The Daily Beast ran a story last week with this lede: “Roseanne Barr and Michael McFaul argued with her on Twitter. BuzzFeed and The New York Times cited her tweets. But Jenna Abrams was the fictional creation of a Russian troll farm.” Abrams, the story goes, was a concoction of The Internet Research Agency, the Russian government’s troll farm that was first profiled in New York Times Magazine by Adrian Chen in June 2015. During its three-year life span the Abrams account was able to amass close to 70,000 followers on Twitter and was quoted in nearly every major news outlet in America and Europe including The New York Times, The BBC, and France 24.

The Abrams Twitter account was a well of viral content that over-worked listicle writers couldn’t help but return to. Once the account had amassed a following the content shifted away from innocuous virality to offensive trolling: saying the civil war wasn’t about slavery, mocking Black Lives Matter activists, and jumping on hashtags that were critical of Clinton. “When Abrams joined in with an anti-Clinton hashtag,” The Daily Beast reports, “The Washington Post included her tweet in its own coverageOne outlet used an image of a terrorist attack sourced from Abrams’ Twitter feed.”

The Abrams account, they write, “illustrates how Russian talking points can seep into American mainstream media without even a single dollar spent on advertising.” This framing portrays journalists as passive filters that automatically parrot whatever popular Twitter users say. Journalists are supposed to be critical fact-checkers and the last defense against misinformation entering the public sphere. The rate at which false information keeps “seeping” in seems to be growing, and so it is worth asking: are there structural reasons that fake news keeps making its way into reputable news sources?

Jay Rosen is the obvious person to answer this question, and to some degree he did answer it last March when he announced a partnership with the Dutch news site De Correspondent: “if you’re doing public service journalism” he wrote, “and trying to optimize for trust, it helps immensely to be free from the business of buying and selling people’s attention.” Not having commercial sponsors also means, “not straining to find a unique angle into a story that the entire press pack is chewing on, it’s easier to avoid clickbait headlines, which undo trust. Not chasing today’s splashy story can hurt your traffic, but when you’re not selling traffic (because you don’t have advertisers) the pain is minimized.”

It is frustrating that prominent public radio personalities like Ira Glass are running in the opposite direction. Glass, talking to an AdAge reporter in 2015 confidently stated, “Public radio is ready for capitalism.” This is dangerous because much of Russia’s disinformation campaign and Trump’s home-grown trolling relied on the capitalist attention economy that governs every major media outlet. Breitbart and InfoWars republished Abrams’ tweets, but so did The Washington Post and The Times of India. The only thing these news organizations have in common is their advertiser-centered business model.

It’s no secret that most staff writers are underpaid and over-worked, and they are the lucky ones. There are thousands of wildly talented freelance writers that spend half their time writing and reporting and the other half chasing down their overdue paychecks. Reporters with no research budget and a huge publishing quota are understandably going to do a bit of Googling, pull a quote from Twitter, and call it a day. Over-worked and under-paid journalists are the weakened immune system that lets viral fake news take over the body politic.

Herman and Chomsky, in their famous book Manufacturing Consent, pointed to the high cost and time-consuming nature of good journalism as one of the five “filters” that discourage critical reporting. Instead of going to the source of the story, journalists go to police departments and corporate PR offices to grab quotes. This is not because they are lazy, but because they lack the time or money to report the story from scratch. PR offices and police departments’ spokespeople offer one-stop-shops for an official account of what happened in any given story.

The Yes Men—two artists who, for example, will pose as the spokesperson for Dow Chemical and tell a BBC reporter that they take full responsibility for the Bhopal Disaster— know that news agencies are more likely to report on something if they are handed a media package or are offered access to a talking head from a well-known organization. Their hoaxes have real consequences: sending corporate stocks temporarily tumbling and attracting mainstream attention to ignored environmental disasters.

Twitter affords a similar shortcut to newsworthiness. Putting someone with a high follower count (to say nothing of a blue checkmark) in your story increases the possibility of reciprocal attention: you click my content and I’ll click yours. When someone with 70,000 followers says something controversial to their substantial audience, that’s worth a shout out in your news story, especially when that story is little more than a survey of what people are talking about. That Twitter user, after seeing a spike in followers and  mentions related to the article, will share it themselves sending off a quick, “was included in this thing, haha.” This is the mundane, reciprocal manufacturing of attention that feeds micro celebrity and now, apparently, geopolitics. Anything with a decent follower account is low-hanging fruit for finishing a reporter’s daily content quota.

What is absolutely maddening is that the demands and responses to the fake news phenomenon have centered on social media and the algorithms that govern their behavior. Some of the solutions out there —cough Verrit cough— are either so absurd that they can only be explained as either the product of cynical opportunists looking to make fact-flavored content, or the result of too many well-connected people not understanding the nature of the problem they are facing. Both seem equally likely. The intent barely matters though, because the result is the same: a more elaborate apparatus to churn out attention-grabbing media for its own sake.

Social media has exacerbated and monetized fake news but the source of the problem is advertising-subsidized journalism. Any proposed solution that does not confront the working conditions of reporters is a band aid on a bullet wound. The problem is systematic, which means any one actor —whether it is Mark Zukerberg or Facebook itself— is neither the culprit nor the possible savior. So long as our attention is up for sale, people with all sorts of motives will pay top dollar.

Image courtesy Free Press

In our very first post, founding editors Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Patella-Rey wrote:

Facebook has become the homepage of today’s cyborg. For its many users, the Facebook profile becomes intimately entangled with existence itself. We document our thoughts and opinions in status updates and our bodies in photographs. Our likes, dislikes, friends, and activities come to form a granular picture—an image never wholly complete or accurate—but always an artifact that wraps the message of who we are up with the technological medium of the digital profile.

Too few people were talking about the internet in this way in 2010. Many were still paying close attention to Second Life more because it comported with prevailing theories of how identity worked online, not because it was representative of most people’s identity online. It was a different time: no one paid for music on the internet, men were afraid to walk out of the house with their new iPads, there was talk of Twitter Revolutions, Occupy gave us tons of opportunities to think about embodiment, planking was a thing, tattoos were talking to Nintendo 3DS’s, and the conversations around digital privacy that we have today were just taking their present form. The persistent media-rich profiles we made just a few years ago had lost their novelty and now we had to reckon with the context collapses, too-clean quantifications, algorithmic segregations, and liquid identities that they afforded.

