Try the following experiment: think of a value that you consider important. It’s a moral virtue, therefore it’s a political good. Now imagine someone online has accused someone else online of violating that virtue. A large group of people has responded publicly to this violation, in a way that corresponds with your own sentiments. It then prompts a reaction from a group of people against which you politically identify. Easy enough to imagine, right? But here’s the important part: now picture your group collectively decides, upon reviewing the facts, the accusation is implausible, and the accused is innocent. The people against which you identify were right, and you admit it. Most people on your side do.
How easy was that to imagine?
It’s hard to speak about these matters today, because there is always going to be a group that responds to the above paragraph claiming that it’s easy to imagine, actually it happens all the time, while the rest of us know they are either deluded or dishonest. We don’t have rigorous empirical ways of measuring these things, so we must rely on good faith in order to have a productive conversation. So I will offer the following disclaimer: the argument that follows here is only for those who will at least start from what I’d characterize as an honest accounting of how these things usually go. Guilty verdicts are everywhere, acquittals are rare. There is strong social disincentive to publicly stating that the best version of the facts does not support the conclusions of your group. If you do not believe this is the reality of things, you can stop reading now.
For those remaining, the question from here would be whether this is because guilt is more common than innocence. Are fair accusations more common than false ones? Are there simply more guilty people in the world than innocent ones? This is certainly the view of some, but it’s useful to think about where it (likely) came from. It comes, as far as I can tell, from #MeToo, where the wisdom was that since false accusations are uncommon, we were to believe accusers. But this has crept far beyond the question of sexual misconduct and assault. And I suspect the reason this is hard to confront is because the moment one raises the question of whether accused people can turn out to be innocent in online callouts, it is already at nuclear “rape apologist” level. The moment one concedes, they feel — and plenty of others would perceive — as if they are undermining the movement for accountability of sexual misconduct and assault.
Here I need to re-assert something I’ve said many times in previous posts. We must be allowed to examine dynamics before applying notions of value. It is not true that because a dynamic arises first from tech profit incentives, its good applications must be discounted. Nor that its bad applications negate the good. It is that we must develop a vocabulary for talking about the distinction between the ways that machines condition our responses and the ethical and political value of those responses.
So here is what I propose:
- Tech profit incentives incline or direct every accusation of every values transgression towards guilt. This is the dynamic. Acquittals mean an end to the debate over guilt or innocence, therefore an end to engagement. Those that program algorithms reward behaviors that promote engagement. Innocence, when it’s widely agreed upon, disengages people. Guilt scenarios engage people, as do highly contested guilt vs. innocence scenarios.
- Some that are guilty are accused, therefore the inclination towards guilt ends in a fair outcome for some.
- Some that are accused are not guilty, therefore the inclination towards guilt ends in an unfair outcome for some.
Arguably a better use of all our time and debate energy would be on figuring out how we can most accurately map out the Venn Diagram of the above. We never get to that point. There are a few reasons for this I suspect but the one I find most stubbornly nagging is the one that suggests that everyone is too invested in the ways the dynamic works for them to come to grips with it. Instead they zealously re-assert the wretched guilt of their enemies, insisting on speaking about human behavior as if it were still governed by notions from Classical and Enlightenment philosophy.
In this fantasyland of yestercenturies, subjects with agency move about freely in a world of other subjects with agency and debate ideas in an open forum or civil society. I call this a fantasyland because our uncontroversial reality is of a civil society that has migrated to digital platforms where debate is algorithmically conditioned and where subjects navigate conversations using applications and devices which we know are consciously designed to be addicting. Do addicts have agency? It’s a complex question; suffice to summarize that addicts have responsibility that must be understood in the context of how addiction complicates agency.
But getting back to the matter of widespread investment…the right has relied upon the inclination towards guilt for years. It has been one of the key engines of its narrative-building power. Right-leaning journalists years ago would write about how the behavior of obscure people in obscure campus food courts over cultural appropriation of cuisine really signaled an aggressive and dangerous encroachment from radical leftists. They told their audience that AOC was an unhinged radical trying to turn the United States into Venezuela.
It’s now so dependable, they can tell their audience that the current president, who was most centrist candidate in the race, is the most radically communist president in history. They do not have to worry about their audience attempting to falsify this. In every case, they benefited and continue to benefit from the structural dynamic. The inclination towards guilt and the near-impossibility of acquittal is essential to the right’s propaganda. Far from hating this machinery, they need it to survive.
The left has a different relationship to the dynamic. Because, again, there’s no reason to say that since everything issues first from the profit incentives and structural features of social platforms, it’s all bad or corrupted. When people on the left make proclamations about how we’re hearing more voices now, and that’s leading to new awareness and accountability, there’s truth in it. This is usually presented as the progressive non-alarmist view, in contrast to reactionary alarmism…so it’s strange how rarely it acknowledges that “maybe monarchy is good” and “maybe racism is scientific” are some of the “new voices.” They aren’t leading to accountability but more so to a fraying of the social fabric. The supposedly progressive non-alarmist view only sounds rosy if you cherry pick the facts.
The social web’s inclination towards guilt found the left at a philosophically complicated moment. Most notions of universality that had underpinned social justice movements since the birth of leftist and socialist thought during the Enlightenment and up through the American Civil Rights movement had been “problematized” by poststructuralism and postcolonialism. Where we once referred to (and indeed wrote most of our international human rights charters were based upon) the universal rights and dignity of all human beings, universality fell out of fashion.
