Online Activism as “Virtue-Signalling”

An article in The Guardian from 2014 about a “Save Darfur” page on Facebook said that:

At its height, this cause was one of the largest on the social network. The research team analysed the behaviour of its members over a 989-day period. Out of the one million-plus people who had signed up, less than 3000 ever donated, raising around $90,000 over three years – pitiful statistics compared to the wider Darfur campaign, which raised over $1m in 2008 alone. As the authors point out, the page simply conjured the “illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing”.

Over the last three years this kind of “slacktivism” has been given a name: virtue-signalling. James Bartholomew, a British journalist claims to have coined it, and in an article for The Spectator described it as:

the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous.

By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.

First we have to look at the ways in which online activism differs from traditional, out-on-the-streets-with-placards-protesting activism.

Traditional activism often represents only a small fraction of public opinion. A Dublin protest with ten thousand people might be reported with much interest by the media, but the press seldom takes into account the opinions of the hundreds of thousands who stayed home. The reasons for people not protesting obviously vary. Take a movement like Repeal the 8th, the abortion rights group. In March 2017 they had a widely publicised march in Dublin. The Irish Times reported that “thousands” protested. Lovin’ Dublin put the figure at 15,000. Over the following weeks further related protests took place, like the one outside the Dail “to oppose the decision to allow ownership of the €300m taxpayer-funded National Maternity Hospital to be given to The Religious Sisters of Charity”.

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The reality on the ground often lies in the application of simple mathematics. The number of people living in Dublin is 1.345 million. 15,000 protestors represents about 1% of the population. What does this mean? Does it mean only 1% of the city sympathises with the Repeal the 8th movement? No. But people who do not actively demonstrate do so for a number of reasons.

There are people who simply disagree with the motives of the activists in general. Ireland is – relatively speaking, when compared to most other countries in the European Union – conservative on the matter of abortion. So clearly it would be folly to expect especially large turnouts on such a controversial topic.

Most protestors are of a certain demographic. Images from the Irish Times’ report of the Repeal march will illustrate what I mean.

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Most protestors pictured look of university age. These are the exact kind of people who have the time and energy to demonstrate. They are young, have plenty of free time, lots of energy, and are unlikely to have serious jobs, bills to pay or children to look after. This means that demonstrations fail to give an accurate impression of public opinion. This is why liberal people seem to be genuinely in shock when Fine Gael, the Conservatives, Donald Trump and Brexit win votes. This echo chamber idea was raised by Adam Curtis in his short 2016 film Living in an Unreal World

Protestors fail to realise there are multitudes of people who have families, are tired after a long day’s work, are in middle age and above, who simply don’t have the time or the energy to protest. They also forget that older people are happy to do their “protesting” at the ballot box. Governments know this. When protestors say that they feel like the State doesn’t care, they are right. They don’t.

How is this related to online activism? Well, it tells us something. With online activism – particularly Facebook, which has almost 2 billion users as of early 2017 – the sample size is enormous. The tired middle-aged people who don’t have the time or the energy for street activism have less of a problem finding time for virtue-signalling Likes on social media. Granted, just like street protests, a certain type of demographic uses social media, though the stereotype of the young tech-savvy college student as typical user is long gone.

The longer that goes on and the more ubiquitous social media becomes, the more likely we are to be able to make accurate predictions about public opinion. Famously the pollsters got both Trump’s election and Brexit wrong. The Washington Post reported in October 2016 that “Donald Trump’s chances of winning are approaching zero”. In the lead up to Brexit almost every poll indicated that Remain would win.

How could they have gotten it so wrong?

The obvious answer is that people polled were afraid to answer honestly. We know that in the United States just 7% of journalists are Republicans, and Republicans have a right to feel aggrieved about this given that a Republican sits in the White House. They often perceive demonisation by an overwhelmingly liberal media and many may answer untruthfully to a question like: “So are you going to vote for Hillary Clinton, America’s first ever female president, or are you going to vote for Donald Trump, you sexist, racist piece of shit?”

Forget about raising money or even changing the law: online activism’s importance will lie in its ability to forecast political change and public opinion.

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MMOs as Third Place

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A screenshot of the “Bloodbath of B-R5RB”

Almost exactly a year ago, just before teaching a Business English class, one of my students, who sat in the front row every week, asked me if I was familiar with a game called Eve Online. I confessed that I was not, but I could see he wanted to tell me something so I asked him what it was all about.

