Social Media, Sniper Ethics and Digital Dehumanization

Canada’s national news magazine Maclean’s created a firestorm in Winnipeg this past week with the online preview of its cover story naming my hometown Winnipeg as “Canada’s most racist city,” a painfully accurate portrait that prompted Mayor Brian Bowman to call an immediate press conference in which, surrounded by council members and Aboriginal leaders, he vowed, “We have to shine a light on [racism]. Without the light, we can’t see what we’re fighting. We’re not going to end racism tomorrow, but we’re sure as hell going to try.” Then, within days, the satirical online newspaper The Beaverton posted its brutally ironic article “Winnipeg Human Rights Museum Unveils City of Winnipeg as Next Discrimination Exhibit,” which it noted, “required no preparation time, is open 24-7 and has many interactive features including stereotypes and misconceptions of indigenous people, white privilege denial, mass incarceration, poverty, colonization and gentrification.”

The Maclean’s article made particular note in its opening paragraphs of the “light” that recent online posts had shone on racism, one being the Facebook comments written by the wife of mayoral candidate Gord Steeves — made public during the 2014 civic election — in which she ranted, “I’m really tired of getting harassed by the drunken native guys…We all donate enough money to keep their sorry asses on welfare, so shut the f–k up and don’t ask me for another handout!” The article also cites the notorious Facebook post made by Brad Badiuk, a teacher at the city’s Kelvin High School: “Oh Goddd how long are aboriginal people going to use what happened as a crutch to suck more money out of Canadians? They have contributed NOTHING to the development of Canada. Just standing with their hand out. Get to work, tear the treaties and shut the FK up already. Why am I on the hook for their cultural support?” Steeves lost the election, and Badiuk has since been suspended without pay from his job.

In Thompson Manitoba, too, the newspaper there, The Thompson Citizen was compelled to shut down its Facebook page for “virulently racist anti-aboriginal comments. “It ends here,” the editor wrote. “This newspaper is not going to stand by and let anti-aboriginal racists and haters spew their evil on a vehicle we’re facilitating them using.”

The extent and vitriolic nature of online racism is raising increasing concerns, and is the focus of University of Alberta sociology student Irfan Chaudhrey’s doctoral research. His “Twitter Hate Project“, examines racist comments posted by Twitter users in six Canadian cities with high rates of reported hate crimes – including Winnipeg. The rationale for his project he says is that, “In Canada, we’re so reluctant to talk about race and racism specifically so often times in public discourse it’s rarely ever brought up but when you shift to the online realm people are … freely being racist.” A high-profile victim of online hate speech is University of Ottawa Law professor Joanne St. Lewis, who observes, “It allows people to behave in a way that if they did it in the bricks and mortar universe amongst flesh and blood people, we know it’s not acceptable. We know there’s legal consequence. But somehow, that piece of being virtual, that piece of being on the internet seems to give this incredible permission,”

All of which begs the question: What is it about the online realm that apparently gives so many people the license to give free, reckless reign to such hatred? It’s surely not anonymity, as neither Facebook nor Twitter are anonymous platforms, although the Comments section of most websites and newspapers do allow this, with frequently shocking results. It makes me wonder if there is something fundamental, inherent — and, hence, unreformable — in our relationship with digital technology that makes all-too easy the dehumanization and degradation of others.

This potential explanation coalesced for me in a surprising way this past weekend while listening to the January 22nd edition of the CBC radio program Day 6 in which host Brent Bambury interviewed real-life sniper Jack Coughlin (and author of the book Shooter), about the accuracy of the new Clint Eastwood film American Sniper, which has unleashed a tsunami of racist online vitriol. The film is a sympathetic portrayal of the real-life sniper Chris Kyle, renowned for being credited with more than 160 “confirmed kills.” While it has become huge box-office hit, some critics and activists have decried the film as a “NeoCon fantasy” for its uncritical acceptance of the Bush narrative linking Iraq to 9/11 and its dehumanizing portrayal of all its Iraqi characters, many of whom — justifiably, according to the film — fall victim to Kyle’s rifle.

