What is happening on Twitter and other social media is unprecedented. Public dialogue has taken on characteristics more befitting to war – a totalitarian war, for that matter. Opposing views clash with swearing, aphorisms and threats. It’s a merciless form of combat. Anyone who happens to express moderate views, while keeping away from fanaticism, simply disappears from the picture. You come across usually calm and serious people who suddenly come undone, losing both sobriety and seriousness. “You’re disgraceful,” one writes; “Traitor” comes the response. You get the feeling that some people wake up in the morning, drink their coffee and proceed to tell their ideological opponents to go to hell.
International research points to a singular kind of bullying taking place in cyberspace. Extremists and fanatics attack anyone who fails to identify with them. Low-profile people gradually retreat into their shells, allowing the extreme elements and in some cases the colorful and crazy to take over the Internet.
This phenomenon is very damaging. In Greece the situation got out of control early on because the first social media wave coincided with the big financial crisis. A portion of society channeled its anger online, as it felt it was losing its vested rights. The traditional institutions, role models and political parties rapidly came tumbling down. Conspiracy theories, according to which there was no such thing as a debt crisis, or Greece’s creditors lent the country the money because they were after oil reserves in the Aegean, among others, became a sort of Internet gospel. “I read it online” became a recurring refrain at Greek cafes.
This is not a solely Greek phenomenon, though. In Germany, for instance, an increasing number of analysts are tying major reaction to the refugee and migrant crisis to social media. In the United States, Donald Trump’s candidacy and its appeal are due, to a large extent, to the fact that the anger expressed by an enraged part of the white population was nurtured and expressed in the exact same cybersphere. What the New York Times and ABC have to say matters very little. The more they refute his claims, the more his popularity grows.
In Greece the global phenomenon has taken on its most vulgar version. This is a society which has suffered tremendously and is vulnerable to exaggeration, passion, even hatred. But no one wins in the vicious cycle of violent rhetoric. This is as true for New Democracy’s extreme anti-bailout elements in the past as it is for today’s pro-government supporters of blind conflict and those mimicking them on the opposite side. This is because the more you feed the beast of populism with hate-filled tweets, the more it gets out of control, demanding even more extreme and vulgar tweets to be sated.