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Clayman Conversations Event Explores the Demands of Online “Debate Me” Bros

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Aug 20 2020

“The internet is just one part of society, and why should it be an empty room where those power structures of gender, and in general the patriarchy -- why should these not apply?” asks Nhi Le, a German journalist and researcher. “If you’re a female journalist online, you can get attacked in so many more ways.”

Le joined Moira Weigel, writer and scholar, and Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub for Debate Me!, the first online event in the Clayman Conversations series. The event examined online debate culture on Twitter and other platforms, and the “debate me” bros and “reply guys” who demand women's attention and response, question their expertise, and want exchange on an equal footing. Analyzing online debate culture sheds light on the gender and racial inequalities that are perpetuated online.

“To my mind, everything comes down to context,” says Weigel. “What a [commenter] is getting at when they emphasize that they’re ‘just’ asking questions.” She says, “The defensive move that one’s ‘just’ asking a question already signifies that there was something more going on than the precise content of the question that was said.”

Listen to recording on our podcast, The Feminist Present

Le agrees that debaters give away their intentions. “I think you can distinguish easily if someone is interested in a nice conversation or interested in learning something, or if they try to mock you or if they try to question your knowledge about a certain topic.” A passive aggressive tone “can turn to misogyny really quickly,” when they accuse you of trying to get attention or question your expertise. These online critics run to DMs or comments to “teach you a thing or two” or to imply that you are not an expert, she says. 

For many professionals, an online presence is not a pastime, but a job requirement. For journalists, notes Le, it’s not possible to simply check out. If you are on Twitter as a journalist, whether staff or freelancer, you have to be out there to get news and tips and to promote yourself. “Every journalist wants the audience to pay attention to their work,” she says.

 “The internet is not neutral,” Le says. “People who get harassed are not surprised, because they know it from their offline lives.”

Le finds Instagram can become a factor in offline interactions, because it’s based on video and images. Users “feel compelled to use their face and their image to tell the story,” she says. She recounts her experience in a small town – “obvious misogyny” – in which trolls combed through five years of content to make and post a 30-minute video about her. The experience left her “exhausted but also angry.”

Daub notes that leaving a platform where abuse occurs is impractical, as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram do not function interchangeably. “You can’t simply switch platforms,” he says. “Are our fora narrowing and driving some of these abuses?”

Weigel agrees: “Different platforms have different kinds of meanings.” For journalists, she says, “It would be hard I think, professionally, to opt out of many of these networks.” The outsize power of larger digital media platforms is an important part of the landscape. “I see monopoly and consolidation coming into play.”

While she considers “substantive disagreement” important to her work, Weigel says, social media is not “a medium that is conducive to productive resolution” of disagreements. In the absence of substantive discourse, activity on these platforms becomes more about “performing your brand.” 

Daub describes laws in Germany that are intended to combat fake news and hateful speech online. If complaints are reported to a platform, they must act quickly, but there has been concern the laws would be manipulated by trolls as a tool to silence minorities. Le describes how it happened to her. She tweeted that someone should be "slapped" for blaming Asians for the coronavirus. It got mass reported, and she was for a time blocked from Twitter. “I was talking about racism, and I was expressing my frustration with that racism, and I got banned” as a result. Trolls know how to speak in code, she says, and they won’t get reported.

Le believes because she is a woman of color, far-right users have targeted her. “The internet is not neutral,” she says. “People who get harassed are not surprised, because they know it from their offline lives.”

Such episodes have consequences. “If a journalist’s account gets blocked,” Daub says, “it gets right at the center of their work and professional identity.” 

Weigel considers what is expected by online would-be debaters. “There's a presumption of entitlement to someone's time that's often conveyed in their replies and the demand or request to be debated,” she says. “I think we can distinguish between valuing free and open discourse from the assumption that everyone gets to be heard by everyone, all the time.”

Daub describes it as “a kind of care work.” Comments can be “not just offensive, but exhausting.” Le agrees, proposing that “newsrooms need community care” to protect those writers most targeted.

Screen shot of Zoom webinar
Debate Me! webinar. From top left: Daub, Weigel, Le.

In a question and answer period, the speakers addressed the impact of online debate culture on younger people who grow up seeing and experiencing such interactions. Weigel expresses concern about the “public performance” for young people, who may not be cognizant that interactions they have with their friends are more broadly visible and that the content remains for so long. Daub mentions platforms such as Twitter that save your history: “It can be forever searched.” Weigel notes as well the sophistication of online algorithms, and the ability of platforms to “incentivize different behaviors” based on past comments.

Le has worked with some high schoolers on these issues, and fears that in Germany, “they underestimate the online radicalization.” Teens “didn’t see the problem” in combative language online because they said they talk to their friends that way, perhaps again not realizing that online exchanges among friends can be a public performance. 

There are still some positives signs in online engagement. Digital platforms “are not as gatekept” as traditional media, Le says, and may give a voice to traditionally overlooked audiences. As Weigel says: “The bug is also the feature; the good thing is also the bad thing.” There’s still an aspect of creating an open marketplace of ideas, which “means different things to different people at different times.”

Nhi Le is a journalist, host and public speaker from Leipzig, Germany. In her work, Le primarily engages the topics of feminism and racism in contemporary media and digital media culture. Moira Weigel is a writer, translator, and scholar currently at the Harvard Society of Fellows. She is the author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating

Clayman Conversations is an event series that convenes feminist leaders who are driving timely conversations in their fields. Upcoming events are “The TERF Industrial Complex: Transphobia, Feminism and Race” on August 26, and “Departmentalize Now! The Imperative for African and African American Studies” on September 9.

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