This is the first of a two part reassessment of online culture. While I believe that the Sad Puppy episode has been consigned to the dust heap of internet history, the misuse and abuse of social media continues. I'm afraid that I'm no longer quite so optimistic about the future of digital discourse as I was when I started writing my column, lo these many years ago.
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Science fiction has had its share of fan feuds, but the Sad Puppy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sad_Puppies uprising of recent memory was among the most disruptive—and pointless—in the history of our genre. Unlike the old time fannish dustups which took place at the glacial speed of the Postal Service, this one happened in real time on social media and blogs and comment sections. While the majority of science fiction readers pay scant attention to such insider doings, over the past few years the Sad Puppies and their rabid cohorts shouted their way not only onto the front pages of the genre press, but also into the headlines of many general news outlets.
To catch you up: storm clouds gathered in 2013 when Larry Correia www.larrycorreia.wordpress.com, an ambitious and popular sf novelist, chafed on his blog over his lack of awards recognition www.monsterhunternation.com/2013/01/08/how-to-get-correia-nominated-for-a-hugo. To remedy this perceived slight, he proposed gaming the Hugo Awards www.thehugoawards.org by asking his fans to pay a fee that would enable them to nominate his latest novel. “Monster Hunter Legion www.baen.com/monster-hunter-legion.html is eligible . . . I’m just pointing that out. The fact that I write unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic annoys the literati to no end.”
Correia believed that the sf establishment in general and the Hugo Awards process in particular were ignoring him and other like-minded writers. He recommended that his followers ask themselves: “Should I vote for the heavy handed message fic about the dangers of fracking and global warming and dying polar bears and robot rape as a bad feminist analogy with a villain who is a thinly veiled Dick Cheney? Or should I vote for the LAS VEGAS EXPLOSION SHOOTING EVERYTHING DRAGON HELICOPTER CHASE ORC SACRIFICING CHICKENS BOOK!?!”
He considered the answer to be self-evident. So, if his fans bought sixty dollar supporting memberships to the annual World Science Fiction Convention www.worldcon.org, they could intervene in the Hugo voting process to promote their favorites. “And once you’ve done that, you can nominate. The nominations stay open for a few more months, so I’ll post about some of the things I think which are awesome, but which normally have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.”
It was possible at the time to read this as a tongue-in-cheek PR stunt that failed, since despite Correia’s lobbying, Monster Hunter Legion did not make the Hugo ballot. However, the next year he returned with reinforcements, birthing the insurgency known as the Sad Puppies. (The self-deprecating name refers to this ASPCA commercial www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO9d2PpP7tQ. It’s meant to compare pulp writers who provide entertainment to the masses, but get no recognition, to abused pets.) Not only did Correia have a new novel to flog, but he also posted a slate www.monsterhunternation.com/2014/03/25/my-hugo-slate of twelve works of fiction and non-fiction that he urged his Puppy minions to nominate. As an act of provocation, he included a novelette by one Vox Day, a pseudonym for a notorious internet troll www.time.com/4457110/internet-trolls named Theodore Beale. As Correia blogged, “. . . one of my stated goals was to demonstrate that SJWs would have a massive freak out if somebody with the wrong politics got on. So on the slate it went. I nominated Vox Day because Satan didn’t have any eligible works that period.” What’s a SJW, you ask. Wikipedia explains http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_justice_warrior: “‘Social justice warrior” is a pejorative term for an individual promoting socially progressive views, including feminism, civil rights, multiculturalism, and identity politics.”
Better organized the second time around, the Sad Puppies slate succeeded, after a fashion. Seven of Correia’s choices made it onto the final ballot, although almost all came in last place when the votes were counted, and one, Vox Day’s novelette, finished below “No Award” www.thehugoawards.org/the-voting-system/.
The embrace of Vox Day highlighted the true agenda of the Puppies. The claim that sf wasn’t adventurous enough and that it had strayed from its pulp origins was just a smokescreen for an alt-right political attack on the genre. The gloves came off after Vox Day launched the extremist wing of the Sad Puppies, which he called the Rabid Puppies. You will note that I have not included URLs for the Rabid Puppies or for Vox Day. I’m embarrassed enough to be writing about him, dear reader, much less to be pointing you toward the toxic sites where he spews! Consider that Day has come out against women’s suffrage, has suggested marital rape is an oxymoron, has stooped to racist taunts, and has preached that homosexuality is a birth defect and you’ll know more than you need to know about his vile beliefs.
When Correia stepped away from the Puppies, Vox Day became its central figure, in the process skewing some of the rhetoric perilously close to hate speech. Nevertheless, by adroitly pursuing the slate ploy a third time, the Rabid Puppies swamped the final ballot in 2015, placing fifty-eight of their sixty-seven recommendations before Hugo voters. Five different categories had nothing but Puppy nominees! Very few of these works would have received any notice had it not been for the Puppies’ ballot manipulation.
