By Ben Cohen: On a fairly regular basis, I'm asked to comment on various political and economic issues on the RT network (the English language Russian news network). I enjoy going on the shows and engaging in debate and commentary that is never seen on regular cable news. RT has hired a bunch of young, hungry journalists and presenters in the US who make it their business to cover topics the mainstream media routinely avoids. It's a great news network and other more established players could learn a great deal from them about the meaning of actual journalism and commentary.
It's always a bit strange seeing yourself on television - you rarely look and sound the way you think you do, and rather than focusing on the topic of the conversation, I find myself critiquing my mannerism more than anything else. Anyhow, I make it a habit of watching my interviews on youtube so I can get better at articulating myself and getting across my point intelligently for the next time, and I often look at the comments section to see whether there are any relevant observations. Sometimes there are, and the comments can be interesting and entertaining. More often than not however, the comments section is filled with some of the most hateful, racist venom I've ever seen.
In everyday life, interactions in person are generally friendly and polite. Online, they can be vicious and nasty, devoid of feeling and completely alien to regular human contact. And as our lives increasingly shift online, we could be in danger of losing the ability to connect properly with other people.
Here are a selection of some of the comments from my latest interview on immigration with RT's Abby Martin:
xAnonymousTruth's comment about deporting 'all these Jews in our government' received more 'likes' from other users than any of the others and is displayed at the top underneath the video. I'm sure most of the viewers are watching in order to see political issues covered in an intelligent and thoughtful way, but it seems that an awful lot of people who want to engage in the debate through the commenting section have some serious psychological problems.
I used to work as a boxing journalist when I lived in Los Angeles, and posted video interviews on youtube with some pretty famous boxers (you can still find them online I believe). The last time I engaged with a youtube commenter (or 'troll' as they are referred to in internet speak) was way back in 2007. I was responding to an anti semitic comment he made implying I had something to do with rigging fights, and since then, I stopped bothering to engage with them. I actually saved the back and forth because I thought it was so funny (and disturbing):
Me: Please do not post anti semitic rantings on my video. I am a boxing journalist, not a promoter. I have nothing to do with making money out of fighters. I simply report on the sport. I suggest you go and do some reading to improve your simple minded views about jewish people. Grow up.
Troll: shurrup u bich. i said thank you to the business orientated jewish people. do u have comprehension problems?????? u c**t i said it is a GOOD THING> i was biggin em up. now f**k off with your over sensitive pc dispostion and lock yourself up you c**t if you cant face the real world
I was mostly astonished that someone that stupid had the confidence to talk about issues pertaining to culture and business - I would have thought porn and bare knuckle boxing would have been more up his street. After all, that's mostly what youtube is used for, isn't it?
I don't take any of the vicious comments personally - I've been working as a journalist in the internet age for far too long, but it does make me wonder about how desensitized people have become to others from the safety of their parent's basements. I'm sure most of the trolls are harmless teenagers with social problems, venting their frustrations online because they have nowhere else to let it out - but a generation brought up on online has the potential to be shaped by the culture sites like youtube foster, and it could potentially be quite dangerous. There is already a worrying culture of cyberbullying amongst young people where texting and facebook messages are used to victimize others, and it can be just as psychologically devastating as face to face bullying (and in some cases more so when private photos are spread on social networks).
Two weeks ago, a 68 year old widow was verbally abused for over 10 minutes by a group of cruel teenage boys. The taunts were so bad the elderly bus monitor was reduced to tears, and the teenagers thought it so hilarious that they posted the footage onto youtube. The bus monitor was not a human being to them, but an object to be ridiculed.
The horrific episode was significant from a cultural point of view as it displayed the convergence of completely desensitized cyber culture with real life human interaction.
And the problem was that the young boys saw no difference.