Much has changed in the handful of years since Nathan and PJ started the blog. We say “cyborg” less and there are tons of new, wonderful people writing thoughtful essays and commentary about everything that is exciting, provocative, and downright frightening about our augmented society.

As always it is a pleasure to work alongside my co-editor Jenny and we couldn’t ask for a better crew of regular contributors: Crystal, Maya, Stephen, Gabi, Marley, Britney, and Sarah. And, of course, this site would be a 404 if it weren’t for Nathan and PJ.  To all of you and our guest contributors, Thank You!

It is hubris to predict the future but anniversaries are as good a time to look forward as they are to look back so here are a few topics and trends that seem worthy of research, debate, and clear-eyed thinking in the next year:

Geographic Thinking Will Take Prominence Alongside Historic, Anthropological, and Sociological Analysis

I study cities so maybe I am biased here but as more and more of our online interactions happen through our devices, instead of less-portable computers, geographic context will become a key component of social media’s affordances and thus our analyses of the social action that takes place on those services. Pair Snapchat’s recent map features with the steady increase of ride-sharing services and the continual fascination with the possibilities that drones represent, and it makes sense that geographers will be more helpful in understanding our digital age than ever before. We’re over-due for it anyway. As the recently-departed Edward Soja once said in his Postmodern Geographies: “For the past century, time and history have occupied a privileged position in the practical and theoretical consciousness of Western Marxism and critical social science. … Today, however, it may be space more than time that hides consequences from us, the ‘making of geography’ more than the ‘making of history’ that provides the most revealing tactical and theoretical world.” Dromology (Paul Virilio’s term for the study of speed) also has a role to play here. As we seek out and interact with our friends across digital maps and subscribe to on-demand product delivery, the accounting and over-coming of large amounts of terrain and topology become an issue for individuals, not just nations’ armies.

The Return of InfoGlut

In 2013 Mark Andrejevic published Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know and that titular neologism was everywhere. Something similar is sorely needed again as “fake news” and its phenomenological antecedents pop up like mushrooms in the dark, damp swamp that is slowly engulfing our media landscape. The issue of too many people acting on and responding to information with questionable relationships to reality is serious, but framed badly. Yes there is too much misleading information out there but what is worse is that there is simply too much information being routed through algorithms that will mess up as surely as their human progenitors do. Perhaps we don’t need better information, just less.

Amazon is the New Facebook When It Comes to Privacy Norms

The recent headlines about Amazon Key, the service that lets couriers open your front door, are definitely having an outsized influence on my thoughts but I still think its accurate to say that Amazon —in its attempts to find and conquer new markets— will start playing with our privacy norms. This year alone it has released a slew of “echo” branded devices that judge your outfits and let people automatically turn on video chats to say nothing of their Alexa devices that are constantly listening. Amazon has every reason to feel like they can succeed where Facebook failed: while Facebook was pushing users to reveal more just as they were starting to share less, Amazon has actual products and services that it is offering consumers.

Acceptance and Mobilization Around Social Media Companies’ Authority

In 2014 Yo, Ello, and Emojli tried to shake us out of the social media duopoly of Twitter and Facebook, but fell short of establishing a beachhead. Let this next year be the time that we finish our grieving process and accept these imperfect companies as the major power-players for the foreseeable future. With this acceptance, should come a determination to build organizations that we feel comfortable living with. Instead of falling for the Silicon Valley myth that everything is a meritocracy and the next billion-dollar social media company is just one round of VC funding away, we must start doing the arduous work of reigning these companies in and learning to make demands of them. Not just regulation or transparency, but profit sharing and true, meaningful shared governance. If this doesn’t happen, we may stand to lose the cyborg selves we were just starting to understand.

Inverse has a short thing about the precipitous decline of reported close encounters with extra-terrestrials following the widespread adoption of smartphones. Author Ryan Britt asks, “How come there have been fewer reports of flying saucers and alien abductions in the age of the camera phone?” The answer is, essentially, UFOs and abduction stories don’t work at the high resolutions of our devices. Roswell and abductions are the products of eye witness accounts and fuzzy VHS video, not 4k videos captured on iPhones. The mundane enchantment of suburbia, as I’ve called it before, gets deleted as noise in an attempt to capture life in the photo-realistic.

This is certainly a compelling argument. After all the timing works out: Britt notes that the 80s and 90s “were the peak of UFO interest in the United States. Proof? The vast majority of famous books published about UFOs and government cover-ups — most notably The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore — were published in these two decades.” Add to that the popularity of The X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries and you have a pretty clear timeline for the birth and death of mundane enchantment.  As cameras proliferate the quest to capture the elusive and the strange falls off. It would be a paradox if it weren’t so pat.

The loss of modern American mysticism could easily be chalked up to our ability to capture everything, but when has irrefutable proof ever really stopped people from believing things? A world of poltergeists, little grey men, and Big Foot actually seems preferable and easier to digest than one where Donald Trump is president. Put simply: In a world of fake news, why not go on believing in alien abductions? Why, when everything is a conspiracy theory, have we lost the few entertaining half-truths?

The answer is less of a disconnectionist argument—put down your phone and revel in the unknown— and more of a push against the unrelenting positivism in media. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that South Park, a TV series that taught a generation that caring earnestly about things is dumb, chose alien abductions as its first episode. In “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” no one can convince Cartman that his abduction was real, and not a dream. Even as an 80-foot satellite dish emerges from his ass, Cartman only replies: “screw you guys, whatever.” It is, admittedly, a creative inversion of the common trope: the abductee is the one that must be convinced while everyone else believes the improbable.

In many ways South Park is really what replaced shows like The X-Files. The former did not literally replace the latter in a time slot (they weren’t on the same channel nor did they air on the same days) but what these shows rewarded was vastly different. South Park wanted you to be Cartman: the one that stubbornly refused what everyone else was saying, just because everyone else was saying it. This syncs up nicely with Vox style explainerism to create a furiously obnoxious ethos where fun half-truths die and only the vindictive lies remain. One is either the liberal explainer Cartman who is technically correct (e.g. “There is only a 0.0024 percent chance that an 80-foot satellite dish is coming out of my ass.”) or the alt-right Cartman who refuses to acknowledge the satellite dish in the first place. Either way you’re Cartman.

