The Ambivalent Internet: An Interview with Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (Part Three)

Late in the book, you consider Trump and his alt-right supporters. What can the book’s approach teach us about the newly elected American President and his often trollish conduct online and off. Even his supporters are telling us we should not take what he says, for example, in his tweets “literally” and suggesting that his words might better be understood “symbolically,” phrases that evoke the questions around authenticity and sincerity that run across your book.

Fun story: we hadn’t set out to write much about Trump. In fact in the book’s first draft, due to the press in June 2016, he was merely one among many public figures in the chapter on public debate. But as we revised the book during the late summer and early fall of 2016, Trump’s campaign took one bewildering, ominous turn after another. Trump’s behavior had always been…Trump’s behavior, but the things he was doing and saying were aligning more and more conspicuously with our underlying arguments. 

So we felt we had to carve out more space for his campaign, even if revisions at that point were meant to be light. We’re sure this drove our editor crazy, since we were making updates—often major ones, including discussion of the infamous Access Hollywood tape—as she was busy making her own editing passes of our manuscript (sorry Leigh). 

Working frantically to keep up, we asked if we could turn in the final edited draft by noon on November 9th (one day after the U.S. election, and one day after our original deadline) because we wanted to include the results. And then we all know what happened next. Trump the candidate—and we readily admit that we were writing about him assuming he would only ever be a candidate—became Trump the President. But that was it; we were out of time. We were also at a point in the process where we couldn’t impact existing pagination, or else we’d risk missing our spring publication window. Our compromise with the press was to change a handful of verb tenses, tinker with the structure of a few paragraphs, and insert a shellshocked footnote. And that’s how we accidentally wrote a political time capsule. 

Of course, subsequent months would reveal just how much overlap there was between Trump the President and the book’s main points. The most striking of these, as we’ve since argued, is the fact that Trump takes Poe’s Law to the highest office of the land; Trump is the Poe’s Law president. Who knows if he’s saying things because he believes them to be true, if he’s sowing calculated disinformation, if he’s just ranting about whatever’s on the television, or if he is, and we say this with some trepidation, “just trolling.” The fact that what Trump says may or may not be a lie, or at least may or may not be earnestly meant in the moment, is what makes figuring out how to respond to him so difficult. 

For us, and just as it is when confronted by Yiannopoulos’ logical gymnastics (“We’re obviously just joking, so the joke’s on you if you take us seriously, but also, please take us seriously, because the entire joke hinges on you not thinking it’s a joke”), the trick isn’t figuring out what Trump really means. Whether Trump and the administration more broadly is, to quote a recent game (“game”) played by Foreign Affairs, “stupid or nefarious?” (alternatively, “Veep or House of Cards?”), the result is the same. And so the result should be the focus. 

What do you see as some of the core tensions or fault lines within online political discourse? How does this reflect structural and systemic issues in contemporary democracy in this country?

As we maintain in the book, many of the tensions cited as unique to online spaces are so much bigger and so much older than the internet. The overlap between then and now, online and offline, is particularly striking when considering online political discourse. It is tempting, for example, to argue that online hostility, presumably caused by anonymity (or at least the ability to hide behind a computer screen), is why, to quote the title of Phillips’ book, we can’t have nice things

Before Twitter was even a gleam in the President’s eye, however, the American political system had long been marred by precisely the kind of antagonism, impoliteness, and incivility presumed to be the purview of internet pot-stirrers, as politicianspundits, and private citizens alike stooped to a whole spectrum of identity-based antagonisms and schoolyard absurdities. It is also tempting to argue that the 2016 election was evidence of, to quote Milner’s book, a world made meme

On this point, we actually agree. But as we explained in an essay directly following the election, it wasn’t internet memes—like Ken Bone’s sweaterMarco Rubio’s baby chair, or Ted Cruz’ alleged serial murders—that most conspicuously characterized the election. It was age-old memes—regressive stereotypes, blinding misogyny, blanket anti-elitism, and good old fashioned fear of the other—that made 2016 the meme election. Digital media certainly influenced what people were able to share with whom and how, and what the stakes of that sharing might have been. 

But overestimating the role the online plays in online political discourse, in this election or any election, overlooks the fact that these discourses are, first and foremost, a reflection of the broader world that contains the internet, not a reflection of the internet that is somehow detachable from the broader world. Underscoring the point that incivility and misinformation are people problems, not strictly platform problems, a recent Pew report found that a whopping 40 percent of Trump voters cite Fox News as their main source of election information. 

Given the network’s obvious role as a right wing spin machine, its dominance suggests that even if it were possible to eradicate fake news online, there are much deeper wells of misinformation. Failing to address those wells, and further, failing to address the reasons why certain stories resonate with certain audiences, means concerns over fake news online can only ever be concern over symptoms, not causes. 

