I have watched my fair share of Upworthy videos. They’re generally fun to hate-watch, and they make for good Newsfeed fodder. Sharing Upworthy videos with your “Family” or “High School Friends” Facebook list can make you feel like a prime time MSNBC anchor. Each video is an opportunity to reveal something to your assumedly uninformed, selfish friends. The leading, absolutely begging to be parodied titles range from confusing (You Should Watch This Strange Man Rub A Stick Of Butter On A Tree. For A Really Good Reason) to the cloyingly heinous (Obama Takes A Second To Talk About Jews In America. It’s MEGA Inspiring). These could be dismissed as cludgy rhetorical tools for Facebook arguments, but there’s something else about these videos that is actively destructive to the American left. Upworthy packages soundbites of elite white paternalism for mass distribution and consumption through social media.
I started off by implicating myself in distributing Upworthy videos because I want to highlight that I am not immune to the allure of “Fox News Anchor Forgets He’s On Fox News, Speaks Like A Real Human Being With Feelings And Stuff” So many of the videos are fueled by sheer schadenfreude; laughing at Fox News’ anchor androids has become a veritable hobby of mine and Upworthy certainly makes it incredibly easy to do. Different kinds of videos appeal to different people, for a variety of reasons. I get that. But the recent Malala Yousafzai interview on the Daily show is just too fine a distillation of what is wrong with Upworthy to ignore.
Malala is a brilliant person and up until the point Stewart asks to adopt her, (not his finest moment) it is a powerful firsthand account of what the Taliban have done and continue to do in the Swat Valley. At the same time however, it is a perfect example of how the mainstream progressivism is shot through with an obnoxious and paternalistic brand of white supremacy and cultural ignorance. Zeynep Tufekci said it quite succinctly: “If you think Malala is rare, that is probably because you have not spent much time in such countries. Most Malala’s, however, go nameless, and are not made into Western celebrities.” Assed Baig goes further by describing how this widespread ignorance actually justifies Western aggression:
This is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. Flown to the UK, the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalised. Journalists and politicians were falling over themselves to report and comment on the case. The story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her.
The actions of the West, the bombings, the occupations the wars all seem justified now, “see, we told you, this is why we intervene to save the natives.”
There’s an important connection between these two quotes that I want to explore by way of a seemingly unrelated set of literature. Science studies scholars use the term “organized ignorance” to describe the systematic and institutionalized maintenance of gaps or misunderstandings of scientific facts and procedures, on the part of powerful actors. Organized ignorance can suppress activism, establish professional boundaries, and steer research trajectories. Climate change is a pretty straight-forward example of organized ignorance. A more complicated one is the consequences of widespread PCB-based plasticizers. Both are severely under-studied in relation to their potential harm.
The Daily Show has its own set of problems, as do the other corporate media outlets that provide grist for Upworthy’s soundbite mill, but the fact that Upworthy serves up content specifically for sharing on social media makes organized ignorance more resilient and more widespread. Upworthy enrolls us in the establishment of our own organized ignorance. When we (and again, I am implicating myself in this) share these videos we are reenacting the hollow and superficial conversations that, in another context, would cause us to roll our eyes and complain about the lack of critical thought in news media. We share them for all sorts of reasons, but the impact is the same: ignorance goes viral.
By organizing ignorance around race relations and international conflict, Tufekci’s observation is transmuted into the justification for violence described by Baig. Through the simplification of extremely complicated geopolitical conflicts, Upworthy makes every story into Kony 2012. As Sarah Wanenchak wrote last year,
The video presents the ignorance of the developed West as its primary sin and the primary obstacle in the way of Joseph Kony being brought to justice; it therefore implicitly offers the simple fact of “awareness” as a form of blanket solution to this problem, with the supposition that action will necessarily follow. Viewing and sharing the video therefore offer an emotionally powerful but objectively questionable experience: the sense of having taken active part in something both significantly communal and directly world-altering.
The most pernicious aspect of Upworthy is that it makes you feel as though you are changing the world through consciousness raising when what you are actually doing is replicating and enacting an organized ignorance undergirded by the banal evil of white supremacy. Instead of focusing on structural change, these videos zoom into small heroic moments that are emotionally powerful but do very little to engender a more informed debate about our shared problems, nor do they help us make smarter demands of those in power.
I don’t call myself a liberal, but I can’t say I’m outside of their political and cultural influence either. By refraining from sharing the kinds of videos Upworthy curates and disseminates I can do my part in containing this kind of thinking. But I don’t want the reaction to this essay to be an organized boycott of this site. That would be treating the symptom when the greater illness is a dearth of useful tools for generative debate and discussion. We need to aspire to a better media landscape and outspoken leftist movement that makes Upworthy obsolete.