Blog Rage

Is angry and violent language which dominates blog comments sections a sign of broader trends in our political culture?

In a posting titled “Explaining the Anger That Consumes Debate on the Web,” Megan McArdle expresses her “growing disgust at the level of anger in the blogosphere,” which has lately included the language of physical violence.

Kevin Drum helpfully offers,

I think the blogosphere fools us about this stuff. In the past, I imagine there’s been every bit as much rage as there is today. It’s just that the mainstream media was all dressed up in suits and ties and most of us ordinary citizens didn’t really have a way to channel it. But it was still there. The big difference isn’t that we’re any more filled with rage than we’ve ever been, it’s just that it’s all so public now. This might very well be a bad thing on its own (or not — who knows, really?), but it’s not because tea partiers are any angrier at Obama than they were at FDR or Bill Clinton. We just have a better view of it these days.

Indeed.  Further, I’d posit that this isn’t the blogosphere but rather the Internet.  And, specifically, the faux bravery that comes with anonymity and being a safe distance from the victim of one’s taunts.  Which is magnified by the safety of being part of a crowd on a likeminded discussion board.

Additionally, as I noted a few months back in “Jon Stewart: Blogs Must Be Crazy,” the violent language that Megan objects to — smackdown, curb stomp, and so forth — is likely just a byproduct of the video game and texting culture rather than a real expression of violent desire.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Is this really new though?

    I’ve been on the Internet since the early 90s and can still remember the flame wars that would erupt on Usenet or on the CompuServe forums, usually over some completely stupid and innocuous issue (Pro Tip: Never try to argue with a hard-core Trekkie)

  2. Wayne says:

    I’m not sure if it is “the faux bravery that comes with anonymity and being a safe distance from the victim of one’s taunts”. It probably has as small part to do with it on blogs. However it seems like people are more angry and willing speak out even at times when it is not wise to do so. Many seem to think that can say anything to anyone and not be held responsible. Also the old tactics of PC pressure just doesn’t go very fall today. It has been overused so much it has lost its sting. Common courtesy has seemed to have taken a big hit in many areas as well. No surprises but many factors are responsible.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    You lying fascist bastard! The only people who are upset by angry comments are Al Qaeda loving dhimmies like you! Anger is truth and truth is anger. But you wouldn’t understand that, would you, you god-hating communist fool!

    Oh and thanks for fixing that other comment for me, James. You Hitlerian scum!!!

    You know who else was Hitlerian? Hitler!

  4. sam says:

    “the flame wars that would erupt on Usenet”

    I always enjoyed the frolics on comp.sys.mac.advocacy. If your nostalgic, check out some of the “discussions” in the comments section of music YouTubes.

  5. john personna says:

    Megan suffers a bad dynamic in her comments. In part it is just the popular site rabble, and some misogyny in action, but a bit is self-reinforcing. Look back at the Elizabeth Warren articles for example. Megan made an argument and got some good strong rational and factual responses, but she chose to deflect them rather than incorporate them into her view. Even after facts were straightened out, she still believed what she believed.

    Maybe some people shouldn’t have comments, readers aren’t dumb. They’ll see that the rabble are making about as much progress as the reasonable.

    Dollars to donuts the people who read their comments and acknowledge points of fact, etc., are going to have more civilized visitors. Try that survey.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think it’s new but I do think there’s a real change in progress. As I see it over the last century or so we have made a transition from orality to literacy and now to visualcy. Each of these transitions effected changes in our mental processes. People today aren’t dumber. They do think differently because of the differences between the way that visual communications conditions your thought processes compared with the written word.

    The changes effected by the transition from orality to literacy have been documented and studied. One of the characteristics of pre-literate societies is a greater tendency to employ a concrete and agonistic mode of communication as opposed to the abstract and detached mode encouraged by literacy.

    For the last sixty or so years visual communication has become increasingly pervasive and sophisticated. It’s inevitable that will affect how we think, as well. IMO a greater tendency to an agonistic mode of expression, e.g. rage, may well be part of that transition.

  7. Drew says:

    Sir –

    If I might ask you to suffer my thoughts for a moment, I beg to differ. Although I may be in error, I believe a cursory review of newspaper articles and political cartoons from times past may show a similar, somewhat strident, tendency. Perchance even referring to those in political disagreement as scalliwags, alcoholics, robber barrons or such. Beastial and shocking commentary commentary, I agree, but alas true.

    I hope I haven’t taken of your time too liberally, nor offended you in any way by this observation. If so, please accept my sincerest apologies.

    Cordially and forever yours,


  8. Wayne says:

    Michael R you made me laugh.

  9. Hiya.

    I run a political news Blog – hell, perhaps half the human species seems to these days – and I do admit to more than a few blunt comments, here and there. However, as you accurately note, it’s merely expressing my dismay and frustration over the issues of our day and age. I don’t believe most people would actually act out on their anger; I know I certainly wouldn’t (too labor-intensive just for starters).

