Scissor statements are weird. They’re something that most people can’t instantly define, yet they are an inextricable element of today’s internet-media-news cycle. The term itself – scissor statement – can be traced back to a blog that describes how an ad-tech start-up unintentionally created some AI with the potential to destroy civil society. Sounds ominous, but how does it work? We’ll get to that – but in the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy, we’re all finding out together. We are, for lack of a better analogy, unwilling participants in an uncontrolled experiment to incite the most possible hatred within and between certain social groups.
As much as it’s comforting to believe that the alleged Christchurch killer was mentally unstable, there is no reason to suspect that they failed to have an extremely cogent understanding of how internet media and social discourse feed off each other for the benefit of neither. His manifesto explicitly stated that he intended to provide fodder for several interrelated, emotive media debates – from gun control legislation to the politics of immigration and multiculturalism. The unambiguous objective of the alleged killer was to incite social discord – and in that, they have already succeeded.
If you were to analyse the content of all op-eds and essays written since the attack you would find a common theme of disavowal, of abject disgust that such a thing could occur in New Zealand. You will also find a diverse array of perspectives on the need for specific gun control policies, the complicity of certain conservative media figures and the cancerous nature of internet forum culture (particularly that of 4chanand 8chan).
These are the downstream topics that make the alleged killer smirk as they appear in front of the media at their initial hearing – because these are exactly the topics that cause those who unequivocally condemn the attack to find a reason to disagree with each other.
These are, for all intents and purposes, scissor statements – topics that splice and divide the population into smaller competing ideological groups.
Disagreement is a natural and healthy component of democracy, but it is this artificial disagreement that should concern us; the type of toxic disagreement that appears to have a deliberate aim of this abhorrent plot from the beginning.
There is a theory that it may be possible to feed a computer program large amounts of data and teach it how to come up with seemingly innocuous statements engineered to be maximally provocative and emotive – all you need is a rich source of debate data, the likes of which can easily be found on any social media platform.
Once formulated these statements are pernicious precisely because they don’t appear to be contentious – they are phrases like “It’s OK to be white” and “There are only two genders”.
These statements easily become viral – they are primed to cause division due to the way people instinctively react to them as absolute truths or falsehoods. The internet, as a facilitator of the worst discourse humanely possible, is fertile ground for spreading such statements.
What would happen if someone designed a terror plot to exploit this tendency?
We’re living it – in high definition, in real time.
We can already appreciate that such a mechanism is highly operational without any kind of sophisticated computer program – the internet allows dissenters to infiltrate any online community of their choosing in order to practice creating the most conceivable outrage and discontent.
Call this trolling, call it shitposting, call it whatever – the political culture of sensitivity and outrage that runs parallel to toxic internet culture already incentivises certain individuals to sow discontent and misery for fun. Twitter, for example, is representative of what happens when a social media platform is populated with users intent largely upon agitating each other.
The alleged Christchurch killer intimately understood how scissor statements can be used to deliberately orchestrate massive social turmoil. The manifesto itself has become a sort of meta-scissor statement – there are already intense arguments arising over whether or not it’s more harmful to purge it from the internet (with all the related complexity concerning the right of the state to censor internet content) or share it openly as to refute all the pseudo-political filth on which it was based.
There are also an inordinate number of commentators condemning the supposed latent white supremacy and widespread hatred that preceded this terrible event.
The commentators miss the obvious point that the killing of Muslims was never the sole objective – causing fellow citizens to turn upon each other in a time of tragedy was just as important. This is a subtle point, perhaps too subtle to make any real difference to the trajectory we find ourselves on.
But if you were planning to permanently remove yourself from the 24/7 news cycle, or perhaps just delete your Facebook account – now’s as good a time as any.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.