies is the automatic labelling or people who don’t want free movement as racist. When towns with rapidly changing populations of different cultures had integration problems, expressing concerns but to be shut down as being racist undoubtedly drove resentment.

That leader is a dysfunctional, philandering, profiteering, misleading, embarrassing, alcoholic, racist slob & that applies to his imbecilic cohorts too

  • Nazi / Fascist - Used by both sides, for the left this is usually for moves perceived to move towards police state or authoritarian government

Every school student should have to see “Rise of the Nazi’s” So similar to his rise to power it’s very scary. Civics should be mandatory

  • White nationalists - Generally as demographics shift white groups who are struggling and perceive those problems as simply a question of race will look to defend their creed.

We will see them worn by white nationalists on invasion day, beating up Muslims at the beach.

  • Alternative facts - This started on the Left but was quickly co-opted by the Right. The original meaning was aimed at the far-right popularist publications outside of the more left-leading “mainstream media”

I knew it was ALL going to be off the rails when we started arguing “alternative facts”. After that it was a daily guess about when and how low they would go before reaching bottom. Still haven’t reached it.

  • Gammon Brexiters - UK term for the stereotype of uneducated skinhead muscle men who may go out binge drinking in the sun so turning pink in the sun.

These are voters, Gammon Brexiters, nothing but football hooligans looking for a fight, they are a disgrace .

  • Toxic masculinity - Men who reject feminism as it applies to men, and subscribe that men must embrace the more negative aspects of male stereotypes or not be ‘real men’

If you want to celebrate toxic masculinity, they take out the rubbish once a week.

  • Homophobe - This is one of the positions that has slowly drifted away from one particular side, as prominent homesexual people appear on the right too, but there is still a large majority who don’t agree anything other than hetrosexual orientation should exist.
  • Russian puppet - A curious shift that now has the Left more aggressive towards Russia being the enemy than the Right did only a few years ago.

I like a leader who is not a Russian puppet and a traitor.

  • Victim blaming - The right perceive that the left is too soft on criminals apart from when
  • Tax evader - If you are not contributing to society via tax
  • Climate denier - The Right are generally perceived as not respecting climate science as they monetarily gain from the status quo of using fossil fuels

Just a reminder that he is a coal loving climate denier.

  • Mask denier - If you are not wearing a mask, you are risking lives during a pandemic
  • Karen - a recent insult originally aimed at white middle class women who call the police/manager when they feel threatened by minorities even if there is nothing happening to threaten them.

The nerve of the woman to tell me to not wear T-shirt’s with profanity on them because it’s offensive. Karen, I will wear whatever the fuck I want.

Right weapons for use on the Left

I’m sick of Islam, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, Extinction Rebellion and I’m especially sick of the MSM, led by the BBC, promoting their anti-British views to the detriment of our centuries old culture, religion and history!

  • Woke / Virtue Signalling - It implies that the people talking about minority politics or politically correct issues do not actually believe them, but wish to signal they do for status

Yes it seems since BLM hit the scene, he believes his skin colour has disadvantaged him!! And all of a sudden he’s become a shockingly entitled bore. I’ve gone from huge fan to now avoiding him and all the virtue signalling crap.

  • Racist - Usually for actions that are detrimental to whites, co-opted from the Left for minority politics that signal out race issues, such as Black Lives Matter, as non-inclusive for Whites
  • Leftists / Libs - General term for the other side, exemplifies that centre left politics are asscoiated with exteme left ideals such as communisim

Please read this article, exposes the fake narratives of the leftists by one of their own

  • Politically Correct - Now used as a derisive term for those users subscribing to minority politics
  • Socialist / Communist - Anti-capitalism is frowned upon, government intervention in citizens lives is always to be fought against

You’re a bunch of Socialists. You would transform us and make it like Venezuela. I’m gonna stand in your way. I’m not going anywhere!”

  • Triggered / Snowflake - When the Right troll the Left to respond to injustices, but increasingly used by both sides

The world is full of snowflakes & “participation award” recipients. Don’t tone it down at all.

  • The Fake News of MSM - There is a general feeling that mainstream media is a left-leaning institution meaning it is not to be trusted.

MSM have no right saying there is no evidence of voter fraud. To do so is obvious FAKE NEWS.

