Saturday, 21 March 2015

Narrow Bandwidth: Life In Berlin's Walled Garden

Where I live in Berlin, I’ve met a lot of people who work on computers all day... and all night, too.  Many people in this city seem to spend both their uptime and their downtime watching online news, reading articles, searching for videos on YouTube and listening to mixes on Soundcloud. 

In defiance of the usual stereotype of techy types, most of these twenty, thirty and forty-somethings seem to have great social skills: a sense of humour, an eagerness to chat about world events and street smarts.  In my mind, that sets them apart from the earlier generations of computer nerds. 

But they also seem to have a greater sense of apathy than those earlier generations did.  Many conversations that I have with them (or overhear) come back to the same point: the world is falling apart and there is nothing they can do about it. 

Sometimes, just for fun, I ask them why they feel that way.  

‘Well... what can I do?’ they often demand with a dismayed expression on their face.  It's like they think I'm nuts for crediting them with self-determination.  Or like I'm nuts for suggesting that their feeling of resignation is just that - a feeling.  To them, it's a fact: people are as incapable of changing the world as they are of breathing underwater unaided. It's just the way it is. 

Which is kind of funny when you think about it, because nothing is changing the world today so rapidly as people.  You, me, the beggar on the train and the head of the IMF... all of us are responsible for changing it in some way.  Usually in a bad way, and usually without even realizing that we're changing anything.  We're too preoccupied by our thoughts about the changes that we want to make, to reflect on the unwanted changes that we're making every step of the way towards our goals.  

The disposable coffee cup that we drink and then toss as we're rushing to a big interview.  The flight that we take to attend a career-changing conference.  The tuna that we eat to get smarter and/or healthier and/or skinnier. The made-in-China product that we buy to save money for something 'more important'.  These are all bad, tangible changes that people make every day, in their pursuit of a fantasy of being 'better'.    
Of course, certain people have always felt that we are unable to change the world. 
Apathy is probably the oldest form of self-deception that there is; it's been a documented phenomenon since the very earliest empires.  You might even say that the very earliest empires couldn't have existed without the first apathetic subjects (but which came first?  The chicken or the egg?).

But traditionally, apathy has always been the preserve of the defeated, the middle-aged, the under-educated and the very deprived... whereas, today, it seems to be the preserve of the young, the well-off and the educated, too.  In fact, since the dawn of the 21st century, apathy seems to have spread to all levels of society.  Even the activists that I meet these days seem to be motivated by bloody-minded stubbornness, more than the hope of making a change for the better.   

The question is, why?  Why do people living in a well-connected, well-informed society like ours feel so disempowered? Apathy seems to growing almost as quickly as people learn about their world via their smartphones and laptops.  Isn't knowledge supposed to be power, though? 

Perhaps it has something to do with the medium through which people are learning about the world: the internet.  A huge proportion of the  news reports, studies, photos, statistics and sound bites that people get all come through this same, basic channel.  Could there be a connection between the medium and the mentality of the people using it? 

Online, people can learn about an endless variety of radical new ideas, events and news.  They can explore endless alternative styles of music, dress, speech, writing, and ideologies.   The internet can provide us with an alternative to everything... except for the internet, that is.

Perhaps our sense of being unable to change the world is somehow linked to the limits of this medium.  After all, it is a format that we are physically unable to engage with... to change.  By contrast, 25 years ago, a person could only access such a kaleidoscopic range of facts by accessing an equally kaleidoscopic range of media.  Many of those media were hands-on.  In addition to the television, radio and internet, people also picked up new information from newspapers, books, pamphlets, magazines, fanzines, collages, patches and buttons... even gigs, raves and festivals played a role in distributing info via the music and personalities present.  In the past, information was embodied in an array of physical shapes that encouraged people to react to it in a very physical, personalized way.  

Today, it's expected that we will only interact with the information that we get in our minds. We will think about it and push some buttons, and that's all, folks.  But in the past, it was possible to touch information, hear it, smell it, dance it... engage with it and change it, via every sense.  Being informed was an interactive experience.

When information moves online, it becomes physically inaccessible to us, taking on the form of disembodied figures etched in flickering light, on an ethereal 'site' that we cannot reach no matter how fast we walk or run. 

