On Saturday, April 9, Saorise Gowan was riding the Washington DC Metro’s Green Line to visit friends when a man began to film and verbally abuse her—accusing her of “grooming” children for sexual abuse. She was targeted simply because she was a transgender woman; her attacker’s profanity-laced tirade was a perfect echo of rhetoric used by Republican politicians and, most especially, cadres of internet users who’ve seized on incendiary language like “grooming” to describe the mere existence of trans and queer people in public spaces. Such bigotry isn’t new; even the strategy of linking queer people to pedophilia isn’t particularly new. But what is new is the efficiency with which men like Gowan’s harasser are mobilized.
That efficiency is born of the same internet that gives us chill lo-fi beats, mood boards, and aesthetic Toks: the vague fuzziness of a feeling, a vibe settling around you like a blanket of serotonin. It’s the way the internet manages to speak to millions while somehow appearing to know you specifically. You’re given an aesthetic Rorschach inkblot to associate with, to develop an emotional attachment to.
But that same affordance of vibe-generation has a darker side. It can reduce all matters of substance to vibes—to theatrical emotion and performances of feeling. This has become key to the “culture war” targeting everyone from trans people to Black people to anyone in need of an abortion.
Vibes can inspire action, in part by refracting vague individual feelings into focused behaviors targeting other individuals. But this culture of out-of-control-vibes, this politics of pure feeling largely comprising demands to perform a particular emotional state online, supercharges the far-right, whose extremist vigilantism is capable of doing real harm to relatively powerless minorities, and sees the left, whose targets tend to be highly organized bastions of power, spinning its wheels. The contrast between the right’s multinational assault on trans rights and the center-left’s discourse about Covid-19 is illustrative here—one is achieving results; the other is circling a screaming drain.
Information technology has made it breathtakingly easy to organize otherwise disparate minorities of angry people, inspiring them to abuse the targets of politicians’ speeches and the laws they pass. Such laws are often deliberately vague—Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, of which transgender people are key targets, is a prime example of the phenomenon; it fails to define a number of key terms that would guide the law’s enforcement. Instead, one is meant to go by instinct, or vibes. You know a “groomer tranny” when you see one, apparently.
But summoning state power with a nebulous mandate is only part of the point. The wider goal is using such legislation, and the debates around it, as a signal that rallies and unifies people like Gowan’s assailant into a privatized, distributed secret police force whose writ far exceeds the letter of any law. Such people can get into the cracks of society where outcasts normally thrive, depriving them of peace and even their very existence.
Social media’s role here should not be understated. “What I’ve found is that outrage performs extremely well on social media,” said Mika Fernandez, a civil rights attorney at Lawyers for Good Government, “[and conservatives] are recognizing a flaw in the system and exploiting it to further their goals.”
What’s happening is not merely the platforming of bigotry (though that is an enormous problem in its own right). Social media has created a fertile plain for extremists to develop entire alternate realities built around cultivated emotional states. This is a collision of several accidents of design. Rage, as Fernandez noted, amps up “engagement.” Thus, content that inspires rage—even if it’s false or ambiguous or unconfirmed—is of immense value. This pushes raw emotion to the center of all political activity online: generating, responding to, and perpetuating outrage. As a result, posture became much more important. Responding to the mood of your audience by saying the right thing and amplifying and reinforcing their emotional state has become the ticket to viral success.