Smartphones alone didn’t kill alien abductions, there had to be an attendant cynical desire to prove others wrong. Britt predicts the pendulum might soon swing in the opposite direction though, pointing to William Gibson and other writers who contend “that flying saucer theories are meme-like, insofar as they will experience a media bandwagon period, as well as a period of not being so interesting to the mainstream.” I hope the aliens do come back, and that the bring with them a playful desire to contemplate the universe without explaining it.

David is on Twitter: @da_banks


“It’s not about the money, it is about the principle”, I’ve heard this phrase so many times from friends, colleagues and internet influencers who refuse to pay an extra charge for a service or product not deemed worthwhile. In an episode titled ‘No Change’, a famous influencer was complaining about what he had felt was a growing phenomenon—that of waiters not giving back change when he pays the bill. He was expressing annoyance at ‘being duped’ by a waiter and went on to share that it should be his decision to leave a tip. In the wake of the ubiquity of imposed minimum charges at cafés in Egypt, people started resorting to storytelling on social media platforms to expose certain companies and ameliorate the standards of services.  Instead of waiting on hold to make a complaint, a woman had provided a detailed account on Facebook of her conversation with a waiter at a café, where she was explaining to him that minimum charge is an illegal practice and he can’t really force her to pay it. She shared what she felt was a success story on a group titled ‘Don’t shop here-a list of untrustworthy shops in Egypt’, a public Facebook group where middle-class Egyptians would share stories about bad consumer experiences. The group now serves as an eclectic archive for a wide range of stories recounting bad experiences (from raw chicken at a famous restaurant to slow internet to undelivered customer service promises). 

I was first introduced to the phenomenon of consumer stories on Facebook last year. As someone from a middle-class background, I’d seen friends and co-workers discussing, sharing and parodying those stories, which later on became an anticipated series on my timeline. I would look forward to reading about the little anecdotes that unveil people’s feelings of anger, distress and disgust towards the things they’d bought. Making use of the material economy of the Facebook post, members would tag businesses, upload pictures and edit their stories to include updates that bring forth an element of resolution to the problems they were posing. Unlike reviews which are usually brief in nature, the stories told on the group include vividly detailed accounts that enable a reliving of encounters and are laced with emotional arcs. It is in these rich descriptions that a Facebook post goes from mere complaining to painting a portrait of  class identity. These online performances, while having much to do with the storytellers and the craft of sharing, are enacted through and vis-à-vis other actors and characters. The stories are brought to readers by the disposable objects that are presented as evidence and by embodied others that are being produced through narratives—the waiter, the shop employee, customer service representative, the voice on the phone.

Shared experiences, shared anxieties

Had a bad shopping experience in Egypt? Feel completely lost and with no support. Share your experience with us here!”

Soon after its conception, the Facebook group had formed what Britney Summit-Gil refers to as ‘textual community.  This online community developed its own rules and aesthetics for crafting consumer stories; which include writing as much detail as possible, naming the shop and updating the group with any new information about interactions with customer service. We see through this group a collective drafting of what it means to be a ‘woke consumer’, a context where people reflexively dwell over their status as consumers and refuse being duped in everyday purchases. While people on the group seek to engage their readers in different ways, the most prominent styles used to set the scene include a chronological timeline of events, descriptive narratives of sensory experiences and a dialogue between the storyteller and a person from customer service representatives. Some members bolster their narratives by taking screenshots of textual interactions as well as through presenting documents such as receipts and contracts.

Scrolling through the stories, we could see how this textual community exhibits what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “taste formations”, where taste is subject to collective constructions rather than being inherent. In these group members’ hands “taste becomes a social weapon” in demarcating between the good and the bad, the legitimate and illegitimate when it comes to the wide range of stuff consumed. These demarcations shed light on shared anxieties about transgressive products and services and on the circulation of emotions such as disgust on timelines.

In her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed asks how we can tell the story of feelings “in a way that works with the complicated relations between bodies, objects and others?” Bringing Ahmed in conversation with Bourdieu leads us to consider how distinctions of taste and constructions of classed identities and communities are enacted through the work of feelings. What is shared in this Facebook group and ones like it are stories of feelings; feelings that “do things”, as Ahmed suggests, as they are not just reactions. They demarcate between objects, separate bodies and create subjectivities online.

Embodied others and classist fears

Classed identities are shaped vis-à-vis other bodies that figure throughout the stories. In many narratives told on the group, the waiter, the customer service representative, the employee at the shop, all become abstractions that are produced by fears the storytellers have about ‘being cheated’ or ‘not being respected’—which in turn are reproduced through repetition and circulation. These fears are illustrated in a parallel ad [in Arabic] for a taxi service company titled ‘did someone take advantage of you before?’, which maps out a succession of different characters often from a lower class background that try to extract money from the well-off middle-class Egyptian on a day-to-day basis—whether it were the waiter that doesn’t give back change or the man working at a kiosk that gives gum instead of change.

These stories strip away any human backstory of workers, reducing them to the role they play in unsatisfactory consumer experiences. They are as unidimensional as a faulty gas pump or a dirty table cloth. Thus, underlying the cultural logics of consumer protection, is a protection from imagined others that emphasize the fragility of consumer selves. Going back to the stories, it is important that we also look at them as instruments of power. In a sense, they are not only affective productions of abstract subjects but the unfolding negotiations that a story sparks between a customer and a manager could result in someone losing their job. Often to not compromise the reputation of their brand, many restaurants have fired employees, whose bodies have absorbed the complaints made by customers. After all, it is easier to advocate for someone getting fired if they are reduced to a faulty part in a consumer machine and not regarded as a full human that might be overworked and therefore impolite or error-prone.

Things that have gone bad

The complicated relationships between bodies, others and objects that shape the stories could be taken further by examining the photographic display of stuff that was deemed disposable and distasteful.  While literature on mediated consumption has mostly focused on the lavish and the glamorous (e.g. studies of teens flaunting garments and sport shoes on social media), little has been written on mediation of trash. As Michael Thompson shows in his book Rubbish Theory, rubbish is undertheorized, as often “anthropologists interest themselves in what is noticed, treasured, and admired […] rather than with what is disregarded, discarded, and despised.” Online consumer stories are stories about ordinary stuff that went wrong. They reflect the social lives of trash, as they enable us to follow the trajectories of disposable stuff—which is taken back to businesses, exchanged, restored or residing in the chronicles of a Facebook group awaiting to resurface on people’s timelines.  Moreover, the importance of documenting disposable stuff for narrative evidence grants trash an aesthetic functionality. While these things have failed to conform to commonly agreed upon standards of consumability, they play an important role in substantiating complaints. Consumer narratives are therefore assemblages of both human and nonhuman actors.