The effects of this ethereal medium on society are already becoming noticeable.  Members of Generation X, the last pre-internet generation, are fond of complaining about how glassy eyed and unresponsive members of Generation Y are.  Supposedly, Generation Y people supposedly fail to exhibit any sense of urgency when they're at work; they fail to show a palpable reaction to the world around them, when they're at play.  I don't know how true that is, but the younger people that I've met do seem less aware that the physical world can be used as a medium for their ideas.   

Given how many ideas are now only found online, floating in a disembodied ether, that attitude is kind of understandable.  What's worrying is that over time, people seem to be coming to the conclusion that the real world is incompatible with the flow of information.  It's slower, more obstructive and cumbersome... that it gets in the way of the pure informational realm they inhabit online.    

This is a fallacy.  We are naturally designed so that our thoughts flow into words and feelings flow into action, via our bodies, without any interruption.  Yet many of us have been raised in a way that inhibits us from using from using our hands, feet or voices as a means for self-expression.  

Many of us have experienced years of negative feedback from bullies, sexists, racists, bigots, thugs, parents and authority figures... as well as unrealistic standards of behaviour that are depicted in advertising and the media.  That may be why so many people feel that the internet is a freer space, with greater possibilities than the real world.  It's a space where they are unburdened by any sense of being physically 'substandard'.   

But what is so liberating about the internet is also what makes it a prison.   In a way, people who spend too much time online are acting like a bullied kid who stays indoors all day to avoid a bully.  By doing this, she is turning herself into what the bully wants her to be - what he'll allow her to be - instead of who she really is.  Aren't the bullies in our world - the politicians and police and extremists - who are currently shaping the physical world doing the same thing, when they force us to live our lives online? 

Online, we're impotent.  We don't even have a sheet of newsprint to clench in our fists when we read an infuriating news item.  We can’t even turn to the person next to us and say, ‘You won’t believe what I just saw’ because that other person will be glued to their own screen, their own private information flow, designed to circumvent all physical impediments... including friends and partners.

Meanwhile, the physical world is quickly becoming the kind of mindless, consumerist place where ideas don't fit in, because that's what the bullies want it to be.  An alien, super-tactile landscape of funky streetfood, neon fashions, nonsensical catchphrases, random clashes of sound that have no deeper meaning except to add to someone's status.  This seems like a reflection of the fact that very few people are using the material world to share or exchange information anymore.  Why bother?  They've already shared and exchanged it all online. Where it's safe.

In order to engage with other people online, we are expected to detach our ideas and feelings from ourselves, post them somewhere and leave them sitting there, in suspended animation, for hours, days, weeks or months before they get a response. Getting nothing back at all is considered an acceptable outcome.  Unlike a real-life social gathering, where people react to you just for being there, no one can guarantee that they'll get a response anymore.  I can't decide what's more disempowering: being ignored, or being unable to do anything about it.  Perhaps that's why it's becoming more common for people to ‘say’ something online that's so extreme, the others can't ignore it.  Perhaps the internet is fuelling our polarized social extremes, as well our apathy.

A lot of the people that I meet in Berlin these days seem to feel trapped behind walls that that they cannot see - walls lined with shelves of information.  But those are the walls of the internet.  They are not our walls. 

Maybe, because people cannot actually see them, they have actually started to confuse those walls with their own limitations.    

Maybe that's why,
when someone asks them why they don’t stop watching the world and try to change it instead, they stare and say, ‘Change it?  What can I do?’  

The answer  to that question is the same as it ever was: believe in yourself.  It’s the only way that anybody has ever changed anything, in this generation or the last ones.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Protest is a process, not a product

Last spring, I had a dream that there was a new craze sweeping Berlin: people would dress up like trees and stand in a field near the Bundestag every month, holding a vigil for all the natural spaces being destroyed by mankind.  I went down to check it out so I could write about it for this blog (yes: even in my dreams, I write a blog). And of course I wanted to take part... but not the same way that everyone else was doing.

Everybody at the vigil was dressed as evergreen trees. To save time, a lot of them had cut down actual pine trees to wear.  I thought that was a bit wasteful... but then I saw the sincere looks on their faces and thought, “Well, at least they’re using the trees to say something that they care about… that’s more than you can say for a lot of the waste that people create.” 
I held back my criticism, tried to appreciate the fact that they were spreading a message that I believed in, and watched from the sidelines.   

