Social Media Bans and the Only Hypocrisy That Matters
One of the most insightful takes on the events of January 6th was one of the least popular, and it goes something like this: while there were clearly many in attendance with heavy equipment and nefarious strategic goals please notice how many participating in the storming of the U.S. Capitol appear to have had the creation of content for social media as their main endgame. This was echoed two days later by a much more popular take: Banning Trump from Twitter probably hurt him — both personally and strategically — more than impeachment or the 25th Amendment.
But by the morning of Saturday the 9th, almost gone was the momentary awareness that what we call politics has become merely a secondary phenomenon to the free labor people provide to social tech companies (this labor is provided via content creation for Youtube channels, Facebook posts and livestreams, most of which is some kind of identity performance). The internet was instead alight with those from across political divides worried that Trump’s ban from social platforms portended future danger for them and their beliefs. That their use of these apps to advance their opinions, ideas and movements might meet the same eventual fate as Donald Trump.
First of all it’s important to understand Facebook and Twitter’s recent decisions not as ethical or political ones, but as corporate damage control. There is a deep desire many to the left share for moguls such as these to find their ethical compunction. It is mirrored on the right by those who need to believe that their commitment to free market capitalism are not being expressed but subverted by CEOs who see their product’s role in a right wing insurrection as a PR crisis. Taken together these desires ensure that most remain blind to the understanding that the only “red line” that was crossed was that these companies might soon be more widely understood as choice-makers no matter how automated the choice-making is via algorithm. And those algorithms, which select mainly for profit, both allow and drive the beliefs that lead up to the events of January 6th. In most ways, it is an absolutely traditional PR crisis/profit margin damage control situation — except for the fact that the scale and influence throw it beyond the realm of the familiar.
The decisions by Facebook and Twitter are rightly seen as craven. We should have had a public discussion long ago about whether we wanted to migrate our politics into corporate-controlled spaces or establish a public utility-style free network for these things that isn’t governed by corporate self-interest. The right should have been forced to say that they didn’t believe the Facebook and Twitter should get to act like self-interested corporations. They should have had to say why. The left should have had to explain why they felt it was necessary to have an anti-billionaire revolt in spaces governed by the interests of billionaires.
For years, these brands have fought to instill an image of themselves in the minds of users as providers of mere tools. They focus on the ideal of an empowered user to distract from the gargantuan amount of behavioral control they intentionally exert over those users. When this intent is raised, critics are met with the assurance that no dark puppet strings are being pulled behind their scenes, just some programmers wrote a program which people freely choose to use. They use it freely but also for free, a bargain even the more Zuck-skeptical find impossible to pass up.
Those conservatives who say that the left won the culture after the 1960s aren’t exactly wrong — most of us are fed an antiestablishment think-for-yourself ethic from the time we’re old enough to switch on a device. Never minding that it’s inseparable from the ethos of the advertising industry and American capitalism since the 50’s (please read Thomas Frank’s ‘The Conquest of Cool’ immediately if you haven’t) most Americans — even, and especially now, conservatives! — have a sense of themselves as someone who sees through media lies. Who can’t be controlled by the powers-that-be. They have learned phrases like “Follow the money” and generally believe that while others can be bought and manipulated by powerful interests, they and those in their immediate circles are the sorts that can’t.
For all the bemoaning of “both-sides” arguments, much of which is sorely needed and spot-on, it should be relatively uncontroversial that this is a broad cultural condition in America. It serves as the foundation for not just both sides in a dichotomy but for most sides in a multivalent media landscape. You’d be hard pressed to find a political, social, or cultural identity group that does not start from these presuppositions. This is why it’s so far been extremely difficult to develop a conversation about the real problems with social tech — everyone thinks it’s only everyone else being manipulated and they’re severely resistant to accepting a narrative where they can be controlled by the powers-that-be. Where following the money, in fact, proves the degree to which they are being manipulated by powerful interests.
For all their railing against the “identity politics obsessed left,” the insurrectionists could barely be more concerned with the politics of identity if they tried. That identity may be white and Christian, but it mimics the language of grievance and persecution they claim to hate with such pitch perfection, one could be forgiven for sometimes forgetting they also claim to despise “snowflakes” who are “constantly offended.” The same people wearing “FACTS DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS” t-shirts, are also so horrified of losing an election to one of the most right-leaning Democrats that ran in 2020, his eventual victory prompts demands from right wing media apologists that we understand the attack on the Capitol through the prism of the attackers’ underlying heartbreak.
