Breaking Windows On The Internet


Only an invention like the internet could generate such a widespread array of research and questions considering its place in society. Under the sub-categories ‘crime,’ ‘policing,’ and ‘activism,’ we can read about exciting things like spontaneous social movements and geography-defying organising. On the downside, the dangers of surveillance, call out and call in culture, trolls, and slacktivism merit serious contemplation. Where does the web belong in an activists’ toolkit if it’s monitored by the system? If it risks both tearing people apart and bringing them together? Applying the (outdated) theory of broken windows, the virtual space of the interweb has hosted radical models for community intervention in a world where the police are too much.

In 1982, two sociologists (incidentally both white men) coined the “broken windows” theory, a devastating justification for racialized policing for the ‘benefit’ of urban order. Taking a domino approach to urban crime, the theory validates the common fear that one ‘broken window’ (or violent crime) left unfixed (unpoliced) will lead to broken windows everywhere. For these white men, community watch isn’t enough for black and brown communities. Only the presence of police can assure safety. Much has already been said about how this idea inspired NYC’s racist stop and frisk practices and propagated ongoing murders by the police. An experiment in the original article even cited that most vandals of abandoned cars happened to be “respectable whites.”

When applied to the internet, journalists have already highlighted how anonymous ‘bad eggs’ on Twitter can corrupt entire communities, prompting the need for regulating (and censoring) trolls and online bullies. At the heart of this idea is that a broken window is a bad thing and that the people who live nearby aren't sufficiently equipped to fix it. Both these presumptions aren’t necessarily true online or IRL.

Given the limits of the social media in the Arab Spring case and everything we’ve come to learn about spying on activists, the internet cannot be seen as the quick fix to an unjust society. That said, the ways in which communities have come together to form norms and practices for accountability ‘shatter’ the broken windows theory at its core. Black Twitter has thoroughly exemplified the organic community building that can come from dealing with broken windows without a police. But they can’t (and shouldn’t) do all the work.

Window broken? The internet says to take a picture. It’s your receipt, a magic paper that lets you hold the person who sold it to you accountable. A popular media trend of US-President-45’s term has been juxtaposing transcripts and videos of him blatantly contradicting himself. The New York Times has compiled a snarky infographic listing every lie he’s uttered in office. Much deeper than this silly example, disenfranchised people have found in the internet a platform to not only speak their truth, but to shine a light on reality: This window is broken.

Need to fix it? Instead of calling a neighbour, the internet might suggest calling it out. This person broke it. If the troll/bigot won’t pay to fix it, the least someone can do is drag him into the ground. The way this usually happens definitely calls for further reflection, especially when aimed at someone already marginalised. On the flip side, the act of calling out (with receipts included) shows where online communities don’t need an internet police with arbitrary guidelines to help them keep the peace. In a meta act of community building some people on the internet actually collaborated on an entire syllabus on police alternatives. What better exemplifies Rolling Stones writer José Martin’s suggestions for direct democracy, community patrols, and restorative justice than the 500+ comment thread that can teach someone not only who was in the wrong, but why. When vilifying the unjust systems rather than the people embodying them, calling out isn’t toxic. It can be a less-violent way of fixing that broken window. Together.

Is this activism, however? Is it effective? Its long-term effects are impossible to predict, but this kind of work’s potential exceeds the usual criticism of slacktivism. Given all the red tape required to make a march happen, a protest can no longer truly be ‘protest.’ Add to that the monitoring of activists online, the power of stealth and invisibility might even be preferable in some cases. The rise of hate crimes in 2017 (and their hypocritical condemnation), not to mention ongoing police violence, remind us that the need to hold each other accountable in person is very much alive. The internet has helped with this work. But in addition to bystander and de-escalation training, what other forms of intervention can be improvised on the ground? The internet can only be one part of the answer.

Image by Kim Keever
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