Class and dynamics of chill and care online

On another note, the debates surrounding those stories tell us something about the contested nature of the performativity of identity online. The sincerity of accounts, focus on details and the intensity of shared sentiments discussed above were subject to mockery by some people, who started turning these stories into a meme. Mimicking the descriptive styles adopted and the cataloging of actions in a comical fashion, these memes serve as intentionally imperfect repetitions that disturb the seriousness of the accounts.

The parody story typically entails a similar trajectory, as the storyteller imagines a fictional situation and proceeds with giving as much detail as possible in a sense that dramatizes the whole thing. The reader at first is led to think this to be another story reflecting frustrations about stuff or services, but soon finds out that these anxieties are put to question. What figures in stories as dilemmas is rendered to micro-annoyances through clever distortions. In a way, these memes advance a sort of moral ‘chill’ that Alana Massey describes as “being far removed from anything that looks like intensity” when it comes to consumption habits. Documenting bad experiences is seen by these memesters as “too bougie”. Caring too much and not caring that much become intersecting discourses that shape the performativity of classed identities online. Consumer stories become sites that reflect the overlapping and intermeshing of different ways of being and becoming middle class.

Consumer online storytelling tells us about circulating affects, frustrations, community-making, othering processes, ordinary stuff and creative articulations. These stories are complex networks that put different people and objects in conversation. Taking these creative instances seriously is important if we want to understand everyday dynamics of class online. However, we also need to be aware of the politics of these stories and the kind of subjects that are being created through these narratives.

Eman Shahata is an MA student of Anthropology at Goldsmiths University of London. She is currently researching secondhand cultures in Cairo. 


As the school year ends we at Cyborgology thought it fitting to publish our first-ever anonymous contribution. We all have varying opinions about the views stated below but we did agree that these are ideas worth putting out there for discussion.

Excerpt from an infographic included in the IPP’s report on college president pay. Full graphic here.

To Whom It May Concern:

If it is your job to keep track and rank institutions of higher education and publish that data in venues like U.S. News & World Report or the Princeton Review, I have a simple request for you. Please start keeping track of institutions’ administrator to faculty ratios and, in your proprietary ranking formulas, reduce the numerical rank of institutions with a low ratio. The reasoning here is equally straightforward: putting more emphasis on administrative work than actual teaching and research is detrimental to student outcomes.

I wish I could say there was lots of data to back this up but, sadly, researchers are reticent to publish findings that are directly hostile to their bosses. Still though, there are preliminary findings that are worth paying attention to. For starters, a 2014 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that within public universities high president salaries and high administrative spending overall, correlated positively with high student debt, high reliance on part-time adjunct hiring, and sharp declines in permanent tenure-track faculty. You already keep track of graduating students’ debt and the percentage of adjunct professors in the faculty pool so why not track what seems to be a predictive variable for both of those things?

If you don’t trust the non-partisan IPP, then listen to former administrators themselves. Jon Weiner, in reporting on the IPP study, interviewed William R. Schonfeld, former dean of social sciences and emeritus professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine who stated unequivocally: “The motor force behind these trends is the hiring of ‘professional administrators’ whose primary commitment is to their own careers and advancement.” Their value to the overall mission of their institutions, according to Schonfeld, is negligible if not deleterious.

Whether high administrative pay actually causes adjunctification of faculty or high student debt, does not matter. Correlation should be enough cause to include an administrator-to-faculty ratio because what that number truly represents is another data point in a larger, overdetermined trend of neoliberal education. It is a trend that, I say with respect, you are deeply implicated in. From lavish student centers to million-dollar sports stadiums, it has been your rankings that let universities compare one-another in the first place. It is not too late to use your massive influence to reverse this trend of debt and frustration. Students should be comfortable, and sports are fun, but university administration should be a solemn duty not a business opportunity.

Administration used to be a part-time task that was rotated between faculty. Now part-time faculty rotate in and out of employment under an ever-growing cast of full-time administrators. From my vantage point as a young scholar looking for my first full-time job I cannot help but notice that many universities, even as the recession fades, are hiring dozens of administrators with sentence-long titles but very few entry-level, tenure track professors. Even post doctorate positions—what should be on-the-job training for emerging researchers and teachers—are including administrative duties as part of their job calls. Enough is enough.

At first I was ashamed to write this anonymously. I wanted to stand for what I believe in and for the community I love. Now though, I feel as though anonymity articulates something more fundamental to this problem: a bottoming out of a strong and independent community of free thinkers. Job security in the academy has gotten so bad that even stating basic facts about the nature of our work like I have done above, something that would be an obviously indispensable part of any social scientific investigation, is enough to put me at the bottom of ever-growing piles of qualified job applicants.

What you measure, matters. It literally made a thousand flowers bloom when you started tracking campus aesthetics and it determined the livelihoods of countless academics who have tried to navigate the perverse incentives your metrics produce. I am not asking you to stop ranking universities (although maybe that is what we, in the end, really need) but I am asking that you think of your rankings in a self-reflective manner. Include things that may mitigate the unintended consequences of your prior actions. An administrator-to-faculty ratio would give faculty a chance to govern themselves again. It was under shared governance, between faculty and a handful of full-time administrators, that made American education the best in the world. Help us keep it that way.



Last Sunday French voters seemingly stemmed the tide of nationalist candidates winning major elections. I say seemingly because, as The Guardian reported: “Turnout was the lowest in more than 40 years. Almost one-third of voters chose neither Macron nor Le Pen, with 12 million abstaining and 4.2 million spoiling ballot papers.” The most disturbing statistic though, is that nearly half of voters 18 to 24 voted for Le Pen. She may have not won this time, but the future in France looks pretty fascist. For now, though, France seems to have dodged a bullet with a familiar caliber.

Late last Friday night the Macron campaign announced it had been hacked and many internal documents had been leaked to the open internet through Pastebin and later spread on /Pol/ and Twitter. The comparisons to the American election were easy and numerous but unlike the United States, France has a media blackout period. Elections are held on weekends and new reporting is severely limited. Emily Schultheis in The Atlantic explains:

Here, the pre-election ban on active campaigning, which begins at midnight the Friday night before an election, and ends only when the polls close Sunday night, is practically sacred. The pause is seen as a time when French voters can sit back, gather their information and reflect on their choice before heading to the voting booth on Sunday. It’s also the law: According to French election rules, the blackout includes not just candidate events but anything that could theoretically sway the course of the election: media commentary, interviews, and candidate postings on social media are not just illegal, but taboo.