The mistake many commentators make here, however, is to merely cry foul hypocrisy. In fact the more interesting thing to investigate is why conceptual incoherence of this kind is so effective in mobilizing hordes of self-proclaimed patriots who wave the flag of the thin blue line but are fine with murdering cops in order to overturn an election. The answer is in the incentive structure of content creation, which is how the business model of social tech companies is expressed by users. And even the most cursory look at that relationship goes a long way towards answering the anxieties of those who wonder if Facebook and Twitter have gone beyond their reasonable boundaries in deciding which speech can and can’t be expressed on their sites.
When engaged in the debate over music streaming, I have often referred to the flattening of all creative work into web content. I’ve explained in detail, in an article for The Talkhouse, how this is the core problem for musicians and music lovers. The debate over whether to pirate, stream or produce costly and environmentally degrading objects for purchase, overlooks the deepest problem. When you subject certain things to the surveillance capitalist data economy, you change them. This also is something people have a deep resistance to accepting. But it goes triple for politics as for music.
Visualize it this way. Most music listeners’ understanding of the dynamic might be represented by writing the word “MUSIC” using hundreds of small instances of the word “data.” In this view, data is merely the delivery system for the original thing. The original thing mostly survives this translation and arrives to us efficiently, not degraded. My plea for years has been that listeners understand that it’s the other way around: write the word “DATA” using hundreds of small instances of the word “music.”
The same phenomenon applies to politics. Write the word “DATA” using the word “ideas” thousands of times, and then “ethical problem solving conversations” and then “ideology and identity formation” and “political debate.” In the course of this we change the original things. And for data to serve the interests of social platforms it does not need for ethical problem solving conversations to traffic only in the true, it does not need for ideologies to be coherent, for statements to correspond with actions. It needs dramatically different things.
This is what the political commentariat fails to grasp: the reason it does no good to point out hypocrisy is that you can also write “DATA” with words like “hypocrisy.” And in fact, as we know from multiple studies regarding how engagement is most effectively generated on social platforms, “hypocrisy,” or the breathtaking incoherent pseudoreligiosity of Tumblr tankies and QAnon faithful actually work best. They write the word “DATA” the biggest and the quickest.
When you change everything into data, the companies who are in that business will naturally control it. The incentives that govern their bottom lines will govern everything you submitted to them.
The deeper reason that we perceive something profound about livestreaming from the coup and taking away a sitting President’s ability to tweet about Lil Wayne is because at a gut level we understand that we are merely writing the big word “DATA” with the small word “politics.” We understand at the gut level that a person whose presidency is unthinkable without Twitter can experience consequences more grave from Jack Dorsey than from the U.S. Congress. We understand that this was a concession we made long ago, and there is no easy fix.
Pop cultural products from “Network” to “Natural Born Killers” to “The King of Comedy” told us years ago all we needed to know about Trumpism and the path to January 6th, 2021. But recent pop cultural products such as the film “The Social Network” and the TV show “DEVS” have begun to suggest, however realistically or hyperbolically, that the stakes are not simply whether we give CEOs and companies the power to decide how their products are used. This, after all, is private enterprise and free choice at its most distilled. Those that don’t like it have some hard questions to ask themselves about the eternal wisdom of free enterprise. The stakes are that these products are actively and perhaps irrevocably changing music, people, ideas, conversation, into something that democracy and open society is not equipped to regulate, moderate, or even survive.
We tend to joke that Trump experienced his first consequence from Twitter. It’s not funny at all. It’s how we admit that nation-states with nuclear arsenals are not as powerful as those colonizing and mining every aspect of human life by converting everything to data and submitting it to the ruthless dictates of capital. The moment we cease pretending that we are still experiencing things politics and identity as a primary phenomenon rather than as secondary result of data production and free labor is the moment the needle moves. The only hypocrisy that matters is that people angry today at Twitter were its willing free laborers yesterday. But it matters because hypocrisy as a result of fragmented incoherent information spheres is instilled, enabled, and sustained by the companies that benefit from that labor.