Rarely have we seen such epic clashes between the forces of light and darkness.
We watch in awe as revolutions somersault through the Middle East. We see instantaneous digital communication as a weapon against oppression and, in the hands of tyrants who tap into its power, as a weapon for oppression.
While the cloud spurs some people to reach for the stars, delighting in freedom of expression, it seduces others to sprawl in the gutter, abusing freedom of expression.
When CBS’s Lara Logan was dragged off, beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob of Egyptian men in Tahrir Square the giddy night that Hosni Mubarak stepped down, most of us were aghast. But some vile bodies online began beating up on the brave war correspondent.
Nir Rosen, a journalist published in The Nation, The New Yorker and The Atlantic who had a fellowship at New York University’s Center on Law and Security, likes to be a provocateur. He has urged America to “get over” 9/11, called Israel an “abomination” to be eliminated, and sympathized with Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban. Invited to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2008 about the Iraq surge, he told Joe Biden, the committee chairman then, that he was uncomfortable “advising an imperialist power about how to be a more efficient imperialist power.”
Rosen must now wish Twitter had a 10-second delay. On Tuesday, he merrily tweeted about the sexual assault of Logan: “Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger.”
He suggested she was trying to “outdo Anderson” Cooper (roughed up in Cairo earlier), adding that “it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too.”
Rosen lost his fellowship. He apologized in a whiny way, explaining that he “resented” Logan because she “defended American imperial adventures,” and that she got so much attention for the assault because she’s white and famous. He explained in Salon that “Twitter is no place for nuance,” as though there’s any nuance in his suggestion that Logan wanted to be sexually assaulted for ratings.
He professed to be baffled by the fact that he had 1,000 new Twitter followers, noting: “It’s a bizarre, voyeuristic Internet culture and everybody in the mob is looking to get in on the next fight.” It’s been Lord of the Flies for a while now, dude, and you’re part of it.
The conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel smacked Logan from the right: “Lara Logan was among the chief cheerleaders of this ‘revolution’ by animals. Now she knows what the Islamic revolution is really all about.”
On her LA Weekly blog, Simone Wilson dredged up Logan’s romantic exploits and quoted a Feb. 3 snipe from the conservative blog Mofo Politics, after Logan was detained by the Egyptian police: “OMG if I were her captors and there were no sanctions for doing so, I would totally rape her.”
Online anonymity has created what the computer scientist Jaron Lanier calls a “culture of sadism.” Some Yahoo comments were disgusting. “She got what she deserved,” one said. “This is what happens when dumb sexy female reporters want to make it about them.” Hillbilly Nation chimed in: “Should have been Katie.”
The “60 Minutes” story about Senator Scott Brown’s revelation that a camp counselor sexually abused him as a child drew harsh comments on the show’s Web site, many politically motivated.
Acupuncturegirl advised: “Scott, shut the hell up. You are gross.” Dutra1 noted: “OK, Scott, you get your free pity pills. Now examine the image you see in the mirror; is it a man?”
Evgeny Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” told me Twitter creates a false intimacy and can “bring out the worst in people. You’re straining after eyeballs, not big thoughts. So you go for the shallow, funny, contrarian or cynical.”
Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” says technology amplifies everything, good instincts and base. While technology is amoral, he said, our brains may be rewired in disturbing ways.
“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions,” he said. “If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, recalled that when he started his online book review he forbade comments, wary of high-tech sociopaths.
“I’m not interested in having the sewer appear on my site,” he said. “Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually? Why does the technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?”