Online anger fuels democracy in this interactive show

An experimental play looks at how the internet helped corrode political discourse and what we can do to fix it.

Sarah McDermott Senior Sub-Editor
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Sarah McDermott
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Voting results are projected onto the hive-like structure suspended above the stage.

National Theatre

My community has been invited to vote on a pressing issue. The consequences will be immediate. Lives will be changed by my decision.

I only have two options: yes or no.

A small keypad dangles from a lanyard around my neck. I press a button to signal my choice and the results are tallied on a screen. The community has spoken: Latecomers won't be turned away from the evening's performance of "The Majority", a piece of experimental theatre that explores how the internet has contributed to our feverish political climate by including the audience in key decisions. I feel the rush of relief and satisfaction that comes from being surrounded by right-thinking people.

"Congratulations," says Rob Drummond, the writer and performer of the one-man show, which is currently running at London's National Theatre. "You've just opened the borders."

Drummond's monologue blurs the line between fiction and reality, transporting his character from political apathy through keyboard wars to real-life activism that climaxes in violence at a far-right rally. Speaking to me over the phone, he reflects on the "bittersweet" feeling of writing a play that became all too relevant, launching just as far-right protests in Charlottesville dominated the news. While it's gratifying to have created a show that's chillingly relevant, he's all too aware that far-right movements have been "simmering" online for more than a year.

The seductive power of righteous anger churns at the heart of "The Majority", which Drummond presents as a story from his own life. He describes becoming politically active after Scotland's 2014 Independence referendum. But he doesn't get angry until he goes online. Then, he gleefully engages in Twitter feuds, keeping in touch with his activist mentor over Facebook. At one point he tracks down an anonymous neo-Nazi's real name and address, and is tempted to post them online "for the benefit of the community".  

The internet, of course, has become a crucial part of political activity. The neo-Nazis and white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville coordinated online. The response, too, came online, with internet companies ranging from Airbnb and Google to OKCupid cutting off services to those groups, which are loosely grouped together as the so-called "alt-right." In "The Majority," Drummond examines how the internet has transformed the nature of political warfare.

Drummond tells me "the no-eye-contact thing" is a big reason why we get into fights on social media. When we argue on Twitter we can't see the other person's face. We enjoy the thrill of slinging insults online and don't have to deal with the consequences of hurting people's feelings. "It's like a guilt-free little moment," he says.

Drummond plays every character in "The Majority" and, with the exception of the odd heckler, he's the only one who gets to speak. But there's a silent voice in the room. It's not a one-man show so much as "a 401-person show," director David Overend tells me. "And the audience has an unusually active role."

As the story unfolds, Drummond intermittently pauses to ask a yes-or-no question. As the audience votes, colourful lights and music call to mind BBC election night broadcasts. But they occasionally give way to a darker, sparser tone. Some votes affect the narrative while others are moral dilemmas, variations of the trolley problem, a philosophical exercise that asks whether you'd change a train's path to have it strike fewer people. And no matter how slim the majority, the winning vote defines the community.

The most interesting questions have immediate consequences: Should we pause the show so a few people can go to the restroom? It's hard to say no when a woman sheepishly raises her hand and admits she could use a break. When Drummond asks if we should dox a neo-Nazi live on stage, the audience seems genuinely torn. After a particularly tense vote, Drummond notes we're probably itching to explain our decisions. But that's not the way this works.


Writer and performer Rob Drummond is concerned about the ways we argue online.

National Theatre

The voting process highlights the inadequacy of binary answers to complex questions. But it also forces us to question the way we weigh our morals against the outcome of a vote. Sometimes a collective decision can erase an individual's guilt: I chose to let a disruptive group of latecomers in, but even as I generously cast my vote, I hoped my fellow audience members would be nasty enough to keep them out. If you're privately relieved to be on the losing side, were you really all that committed to your morals in the first place? Is an action justified if enough people have decided it's right?

There's also the weird sense of investment that comes with voting. Normally our role is to watch and judge a performance, but with every vote, we reveal more of ourselves and become complicit in the outcome of the story. So when Drummond criticises a stridently left-wing character -- whose views a liberal audience is likely to sympathise with -- his speech stings more than it might in a conventional play. A few days after seeing the show, I was still irritated at being judged on the way the whole audience voted. And, of course, that's sort of the point.

A better way of disagreeing

Seeing eye-to-eye online can be difficult at a time when even the US president has trouble keeping his cool, most notably on Twitter. Drummond compares Donald Trump with a venting teenager. 

"I think he's so thin skinned that every time someone makes fun of him, he throws a hissy fit online," he says. But, he argues, "the qualities that I'm assuming me and you find abhorrent about him are the very qualities that his base like about him. 'Of course he's belligerent, we like that. Of course he hits out at people and he's abusive. We like that.'"

While Drummond is clear Trump was wrong not to condemn the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, he says he worries about people on the borderline who are flirting with the far right and influenced by its activities online. "There must have been some people who were just protesting the statues coming down who weren't Nazis," Drummond says, adding that it's unhelpful to use language that only drives the right further right. "The minute someone hears your argument starting with 'of course they're all Nazis…' they switch off to the decent part of your argument."

What's the alternative? "If you eliminate the hyperbole and only use the good points, you're much more likely to get through to people." Drummond recommends treating every conversation like a "research mission". Listening to arguments is a way of forcing people to actually think about their extreme views. "Reassess what you want out of the conversation. It's not to win, it's to find out something."

It's a problem that exists on both sides of the political divide, and Drummond would like to bring the show's message further. "We need to start reaching out to the right-wing theatre audiences who, at the moment, don't seem to exist."

Meanwhile, Overend notes that "The Majority's" story might have to change if it were aimed at a right-wing audience. "But the message is the same: We need to learn to disagree better. We gain nothing by shouting at each other across a void."

"The Majority" is running at the National Theatre until Monday 28 August.

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