A few weeks ago, this dream popped into my mind again as I was stepping around another  massive pile of discarded Christmas trees in Berlin.  An entire forest of baby evergreens seems to get cut down each year to supply the people in my kiez with the right mood for their holy nights.  But this year there seem to be so many more.  People were casting away symbols of eternity to make space for their manmade presents.  How paradoxical is that?  It almost seemed like a symbolic sacrifice of the idea of permanence and regeneration - a bizarre leap of faith into a mechanized, manmade future.

My annoyance about the annual tree cull primed me to go to the ‘Wir Haben Es Satt’ demo a few days later, a protest against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) and for sustainable agricultural practices in Germany.  The pine trees had been cleared from most of the kerbs by then, but at the demo, I saw people dressed up like trees standing outside the Bundestag, wearing branches and leaves, just like they had been in my dream.  The difference was that the branches they were wearing looked like they’d fallen off a tree during a recent windstorm.  The people wearing them didn’t seem the type to go and wantonly hack down pine forests, either, so the similarity to my dream ended there… so I thought.

My friends and I delved into the crowd of people wearing fun-fur onesies, rabbit suits, bee costumes, beekeeping suits - there were even a few caricatured farmers with big straw hats.  It was a bit like being at a Fasching party, except with lots of angry signs about battery farming and dystopian Monsanto products penned in red, slashing ink.  Drums were playing here and there, smoke was rising from the beekeepers’ metal censers, pink and green, mass-produced banners fluttered along with a few handmade ones.  Bright, industrial swathes of fabric in manmade colours flapped at us from every angle.  The message of the event had been painted in synthetic hues, mocking the plastic appeal of a TV advertisement.  Either that, or they were mimicking it, in hope of having a similar, mass-market appeal. 

With so many prefab options at the demo, all we had to do was look around, ask ourselves, ‘agree or disagree?’  and if we agreed, we could just grab a banner or a pin and become another carrier for the message.  For the cause - the brand - ‘Stop the TTIP’.  I was tempted...

... but then I pictured the people wearing those outfits going home, hanging up their rabbit suits, laughing about them.  Putting their banners out on the balcony and not talking about Monsanto or TTIP again until the next protest came around. But maybe that's the point.  After all, dressing up as a furry animal isn’t about representing what you really are, is it?  it’s about putting a playful façade between you and the world, feigning naive simplicity.  Maybe the point of these outfits is to try and impart some of that simplicity into the environmentalist message, making a daunting prospect seem accessible. 

In the commercial world, animal costumes are used to draw shoppers into computer stores and car dealerships but never into grocery stores or bars... maybe that's the same reason why they're used to draw people to demonstrations about the environment. 

Plus, it is easier to jump in to a demonstration when there are ready-made banners and placards waiting there, ready-made, in the hands of your furry environmental mascot. But buying into one protest on the basis of a costume or a banner does not rope you into continuing with it. It’s not like buying a pair of shoes.  With activism, that commitment comes from seeing the issue as part of an ongoing theme in your life.  It's got to be personal.
Successful movements are able to engage with people on an every day level, to make them return for every action.  That may be why the three-ring circus known as the International Socialists (or whatever they’re called now) has thousands of dedicated members.  They have an answer for everything... literally.  If you belch in the middle of one of their meetings, they can provide you with a Socialist Perspective as to why you did it. 

Getting back to the TTIP demo in Berlin, though: my friends and I really should have come there more prepared.  We should have come with our own props... or dressed up... or organized a little direct action to do while we were there... but a few of us had hangovers (well, all of us did).  Which may be why I started trying to find some way of blaming the demo for our lack of enthusiasm. ;-)

It was hard to fault the organization of the protest though.  They did an amazing job of bringing a huge number of people together.   Nothing was done wrong, compared to any of the other mass demos I've been to.  But, like almost all of the mass protests that I've been to, I felt like I had to be prepared to give any input.  It couldn't be a spontaneous thing.  If I was just jumping on board at the last minute, my options were limited to something prefab - a banner, a chant - all arranged by the organizers.  This format can certainly attract a certain type of protester - the consumerist type, or those in NGOs - but it leaves out the passers-by who may expect more out of their activism than a souvenir or a photo op.   Creating a free space for people to express their personal reaction to the issues at hand would probably give them a stronger impression to take away, anyway... a sense of input, which is what protest is all about. That's just an observation from someone who has been to dozens of similar one-off events.  A friendly suggestion for next time, if any of those organizers happen to read this.

A phrase from 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' by Neil Postman came to mind: "The medium excludes the content."  And I thought about how a new medium of protest was needed to take activism to the level where it changed people's lives, and not just the way they looked, or the headlines, for a few hours...