Universalism was, the poststructuralists and postcolonialists said, actually a tool of white Western colonizers — a ruse which, even if not intended to justify the continuance of systems of domination established during the age of empire, ultimately served that end. These ideas didn’t have an easy time getting out of small academic circles until online spaces like Tumblr, populated with theory fetishists (and a few theoreticians) began weaving these ideas into what would become the tapestry of social justice and woke culture.
*for all the fuss about “wokeness” it is best described as a set of values for a post-Tumblr online left. It is more fluid than definitive which is a strength and a weakness. Some “woke” ideas are very good, some are …just not. Wokeness, due to fluidity, is always incoherent conceptually, but this does not mean it has no valuable concepts or powerful, important arguments. Efforts to critique wokeness rely on the author’s perceptions and decisions about what wokeness is, which is what guarantees the critique almost always tells you the most about the author instead of the ideology. But the moment you describe wokeness as a blurry-bordered cluster of attitudes shared in online spaces — the same way we allow with chan culture, etc — a much more powerful and useful analytic frame emerges.
As proto-woke avatars moved from more insular communities to the mastheads of popular online publications, an undefined war broke out on the left over questions that had not previously been contemplated by the kinds of folks who were compelled to articulate a high-faluten worldview through their commentary on Harry Potter and Star Wars. In the same way that right-leaning online spaces found the destruction of the previous neoliberal/neoconservative consensus on immigration and nationalism useful for engagement, so did the left carry out this internecine civil war over whether racial justice should be a striving towards universal dignity or a large-scale historical reckoning where particular identities were elevated rather than downplayed.
When we assume political debates are just the same old people writing the same old thoughts just with new tools, we neglect important contexts. Not only is engagement the business model, “disruption” is Silicon Valley ideology. To assume tech platforms only seek to disrupt the transportation economy or the news economy is to grant them a restraint they’ve never exhibited. Disruption extends to all facets of human life. The twin values of disruption and engagement are what make tech CEOs more rich than some oligarchs and more powerful than some nation-states. It is useful, therefore, to assume that disruption of political consensus is not springing forth organically from the minds of people everywhere. This behavior is being provoked and encouraged.
Whether that disruption is good or bad, we can decide next. I refer again to the disruption of the post-American Civil War consensus: disrupting the normalizing of Confederate figures exalted in public spaces is good. Disrupting the normalizing of equal rights for black Americans is awful. But where many would describe this phenomenon through the lens of our “simply hearing more voices” or whatever techno-progressive anti-alarmist platitude, I think we should understand it as a type of behavior that exists first to serve platform bottom lines. It may have all kinds of secondary effects, and we can debate the value of those. But we commit a grave error by failing to acknowledge primary and secondary effects.
Even if you take the naive (and easy to debunk) position that we are only hearing about how people already felt and believed, you still must concede that the mere ability to hear them is new, drastic, and technologically facilitated in a way that makes the phenomenon irrevocably new.
All of which is to say that even while the left has arguably pointed the disruption/engagement flamethrower of guilt at more deserving targets, it has benefited from and defined itself according to this dynamic. It is more righteous to direct this weapon at white supremacists and brutal police officers. But is there a mechanism by which the left could — or ever does? — walk back an accusation? There is not, and the reason is simple.
I spend enough time reading on the internet to know that this entire essay could be posted with cherry-picked screenshots and snide remarks about how I’m “more concerned about the feelings of people accused of white supremacy than I am about the feelings of the victims of white supremacy.” The culture of online discourse has these reflexes built in. On the right, one risks being called a “cuck” or a “RINO” for failing to adequately stump for the most in-vogue radicalism based on the most emotionally charged set of accusations.
We even have character types that stand-in for proper names like “devil’s advocate guy,” implying that the moment one attempts to steel-man an argument or understand how one’s opponent thinks, they are secretly the opponent. A bad faith arguer who is sympathetic to the enemy and uses devil’s advocacy to mask that sympathy. Characters like this then enter into conversations (replacing proper names, the stripping of individuality, is a key function of this character) and people signal their fealty to the group by showing that they understand this character is to be scorned. Reactions like these are efficient for automating AIs. People often think it makes them clever to point out how stupid AI still is, as if it isn’t beneficial to AI industries to simplify people so that clumsy AI can predict and manage behaviors.
This all part of the enforcement dynamic that socially sanctions any mechanism that could allow new evidence to be interjected and minds to be changed. The sense that one might quickly be seen as a traitor not just to ones group but to the ethical values through which that group defines itself is a strong motivating factor.
When this dynamic is mistaken for subjects with agency voicing their ideas in civil society, rather than as an intentionally engineered form of behavioral manipulation for profit, the most villainous people get off the hook. They make trillions while countries tumble towards civil war and genocide.
If social groups that define themselves through political ideas do not divest from the profit machinery of perpetual guilt and put down the disruption/engagement flamethrower, we will likely find out how a species that developed the technology to destroy itself finally managed to use it. I wonder how many will mutter through the radiation, in the snow of a nuclear winter, about how “People have been bombing each other for decades, it’s nothing new. You can’t blame this on technology.”