“Muting” on the internet: a new development, leading where?

[First published 19 February 2018; lightly edited.]

In many places of online “socialisation”, company-appointed officials – usually low-ranking ones working for no financial payment – are empowered to “mute” members of the social group that the company has allowed to gather on its electronic premises. This causes a thus-sanctioned person’s contributions to become invisible to other people while remaining visible to the person themselves as if nothing has happened. The target person is in effect removed from society without them knowing it. When nobody responds to what they are saying, perhaps they will eventually deduce what has been done to them. Or perhaps they will not, because they might simply assume that nobody in the group wants to communicate with them. The muting is usually kept quiet from other “users” too, except perhaps from one or two of the official’s special favourites.

This to me is an extremely interesting social development. I cannot think of any previous example of this kind of social exclusion – which does not instantly appear to the excluded person as an exclusion – in the whole of human history.

If a person gets gagged or put in an isolation cell, they know what’s happening right away. That is unless they are psychotic – and probably even if they are psychotic they will still know. “Muting” is very different.

One feature is that it is hard to complain about. If, say, a policeman or a private company guard hits you over the head and you believe he was wrong to do so, it is usually eventually easy to complain. Complaining might not get you anywhere, of course, but probably you will, either soon or at some later point, find that you are able to complain. But you can’t complain about getting hit if you don’t know you were hit. Muting is highly reminiscent of the rule that was introduced in Germany when my grandmother was in her late teens, requiring that guards in a prison of a certain kind were obliged (not simply authorised, but obliged) to shoot any prisoner who entered a strip near the fence – to shoot them without warning, and to shoot them dead. How does this power affect the minds of the guards? You can be sure that the senior officials in the organisation to which the guards belonged had thought about that question. And there is at least some literature on how both guards and prisoners behaved in relation to the strip and the new rule.

I expect the “muting” function soon to appear in other areas of social life than companies’ online chat rooms, once the necessary technology has been successfully imposed in wider society.

I expect that to happen whether or not it comes heavily wrapped in an ideology of “freedom”.

I have several times tried in chat rooms to discuss chatroom muting, but few have ever wanted to discuss it.

These chat rooms have contained many morons. And morons who act as if they have rabies rather than trying to explain why they hold a view – one that they have simply received, being too stupid to form opinions on such matters for themselves – tend to spit and shout and prevent discussion rather than to face up to the choices they made that caused them to be so stupid in the first place. They are, therefore, very much with the muting programme.

If anybody has said anything on the topic usually they have said muting is good, and if they then add any kind of rational support for their view it’s to say that it’s good for the person who is subjected to it because it lets them cool off. But that’s typical nowadays: most people “think” that any new social development is “good”, because they’re too scared and idiotic to form their own opinion about it, let alone a critical one. Which is of course exactly the dimwitted submissiveness that muting itself is intended to train people into, on the presumably increasingly rare occasions that they consider for a brief time the option of acting in a way that those who profit from the company that provides their “socialisation” space don’t want. It will be a case of “Oops, I went wrong there. Sorry about that. Won’t happen again”, as they internalise the company’s needs as if they were their own needs. Except that it isn’t as simple as that. But if I stop being so angry for a while and examine the support that is offered for the “cooling off” argument I still find that the argument doesn’t work. The person is not being thrown out of the room for a short while. That’s not what’s happening. Companies do give their officials the tool to impose that kind of sanction (a “kick” or a “ban”), but muting is a different kind of tool. At first the person doesn’t even know they’ve been muted. It seems to them that they are still in the room, still in society. If you thought online “socialisation” had a “fictitious” side to it, this is even worse, and socially it is even crazier. This is a fictition of such socialisation, company-made to appear as real to a person who, initially unbeknown to themselves, is actually excluded from it.

If you aren’t scared by this, you should be. Most, I think, will hold their pitchforks as a person gets burnt at the stake, whether they’re shrieking in delight or whether they’re just standing there with their mouths open. If you ask them to explain themselves they will say that the targeted person had been acting antisocially anyway.

Which of course perhaps the targeted person had been. Certainly in online groups you do get people acting antisocially and some kind of moderation is needed if those who do not act in such a way are to continue what passes for their “socialising”. I am not denying that. What I am trying to draw attention to are the ramifications of the muting function.

I offer the hypothesis that the “society” the existence of which is implied in the very widespread use of the term “social media” goes together with the practice of exclusion from that society; and that we will find that muting becomes a structurally normal form of such exclusion – and of the training of compliance.

The training that muting gives to some of those who are subjected to it is not self-discipline. It is a step on from both Pavlov’s “classical conditioning” and Skinner’s “operant conditioning“. It is bound to become more widespread.

I would be interested to know whether there are any cases yet of companies running a system whereby an official who is empowered to mute “users” can himself be muted by a more senior official. I suspect that the answer is no, that basically we are talking about a guards and prisoners model. If a guard or a police officer goes completely loony then his colleagues can lock him up, but that is highly exceptional and it is not part of the everyday functioning of how prisons and policing work.

The absence of “public” discussion of muting makes it even more frightening. I doubt that the new rule for prison guards that I referred to above was discussed much in the media at that time either.

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