 Monsanto is a tad more evil than this installation suggests
Dazzled by bright colours, smoke from beekeepers’ torches and drumming, we walked and walked.  People were staring up ahead, not left or right or behind. Where were we going?  I asked. My friends shrugged.  But being coaxed along like this, it gave the impression of some sort of a big finale up ahead.  No one was stopping and, the few times we tried to, we were nudged along by the slow-motion tide of people.  Toward the end we were herded past a ‘slow food’ stall.  Then we looked around and realized that we had been siphoned in an open space in front of a stage.  This was the critical role we’d been given: playing the part of an audience.

On the other side of the stage, a tide of people was now moving out, over the footbridge towards the Hauptbahnhof.  To join them and go home seemed like a cop-out after all this build-up so we stuck it out there, in the cold.  Just stopping for the sake of stopping, the same way that we had been moving for the sake of moving during
the rest of the demo.  Where else to go until someone listens, but around and around in circles?

No choppers were wheeling overhead but a sense of having our movements coordinated from above was strong.  Being channeled through a pre-arranged pattern laid out on the ground.  The pattern of the city; the pattern of a route; the pattern of activism that is inactive in its execution; all we need to do is turn up and fill in blanks designated to us, a paint-by-numbers march.  All that we can do is turn up and fill in the blanks, if that's how it's designed. 

It’s not as if social change is a point that we can reach by walking towards it, anyway. Even if we ran, it would still elude us.  In a time of constant, robotic movement toward ‘growth’, ‘profit’ and ‘progress’ it seems the most powerful thing anyone could do would be to stand still, rethink everything from scratch instead of flowing along the same old lines. Stop confusing motion with production and size with progress.  Those lines once led outward, but now they have joined up and  lead back in on themselves, an endless loop that gets a little more ground down with each cycle around the planet, searching for another source of untapped potential. But the last, real untapped source of potential exists in our minds.  And, as long as we keep moving forward without stopping, finding bigger and bigger outlines to fill with more and more identical, oversimplified goals, then we’ll never figure out how to exploit the power of the individual.

In the end, I couldn’t silence the inner voice that kept insisting that this protest had left the flawed behaviours that got us here, untouched. 
Like in that dream that I had, about activists cutting down trees in order to save nature - it was just harnessing the wrong impulse for the right purpose. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Misandry: It's a Big Deal. Not.

Spot the victim: almost all of the above images are from mundane, every day ads on magazines, billboards and news sites.  Some are indistinguishable from images of true violence against women (bottom, center).  Ads like this tap into the misogynist's fantasy life and whether we share that fantasy or not, we have to admit it's riddled with violence and hate... which means that society is, too
I've been reading about the recent Gamergate debate(s) on Twitter - which I've still not got my head around, and am unlikely to, now that the number of tweet accusations flying around has reached critical mass.  But one thing that stuck with me after reading a few threads was the shocking blitheness with which guys on these threads bandy the word 'misandry' about.  They seem to have decided that the word 'misandrist' can be used to refer to any woman who says or thinks negative things about men. 

Is being negative about sexist men such an innately wrong behaviour that is somehow amounts to a real, actual prejudice, though?  And are men such super special beings that they never make mistakes or bad judgements that need to be criticised?  I don't think so. Any man who would suggest such a thing probably needs to get over himself.

When feminists criticise a man's behaviour as sexist, it's like when a colleague says to him at work , 'Just because you're good at your job doesn't mean that you can ask me to make coffee for you.'  The man in question may be doing well in every other respect, but if his behaviour is unconsciously and unfairly burdening another person, then that other person is entitled to criticise. This also applies to misogynist women, by the way.

But even if there are women out there who are just saying unfair, nasty things about men for the hell of it, I don't see how that is in any way as bad as beating up on men; yelling at them in the streets because they're not paying enough attention to us; rubbing up against them on crowded trains; raping them; tailgating them because we assume that their entire gender doesn't know how to drive; paying them too little or no money for their work; trafficking them; renting or buying them like commodities; refusing to treat their illnesses because it's 'all in their head'; and otherwise preventing their ability to live full, equal and safe lives, using the power that an unfair system has granted us over them. 

