In Defence of Social Media
Orwell was wrong, Huxley was right. We are Amusing Ourselves to Death: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”
As the Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, SCL, BeLeave, Trump, Aggregate iQ story spools out before us like a discarded plot-line from Brave New World we are being urged to abandon social media. It is after all toxic as this weeks horrific (but unsurprising report by Amnesty) outlined in graphic detail. We are being manipulated, we are victims and complicit in our own exploitation, and we don’t really care. Deep Soma is more powerful than the Deep State. We are addicted to the dopamine hit of Likes and Shares and the lazy armchair-activism of clicktivism. But if the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy manifest themselves as Cat videos, Sioux Wisdom memes and selfie-narcissism there are other more positive aspects of social media that need to be weighed-up in the #DeleteFacebook equation. For every Katie Hopkins there’s a Naomi Wadler. Somehow we need to reclaim the tools of social media that have been captured by corporate interest and the political elite and used as a means of spreading fear and hatred. Abandoning Facebook feels like abandoning public broadcasting because the BBC is shit. It feels like another aspect of resignation that technology and media inevitably acts against us as if this a natural state of being. It’s not. The idea that we can’t control, regulate or define our own world is own that is itself deeply political. Besides, social media has done great things. It has acted as a counter-force to the tabloid press in this country, it acted as the fulcrum for the Yes movement in 2014 and is a key tool for social change in the world. In Tunisia in 2010, or watching Telecomix (‘the Yin to the Yang of Anonymous’) install modem stacks to resurrect the internet in Egypt in the Arab Spring in 2011, social media has been a tool for network-enabled-collaboration and subversion not just in progressive political movements but in revolutionary ones. As Emma Gonzalez stands silently weeping it’s worth reflecting on the potential power this holds for mass solidarity, huge-scale connected action and live-world protest. Some people have suggested that #MarchForOurLives may be largest single-day demonstration in D.C.’s history, and as Mark Elliot wrote yesterday:
Not sure we’re recognizing what these #MSDStrong students have done. 800k in Washington DC today alone. The largest anti-Vietnam War demonstration in ’69 drew 500k. And they organized it in five weeks. While grieving.#MarchForOurLives pic.twitter.com/4FCJePcUp3
— Mark Elliott (@markmobility) March 24, 2018
Its easy to become blasé about the fact that we can share and communicate the scale of protest being witnessed here.
— Nick Dean (@bynickdean) March 24, 2018
Amongst the many things that are inspiring about the March for Our Lives campaign is that it is led by a generation of people who are routinely castigated as being lazy, apolitical, and disenfranchised but have stood up to the NRA and their political representatives in a way that their parents and grandparents have shamefully refused to. Second they have reach out to connect with #BlackLivesMatter in a way that is not just about digital-savvy, or political awareness and moral consciousness but solidarity. That has been a two-way process. Third, in the face of threats and intimidation by the Loons of the Internet and their lurking Alt-Right cousins they don’t give a fuck. May the generational revenge that we are witnessing in the US may have it’s equivalent soon to the people who voted for Dependence in 2014 and Leave in 2016.
And there it is pic.twitter.com/m5AuhcSqtG
— FOST (@GeorgeFoster72) March 25, 2018
The Difficulty in Leaving But if the case for taking back control of technology and media tools that can be used in the service of social change and conviviality can be made by hundreds of examples and of the experience of unfettered power in the hands of the few, there is another more prosaic reason for not abandoning these networks. A more difficult reality is that Facebook, and other forms have relaxed the sinew of community and connectivity that has been drained out of society by the forces of capitalism. Whether that be new forms of work, the destruction of neighbourhoods, the erosion of public life, or the rise of alienation and anomie, the reality is that social media is a necessary means for people to keep it together in a world drifting apart. You can say “Cambridge Analytica is stealing your data” but the response is likely to be “I want to see my grand-daughters birthday photos” or the picture of my pal looking stupid in the pub. One woman last week described how living in dual Ireland on her own with he kids, Facebook had become a lifeline for her to friends and family. She’s not alone. Or rather, she is. The dynamic between social isolation and social media is under-researched. I suspect we have tried to replace community with network and while this is unlikely to work, it’s replacement is also likely to be resisted. Because of the social conditions of late-capitalism we face mass isolation. Last year’s cross-party Jo Cox Commission described male loneliness as a “silent epidemic”. #IamLonely is unlikely to have the same viral Spartacus impact as #MeToo because it is not supported by a global political movement. But it is also not conducive to conditions for a mass exodus from social media forums with which we have a complex relationship. People won’t leave Facebook because Facebook now has an important social function for them. It is the digital sticking plaster to the reality of social isolation. The Politics of Fear Although our understanding of the technical ways in which big data can be used against us is a revelation, what’s possibly more important is the psychological tools at play. As Gaby Hinsliff reports we saw: “Two suits, in a swanky restaurant, blithely boasting about exploiting fears buried so deep inside our subconscious that most of us don’t even know we have them; claiming that, for the right price, they can creep invisibly into your head.” Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower Carol Cadwalladr worked with, has said the company used data harvested from prospective voters to “build models to exploit what we knew about them, and target their inner demons”. They talk proudly of operating subliminally, exploiting fears where “you didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction”. Some of this will be familiar to independence supporters who will recall the torrent of fears and negativity that cascaded down onto Scottish voters in 2014. Blair McDougall famously admitted that they couldn’t have won without it. It will be familiar too to the people on the March for Our Lives who have faced-down their own Project Fear in the shape of the NRA. So as well as, and probably more important than regulating dark money in politics, or big data in our timelines, we need to reclaim politics as something that isn’t just a reduction of our private nightmares projected onto the billboards of public life and the pages of degenerate media outlets. These could be red stars. At what point did politics move from being a competing narrative of possible futures and become instead the wasteland of our sub-conscious fears exploited for a lucrative buck by Etonian snake-oil salesmen? Let us be inspired by the young people of America to reclaim your politics, and our technology.