Unbreak The Internet: The not-so-great debate

The internet thrives on performative challenges.

Hello and welcome to Unbreak the Internet, a weekly newsletter about internet culture, technology, politics, and media — written by me, Parker Molloy. Please send your questions, concerns, tips, and other feedback to info@unbreaktheinternet.com.

Debate me! Or not.

Last week, conservative media personality Ben Shapiro made news by challenging Democratic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, offering to make a $10,000 donation to her campaign (it’s not really important, but this does exceed the legal limit for an individual campaign donation). At first, Ocasio-Cortez simply ignored (or maybe wasn’t even aware of) the challenge.

A reporter from Shapiro’s The Daily Wire tweeted “@Ocasio2018 Refuses To Respond To @BenShapiro’s $10k Debate Offer,” to which Ocasio-Cortez replied, explaining that “Just like catcalling,” she doesn’t feel obligated to respond to unsolicited requests from “men with bad intentions.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez@Ocasio2018

Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions.

And also like catcalling, for some reason they feel entitled to one. pic.twitter.com/rsD17Oq9qe

August 10, 2018
This set off a dream scenario for Shapiro, who managed to turn the fact that a candidate for office wouldn’t take up a debate challenge from someone who isn’t her opponent into a trending story in political media outlets (including his own). She was framed as a coward for rejecting his offer, and slammed as a hypocrite as she once called out the member of Congress whose seat she was running for for his refusal to debate (this is very different, as they were both candidates vying for the same seat). Few outlets pointed out that she couldn’t even legally accept the $10,000 offer, and even fewer noted that candidates don’t just take challenges from random people on the internet (even well-known ones).

The coverage was exhausting, it was pointless, but most of all… it was performative.

The internet has turned us all into showmen in search of an audience.

So, there’s a song by St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) called “Digital Witness,” which explores how technology has taken over our lives. We no longer live in the moment, instead becoming hyper-vigilant documentarians of a subject (ourselves) with an audience of one (ourselves). In the song, Clark asks: “If I can't show it, if you can't see me. What's the point of doing anything?”

Debating one another, in public, is less about exchanging ideas than it is putting on a show for our digital witnesses.

“Digital witnesses, what's the point of even sleeping?
If I can't show it, if you can't see me
What's the point of doing anything?
What's the point of even sleeping?
So I stopped sleeping, yeah I stopped sleeping
Won't somebody sell me back to me?”
— St. Vincent, “Digital Witness

How performative is it? Just take a look at some of the titles of Shapiro’s own videos: “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism And Pro-Abortion Arguments” and “Ben Shapiro CRUSHES Atheism Question at University of Utah” (both of those videos can be found under the “Greatest Hits” heading on his YouTube page.

Now, you might say that the videos are named that way simply because they’ll get more clicks. You’re probably right, which just shows how algorithms and people themselves tend to favor something with a bit of entertainment value (and who can blame them?).

When someone clicks onto one of those videos, they’re probably not looking for a reasonable discussion of the topic at hand. They’re there to see someone get DESTROYED and CRUSHED and EVISCERATED. They’re there to see their pre-existing beliefs confirmed, to see their Globetrotters dunk on the Generals of their political adversaries. They’re there for a show. And, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a show, nor is there anything wrong about putting one on.

(I’m really, truly not criticizing Shapiro here, Ben’s fans. Please, please pause from sending the e-mail or tweets you’re composing.)

None of this is new, nor is it limited to one political viewpoint.

You might remember a few years back, left-leaning outlets would regularly curate the latest clip of Jon Stewart taking down some conservative punching bag with hyperbolic tags like “Jon Stewart annihilates GOP hysteria over Obama’s executive orders” and “Jon Stewart crushes idiotic Wolf Blitzer ploy” and “Jon Stewart destroys Mike Huckabee — without saying a single word.” As his tenure at The Daily Show came to a close, he ran an entire segment dedicated to poking fun at all of that.

Nobody wants to watch a meeting of the minds where people speak and listen, consider and change based on new information. People want to watch WWE-style gut-punches.

And that brings us to the man who turned the internet’s love of all things performative and rode it all the way to the White House.

“If Barack Obama opens up and gives his college records and applications, and if he gives his passport applications and records, I will give, to a charity of his choice — inner city children in Chicago, American Cancer Society, AIDS research, anything he wants — a check, immediately, for $5 million," Donald Trump said in a 2012 video. "The check will be given within one hour after he released all of the records, so stated.”

Why? Why not?

This came AFTER Obama had already released his birth certificate in hopes of quieting Trump and the rest of the “birther” crowd. The pivot to demanding college records, passport applications, and whatnot was Trump’s attempt to stay in the news. It worked. There’s no way he actually hoped Obama would take him up on his $5 million offer, and even less of a chance that he’d follow through (remember, he continued to cast doubts on the veracity of the birth certificate long after it was proven to be real).

It was a performative offer. Just like Shapiro’s $10,000 debate ploy. Just like fellow conservative Candace Owens’ offer of $100,000 to debate Ocasio-Cortez. Just like the time conservative radio host Michael Savage offered Newt Gingrich $1 million to drop out of the 2012 presidential race. Just like the time conservative radio host Mark Levin offered Obama $50,000 to debate him.

None of those are meant to be serious. The challenges have one purpose and one purpose only: to raise the profile of the one doing the challenging. It’s a way to fight above your weight class, to put names like “Mark Levin” and “Barack Obama” on the same level.

Recognizing performance is an important step in unbreaking the internet.

That does it for this week’s newsletter. Remember, you can follow me on Twitter at @ParkerMolloy, and be sure to check out my Patreon for more content. Thanks!