Reading Twitter is a nightmare every single day. Plenty of people would agree, but perhaps not for the reason I would give. What I find almost panic-inducing is the manner in which smart, serious people continue engaging as if real people are airing real feelings about real issues. It’s almost depressing that the Matrix pill analogy has been already used to rightish ideological ends because the only redpilling I could ever take seriously is the one that recognizes the entire working of the simulation is an unreality in service of entities outside the simulation.
Most things that happen in politics and culture today make the most sense if you assume two basic things:
- The experience of social media precedes most human activity relating to culture and politics in the chain of events. In other words, people do not feel some kind of way and then express it online, attempting a 1:1 representation of their original feelings in online space. They go online, have an experience, and then express their feelings and ideas. Or they have an idea or a feeling or an experience and then translate it into the language and symbology of social media. When any option exists to represent themselves accurately versus in a way that will perform the best, most lean heavily towards the option that optimizes web engagement.
- The current incarnation of the social web is a monoculture, almost certainly the biggest that has ever existed in human history. With a very narrow field of exceptions, everyone operating in the primary public social media spaces is doing the same things. While it may seem as if the scale of participation could only represent the most diverse range of thoughts, ideas, and experiences ever, in fact the extremely small range of possible activities in social spaces has the effect of marshaling difference into sameness; nuance into reductionism; nonbinary, noncompetitive questions into binary, competitive ones.
And yet there is a stubborn inclination many have towards insisting that social media represents real people and real experience. People who express racist ideas do so because they have always been racist, people who fight for justice do so because they are at their core just and empathetic human beings. Many of the silly assumptions of earlier tech optimists have started to lose their shine, but one that remains is the sense that we are just going through growing pains. Neofascists imagine this is the first step on the path towards undoing the postwar consensus on antifascism. Those fighting on new fronts of civil rights imagine that we’re housecleaning, letting the bigots out themselves so we can purge them.
While it may be tempting to imagine this in terms of a war, where both sides fight but one side fights out of reluctant obligation for the good while the other fights aggressively for evil reasons, it’s better to think of it in terms of an arms race. Arms races have dynamics we understand prior to valuations about violent conflict. We know, to simplify, that the longer conflicting groups spend amassing caches of weapons, the more likely those weapons are to eventually be used. This is less a function of each group’s beliefs and motives, and more about the simple fact that both groups are just collecting instruments of destruction.
After the conflict breaks out, one can certainly evaluate responsibility and motivation. Who started the conflict, and to what end did each group fight? For which set of values? But arms races are dangerous prior to any of that evaluation.
I view social media confrontations similarly. And the “race” element isn’t even too far off. After all, everyone involved is in a basic race for the destructive power that comes with an audience that can drive virality. Maybe they want to destroy the right thing, maybe they want to destroy the wrong things. But nobody serious or honest can look at the daily churn of avatars and accusations, threads and ratios and say that it is mostly an act of building up. The platforms simply to not incentivize building, they incentivize aggression.
That some have opted to aim this at the powerful while others have chosen to aim it at the marginalized is so true on its face that it barely needs to be said. But where many think this is the most important thing, and drill down hard on whether one has taken the best path ethically, I would suggest that the best ethical analysis would have to include examining whether movements that claim to be restorative, empathetic, rehabilitative, inclusive, anti-carceral, anti-authoritarian, and against binary thinking, are choosing the best tools for building that movement.
Because I’m not sure how anyone can look at any group agitating for social change online and see those things. The moment empathy is suggested for one’s enemy by anyone, that person is cast as an enemy. This makes sense for neofascists who don’t proclaim empathy as a virtue. But for those who claim that they are just advocating for “basic empathy and decency,” as many on the left like to simplify complex philosophical choices, empathy turns out to be not only a limited resource but one that can get one in trouble the more it is deployed outside one’s group.
But the point here is really how in a monoculture where many people are doing basically the same things, directives like “empathy for those outside one’s group is frowned upon” becomes the kind of thing that makes social platforms more conducive to fascism than to civil rights movements. That civil rights movements still choose to engage on these terms strikes me as very stubborn and dangerous. And it seems to me that the delusion that perpetuates this unhappy marriage is the one that insists diverse groups of people are expressing real ideas where mediation is a facilitating factor rather than one that forms and deforms the subjects that use it and the ideas they load into it.