The Tyranny of the Loud

There have been so many nicknames for Donald Drumpf this year. My favorite is "Apocalypse Cheeto." But it occurs to me that none of them captures the essence of the man's aesthetic, his appeal, or his cultural significance. So I propose a new one: the Troll King. Donald Drumpf is the Twitter troll of candidates.

Which would be funny, except that internet trolls are actually not funny. Aristotle said that the danger for a democracy is demagoguery, but he was wrong. The danger for our democracy at the moment is the tyranny of the loud.

Back in the mid-1990s, at the dawn of the age of online communities, one of the earliest successful virtual communities was MediaMoo, operated out of the Media Lab at MIT. It was intoxicating; there were famous stories of people losing track of their real lives because of the fascination of their virtual existence (the popular solution: hit "reset password" then bang your head on the keyboard.) Around that time, though, a problem began to appear. MediaMOO was a relentlessly democratic and libertarian community. But as one of its founders said to me in the mid-90s, it suffered from "the tyranny of the loud." A few participants dominated the conversation, bullied others, and simply spent so much time flooding the tubes with noise that others were not heard or simply gave up and were driven away.

Sound familiar? Today this is the standard observation about any insufficiently moderated online forum. The voices that define the discourse are not the smartest, or the most committed, or the most thoughtful, they are the loudest. And some kinds of voices are inherently louder than others. Invective and provocation are louder than reasoned dialogue. They are also easier - the transaction costs involved in flooding the airwaves with noise are much lower than the costs of actually saying something. And of course, on the internet no one knows you are a dog.

This is all very old hat, but it is by no means a problem that has been solved: witness among myriad other examples actress and comedienne Leslie Jones' decision to quit Twitter. What the people who attempt to design these virtual environments forget is that free discussion depends on regulation and self-control. (So do free and competitive markets, for that matter, but that's another discussion.) Roberts Rules of Order, the rules of a town meeting, asking students to raise their hands--these are not restrictions that exist to silence dissenters, they exist to ensure that dissenters can be heard at all. They are ways of preventing the Tyranny of the Loud.

In the early days of free speech doctrine, Alexander Miekeljohn understood this point very well. He said that the goal of free speech is not to maximize the ability of persons to speak, it is to maximize the number of different voices that people hear. In today's environment that idea has given way to narcissistic relativism: no one can limit my voice because it is mine, and no one's opinions are better than mine. Anyone who says otherwise is an elitist or politically correct, and if someone else is not being heard that just shows that they are a big loser. It is difficult to avoid slipping into some kind of vulgar Freudianism here, with the obvious insistence on the prerogative to force one's deepest id onto everyone around... There are deep reasons for the correlation between trolls and bros, just ask a gamer.

Roger Ailes more than anyone understood that this could drive new forms of media. The Tea Party movement--remember Santelli's (probably scripted) rant that started it all?--is only one example of politics reduced to organized screaming. Even our courts have embraced the ideal of trollish virtues. The Supreme Court has repeatedly adopted the idiotic assumption that the way to ensure all voices are heard is to have no limits on speaking. Anyone who has worked in politics, or communications, or advertising, or--well, The World--knows this is nonsense. That was the fundamental mistake of the famous case Buckley v. Valeo forty years ago, and repeated again in Citizens United. Aside from giving corporations more rights than actual citizens, the Court keeps saying that the act of spending money equates to speech. That's absurd. Spending money is not speaking, spending money is a way to make speech louder. That was the point of rules about campaign finance: to limit the use of money to turn the volume knob up to 11. But under the leadership of the late lamented Justice Antonin Scalia our highest court has declared a constitutional principle that louder is better.

Internet trolls didn't invent this ethos in media, politics, and law, they are just its apotheosis. And Drump if their king, the internet troll as President. Trump is very, very loud. He does not debate, he drowns out. He does not campaign, he provokes and then mocks the reaction. Drumpf is a walking comments section without an article.

We probably can't fix the Internet. But we absolutely have to do something about our politics, or else the experiment of American republicanism will end with the tyranny of the loud. If it has not already.