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Silent #Upvoters - The Grim Underbelly of the Age of #Information

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Recently, the minds behind the @BestoftheMail and @DMReporter Twitter accounts (both of which place the Daily Mail in their crosshairs) decided to conduct a little experiment. After creating an account on the tabloid's website, they ferreted out a series of recent articles about migrants and refugees. Whatever your stance might be on those issues, it's hard to get around the fact that they attract a lot of pretty alarmist, vitriolic characters, but these two anonymous users wanted to see just how far that went.

They went through each article and left comments, comments which were quoted from Nazi propaganda, with the word 'Jews' being replaced with 'migrants'. Sadly, they got exactly the result they were expecting: each comment attracted a slew of upvotes (or 'likes' or whatever nomenclature you prefer). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tweeters in question were swiftly blocked from the Daily Mail website.

That's not to suggest that the Daily Mail approve of, or encourage people to behave like Nazis, the websites, Twitters and Facebooks of dozens of other publications are routinely flooded with all manner of nasty comments, but for me, this little experiment highlights that the people who speak out aren't the only problem. They might not even be the biggest problem. No, it's the 'Silent Upvoters'.

If you can stomach it (and I often struggle), jump on Facebook, head to a newspaper's page and find any article, but the more polarising, the better. Topics like immigration, welfare, equality, war, anything like that. You'll find bile, unpleasant people saying horrendous, prejudiced, disrespectful things that are worded just carefully enough that they don't trip the 'violation of terms' alarm. Almost without exception, you'll find that these comments have pulled in a bumper crop of likes.

Who are these people? The absolute least you can grant the actual commenters is that they're upfront with their disgusting views but then you have this other contingent of people sitting in the background feeding them silent approval. Imagine if you were having a conversation with someone and they said something controversial, immediately after which a group of people with buckets on their heads burst out from behind a nearby hill, applauded, and then ran away again, peeking over to wait for their next moment to strike. Likes and upvotes don't validate this kind of thing in any way, but the way they accumulate on nasty comments like jeering aphids gives those comments an illusory air of validity, when really they're just being hoisted by their own crap-encrusted petard.

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Liking started out as a way to separate the laudable from the forgettable, initially it only applied to things like blog posts, videos and photos (since, you know, that makes sense) before migrating over to status updates and finally to comments. What it's done, in essence, is reduced approval to an algorithm. In a conversation, typically, if you agree with something, you'll give a reason, rather than just saying 'I agree' and then being quiet. Yet on forums, comment sections and social media, that's exactly what we're doing, but kind of anonymously, hence the bucket analogy. There are ways to actually remove the like button from the Facebook experience and reportedly users often find themselves getting a lot more out of it when that happens.

When the liking or upvoting relates to a controversial topic, all you're saying is 'I agree, but I don't want to get involved' or in some cases 'I don't agree at all, but this is horrible and I think it would be funny to make it look more supported'. It's the enemy of reasonable debate, not that comments sections themselves ever represent such a thing. Upvoting has now been almost inextricably tied to reputation and ego, so in a way it's even perpetuating aggressive verbal behaviour, making it more of a cry for attention than it already was.

It all relates back to gamification, in one way or another. There are positive aspects to that movement, but the increasing impetus on saying things just to garner a response is not one of them. It mutates opinion into a numbers game and if you follow the numbers, the most popular opinions seems to born out of hatred, anger and prejudice a lot of the time. Hopefully as the world's understand of online culture continues to mature, more people will see upvotes for what they are: meaningless.



Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Silent #Upvoters - The Grim Underbelly of the Age of #Information Reviewed by Callum Davies on Sunday, August 16, 2015 Rating: 5
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