Wanktivism in the social media age

Or how to promote thought without actually thinking
This is you on a social media high

This is you on a social media high

This piece is Part II of this one

I’m pretty sure you have at least one Facebook friend who makes P.C.U’s causeheads look as lazy and apolitical as The Dude from The Big Lebowski. These people don’t just stick to a cause for a week before picking up a new one, they barrage your Facebook wall with a post about every real or imagined social ill in the world. In real time. 24/7. An infographic of how meat consumption is causing climate change is followed by a Marxist blogger’s post about the IMF and World Bank being root cause of global inequality, followed by a fact-meme reminding you that the West African Grey Lesbian Rhino is now extinct, then a video of (insert left-wing Latin American leader from a socialist wonderland where there are bigger queues to buy toilet paper than for the launch of a new iPhone) denouncing corporate profits, and finally the latest batshit crazy conspiracy theory on how the US is guilty of everything wrong in the Middle East in collusion with Big Oil, Big Pharma, the NRA, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, Israel, Blackwater, the Illuminati, the Vatican, and Gap for Kids. Forget that half of what this person posts is factually wrong, and that the other half is of dubious intellectual value because it is written by such a biased source that there’s as much objectivity as a Breitbart book review of The Elders of Zion. This person is on a mission to remind you that they’re saving the world, one meme at a time. And if you dare question them then you’re also part of the status quo, surely hoarding some of the profits of laissez-faire capitalistic greed with your grubby porcine hands.

I have a term for this: wanktivism. It’s the cognitive version of clicktivism, a word used to describe activism with the minimum of effort like clicking the “share” button of something that promotes a cause or signing an online petition rather than actually doing something for said cause. If clicktivism is promoting action without actually taking action yourself, wanktivism is promoting thought without actually thinking. It’s sex without the other person, i.e. wanking. Now, being a leftist myself I genuinely find many of the causes above to be noble and worth pursuing. But for fuck sake, is it that hard to fact check what you share first? In the age of Google and Wikipedia there’s simply no excuse for not doing so, and it’s particularly appalling that people with college degrees, even postgrads and PhDs (and professors are guilty too) feel the internet is a legitimate no-reference zone where the accuracy of any statistic, article, or meme is instantly validated merely by the fact that it conforms to your existing ideological prejudices. Sometimes I feel people don’t even read anything other than the title of what they share. It’s as if our capacity to digest anything that is longer than a 140-character tweet has been lobotomized by our quest for online righteousness. What’s worse it the reaction when they are shamed in public, which as of late has been one of my favorite sports. It would seem to me that if I promoted information that was verifiably false I would feel somewhat embarrassed about it, then be humble enough to accept that it was wrong, then do the common sense thing and delete it so that nobody stupider than I shares it, thereby perpetuating the viral nature of internet misinformation.

But that is not to be. Usually the response is one of the following:

“You’re right, it’s just that I didn’t have time to read the whole piece”. Translation: I was too lazy to actually read the article I posted since the title conformed to the political message that I wanted to spread, and sharing something that someone else wrote would make up for my lack of original opinions and argumentative skills. Indignation level: mild. Likelihood of being defriended: 10-20%.

“Ok that figure may be wrong but the essence is still true.” Translation: You caught me red handed sharing a statistic that is patently incorrect but since the meme supports my righteous cause it doesn’t matter if the numbers are all fudged up. Secretly I also suspect that you are not the liberal progressive/conservative patriot you claim you are since you are pointing this out rather than siding with me by keeping quiet about my mistake. Indignation level: mild. Likelihood of being defriended: 10-20%.

“Just because I share something doesn’t mean I agree with it.” Translation: I have no way of defending what I just shared and since I cannot go back in time to undue this embarrassment, it I’ll just act like I shared it to elicit debate and discussion among my friends. Never mind that nobody actually shares stuff that they disagree with without making it demonstrably clear that they do so. Indignation level: moderate. Likelihood of being defriended: 30-40%.

“You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine. Let’s agree to disagree”. Translation: I’m going to try and extricate myself from the embarrassment of sharing something that is factually incorrect by trying to eliminate the distinction between fact and opinion and since there’s no such thing as a wrong opinion then I can’t be disproven. Indignation level: moderate. Likelihood of being defriended: 50-60%.

“It’s my wall and I can post whatever I want in it. You don’t have to read it if you disagree”. Translation: I have no intellectually respectable way of crawling out of my own bullshit so I might as well just act outraged in order to paint you as being rude and aggressive. Since I don’t go to your wall and challenge your opinions because deep down I know you’ll be able to defend them, I expect the same courtesy on your part so I can erect my wall of stupidity where only people as brainwashed as myself are given shelter. Indignation level: high. Likelihood of being defriended: 80-100%.