It is up to future communication and media scholars to determine exactly how much influence the blackout had on these particular election results but there’s plenty of reason to believe it worked in Macron’s favor. He had won the first round of voting and lead in runoff election polling. Any sort of major shift in public opinion could only hurt him. France and nearly a hundred other countries have bans on opinion polling leading up to an election precisely because last-minute developments can result in equally abrupt changes in public opinion. Such changes are not guaranteed to be wrong or misguided, but they are most likely not well thought-out.

The 2017 French election may provide many lessons in the months and years to come but right now one thing seems clear: in the torrent of opinions and prescriptions that came out about Fake News not one of them (to my memory) suggested less media as the solution. In the rush to combat misinformation, too many people forgot the importance of reflection. Even the usual browbeating commentariat that takes every opportunity it can to tell readers that they are mindless social media zombies, did not seize on the election of Donald Trump as a sign that something was deeply wrong in our media diets.

What we did hear a lot about is the danger of unverified reporting or outright lies making it into algorithmically isolated newsfeeds. It was this new and disturbing trend, the assumption went, that was the main instigator of nationalist sympathies and support for Trump. What this theory left out was the simple fact that a majority of Americans still primarily get their news from television and a strong plurality get it from local TV (the specific percentages are 57% and 46%, respectively). The age ranges that were most likely to vote for Trump (45 and up) correlate with those demographics that get their news from television the most. Without getting too far into the weeds about correlation and causation we can make a simple observation that a change in television news would have had the greatest impact on the demographic that was most swayed by Trump’s message.

Facebook and Twitter are capable of fanning the flames of suspicion and rumor but traditional media gatekeepers are still the ones with gas cans. Leaks will happen, and it will be difficult to keep people from talking about it on social media but stories don’t blow up or even reach older audiences without the amplification aided by traditional journalists. Television news’ tendency to amplify fear and exaggerate risks has been widely documented and political scientists know that fear tends to make people vote more conservative. Trump’s campaign was, if anything, a testament to the success of a fear-based strategy.

On one hand, this is good news because it means the problem of fake news might be a lot easier to solve than we thought. We don’t need Facebook to invent a truth-o-meter algorithm, we need calm election reporting. Less black boxes and more blackouts. For those that are immediately thinking about Freedom of the Press concerns I can only say this: The government has done far worse to the First Amendment than bar Nate Silver from barking poll numbers.

Still though, media is a fast-changing enterprise and I would rather not have a government trying to decide if a platform is a place for talking about politics or an editorial outlet that should be shut down during a blackout. Perhaps the government need not get into the business of explicitly barring election reporting at all. What would be the best of all possible scenarios would be a shift in culture, not policy. After all, recent research from the American Press Institute has shown that trust in reporting is now largely derived from who shared it, not who wrote it. What we need now is an acknowledgement on the part of influential people that what they share matters and there is such a thing as careless or even reckless media habits. This is not the first time technological affordances have outpaced cultural norms, and it probably won’t be the last.

In turbulent times there is something emotionally powerful about reliability in and of itself. Facebook, for all its faults, is reliable. I can bet on Facebook being up and available more often than the Internet connection I rely on to access it. Hell, it works more reliably than my toilet. Changes to the site trigger cascades of stories and opinions about user experience which, really, goes to show how infrequently Facebook makes major alterations to core functions. You don’t have to like Facebook as a company or as a product to acknowledge that it is stable and works as intended more often that most other things. This transcendent reliability—a steadfast infrastructure of emotive communication and identity construction—has become Facebook’s core service. You may not like what you see in your timeline, but the timeline will be there.

Watching an organization embed itself into the lives of nearly a third of the global population is a strange thing. To be a common tread across all of those lives is to be as unthreatening or uncontroversial as possible. Conversely, it was only a matter of time before Facebook played host to something deeply disturbing like a murder, or even world-changing like a reactionary election. This tension between striving for unassuming background service and inevitable host to calamity goes a long way towards explaining why Mark Zuckerberg is traveling across the U.S and writing 6,000-word manifestos about community, despite the fact that most Facebook users aren’t Americans and Facebook is not a community. Shoring up good will in the most powerful nation on the planet is not only good business, it is tapping into a tradition of American progressivism that is so embedded in our daily lives we can’t recognize it when we see it enacted. It is the water we swim in and Mark Zuckerberg wants to tint it Facebook blue.

It is no secret that Facebook would like to be the mediator of most people’s everyday life, American or not. A video of an anti-immigration protest on Facebook Live is meant to sit next to a Pepe meme, just above a photo of a high school friend’s second baby, and a status update about your cousin’s new job. This is the ultimate goal of a platform: to be an essential enabling technology but not the star of the show. It is the stage, not the performer. The road, not the car. Reliability is necessary for such a technology but it also needs to project an air of objectivity or impartiality: a fading into the background and a foregrounding of everything else.

Such a move—being the mediator or affording mechanism for behavior rather than its explicit progenitor or advocate—is a familiar governing strategy with a good success rate. When the World Bank found itself beset on all sides by growing social movements they completely changed their strategy, acting less like a bank that was aggressively perusing international loan agreements, and started acting like a think tank. The sociologist Michael Goldman in his book Imperial Nature describes today’s World Bank as “the world’s main producer of concepts, data, analytic frameworks, and policies on the environment” and is actively cultivating an image as “the world’s most powerful environmentalist, teaming up with prominent NGOs, scientific institutions, borrowing states, and Northern aid agencies.”

Instead of being a political actor with its own identifiable sets of interests and goals, the World Bank rightly saw an easier path as a promoter (and subsequent beneficiary) of neoliberal ideas and policy. Why convince a single deposable dictator to take out a loan when you can be invited by a parliament to rewrite environmental protection laws? Facebook and its CEO-avatar Mark Zuckerberg are in the process of doing something very similar. Facebook is a monopolistic media agglomeration whose hunger for personal data is enough to swallow the world, but it would rather be seen as a cultural force for living publicly in a metropolitan world.