  • Beta males - The belief feminism has emasculated men so that they are now subservient to women.

Every comedy movie has a Beta as a protagonist. Beta males are good for laughing at – no one actually admires them.”

  • Deep state - Conspiracy that the civil service systems of government operate without democractic oversight, for the takeover of the world, often including pedophile rings. In my time this has drifted from Left to Right.

She is a puppet of the deep state, why can’t you and others see that? Do you legitimately think she’s going to be in control?

  • Antifa/BLM Terrorist - Anti-fascists and Black Lives Matters are regarded as enemies of the state disrupting the established order
  • Poor are Workshy free brigade- Socialism creates a society of people dependant on state benefits
  • Unpatriotic (Anti-American, Anti-British, Anti-X) - Challenging the established conservative nationalism myths

I want to complain about your unpatriotic ass! Free speech is one thing passing off lies and fake conspiracies is quite another

  • Climate change hoax - The Left are perceived to only want Green policies as they will gain control over industry and restrict personal freedoms

Are you planning to hire employees with TAXPAYER MONEY to deal with your CLIMATE CHANGE HOAX?

  • Mask users against COVID - That the right doesn’t think wearing masks is necessary is one the latest weapons that fits into a general theme that the Left create over-state disasters to force others to do what they want in a drift towards socialism / communism

From the list above, it strikes me how contradictory and fluid some of the terms are and how over time they move across boundaries as former slurs get co-opted as badges of honour. In particular how the concept of free speech has moved from a left liberal ideal to a right one, perhaps championed by whichever side feels like they are on the defensive.

What can we do instead?

I don’t know, but I feel I know what we shouldn’t. I guess amplifying the voices of center politics and stressing consensus is an end goal, but how to get there will be difficult. How do we come to trust each other more?

American comments on UK/Danish politics are typically very off-base as they are only thought of in the context of the USA - likewise my comments on USA politics will have UK/Danish bias so I will leave that for US citizens to work out. My thoughts may only work in my region.

Representative politics

At the end of the day I think all divisions boil down to the rich vs the poor, so decreasing the wealth gap will help divisive politics not to have fertile ground to sow their distrust. If everyone can get to a stage of equal opportunity, and health and basic living conditions are met then there is less to be angry about. I do believe this is possible without it being a zero-sum game destroying the rich.

Having better representation such as proportional representation is also a step in the right direction, to help get non-represented voices heard before they get angry. For instance, UKIP voters never had many MPs despite having a large percentage of the vote, which drove support towards Brexit. Gerrymandering voting districts also tend to favour encumbent systems. Work should be towards fair equal power of the votes which I think Denmark does much better than the UK - people think their votes make a difference here whereas the UK has deep cynicism.

I’m with Popper thinking that the aim of democracy is to reduce concentration of power, so anything to help break duopoly of politics must naturally help with polarization. A big bureaucratic state becomes too powerful and people start resenting their powerlessness. A minority of very rich people also represents a concentration of power, so keeping the opportunities levelling out the wealth gap would also serve to avoid too much power with too few.

Social media (self?) regulation

Social media platforms are now editors of opinion, and the gatekeepers of political thought instead of high quality journalism. This will hopefully evolve down the same conclusions that newspapers took, but for now I am very cautious where I get my news - anything that confirms my bias or appeals to emotions should be examined carefully. I take the view that all politics should be considered and not knee-jerk and so actively block, mute or unfollow accounts that are too involved in the culture wars above. Don’t feed the trolls.

Online talk is always different from in-person interaction. Getting to know the underlying emotion on why something is said is what is needed for communication, that is lost via click bait titles, emails and text.

Talk about these things in person, with differing points of view respected. Hearing someone talk doesn’t mean you have to agree with what they said. To gain trust in one another we need to interact beyond words on a screen, and remember that we are all humans struggling with our own existence, with a lot more in common than differences between us.

Perspectives that bind us together, such as a shared culture are lacking these days in the personalised media world we are in now - the greatest effect in the end may have to be driven by the social media companies themselves, which if they truly have a mission of ‘making the world a better place’ as their silicon valley ethos is supposed to believe, will do so willingly without the need for governments to step in, who may be powerless to do so if the culture wars continue to escalate. We are in their hands.