    Doug Mataconis: I work on a (name withheld) message major message board, and like you go back to Usenet and irc and BBS and so on (even ArpaNet!). It’s funny, the flame wars have toned way down since those days of yore. Though they do still occur once in a while – either angry political shouting and hand-waving, or someone pursuing some or another whacked out idea and won’t shut up about it.

    It ain’t like the old days. So it goes, I guess.

  10. John Personna says:

    OMG, Megan uses the Mankiw marginal tax cycle to illustrate this?

    See what I said about responding to rational argument, versus digging in and deflecting.

  11. Dodd says:

    the faux bravery that comes with anonymity and being a safe distance from the victim of one’s taunts

    That’s most of it. And has been for as long as there’s been an Internet. Godwin’s Law predates blogs by quite a bit, after all.

    If you think blogs are bad, spend some time on Fark.

  12. Which is better: Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Let the old school flame wars begin!

  13. tom p says:

    “‘And, specifically, the faux bravery that comes with anonymity and being a safe distance from the victim of one’s taunts. ”

    Is Zelsdorf listening????

  14. Instead of just throwing up your hands, bloggers could do a better job controlling the culture of their comment sections. They need to make it clear that certain behavior won’t be tolerated and follow through with punishment beyond endless warnings.

  15. I think complaining about the curb stomping sort of obscured my point, which is not that Jonathan Chait thinks that Greg Mankiw needs to be curb-stomped. Rather, it’s that what people are celebrating in other peoples’ posts is not the ideas, but rather the idea that our side is beating their side–it’s overpersonalized. A lot of bloggers on both sides are becoming successful by feeding their readers’ desire to reinforce their anger against their political opponents; the violent rhetoric, featuring increasingly hyperbolic descriptions of how bad we beat them attached to mildly effective analysis, is a symptom, not the problem.

  16. PragmaticAmerican,

    Usenet and IRC are still around ?

    Huh., I haven’t been on either in years I guess I just assumed they faded away

  17. Stormy Dragon,

    That is easier said than done.

    Unless you want to have a blog where every comment goes into moderation before it gets posted, it isn’t easy to monitor a comments section all the time. I’ve had several posts here the past few weeks that have ended up with very long comment threads and, while I do get email notification every time a comment is posted, I don’t always have the time to deal with a potentially abusive comment until the end of the day. At which point, since we’re living on Internet Time, it’s almost too late.

  18. Lynne says:

    I understand Megan’s point. It’s not enough to respectfully disagree anymore. Instead, many bloggers make it very, very personal when they disagree with someone and use what I would consider a scorched earth take no prisoners policy. For the best recent example, forget Mankiw’s post. Instead, go to the response to Professor Todd Henderson’s post. It started with Michael O’Hare and then Brad DeLong jumped in and it just went downhill from there. O’Hare and DeLong made their attacks so vicious and personal that I was just taken aback. The saddestt part was when O’Hare saw what he had unleashed and tried to dial it back, but by that time, the hounds had been released and there was no stopping them until all that was left of Professor Henderson’s blogging career was a bloody carcass.

    Like Megan, I don’t read really far right blogs like Red State, but I do read HotAir everyday, along with Contentions Commentary, Instapundit and Ace of Spades HQ. With the execption of Ace of Spades (often funny, more often profane), the right leaning blogs seem to be pretty civil. The left, however, is a whole different story. I would put DeLong as one of the worst, but the front page at Balloon Juice seems to have lost their minds (there is a reason that someone referred to the commentors there as a vitriolic mass of vicious jackals), Krugman’s Conscience is always very, very liberally shrill, and I can even look at the Daily Kos anymore.

  19. Unless you want to have a blog where every comment goes into moderation before it gets posted, it isn’t easy to monitor a comments section all the time.

    You don’t need perfect enforcement to have an effect.

  20. sookie says:

    I don’t think the rage was always there in the numbers you see right now. I think that’s new, but I also think it’s temporary, much of which will dissipate when (if) the economy gets better.

    I think post, unless really aggressive and way out there, should be left alone and allowed to post. Mostly people are just venting.

    People learn who to interact with and who not to because it’s never going to be productive to try to engage. Most people anyway… 🙂

  21. john personna says:

    You know what I just realized? I said above some people shouldn’t host comments. Mankiw doesn’t host comments for the very reason I describe. He doesn’t want to read rational and reasonable push-back on his page.

    And that’s exactly what lets him set up sophistries like the marginal rate piece. That only works in a vacuum, in place where no one will see the immediate “yeah, but …”

    Now, I didn’t follow the thread from there, to the curb stomping or whatever, but I was aware of the buzz. At the time I thought it was a natural consequence of Mankiw’s piece and his style.

    If some of his critics went nuts, it was probably because they knew the dynamic. No one is supposed to question Mankiw – not even when he constructs the most unlikely scenarios.

  22. cleek says:

    “A lot of bloggers on both sides are becoming successful by feeding their readers’ desire to reinforce their anger against their political opponents…”

    Umm…. this is how politics works, at all levels, everywhere.