Let's face it: misandry simply lacks the same opportunities to manifest that misogyny has manufactured for itself, over the last dozen or so centuries.  If misandry exists on a large scale, then it mostly exists in the heads of females who hate men.  Misogyny, on the other hand, exists right out in the open where everyone can see it, where its random targets cannot avoid it, and where bystanders are desensitised by their exposure to it.  It even exists in the system.  That's why women cannot expect protection from misogyny, ironically enough... it's too ubiquitous. 

The restrictions misogyny places on us changes from country to country but they're ever-present, the deadening weight of prejudice embodied in flesh, steel and stone.  Sometimes, it just seems safer just to stay home, quit our jobs and squish ourselves into whatever tiny role the misogynists condone for us.  Indeed, it takes a force of will not to do that, even nowadays.  Any man who'd equate such immediate, physical oppression with the effect of some poorly-chosen words, is only showing how out-of-touch with women's reality he really is.  He would do better to stop and think about what the reality behind a woman's words is actually like to live in, before flinging the word 'misandry' out there as a defense against his wounded pride.  Misogyny is not just another virtual debate in which words are the only component; plenty of actions are involved in it too.  But maybe this point is lost on people who spend more time online than they do in the real world.

If feminists don't want to fight for the man who feels he isn't getting all the respect he deserves from every woman on the planet, it's just because they're already embattled on that front and many others.  They might feel that man's pain, sure, but their own pain is a bigger threat to their immediate existence.  All feminists, and the vast majority of women, do know how it feels to be shamed and snubbed and condescended to... but they also know how it feels to be threatened, groped, injured, shouted down and ridiculed by men who have too much power over their lives. 

So if you think that you're a good guy who doesn't deserve to be tarred with the same brush as all the other sexist guys out there, then that's great.  But it doesn't mean that you have the right to ask feminists to make sure your feelings aren't getting hurt. We have our own work to do too, you know.  

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A cause with 100,00 faces

With the Flood Wall Street protests filling the news and Twitter feeds today it seems like a timely moment to reflect on climate movements through time.  Reclaim the Streets, Climate Camp and Occupy were the three big ones that happened in my lifetime.  I suspect that these urban invasions of green-painted, animistic protestors dancing to drums all owe their existence to London's Stop the City protests (1980s) and before that, the Reclaiming movement (1970s) and possibly even the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

All were omnibus movements that brought together countless small, grassroots groups and individual activists from the countryside and suburbs, and took to the big city streets to confront the real sources of pollution and corruption head-on, in its faceless inner-city fortresses. 

In the extract below, you can read what the scene was like at one such demonstration in London in June 1999.  Called J18 it was part of an international day of action aimed at ending environmental, financial and social breakdown, similar to the international day of protest last Sunday that aimed to send a message to the UN Climate Conference happening in New York City today.

But first, here are some great images taken from famous pavement-stomping marches around the world... 
Climate Camp staged a never-ending sit-in in.  London 2009

Reclaim the Streets 1995: demonstrators bought this car & trashed it

Idle No More (above/below) marched on Canadian capitals in 2013

Solstice demonstration by Reclaiming movement in San Francisco

Seattle's N30 protest against the WTO in 1999

Stop the City in London 1983.

The story is taken from my new novel Vote Tekno Party - and you can read more of it by following this link!
Occupy protestor in NYC in 2011

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Berlin's Urban Monsters - A Virtual Tour

You may not realize this, but the human residents of Berlin don't just share the city with rats, wasps, sparrows and dogs. They also share it with a raft of fantastic and frightening creatures; quasi-mythical beings that lurk on secluded walls throughout the city. Born out of the primordial soup of artistic imagination, they silently broadcast sinister visions to the world without any input from it. Though they're made of the same stuff as other street art, they creep up on the viewer or shock him in a way that ordinary grafitti does not. They are the city's urban monsters.
Berlin's most famous urban monster, Molecule Man, is a metallic colossus that juts out of the Spree near An den Treptowers bridge, like a knife pinpointing the spot where art breaches the mundane surface of the city.
Yesterday, I found out that the area around An den Treptowers is a veritable wildlife sanctuary for other forms of urban monster too. While walking along the water below it, I spotted several deformed creations creeping along the abandoned shell of an old park WC.
Next to it, a small shed was wrapped in Gothic line drawings:
As I kept walking I came across a red-faced troll waiting under An den Treptowers bridge ...
...and a two-headed troll guarding the rail bridge.
It wasn't long before I realized there were urban monsters all around me. If you were just passing through, you would never know that there are monsters living on the flipside of the bridge's blank facade. They have to hide from their natural predators: grafitti removers, builders and city planners.