The overwhelming majority of SF fans were aghast. Not only were reforms implemented to forestall future Puppy interference, but the Hugo voters rejected the Puppies at Sasquan www.sasquan.org, the World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane in 2015. No Award won in all five of the Puppy-only categories. In those categories where there was a mix of Puppy and legitimate nominations, Puppy nominees lost to No Award. Although they suffered a crushing defeat, they had managed to hijack one of the genre’s most prestigious awards. They returned again in 2016 with a new strategy, this time including in their slates a few works by authors who had no sympathy whatsoever for the Puppy cause, using them as a kind of literary camouflage. This strategy proved ineffective, and by the time the most recent Hugos were awarded at Worldcon 75 www.worldcon.fi in Helsinki, the Puppies had been thoroughly marginalized. The influential fanzine File 770 www.file770.com/?p=34186 estimates that there were just eighty to ninety Puppy voters out of 2464 nominating ballots cast before the Helsinki Worldcon. However, Vox Day did manage to get himself and a few of the obscure authors he’d published nominated in a handful of categories once again.
Although the Puppies will probably continue to whine, their influence seems to have waned. What did they accomplish? Although they garnered a few empty nominations, they did not succeed in blowing up the Hugo Awards. They failed to make a convincing case for their conservative politics, nor did they woo converts to their literary cause. What they did get was a boatload of press, albeit most of it negative. The roster of news sources that reported on the Puppies is impressive. The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, Slate, NPR, The Guardian, Wired, The Atlantic, and The Huffington Post gave them bemused, but largely critical notice, while the National Review and Breitbart News cheered them on. Some viewed the sound and fury as a manifestation of a cultural malaise, linking them to Gamergate http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamergate_controversy or the rise of Donald Trump www.salon.com/2016/08/23/the-alt-right-attacks-sci-fi-how-the-hugo-awards-got-hijacked-by-trumpian-style-culture-warriors.
In 1996 the Internet pioneer John Perry Barlow http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Perry_Barlow published A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence that has since been widely reprinted, to both praise and criticism. At the dawn of the internet, it was possible to imagine it becoming a digital utopia. As Barlow wrote, addressing the existing governments of the world, “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. . . . We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.” I too was swept up in that early-days optimism about the future of the internet; my “On The Net” columns from the late nineties are aglow with it.
Last year the Pew Research Center issued a report called The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online www.pewinternet.org/2017/03/29/the-future-of-free-speech-trolls-anonymity-and-fake-news-online that shows the naïveté of pundits like Barlow and Kelly in trusting that the Golden Rule would hold sway over our digital discourse. The trends cited in the report were ripped from the headlines. ISIS is using social media as a weapon of terror www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/11/war-goes-viral/501125 and the Russians programmed internet bots to distort our most recent election www.dhs.gov/news/2016/10/07/joint-statement-department-homeland-security-and-office-director-national. Online harassment is on the risewww.pewinternet.org/2014/10/22/online-harassment, with some 40 percent of adults having experienced it personally, and the onslaught of internet trolls www.businessinsider.com/find-out-why-any-of-us-are-capable-of-trolling-2017-3 has led many sites either to close comments or use moderators to police them www.npr.org/sections/ombudsman/2014/09/24/348775874/policing-the-trolls-the-ins-and-outs-of-comment-moderation. And the report was issued before the horrific incidents of murders and suicides livestreamed to Facebook www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/facebook-wanted-visceral-live-video-its-getting-suicides-and-live-streaming-killers/2017/04/17/a6705662-239c-11e7-a1b3-faff0034e2de_story.html?utm_term=.9f5c00b7d5e7.
Citing digital bank heists www.nytimes.com/2016/05/14/business/dealbook/details-emerge-on-global-bank-heists-by-hackers.html, multiple hacks resulting in millions having personal information compromised http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/worlds-biggest-data-breaches-hacks/, the growing threat of ransomware http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ransomware, and a spate of distributed denial-of-service attacks www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/21/ddos-attack-dyn-internet-denial-service, The Guardian has offered a chilling response to Barlow’s Declaration in Has the Internet Become a Failed State?www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/nov/27/has-internet-become-failed-state-crime-cyberspace.
I am still mulling over the Pew Report, since it raises important issues that we as members of the science fiction community and as citizens of the world need to address. But for now I leave you with a couple of quotes for further reflection. The first is from The Guardian article:
“One way of thinking about the net is as a mirror held up to human nature. Some of what appears in the mirror is inspiring and heart-warming. Much of what goes on online is enjoyable, harmless, frivolous, fun. But some of it is truly repellent: social media, in particular, facilitate firestorms of cruelty, racism, hatred, and hypocrisy.”
The other quote is from Defense One www.defenseone.com, a blog about “the future of U.S. defense and national security” that examines Weaponized Narrative www.defenseone.com/ideas/2017/01/weaponized-narrative-new-battlespace/134284:
“In the hands of professionals, the powerful emotions of anger and fear can be used to control adversaries, limit their options, and disrupt their functional capabilities. This is a unique form of soft power. In such campaigns, facts are not necessary because—contrary to the old memes of the Enlightenment—truth does not necessarily prevail. It can be overwhelmed with constantly repeated and replenished falsehood.”
Puppies, I’m looking at you.