Of course, online political discourse is also subject to its own specific tensions; the “brave new world” side of the “nothing new under the sun” coin. Digital spaces and tools—from entire social networking platforms to these platforms’ specific affordances to the overall ability to search for indexed content, and on and on—have an immediately democratizing effect, allowing people from across the globe to connect with the issues, media, and people most important to them. These spaces and tools also have an immediately destabilizing effect, as they allow antagonists to find what they want, and who they want, often as quickly as they want. 

Ditto for the flow of information: the same online communication channels that can shed light on an issue or clarify the facts, the same channels that allow average citizens to participate in unfolding news stories, not just consume them, can utterly muddle the facts through the spread of false information and targeted media manipulation (see Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis for their analysis related to the 2016 election). 

This results in an internet that is equally capable of empowering and diminishing not just voice, but a basic sense of grounded, shared truth. Donald Trump and #ResistTrump, white nationalism and Black Lives Matter, falsity and truth—online all can correspondingly thrive, as participants use the same platforms, the same tools, the same materials, the same memes, the same everything, to accomplish their objectives. The only consistent difference is what impact these behaviors have, outcomes themselves dependent on an audience whose bounds can’t easily be parsed, whose identities can’t easily be tracked, and whose motives can’t easily be known.

As you note, some groups have different access to power and privilege which shape what gives them Lulz and what they can and do say online. A high percentage of the jokes you reference here are misogynistic, suggesting how often online culture gets directed against women, issues that have surfaced especially powerfully around recent online trends such as #gamergate. How might we apply your theories and methods to understanding the kind of popular misogyny that fuels this movement?

To appreciate the full impact of misogynist hate and harassment campaigns like Gamergate, you have to consider just how far back misogynist hate and harassment goes. This speaks, again, to the kinds of narrative seeds that folklore has cast across the generations. Pre-internet urban legends—stories presented as true accounts of things that happened in another town over, or to a friend of a friend—are one outcropping of such culturally normalized sexism. As we explore in the book, many urban legends are outright misogynist, for example the countless stories (some with direct ATU prototypes) of women and girls meeting gruesome fates for not adhering to expectations for how “good girls” behave, namely demurely—itself echoing a millenias-old injunction against women asserting themselves, especially in public

Other motifs are more subtle, but still maintain rigid gender hierarchies, including the tendency for women in these legends to be punished far more often than their male counterparts for stepping out of line, to be placed in constant danger, often requiring protection by men from the men that seek to harm them, and to be sexually pathologized at almost every turn, exponentially more often than men, whose sexual appetites are framed as natural. In short, what unfolded during Gamergate is much, much older and much, much deeper than Gamergate. Gamergate, like the memes Trump successfully harnessed, is a genetic outcropping of all the seeds that have come before. 

Claims about the pervasiveness of misogynist motifs, whether subtle or explicit, online or off, might seem at odds with earlier claims about the difficulty of positing the meaning and intention of folkloric expression. Our analysis is not a post-structuralist free for all, however; you don’t lose the ability to make claims (in our case, explicitly feminist and anti-racist claims) just because some of the data is unavailable. Personal meaning might be impossible to universalize, individual motives might be impossible to verify, but even then it is possible to extrapolate broader collective resonance from what is most frequently shared by individuals; if it doesn’t spread it’s dead, indeed. 

It is also possible to show how the recasting of these old seeds further clog the atmosphere with misogynist (or racist, or xenophobic, or anti-Semitic) messaging. This brings us right back to the claim that folklore is always a reflection of the culture in which it flourishes. It is critical to focus on the specific unfolding folkloric traditions themselves, and to explain as much about these traditions and their audiences as possible. But the question folklore ultimately addresses is what ends up being reflected, and how the reflections of today are rendered all the brighter, all the harsher, all the more revealing, when considered alongside the reflections of the past.

Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus), as well as an MFA in creative writing. Her work explores digital media and technology studies, communication studies, cultural studies, folklore studies, literary studies, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. The MIT Press published her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture in 2015, which she followed in 2017 with The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She tweets at @wphillips49.

Ryan M. Milner is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. He investigates the social, political, and cultural implications of mass connection. He has published in outlets like Fibreculture, The International Journal of Cultural Studies,and The International Journal of Communication, along with contributing public commentary to Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. His book on memetic media, The World Made Meme, was published by The MIT Press in Fall 2016. His research on memes informs his second book, co-authored with Mercer University’s Whitney Phillips; The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, is forthcoming from Polity Press in Spring 2017. He tweets at @rmmilner.