If you haven’t seen Black Mirror, well, I’m not sure why you’re here. If you have, you know it is arguably one of the most important and thought provoking shows of our era. 25YL is proud to feature analyses of each and every episode. Here, Caemeron Crain digs into Black Mirror S3E6, “Hated in the Nation.”
For years now, we have been hearing that bees are in trouble. Given the role they play in the food chain, this has created worries about an impending ecological disaster. As such, the idea of autonomous robot bees that serve the same function may seem like an appealing one; that is, until they start killing people.
“Hated in the Nation” is framed through the testimony of Karin Parke, who was the lead investigator on the case in question, to a committee. There is little of interest in this testimony, however, beyond its function as a framing device, and the way it serves to enable the end of the episode. The meat of the story pertains to the case in question.
This begins when Jo Powers dies after receiving quite a backlash in response to an article she had written about a disabled woman. Someone even sends her a cake with “Fuck You Bitch” written on it, though most of the action is online. It turns out she was the subject of a hashtag that got trending: #deathto.
Karin and her partner, Blue Colson, interview the woman who sent the cake, Liza Bahar. It turns out that she was only one of a group who chipped in to buy it. She insists that it was funny, and refers to #deathto as a joke.
1) Is there a way to define the joke? Is it anything anyone finds funny? Is it important that it not be “serious”? Is there a difference between not being serious and joking?
There are, of course, various types of humor: pushing a premise to the point of absurdity, subverting expectations, irony, etc. But the kind of “joke” Liza has in mind does not seem to fit well into any of the established categories. Whatever issues one might have with irony, it seems clear that #deathto is not meant ironically. This is not a matter of pretending to believe the opposite of what one believes, or taking a certain cynical distance from the object of one’s statement. Neither is this a matter of satire, which we might define in terms of pushing the logic of a position to its breaking point.
This is rather a laugh taken from being mean. But it does not resemble roasting someone, or even trolling, insofar as those activities depend on the response of the target. Perhaps Liza and others were “not serious” when they wrote #deathto Jo Powers, but that doesn’t make it a joke. In fact, those using the hashtag actually do want their targets to die, or at least suffer meaningfully for what they have done. When Liza calls it a “joke” she only means that she wouldn’t actually commit the murder. She doesn’t express remorse that Jo Powers is dead; instead she references the enormity of Powers’ article. There is something deeply human, if disturbingly dark, about such a desire for the death of another who is perceived to have done something heinous, but it is an abuse of language to call it a joke.
A joke has to be funny, and this is an issue worth thinking about in a world where any number of bad actors continually try to get off the hook by saying they were joking. Perhaps the most prominent example is the sitting President of the United States, whose representatives continually insist that comments he has made—from cajoling an audience to punch a protester, to encouraging the police to engage in brutality, etc.—were jokes. Perhaps the underlying question is whether humor is fully subjective; or, rather, perhaps it is precisely the notion that it is that needs to be squarely rejected.
1a) Is something like an objective definition of humor possible?
It is likely that many, or even most of those who used #deathto at the beginning presumed, like Liza, that it was just trending hashtag, and not something that might actually lead to the person’s death. The real world consequences of the hashtag, however, become apparent to Karin and Blue as a second victim is taken—Tusk, who earned the ire of the internet by mocking a young boy’s dancing—and the connection to the AI bees is discovered. They further find a video from the originator of the hashtag called “Game of Consequences” which lays out the rules: whoever has the most #deathto votes at 5 p.m. each day gets killed.
Perhaps Liza and others had not seen this video when they used the hashtag, but by the fourth day, it is a news story, and the morality of participating is being debated by the media. After all, if someone is going to die, isn’t it perhaps justified to chime in to try to make sure it is someone who “deserves” it? On the other hand, isn’t everyone who uses the hashtag—particularly after it became widely known that the stake were real—complicit in these deaths?
Human beings may struggle to kill each other face-to-face in most instances, but this is far removed. If anything, it resembles being a drone operator. Of course, the scenario in “Hated in the Nation” is far more visceral: we hate public figures and feel free to express that hate in the public space of social media. What if that hatred had teeth? Who would you #deathto?
2) Is it justifiable to be complicit in something bad, in order to prevent something worse?
Karin and Blue discover that a man called Garrett Scholes is behind all of this, and his motivation turns out to be contrary to what may have been expected. He discovered his old flatmate, Tess Wallender, when she attempted suicide after being at the wrong end of a social media shit-storm. She also thinks he had a thing for her.
Regardless, Scholes’ true endgame is to turn the killer AI bees on all of those who had participated in #deathto. Blue discovers a list of some 387,000 people who have taken part, though targeting them seems to depend on their devices rather than the facial recognition that was being used for the targets of the hashtag. (Oh yeah, of course the government was also using the bees for the purpose of surveillance). It is not made clear how many people actually died in this event, as the episode turns to a montage, showing Scholes shave, put in colored contact lenses, dispose of evidence, and disappear.
It would seem Blue catches up with him at the very end of the episode, but we do not actually see her catch him. To what extent does this matter? Could bringing him to justice in any way make us feel better in light of the massive harm done? Blue has faked her own death and gone off the grid to track down Scholes. This only makes sense if her goal is not to bring him to justice—since surely there would be a massive international manhunt underway for someone who killed so many people—but to kill him. Is that what he deserves?
Black Mirror has frequently played with the notion of fates worse than death, in “White Christmas” and “White Bear,” for example. Both of those episodes are also referenced, however subtly, in “Hated in the Nation.” If Blue does indeed kill Scholes, then one has to ask whether that would be more or less than he deserves. Or, again, could anything serve as proper retribution for a crime so heinous? And, is there any real threat of him repeating his offense? Would killing him perhaps be to fall into the same despicable logic he himself deployed?
That logic seems clear enough. Scholes experienced how online vitriol can lead a person to attempt suicide. In other words, it can cause a death. His plan, then, was to ensure that it did; to make concrete the possible effects of the hate spewed on social media, whether this be directed at public personalities, or private citizens. His intention, ultimately, was not to take this hatred to the next level, but to punish those who engaged in it.
While this is extreme, and the killing of hundreds of thousands of people is clearly unjustifiable, one should also note the extent to which Scholes has a point. It is all too easy to say incredibly nasty things to people online, and even to wish them dead. We feel protected by a certain kind of anonymity; freed to say things we would never say to a person’s face. There are no meaningful consequences. One may be blocked, or banned from a site, but little stands in the way of creating a new profile and starting again.
“Hated in the Nation” thus engages with a logic similar to that of doxxing. If the idea is to create real world consequences for those engaged in bad behavior online, we have to ask whether the proposed remedy might not be worse than the disease.