Youtube

It has been with great disappointment that my curiosity was satiated this afternoon. A veteran of the Youtube landscape, I understand very well the way in which the recommendation algorithm works with every video I click. Whilst I don’t personally believe in living my life in the narrowly defined party lines of the Australian political spectrum, I tend to avoid those news sources which cater to the far right for fear of being continually recommended them in the future. Most specifically, I refer to those videos which are uploaded by Sky News. Today however, upon hearing that the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews had slipped and fallen in his home before work, requiring hospitalisation and now intensive care unit admission I couldn’t help myself but to click on the Sky News video. I knew things wouldn’t be too optimistic in the comments section, but I hoped that I would see at least some semblance of Australian mate-ship wishing him a speedy recovery despite knowing exactly how Sky News has framed the politician in the past. How wrong I was.

I am no stranger to the internet. It was my generation that first experienced the explosive pervasive mainstream expansion of sites like Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. Before direct messaging was integrated into these sites, I used Microsoft’s MSN messenger to communicate with my friends outside of school hours. I grew up playing online games, connecting with anonymous strangers through hyper-competitive first person shooters. I am a part of the social internet generation, and as such, am no stranger to online bullies and internet trolls.


Over the years I have witnessed time and time again the degradation of what would be considered normal social etiquette as people hide behind a thin vale of internet anonymity. This was particularly prevalent throughout the earlier days of online shooters, which historically attract a younger, male demographic. Much of my experience of this behaviour was seen in the 2009 video game Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. Many people to this day still argue that this game’s twelve month lifecycle represented the wild-west of online games. You would connect with a microphone attached, enter into the lobby of eleven others and just wait for the insults to start flowing. The actual interactive, shooting element of the game would still be waiting to start and people would begin to insult each other. It was school yard banter on steroids. Nothing was off limits. Nothing was too racist, sexist or hateful when trying to bring the other person down. Open threats of death and rape were common, with some even feeling confident enough behind the invisibility and anonymity of their virtual username to send these threats via an in-game or console messaging application, forever recorded in the online ether. Looking back on it, it represents a very interesting ad hoc social experiment on how a bunch of young people who don’t know each other will act when placed in a virtual room with one another. You can still find videos on Youtube today which document the experience.


As a teenager myself growing up in this environment I didn’t think much of it. I saw the same behaviour even on sites like Myspace and Facebook. Much like Bane in the 2012 movie The Dark Knight Rises, part of my identity was born in these hate riddled places, moulded by them. Yet, even then I found it odd that there has always been something about a computer screen that makes people lose touch with humanity. ‘Keyboard warriors’ in highschool would make hurtful comments toward people they didn’t get along with at school, typing up things they would never dare to say in person. But for some reason, hiding behind a computer screen makes people forget about the person on the receiving end of the message. The sentiment was the same as something said in person, but the medium was different which in their eyes made it ok. To be quite honest, I really did think that people would grow out of it as they matured. I mean, I had every right to believe that would be the case, because at the time the vast majority of the people using these internet services were people in their teenage years and early twenties. People who were still moving through emotional, moral, ethical and cognitive maturity. ‘Adults’ hadn’t really caught on to the power of these internet services yet so there wasn’t really widespread evidence to suggest that online behaviour would forever remain as cancerous as it was back in those online gaming lobbies. Unfortunately I was mistaken.


As I moved through my teenage years and now through my twenties, I have been time and time again disappointed by how people behave online. Particularly when people are engaging in discussion about topics they are passionate about. I don’t know what I was expecting to see when I clicked on that Sky News Youtube video. The video content itself was surprisingly centrist, very much only reporting that the Victorian Premier had confirmed that he had suffered several broken ribs and some damage to an unspecified number of his vertebrae. Apparently on medical advice he had been moved to the intensive care unit for ongoing management. All fairly neutral reporting. And then, as I scrolled down to the comments, I was disgusted by what I saw. And this is coming from someone who has been on the receiving end of countless online death threats, threats to my family, threats to my online personas. I have a fairly hardened skin when it comes to these things, but for some reason this impacted me differently.


It is no secret that covid-19 social and health policy has been a highly volatile issue in Australian politics over the last year. As lucky as we have been in Australia, for many lucky is a frame of reference, and whilst they may still have their lives and the lives of their families, their businesses have been ruined by the shutdowns, the mental health of many has gone spiralling out of control, and the progress of their lives has been brought to a screaming halt. The threat of an invisible virus seems negligent against the very visible effect the conservative public health policy has taken. Victoria was subjected to one of the longest complete lockdowns seen anywhere in the world. In the face of uncontrolled community spread of covid-19, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, under the advice of his team, sent the state into a complete lockdown, confining nearly everyone to their homes for everything except essential work and travel. A decision was made to make masks mandatory for everyone when they were outside their home, and anyone caught not complying with these rules could be fined, arrested and even imprisoned. The rightward leaning media labeled it Draconian. Premier Daniel Andrews became known on these media outlets as ‘Dan the Commie’. Rightward leaning people ate this propaganda up. Sat at home with little or no work, video streaming services exhausted of any new content and with nothing else to do they vented their frustrations at the man who was doing his best in an ever changing global pandemic. But the thing is, the restrictions worked. Prolific spread of the virus was stopped and now Victorians have been able to return to their normal state of things. Whilst I am not a Victorian myself, I too have been the beneficiary of aggressive, firm public health policy. I live in a state without prolific spread of covid-19 and enjoy virtually all of the social luxuries that were taken for granted pre-covid. I am incredibly thankful for this and, personal circumstances aside, I struggle to see how others can’t be too.


As I scrolled through that Sky News Youtube comment section virtually every comment was wishing the injured Premier more ill health, proclaiming that it was an injustice to the people of Victoria that whoever pushed him didn’t go and finish the job. Dan the Commie with a broken back turned out to not be as spineless as everyone thought he was. Karma had apparently come to get him. There was a god after all. A man might be staring down the barrel of spinal damage with months to years of rehabilitation and all these people can do is laugh at him. They embody the same cruelty I witnessed time and time again from immature teenagers playing online war video games. Some people leaving these comments were anonymous, others maybe didn’t recognise that their full name was connected to their Youtube account and hence their real identity. And I think it is this point that has upset me so much. People haven’t changed since the early days of Myspace and Facebook. And it's not just the same people who did it years ago, much of these cruel and disgusting messages come from people in their forties, fifties and sixties. People who are thought by the younger generations to be established, grounded, reasonable people. Yet here they are, openly proclaiming that they have prayed every night for Dan the Commie to die a horrible death.


It’s an unsettling conclusion to reach. To realise that all it takes for people to resort to complete savagery is a stable internet connection and a device capable of connecting to a social network. And also that these people comprise much of our society. They hold many of their own positions of power and influence. It is no surprise that the wheels of progressive social policy turn so slowly throughout the rest of the world. People love to hate one another. It is because of this that I personally believe humankind will never reach any sort of utopian state of peace and harmony. We are too prone to highly emotive driven behaviour. If we feel threatened we lash out, often without thinking about the longer term implications of what we are doing. If people think differently to us, we seem to have no problem in wishing them terrible misfortune without giving much thought to how or why they came to their point of view. Some think this is due to an evolutionary social defence mechanism, to be highly suspicious, untrustworthy and violent toward those who are different to us. Regardless, whatever it is that causes us to hate one another, in my opinion with the way technology is moving, this hatred is here to stay.