Back in 2010, before he wanted everyone to know he slaughtered his own meat, and well before Zuckerberg had hired a cadre of presidential campaign staffers, he told an audience at the Crunchie Awards that social norms were moving away from privacy and towards more open sharing. He was right that ideas of privacy and publicity are historically contingent and constantly changing, but he described Facebook’s role as “reflecting” rather than shaping those values. Predictably, few people outside of those that go to events with “Crunchie” in the title were convinced. Some pointed to the obvious fact that Facebook benefits from more promiscuous sharing while others like dana boyd reminded readers that notions of privacy and publicity not only change over time, but they are radically different for different kinds of people.

Regardless of whether you thought Zuckerberg was right, wrong, or thinking too simply about the subject, it was clear that commenting on sharing habits directly caused too many people to be cognizant of privacy in the first place. Just as Nixon’s “I am not a crook” made him seem guilty, Zuckerberg came off as someone who wanted to change your privacy habits, not passively respond to them. Conferences, blogs, news segments, and entire books about social media’s privacy invasion were being produced at a steady clip between 2010 and 2015. Still though, Facebook’s active user base ballooned from 600 million to over a billion.

Privacy concerns were obviously not enough to keep people off of Facebook, but it did take a toll on what got shared and individuals’ emotional relationship to the platform. There were stories and studies about why and how Facebook makes you unhappy and while causation is unclear, it was also about this time that it was revealed that, people were giving Facebook less personal data. (At least Facebook thought that news sharing habits weren’t a means of sharing personal feelings, and maybe still doesn’t, but that’s another story.) The company’s biggest challenge shifted from expanding territory, to governing the population it had amassed in 15 short years.

Facebook is so big that it actually makes sense to intervene in society to keep it compatible with the service. It is the same logic of powerful actors that Henry Kissinger was referring to when he infamously told the author Dinesh D’Souza that “America has no permanent friends, only interests.” Despite being constitutive of “friends” Facebook is animated by the interests of the platform. Those interests are less about material conditions necessary for its survival (though perhaps this is only the case because those conditions are not under threat) and more about the perception of its brand as a non-ideological container for life’s events. If Americans are divided, so are the 79 percent of them that use Facebook. And if Americans see Facebook as a partisan in any of our major debates, they stand to lose a great deal. Facebook wants to host happy people sharing likeable things, not waring factions pumping out propaganda. To be clear, it is good at doing both, but there is much more money to be made in polite, mediated conversation than political screeds. (The latter rarely divulges your favorite place to brunch.)

While Facebook’s interests clearly lie in a globalized society of happy people sharing their lives with one another in a machine-readable format purchasable to advertisers, they cannot say that or openly advocate for such a world. That is probably why Zuckerberg, as Obama and Hilary Clinton speech writer Joe Lovett observed in a recent Buzzfeed article, “sounds like a senator in his fourth term.” His comments are anodyne, crafted to not offend nor arouse anyone. Zuckerberg cannot effectively advocate for a progressive society or he’ll run into the same problems he had in 2010. Instead, he must enact his politics thereby making it seem as though you are buying into a calm, happy life when using Facebook, without all of the globalist baggage. Zuckerberg must, paradoxically, campaign for an ideology so as to keep his company seeming non-ideological. To date no ideology is as good at denying its own existence than good old fashioned liberalism forged in the Progressive Era.

If you took a history course in an American high school you probably read about the Progressive Era. For about a generation, beginning in 1890 America saw massive changes in civil society, among them the brief prohibition of alcohol, women’s suffrage, antitrust laws, the rise of labor unions, and public health initiatives. It was a moment, not unlike this one, where data and the scientific method were being applied to brand new sectors of society. Economics, political science, and sociology vied for top posts in advising government officials, businesses were seeking out new means of organization through scientific management (aka Taylorism), and governments would list eugenics along with vaccines and public baths as means of making their populations healthier and more productive.

By far the least exciting but perhaps longest-lasting reform of the Progressive Era was a push toward the professionalization and bureaucratization of government. Today, it is near-impossible to imagine anyone getting excited about managers. It is even harder to conceive of a political movement centered on the idea that the world needs more management, credentialing, and certification. Quite often we see the opposite: a talking head on TV or someone at the end of the bar complaining about the stifling restrictions brought on by bureaucracy, regulation, and paper-pushers. It is notable then, that in America, with all its pretentions of individuality and ruggedness we would find a social movement dedicated to installing managers in all aspects of our lives.

If your local government has a city manager or if your city council members run without endorsement from a political party, you are living in a community that was deeply influenced by the Progressive Era. Managers and professionals were seen as the antidote to corrupt party bosses that played favorites and took bribes. If your job needed a credential, and the office you held had clearly defined rules that were written down, you could be objectively evaluated and conceivably be fired if you did not perform your duties. “The ‘objective’ discharge of business” wrote Max Weber in his Politics as a Vocation “primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons.’”

Weber, writing in Germany at the very beginning of the bureaucratization of western governments, also knew that the shift from overtly political governance to professionalized administration could create power centers. Bureaucracies’ tendency toward secrecy and consolation of power were a part of their “material nature.” To carry out their missions, whether that is to issue drivers’ licenses or keep Facebook’s uptime at 99.9%, means amassing as much resources to carry out that mission while in competition with other organizations within a state system or market. Their most prized possession and only leverage in this competition is the accumulated skill and information they possess. Weber even went so far as to say that ‘The absolute monarch is powerless opposite the superior knowledge of the bureaucratic expert.”

Thinking of Zuckerberg as the head of a functioning bureaucratic system, indeed the only one that seems to be working at the moment, makes a lot of inexplicable things fall into place. Is he running for President? Conducting a PR campaign for his company? Nothing quite seems to explain all of his actions because, as Nitasha Tiku wrote in the same Buzzfeed article that compares him to a seasoned senator, “There are easier ways to appear woke than traveling across the country to talk about Facebook’s weak spots.” Tiku puts her money on a third option: “He wants to win over the world to help his philanthropic interests.” This makes sense since it requires exactly what he is doing on his trip around the U.S.: appeals to the material interests of the rich and the sentiments of everyone else.

What exactly those philanthropic interests are though, seem vague. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (named after Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan) is an LLC, not a non-profit, and has been acquiring companies as it seeks to “advance human potential and promote equality.” It is certainly possible that Zuckerberg could run for president in 2020 on a platform of creative destruction making way for reliable technocratic systems like Facebook, but if the history of the Progressive Era has taught us anything, it is that the big winners stay out of politics all-together and make fiefdoms of bureaucratic control. No one exemplifies that lesson like the brash believer in meritocracy that built modern New York City: Robert Moses.