His description was pretty much the same as that found on Wikipedia:

Eve Online is a space-based, persistent world massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Players of Eve Online can participate in a number of in-game professions and activities, including mining, piracy, manufacturing, trading, exploration, and combat (both player versus environment and player versus player). The game contains a total of 7,800 star systems that can be visited by players. The game is renowned for its scale and complexity with regards to player interactions — in its single-shard game world, players engage in unscripted economic competition, warfare, and political schemes with other players.

He told me that something really big was currently happening in the game. As reported on the gaming site Polygon, 31 March 2016:

Earlier this week players in Eve Online were involved in one of that game’s famously large and expensive battles. But sources tell Polygon that this was just the opening round of what could be the largest military mobilization in that game’s history.

This battle – officially called the “Bloodbath of B-R5RB” even has its own Wikipedia page, which describes the events of the “war”:

The Bloodbath of B-R5RB or the Battle of B-R5RB was a massive-scale virtual battle fought in the MMORPG space game Eve Online, and was possibly the largest player versus player battle in history. Pitting the Clusterfuck Coalition and Russian alliances (CFC/Rus) against N3 and Pandemic Legion (N3/PL), the 21-hour-long conflict involved over 7,548 player characters overall and a maximum of 2,670 players in the B-R5RB system at one time. The in-game cost of the losses totalled over 11 trillion InterStellar Kredit (ISK), an estimated theoretical real-world value of $300,000 to $330,000 USD. This theoretical value is derived from PLEX, an item purchasable with real currency that can be redeemed either for subscription time or traded for in-game currency.

Part of a larger conflict known as the Halloween War, the fight started after a single player controlling a space station in the star system B-R5RB accidentally failed to make a scheduled in-game routine maintenance payment which made the system (a key staging area used by N3/PL in the war) highly vulnerable to capture. The CFC and Russian coalitions began pouring players into the system in a swift offensive, and N3/PL moved in a large fleet of players as a response as well. A massive battle erupted in the system and numerous smaller engagements occurred throughout the game universe as players attempted to block reinforcements from joining the battle. CFC/Rus gained a clear win by inflicting heavy losses on N3/PL and successfully capturing B-R5RB. The losses totalled 576 Capital-class ships including 75 Titans (the largest ships available to players), along with thousands of smaller vessels.

To commemorate the sheer size and cost of the battle, the game’s creators, CCP Games, erected a permanent monument in the system B-R5RB named “The Titanomachy”, consisting of non-salvageable capital ship wrecks.

Such detail! Such intriguingly impenetrable minutiae! Such confidence in the reality of the conflict!

This was my introduction to MMO gaming.

What explains the success of these MMOs? Marshall McLuhan is often quoted in this context. In the 1960s he described (non-electronic) games as “dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions”. McLuhan said this long before video games as we understand them; even before Atari’s Pong, which was released in 1972. Was he right? Well, the most popular video games of recent times are titles like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, in which killing people is central to the gameplay. Can it really be that all the people playing these games are “releasing tensions”? It is possible. Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels Of Our Nature argues convincingly that far from getting more violent, statistics indicate that global violence overall remains in retreat, which hints tantalisingly at the idea that violent video games may in fact act cathartically for people harbouring dark fantasies.

McLuhan also referred to games as “collective rather than private dramatizations of inner life”. Here we move into the territory of MMOs. The collective element, the interactions with others in an alternate reality, all add to the sense of realism. Artificial Intelligence today is nowhere near good enough to provide this, meaning other players are currently necessary. Perhaps in the future players will become lost in their own games, with themselves the only “real” participants in vast gaming universes hosted on private servers, but for now this is mostly impossible.

What is the appeal of experiencing these alternative lives in parallel and often strange, alien worlds? Escapism for one thing. The following is a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel. Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.

Anyone who has read Tolkien’s book will know such descriptions abound, and yet Tolkien said that a common complaint he received from fans was that his magnum opus was simply too short. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for all its length, is devoured by readers who adore its breadth and attention to detail. The same thing goes for Star Wars and Star Trek fans with their focus on extended universes and the importance of the “canon”. Most recently, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was lauded for the immensity of its gameplaying world, with journalists gushing over a map size that dwarfs games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3 – themselves enormous games and huge critical successes.

My own theory is that the huge, intricate worlds of fantasy, science-fiction and MMORPGs are explained by the times we live in. Wikipedia tells us that

By 1950, “sword and sorcery” fiction had begun to find a wide audience, with the success of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. However, it was the advent of high fantasy, and most of all J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which reached new heights of popularity in the late 1960s, that allowed fantasy to truly enter the mainstream.

Here is a map showing the years European colonies gained their independence.