Now if you think I’m unfair to lefties, rest assured that’s not the case. Conservatives are way worse in terms of their patent abhorrence for objectivity and facts. In fact, conservatives hate numbers more than Vladimir Putin hates shirts on a Siberian hunting trip. George W. Bush disdainfully called it “fuzzy math” because nobody likes it when numbers are used to disprove their neanderthalic opinions on global warming, minimum wages, the gender pay gap, and taxation. But at least conservatives are honest about being assholes, and they don’t have any intention of urging social change for a better future unless that future is a time warp to the good old days of Victorian poorhouses, Southern plantations, and gender relations that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like an episode of Girls. Of course they won’t say that because as explained earlier, we do live in a world where political correctness has consolidated itself to some degree into every day discourse, and appearing as a social retrograde carries risks insofar as you’re not wily enough to hide it through one of many carefully thought out excuses such as “it’s bad for business”, “it’s socialist”, or (my favorite) “it’s French”.

The problem with social media, and Facebook in particular, is that it’s a lose-lose environment for intellectual discourse. That’s because due to the myriad of cognitive biases that cloud our reason and our common sense, nobody ever admits to being wrong in public, and therefore any challenge to someone’s opinions – regardless of how baseless and outright asinine they might be – will be met with an even more entrenched perspective on the same issue, exactly the same case as if they had won the debate. No matter how many times you keep shooting them down, the kamikazes of stupidity keep flying, each one more laden with indignity than the previous one, each time reinforcing themselves more and more. Ask yourselves: have you ever caused someone to change their political opinions on Facebook? I doubt it. So then why do you keep posting an endless barrage of political memes and op-eds rather than take the time to explain at length your positions and open the floor for debate? The answer is wanktivism. You want to change the world, and win the hearts and minds of those around you without doing much effort beyond clicking that “share” button. And you don’t actually want to be challenged when you do. The three litmus tests of the wanktivist are quite simple. 1) Does this person frequently post original material besides shares? 2) Does he or she make an extensive comment on the things they are sharing in order to add value to what someone else is saying? 3) Do they have a blog or do they take some other direct action in favor of their causes such as working for an NGO or participating in protests? If any of these three is true, then this person is probably not a wanktivist, they’re simply very politically opinionated. The rest of you, the ones who reduce your core beliefs about the world to a JPEG image, are.

A similar and perhaps worse social media trait that is similar to wanktivism is virtue signaling. This concept, coined by journalist James Bartholomew of the British conservative magazine The Spectator, is defined as:

“The way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. 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 signaling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbors or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.”

At least wanktivists (for the most part) appear well intentioned, they just simply don’t have the time to actually save the world or maybe they are even conscious of their own intellectual limitations to do so, hence they just share what others have thought up for them. But virtue signaling involves a subtle egotism and even, dare I say, malice. Those doing it don’t actually care about the issues at hand, it simply fits the personality (online or otherwise) that they want to project. The example above is geared towards the prototypical left-winger, but right-wingers are just as guilty of virtue signaling. They may rile against welfare to show how they believe in individual merit (forget for a moment that daddy paid their way through college, and daddy’s friends got them a job). They may complain about every union strike that made them 30 minutes late for work because they do not want to be identified with dreadlocked college students with Che Guevara posters in their dorm room (imagine them imagining themselves with slicked back hair, suspenders, and a big fat Cuban cigar). And of course, they will openly oppose any move towards gender equality or LGBT rights because, well, that would be so fucking gay, now wouldn’t it? No self-respecting alpha macho should give an inch to the feminazis lest it reveal the true size of their sexual inadequacies.

So if nobody will change their opinion regardless of how many facts to the contrary to array against them, why even bother? Does this mean that any form of online debate necessarily descends into sheer trolling? Because if you know – like I do – that arguing leads to nothing, then it’s done solely for the sake of arguing. Which is kind of the definition of trolling, albeit of a higher intellectual standard than the average 4Chan forum discussing Gamergate. But a part of me thinks that wanktivism or virtue signaling or simply every form of misinformation that people are guilty of on the internet should not go unresponded. Because as stupid and gullible as these people are, sadly there are even stupider and more gullible people out there but who just might be swayed by your argument more than theirs. And maybe after enough embarrassments and humiliations these people will think twice about posting so much bullshit, assuming of course, they don’t defriend you first. In which case, you won. Maybe just one out of a thousand online battles, but if one Facebook or Reddit soul could be saved from the fires of intellectual damnation, it was worth it. It was truly fucking worth it.