I have come across other manifestations of Berlin's subconscious since coming here. There was the abstract crane in Landsberger Allee... this complex mural in Friedrichshain...
...neither of which still exists today. The area around An den Treptowers seems to have been a safe haven for urban monsters for some time, if the age and complexity of its works is anything to go by. But that time may almost be up. When I was there yesterday, the air was full of the clanging and crashing of construction work which was taking place all around these buildings. If you look closely at the building below...
...which has had most of its facade stripped away for demolition / renovation purposes, you can see the sad remains of yet another painting in the centre.
This maimed urban monster is a stark example of what happens to art that finds itself in the path of people with more money than imagination.

It's possible that new urban monsters will be born and flourish on the new buildings but once the old works are destroyed, the gene pool of the previous art generation will be lost forever. A city which wipes out the old to make way for the new without connecting the two things can't hope to evolve. It can change but it can't evolve. I think that city planners the world over confuse the meanings of those two words.

Any act of creation deserves respect. If the city is a mechanical entity - like a body - then street art is the voice of the spirit at its helm. The phrase 'soulless metropolis' isn't just a figure of speech, it's a distinct possibility in any culture that doesn't treat its art with proper respect. A city without creative outlets is one where people only exist to serve the city's needs: efficiency, development and profit. Ironically, urban monsters are one of the things that can save a city from becoming a nightmare to live in.

It looks like those urban monsters are here for a limited time only, so if you want to view them in their natural habitat, do it soon!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

No Future (or, How To Succeed in A Dystopian Workplace)

This isn't the cover for my book... it's an artwork by David Holtek of

The story below is taken from my new book 'Vote Tekno Party'.  And yes, that is the same book that I spent the last seven months working on instead of blogging!

Vote Tekno Party is a collection of stories written from the point of view of Selene, a 24 year-old expat living in late-nineties London.  She is pushing herself to live what she considers to be a totally independent, DIY lifestyle.  Throughout the book (which mostly takes place in squats, underground clubs, illegal parties and riots) she keeps on running into unexpected obstacles to that goal.

In this chapter, Selene gets fired for drawing and daydreaming while at her desk job instead of "pretending" to work, like all of her colleagues seem to be doing.  I wrote it to show the reader how out of touch Selene's expectations are with what's going on around her.  While I was writing it, though, I started to think about the difference between what people 'expect' to happen and what they think is 'meant to be'.  Good example: almost all of the artists, musicians and writers that I know 'expect' to make very little money, even though they mostly believe that's not the way that things are 'meant to be'.  Where does expectation become acceptance?

Read on to find out how Selene's answers that question, and feel free to share your own experiences and viewpoints after reading it!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Paying the Troll Toll

Corporate Puppets -  from Eurekastreet
I don't know if it's just because Saturn is transiting Scorpio but recently, I've been experiencing a growing sense of unease about the Internet.  I'm not talking about the simple suspicion that it isn't as benevolent as it paints itself to be, but an active concern that it may actually be damaging the mental health of people who are using it. Part of this can be put down to my own natural state of paranoia.  The internet is so benign, so effortless and ever-present that there has to be something wrong with it, right?  If it's too good to be true then it probably is, and so on.

Then, I stumbled upon some research indicating that Facebook can be physiologically addictive; and then I learned that its designers are seemingly aware of that addictive potential and use it to their advantage, regardless of the psychological problems they may be creating.  And then the NSA scandal broke.  More recently, there has been a deluge of threatening comments sent to female writers and politicians which has led to me to look deeper into the phenomenon of right-wing trolling on the net.    While the people recently charged with threatening to rape and murder female public figures were tweeting their own views, I suspect that they felt encouraged to do so in part because there is so much right-wing trolling on the internet.

Most of you will be familiar with the existence of trolls - yes, those horrid people who continuously spout abusive, right-wing views on forums and comment threads.  Until recently, I think I assumed that they were all backwoods yahoos with unformed, uninformed opinions.  Their comments tend to be riddled with spelling mistakes, bad grammar and profanity.  They tend to be vehement promoters of false 'facts', disproven research and phoney statistics.  Very little of the information posted by trolls on the net would stand up to the scrutiny of a drunken pub debate, let alone a court of law.  And yet they seem to have vast amounts of conviction, and time, to push their dumbed-down views on us from points all across the web, creating and discarding an endless number of fresh aliases on an endless number of forums and comment boards; waging war on moderators who seem to have their hands full deleting their streams of abuse.  It's almost like being a troll is a full-time job.  Or like they're getting paid by the post.  This may be closer to the truth than you realise.