Mark Zuckerberg will be our generation’s Robert Moses. Fueled by a deep belief in rational systems’ ability to reward the best with power over the rest, Moses commanded massive budgets, built enormous public works projects, and never ran for a single elected office. Instead, he was able to amass funds through the authority to levy tolls on his many bridges and gained populist appeal through the hundreds of parks he had built across New York State. A child of the Progressive Era who lived long enough to become its antithesis—a powerful bureaucrat accountable to no one who championed the white well-off families of Long Island over the poor immigrant families in the city—Moses wielded bureaucracy and technocratic authority the way Obama could use rhetorical flourish and moral authority. He was a master of the craft and changed what it meant to use it.

Zuckerberg could carve out a similar role for himself on a bigger scale. CZI could morph into a dual power organization: something as powerful as a government and capable of providing similar services using a parallel set of bureaucratic tools and procedures. Through the acquisition of companies in different sectors and the establishment of public-private partnerships, Zuckerberg could rival the power of a president with the added benefit of choosing his jurisdiction. If protracted war in the Middle East has no foreseeable benefit to CZI’s social mission, then it simply opts out of the discussion.

What is less speculative and more likely though, is that CZI and Zuckerberg himself are deployed by existing political actors as the last best example of what the Progressive Era promised and what today’s Democratic Party wants to be seen as: stewards of a rational, meritocratic society capable of administrating grand projects for large populations. The danger in either scenario is that Zuckerberg follows Moses’  career trajectory too closely. If that happens he would be someone that, as Jane Jacobs wrote in Fortune Magazine, “loves the public but hates the people.”

David is on Twitter: @da_banks

In this post—adapted from a recently published piece making the case for open access in media scholarship—I argue that media sociologists and other members of the media-studies diaspora should be applying our concepts and critiques to the world of scholarly publishing itself. We have, after all, an overpacked quiver of analytic tools that we’ve developed to scrutinize popular media. With care, these lines of critique and analysis could be delivered to the sibling domain of scholarly communication. With notable exceptions, media scholars have opted out of the cross-disciplinary conversation on the future of academic knowledge-sharing. That conversation, sustained by peer-reviewed articles, blog posts, foundation-supported reports, and even Twitter, welcomes contributions from an admirably broad range of disciplines. Media studies figures like Ted Striphas, Leah Lieuvrouw, Gary Hall, Timothy Stephen, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick are rule-proving exceptions, who directly engage on open access and related topics. But there’s so much untapped insight waiting to be adapted to the academic publishing context.

The multi-stranded political economy of communication (PEC) tradition is a good example. The incumbent, cartel-like scholarly-publishing industry deserves a thorough-going PEC-style analysis in the mold of the 1990s media-consolidation studies of Robert McChesney and Janet Wasko. The later work of Herbert Schiller, with its focus on the commodification of information, could be refracted through the self-styled information conglomerates like Informa (parent company of Taylor & Francis) and the RELX Group (Elsevier’s parent, known as Reed-Elsevier until a 2015 re-branding). Both are London-based, publicly traded giants with diverse “information solutions” expected to generate maximized profits and upbeat Wall Street whispers. RELX boasts about its 90 million data transactions per hour, while Informa sprawls across four “Operating Divisions,” each “owning a portfolio of leading brands.” The companies’ real competitors are in the equally merger-happy news-and-data business, like Canada’s Thomson Reuters, News Corp. (with Dow Jones), and Bloomberg. Some of the information-industry froth surfaced in Thomson Reuters’ sale, in summer 2016, of the venerable citation database Web of Science (and related businesses) to private equity firms for over $3 billion. Schiller’s 1989 Culture, Inc. is badly in need of an update.

There’s an analogy to be drawn, too, with Dallas Smythe’s notion of the audience commodity. Back in the late 1970s, Smythe made the startling but compelling point that couch-bound TV viewers are a product that broadcast networks sell to advertisers. All that television programming, he wrote, amounts to a “free lunch” exchanged for the viewers’ work of watching. If Smythe’s point that audience attention is labor was an arguable stretch, the multibillion dollar valuations of Silicon Valley startups vindicated the Canadian political economist’s core insight decades later. In this respect SAGE is not all that different from Facebook: Our journal submissions are uncompensated, user-generated content that—like Facebook posts—get aggregated, repackaged, and sold back to us. Though the publishers’ main rent-skimming tactic is subscriptions, not tailored ads, the basic dynamic is shared. Media industry scholars already have the analytic toolkit to draw these parallels.

Wiley and Elsevier are a big part of the story. We should also train our scholarly scrutiny on the dizzying, buzzy array of new models and experiments themselves. After all, open access—especially in its author-pays incarnations—could substitute one kind of inequality (pay-to-publish) for the other (pay-to-read). Even respected nonprofit initiatives like the Public Library of Science’s stable of natural-science titles charge author fees that come close to an adjunct professor’s pay for an entire course. Indeed, the big five publishers have all “embraced” open access with brazen cynicism. In addition to a small number of OA journals with usurious author-processing charges, SAGE and the rest dangle the option to unlock individual articles, for a hefty charge. The result is double-dipping—a new OA profit-layer on top of subscription revenue. There are other OA models, including the Open Library of Humanities’ successful library-subsidy scheme, but the open-access world—brave and new as it is—would benefit from media scholars’ critical takes.

Fellow-traveling developments like altmetrics and post-publication peer review should also claim some of our attention. Media researchers are in a good position to do some of this analysis, if only because we have already produced rich understandings of all-too-relevant analogues: the media industry’s digital makeover, for one, and also the rise of social media micro-celebrity. One way to understand the dynamics at work in scholarly communication, after all, is in terms of unbundling. The journal-issue package that has, since the 17th century, grouped articles together is already coming undone. The very idea of a “periodical”—of regular, batched release under an ongoing publication title—is a blend of inherited convention and the affordances of print. In the academic world, journal prestige and discipline-specific flagship status have long served as quality-signaling proxies to fellow scholars as well as tenure-review committees. This system is already under strain, and not only because of mounting (and compelling) criticism of the Journal Impact Factor. Paper- and scholar-specific measures—some qualitative, but most captured numerically—are suddenly everywhere: journal-site download counts, Google Scholar citation tallies, and “view” totals on Type a book or article title into the new Open Syllabus Explorer, and you will get back a “teaching score”—a scaled, 1-100 measure of how often a reading appears in the project’s one-million syllabi database—with a 99.9 for Plato’s Republic and a meager 0.8 for Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld’s Personal Influence (1955). As with other scholarly-communication developments, the natural sciences are a step ahead. Post-publication review sites like PubPeer publish anonymous comments (from published scholars) on individual papers, while the U.S. government’s own PubMed Commons highlights “trending articles”—“those with recent increases in activity.” Recommendation aggregators like Faculty of 1000 feature “Current Top 10” and “All Time Top 10” leaderboards.