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It is perhaps noteworthy that the growth of fantasy coincided with the end of empire. The world had been discovered, colonised, de-Orientalised, raped, pillaged and industrialised. Men and women who before might have joined the foreign service and been shipped off to New Caledonia or Timbuktu or Darjeeling now had nowhere left to wander, no great wars to fight. They were born after the age of discovery and before technology would allow exploration of the galaxy. What was left except to conquer the new worlds of our imagination?

Some Thoughts on Gamergate

Take a look at the Wikipedia entry relating to Gamergate below.

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The article tells us the movement stemmed from a “harassment campaign”. That it “targeted several women”. That people falsely accused Zoe Quinn of entering a relationship with a journalist for positive coverage. That Gamergate’s attempts to dissociate themselves from misogyny have been “insincere and self-serving”.

This is clearly far from impartial, despite Wikipedia’s stated goal to be neutral as possible – Wikipedia even has a page dedicated to helping contributors understand neutrality:

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However, even the most partisan observer would have to admit that the language used in the Wikipedia entry is biased on the anti-Gamergate side.

Have a look at this post on the Kotaku In Action subreddit:

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Kotaku In Action describes itself as “the main hub for GamerGate discussion on Reddit” and “The almost-official GamerGate subreddit!” At the time of writing it has 80,092 subscribers. The post above was upvoted 2,320 times.

The post claims that Gamergate has been “smeared and wrongly vilified in the media”. Is this true? Well, Google “Gamergate” and the first opinion piece you’ll get is Gawker’s What Is Gamergate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks, which is unashamedly anti-Gamergate.

After this is RationalWiki’s entry: “Gamergate is a distillation of the worst of the worst of the Internet, taking the form of a 2014 4chan raid that went on for far too long; showing everyone how reactionary, virulently misogynistic, and frankly stupid the cellarian underbelly of the video gaming community can be. Nintendo has officially referred to GamerGate as an “online hate campaign”.” RationalWiki purports to be a “a community working together to explore and provide information about a range of topics centered around science, skepticism, and critical thinking”, but nothing about their definition will strike the reader as balanced.

Also on the front page of Gamergate results is a Guardian article entitled “What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right’“. Observe the opening lines:

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Gamergate “thrived on hate”. Women and minorities were “living in fear”. Gamergate was just angry dudes masquerading as victims. He goes on:

Gamergate was an online movement that effectively began because a man wanted to punish his ex girlfriend. Its most notable achievement was harassing a large number of progressive figures – mostly women – to the point where they felt unsafe or considered leaving the industry. Game developer Zoe Quinn was the original target. Anita Sarkeesian’s videos applying basic feminist theory to video games had already made her a target (because so many people have a difficulty differentiating cultural criticism from censorship) but this hate was powerfully amplified by Gamergate – leading to death threats, rape threats, and the public leaking of personal information.

For decades, gamers and programmers were stereotyped as geeks, nerds, losers. And they were almost always white men. From NBC:

The perception of video game players as inactive, maladjusted nerds has persisted for years…

The ’80s image of a gamer, which was influenced by the fact that early gaming consoles like the Amiga and Atari were in fact early personal computers aimed at, well, nerds. Add to this the people associated with “Dungeons & Dragons” and, later, the marketing of video games as children’s toys, and the popular picture of gamers is easy to understand.

This is probably what a lot of people think of when they imagine gamers.

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This is what the industry wants us to believe modern gamers look like.

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Like a United Colors of Benetton commercial: men and women, attractive and colourblind. Also not very realistic.

This essay does not come with a value judgement. But it isn’t hard to understand where Gamergate came from. The liberal media wants us to view Gamergate as a group of straight white men (i.e. a group with a lot of power in society) playing the victim. Note the words in the Guardian article: dudes masquerading as victims.

But gamers typically haven’t been jocks, handsome lacrosse players who hoovered up all the attractive girls at frathouse parties. Gamers have been stereotyped as dweebs, basement-dwellers, virgins with micropenises.

So is it any surprise that when intersectionality and social justice and critical theory arrived in video game journalism and started telling these geeks that they sit atop the pyramid of privileged groups that they lashed out? The world of gaming – as with Dungeons and Dragons before it – was one traditionally occupied by guys with little or no social power. The world they built for themselves – and let’s not pretend the vast, vast majority of the gaming industry in America was made up of anything except socially challenged white men for the longest time – was broken into. And yes, lots of these nerds turned misogynist in their tweets very quickly. But the battle between left and right has always been bloody, and this one is no different.