In 2011, the Guardian's George Monbiot wrote that he'd been contacted by a whistleblower who said he was, "part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them."  Sound familiar?  It will do, if you've ever posted a left wing comment on an internet forum, or the comments section of nearly any news website.  This particular whistleblower told Monbiot that he posed as up to 70 different individuals at a time... which probably helps to explain why different trolls' posts are often nearly identical in tone and content.  Bear in mind that this whistleblower was just one employee, from one company providing 'social media management' services to corporate clients. Doubtless there are many, many more out there.

The practice of paying people to post supportive comments for a specific interest group online is said to have originated in China in 2004, where such posters are known as the '50 cent army'.  As the name suggests, these posters are paid 50 Chinese cents for every pro-government or counter-dissident post that they write.  In 2009, wrote that: "China’s 50 Cent Army is everybody's business.  With 300,000 people, you can see how this 'army' could easily determine what makes it onto the front page of Digg, and what gets shouted down. They could use Wikipedia, YouTube and Slashdot as their most powerful tools of global propaganda."

That's true if China is the only country that hires right-wing commentators, but it isn't.  Throw in the U.S.A., Russia, Canada and Israel - to name but a few of the countries whose governments have hired 'online supporters' in recent times - and the potential to skew public perceptions becomes overwhelming.  In 2011 it was revealed that the U.S. military's Central Command, or Centcom, had signed a contract with a company known as NTrepid to 'manage online personas' for its staff.  NTrepid's software would enable every serviceman and woman to create and use up to 10 fake online aliases worldwide.  The Guardian reported that:  'The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".'

Since the phrase 'sophisticated adversaries' is left undefined, it's safe to assume that it could just as easily refer to anybody with an intelligent counter-argument or access to damning facts, as to propagandists and spin merchants.  Centcom, predictably, has stated that it cannot reveal what these fake online personas are being used for.  They say it's classified, but since they're only allowed to use their technology overseas, we shouldn't worry.  Sure.  But what about all the people overseas with a right wing agenda, who plan similar operations over here?!  In these post-NSA times, 'classified' is not a word that inspires much confidence.

NTrepid has also run surveillance to keep tabs on anarchist organizations in the past and, as the PrivacySos website points, out that, "The DoD is therefore paying a company that monitors the internet use of anarchists and radicals in the United States to actively interfere with and inject pro-military propaganda into online conversations about politics."  How that is any different from China's 50 cent party?  Although Centcom claims that its online tool will not be used in English-speaking countries, one is invited to view that claim through a skeptical lens too.

The practice of 'astroturfing' (creating fake grassroots groups to make a fringe cause appear more popular than it is) has also entered the online world, where it's become virtually untraceable.  In 2010, Canada's CBC News reported that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade had hired a Toronto-based company called Social Media Group, "to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement."  There doesn't appear to be any record of what they actually did online.  Were they clearly identified as government employees?  Were they abusive?  Did they cite misleading studies or phoney facts?   Why do I get the feeling all that information's probably 'classified', too?!

The biggest problem with these hired commentators is that they are in a prime position to skew public opinion in favour of groups which already wield a great deal of influence - people who have lots of money or some other form of control over the masses.  If these groups are also using 50 cent parties to 'influence' the public opinion, then they are crossing a line: from information to disinformation.   Governments do not exist to influence our opinions after all - they exist to represent them.  Just as corporations do not exist to tell us what we want, but to listen to us and to provide for it.

If you regularly read any forum that discusses left-wing issues, you have probably witnessed how quickly the reactionary tide of troll-hate can shut down an intelligent debate about any subject.  Regular internet users know how to recognise and avoid trolls, but for the casual users - those who go online just to read an article or two - the mass of vitriol out there can be quite unsettling and even off-putting.  I wonder how many casual internet users come away from their computer feeling that intolerance is the new norm... that being a bigot is just fine, because half the comments that they read are from people who are bigoted and proud.  But if 'half the people' actually means 'two guys with 150 accounts, working full-time on a payroll', then the new norm is not so normal at all. It's just a very loud, well-financed version of abnormal views that society is threatening to outgrow.