Reading the comments on The Diplomat and other high-profile international relations websites, you could be forgiven for thinking that we’re already at war – China and the United States would seem to have locked horns, while India and Pakistan, and Israel and Iran, are already exchanging rounds.
This got me thinking: Are the bilious remarks, bitter acrimony and xenophobic hatred that litter the bottom of articles the relatively harmless rants of a motley crew of ultra-nationalists, a handful of off-duty soldiers, government information warfare experts and nerds taking a break from Call of Duty? If that were all there is to it, there’d be no reason to worry.
Sadly, the commenting wars raise a profound and troubling question about the evolution of world affairs: Could the hatred sown by geopolitical e-warriors today adversely influence tomorrow?
I’ll give you two examples of the unfortunately typical discourse on how to deal with the challenges of U.S.-China relations in the 21st century. In one corner, we have the stereotypical hawk: “The US & China are already at war…America needs to wake up. Take this out of the hands of diplomats and give it to the Pentagon & the Seventh Fleet.” And in the other is the textbook pro-Beijing propagandist wielding dehumanising rhetoric: “China needs to defend against predatory imperialist USA and its lackey war criminal Japan, and imperialist wannabe India, Australia and Vietnam…they are wolves in sheep skin, devils in human faces but the hearts of a beast.” Riveting, isn’t it?
Many critics, perhaps the silent majority, might reasonably argue that the best response to marginal e-warriors is to ignore their mind-numbing debates. But there are three problems with simply ignoring festering comment boxes of hatred. First, ignoring them won’t stop the contagion. Second, doing so precludes engagement by pointing out flaws, biases and intellectual fallacies in the e-warriors’ reasoning. Third, simply ignoring xenophobic and hateful messages scribbled on city walls, or furiously typed in comment boxes, is only ignoring the symptom of a larger problem. This is dangerous, insofar as it ignores how grassroots hatred could increase the likelihood of future wars.
E-warriors rely on half-baked, ahistorical untruths. Not only is much of it unintelligent nonsense, but it’s actually dangerous unintelligent nonsense. Scholars and concerned netizens can and should fill the intellectual void by speaking out against such false argumentation. Those who bay for the blood of U.S. “imperialists” and their allied “lackeys,” or who look forward to the final showdown with China, aren’t just expressing political opinions and xenophobic fears. They are actively stoking the fires of hatred, animosity and distrust.
Since the days of Thucydides, scholars of war have long concluded that the very belief in the inevitability of war, throughout the ages, has itself been a recurring cause of war. Whether we like it or not, e-warriors have a potentially disproportionate and negative impact in shaping U.S.-China perceptions by playing on the fears of their publics. The silent majority should speak out against the minority of hate-mongers who claim to exercise their online freedom of speech by inciting violence. We are the 99 percent.
Daryl Morini is deputy editor of e-International Relations and a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, specialising in preventive diplomacy.