Such criticisms have come with a cost: The film has inspired an online hate campaign against the film’s critics, replete with death threats, including decapitation. Equally disturbing has been torrent of violent online racist bile directed against Muslims and Arabs: As The Guardian reports,

A quick search on Twitter leads down a rabbit hole of anger. “Great f***ing movie and now I really want to kill some f***ing ragheads,” read one tweet, in a set of screenshots that quickly went viral after being collated by journalist Rania Khalek for the online publication Electronic Intifada. “American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some f***in Arabs,” read another. One tweet read: “Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are – vermin scum intent on destroying us.”

In his Day 6 interview, when asked about the film’s accuracy, Jack Coughlin described what it was like to actually see the person through a rifle scope, as opposed to the videogame-like distance afforded by drones, stating that the humanity of his target doesn’t enter into his thought processes: “We treat them as targets” he said. “Everything on the battlefield is a target…I don’t think of them as human beings until after the fact.” Bambury interjected, “You thought of the targets as targets and not human beings. Is there a danger in dehumanizing the target that way?” “No, definitely not.” Couglin reponds. “As long as you’re not breaking the rules of engagement. I’m not dehumanizing all life, just the ones I’m charged to take.”

What fascinated me was that Bambury’s next guest, videogame designer and feminist Zoe Quinn, used startlingly similar language to characterize online hatred and the particularly nasty practices of “doxing” and “swatting” — potentially lethal forms of online harassment in which the target’s full identity and address is revealed, making possible crank calls to the police to call in the SWAT team on that address: essentially, murder by cop. Quinn was, in fact, in hiding from so-called “gamergaters” and speaking to Bambury from an undisclosed location.

Bambury asked her, what are these people thinking? What are they trying to accomplish? Quinn replied, “There’s this sort of dehumanization effect that happens I think when it comes to how they view people online and how they view their targets…I think we’re just kind of abstract concepts or pixels on a screen not conceived of as actual people.” (Emphasis added).

How is it that the blogger and the sniper could go through such similar thought processes? Is it more than a coincidence that a movie about a sniper could have spawned such widespread online hatred? How is that social media could have, in fact, made us all potential snipers — and targets — and, in the case of “swatting,” not just figuratively? How could the use of two such disparate technologies as the sniper rifle and the computer keyboard be premised on such parallel ethics?

Understanding how people can be so easily rendered into abstractions online may be aided by considering the work of technology philosopher Albert Borgmann. In his 1984 book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, he describes technology and our relationship with it in terms of what he calls “focal things and practices:” those objects around which we are engaged socially and to which we direct our attention, and the social practices we build around them (e.g., a meal and its preparation and consumption, a hearth and chopping wood, tending the fire). In an advanced technological society, as machinery becomes more sophisticated and its processes hidden from us (or as Lewis Mumford would have it, “etherealized”) the practices around that thing erode and it becomes merely a commodity which is procured, e.g., electric heat or a Big Mac.

It would appear that, as the “focal things” around which we have traditionally gathered for conversation — the hearth, the table, the town square, the church, the telephone — have become increasingly etherialized through digital technologies, the “practices” associated with conversation have been reduced to a mere commodity: texting, information, bits, data. What’s more — as philosopher Lawrence Haworth observes — our deteriorated practices then cannot but help erode that with which those practices are concerned: in this case, other human beings, with which and about which we are communicating.

In light of Borgmann’s and Haworth’s theories, we would be wise to be cautious in our embrace and promotion of social media. While they have shown tremendous potential for motivating positive social change, when utilized in a social, cultural and political environment rife with structural racism and already predisposed towards dehumanization, their inherent potential for reducing all of us to abstractions — and digital snipers — would seem to be too dangerous to ignore.