If you were watching Twitter or various news outlets yesterday, you might have caught something about a confusing white supremacist call to boycott the next Star Wars film, apparently because it features a prominent black character. You might also have noticed that a vanishingly small portion of the associated Twitter hashtag involved actual racists, compared to people expressing mockery or anger at the idea. If you looked further, you may have noticed that the whole thing was seemingly made up by a couple of trolls who ginned up enough publicity to make it a trending topic.
The "Star Wars boycott" is basically the inverse of a long-running 4chan attempt to sucker social justice advocates into supporting things like a fake women's convention or a campaign to end Father's Day. Instead of trying to tear down progressive politics by concocting straw feminists, it makes a certain strain of right-wing politics sound petty, racist, and generally ridiculous — and counts on the inevitable backlash to amplify it. "Don't feed the trolls" is the most obvious response. But no matter how reasonable this is, it misses the point: trolling isn't the problem here. It's our entire approach to writing and reading about internet culture.
Local firefighter saves kitten, area man yells at film
Over the past six months, this is at least the third high-profile — and widely mocked — "boycott" of a popular book or movie. Before racists came out against Star Wars, Duke students were boycotting the seminal graphic novel Fun Home for sexual imagery. Before that, the "manosphere" was boycotting Mad Max: Fury Road for focusing too much on women. Every one of them has gotten widespread coverage in international media outlets like the BBC and CNN. Which is funny, because in a sane world, we would probably have never heard about them at all.
Describing these cases as boycotts of any size is a stretch. The Star Wars hashtag was a couple of accounts tweeting fake outrage. The Fury Road protest was a single article on a niche website. The Duke University case was a Facebook conversation between college freshmen. None of them involved public figures whose actions are newsworthy in themselves. They didn't even involve an organized campaign. If the internet were a physical place, these would be the stories that pad out local news reports: firefighter saves kitten, area man yells at film.
But the internet is simultaneously hyper-local and massively interconnected. Creating a place where billions of people can record and broadcast anything worldwide is the closest we'll get to testing the infinite monkey theorem: given enough time, the internet will come to contain every conceivable opinion on any topic. Not only does this mean that no debate is ever really settled, it means that there's no such thing as a straw man. There is no idea too absurd or horrific for a Twitter account or obscure Tumblr page to seriously promote. If you need a bad idea to prove a point, you're going to find one.
Given enough time, the internet will come to contain all possible human opinions
For journalists, what someone says on the internet is less important than who says it, and where it's going to be quoted. Is a reactionary campaign a major trend, or a singular outlier? How much real-world power do the speakers wield? Are reporters covering it for a tiny blog that's already dedicated to the niche in question, or a large site that deals with general interest material, or a TV channel? Is it presented in a report that dives into some obscure subculture, or as straight news, which implies that it's important for readers even without added explanation?
Organized online campaigns, including boycotts, have promoted real change — but those cases are rarely described simply as "boycotts." The internet's equalizing power can help worthy grass-roots causes spread with unprecedented speed. But it can also erase the context that tells us which of these causes actually matter. A headline like "Author defends sci-fi as a 'purely male domain' in cringingly sexist review," for example, could be about a science fiction luminary writing in a major newspaper, or it could be an obscure self-published novelist posting feedback on Amazon.com. They'd both be published on a global platform; if anything, the Amazon review would probably be more accessible. But that doesn't make the Amazon review more important or more widely read — unless someone with a much bigger audience decides it's a valid target of criticism.
The result is that the best way to be heard is to put forward the most exaggerated version of your opinion. As various other writers have noted, even if the original intent behind the Star Wars boycott was trolling, publicizing the hashtag attracted people who genuinely do hate seeing non-whites in movies, even if they're not saying it's literal racial genocide. And the blistering, high-profile takedowns — the hashtag even made The Daily Show yesterday — tacitly suggest that it's a valid "other side" worth arguing against in good faith, not an almost universally rejected opinion with a few angry holdouts.
A lot of these non-campaigns get covered because frankly, they're fun to write about, in the way that an irredeemably awful movie might be, and they get a lot of attention. And they're fun to read — a call to arms that unites people against a common foe and makes that foe look ridiculous. They give writers a sounding board to tell jokes, like a list of increasingly random political messages in Star Wars, and a peg for discussing more interesting questions. I personally wrote a piece that touched on the Mad Max boycott.
But treating every terrible opinion on the internet as newsworthy is an exercise in refuting arguments that barely exist. It legitimizes the most extreme, poorly conceived, and easily dismantled ideas, whether they're bait for "social justice warriors" or completely sincere. The web is boundless. Our time is not.