To a media scholar’s ear, all of this sounds eerily familiar. Take the article-unbundling phenomenon: For years now, we have been tracking how search, social shares, recommendation algorithms and other “side doors” have, in effect, untethered the individual story from its publisher. The old, bundled model of legacy media—exemplified by newspapers—relied on the blunt metrics of subscriptions and newsstand sales. Editors and publishers knew that the comics were probably subsidizing their foreign bureaus, but bundled consumption kept these cross-subsidies fuzzy. Real-time analytics—down to automated headline A/B testing—and social-media site content hosting have eviscerated the editor-curated, periodic “publication” model. Now journalists and editors are glued to their Chartbeat dashboards, tracking second-by-second audience tallies by author and article. Success means a video ricocheting around Facebook, which may well host the media file on its server.

Another strand of media scholarship has, of course, catalogued the lava-like overspread of celebrity culture into everyday life, with the means of production (smartphones) and distribution (social media) in the hands of ordinary people. The “demotic turn,” to use Graeme Turner’s phrase, has fed the adoption of visibility strategies once confined to film and music stars. Social media micro-celebrities, as Brooke Erin Duffy has documented, carefully monitor follower counts and likes-and-comments tallies—and mete out packaged bits of authenticity to keep their audiences “engaged.” It’s fame on a smaller scale, but it’s metricized fame propelled by rich-get-richer algorithmic dynamics.

As media researchers we can bring this work to bear on scholarly communication. Academics, after all, are already “publishing” on social media, with journal-article shares on Twitter the quintessential “altmetric.” There is, moreover, a parallel universe of academic micro-celebrities who have amassed large followings on social media and, to a lesser extent, blogs. The sociology of academic reputation—traditionally fixated on citations and mass-media visibility—should be updated to account for the “demotic turn” in scholarly life. Indeed, the most compelling applications of media scholarship will take up the academic-world analogues to Instagram and Snapchat. Academic social networks like and ResearchGate, though generating some high-profile criticism, have largely escaped scholarly scrutiny. Yet both networks have powerful, and partially overlapping purchase—with boasting about 36 million unique monthly visitors and even more academic-members.

These networks represent a notable extension of the unbundling dynamics, as they shift the center of gravity from, say, institution or journal title to the scholar herself. and ResearchGate also serve as thinly veiled PDF-sharing repositories, akin to Napster circa 1994. Together with piracy sites like Sci-Hub, the pair of aca-networks are establishing a de facto regime of open access. (, on its landing page, is unabashed: “Academia is the easiest way to share papers with millions of people across the world for free. A study recently published in PLOS ONE found that papers uploaded to Academia receive a 69% boost in citations over 5 years.” One of the paper‘s coauthors is Richard Price, founder and CEO of, and five other co-authors are employees of the network.) Most fascinating of all is the manner by which the two sites mimic core social-media conventions, down to follower counts and activity notifications. Curated profiles with pics, a News Feed-like scrollable bulletin of followers’ uploads, a “Bookmark” analogue to the social-media heart button, and even incessant prompts to “import contacts” (“Get More Followers”)—all the trappings of a Silicon Valley social app. Like Twitter and LinkedIn, but with more goading, showcases user “Analytics”: followers, “Total Views,” and percentile rankings. Members get emailed whenever a Google search lands on one of their papers, complete with prompts to view a full “Analytics” page that resembles a flight control panel. (Users even have the option to make their Analytics page “Public.”) With an obvious nod to Google’s PageRank and Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithms, introduced article-specific PaperRank scores, which are used to compute a scholar’s overall AuthorRank. We have, in other words, a scholarly Klout score, each of us.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that both academic social networks are backed by Silicon Valley venture capital firms. boasts about raising $17.7 million from a “a range of investors,” including four venture capital firms like Khosla Ventures—which is headquartered along the same famous stretch of Sand Hill Road as one of ResearchGate’s backers, Benchmark Capital. is headquartered in nearby San Francisco, where ResearchGate (based in Berlin) also has an office. Both networks resemble the Silicon Valley startups that surround them, and not just for their venture funding: “Perks and Benefits” for working at include a Foosball table, free lunch and stock options, while ResearchGate touts its “healthy snacks, in-house yoga, [and] relaxation rooms.” The Valley’s hacky-sack-at-break culture is one that media academics have critiqued in a series of excellent studies that are begging to be applied to and ResearchGate. The venture-capital context deserves special scrutiny: Menlo Park firms are placing bets that they hope will yield the proverbial “1000X” returns., ResearchGate, and other scholarly-communication companies backed by VCs—including the innovative writing platform Authorea, data-sharing site Figshare, and the eponymous Altmetric—are not merely for-profit. They will all have their reckoning with the unique ferocity of VC profit expectations.

The push for open access is not responsible for academic social networks, most-emailed leaderboards, or even post-publication peer review. Unbundling is happening at tolled journals too, and most papers are anything but open access. But the OA movement is nevertheless hitched to these developments, in practice and by perception—in the same sense that exciting experiments in new publishing formats are often faithful to open-access ideals. The changes roiling the way we share knowledge are tied up in, for better and worse, the push for OA. As media scholars, we have a unique bundle of concepts, traditions and methods to scrutinize the new publishing landscape—venture-capital warts and all.


Jeff Pooley is associate professor of media & communication at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, PA. He writes on the history of media research, the history of social science, scholarly communications, and consumer culture and social media. His writings can be found at

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Milo Yiannopoulos tried to speak at the UC–Berkeley campus a few weeks ago and the residents and students stopped him. The Berkeley News reported that, “no major injuries and about a half dozen minor injuries” occurred, a few fires were set, and fireworks were aimed at police. That’s less property damage and violence than a particularly popular World Series game. Still though, many people are not convinced that what happened was productive. In fact, many are questioning whether this is another kind of headfake that will ultimately come back to haunt us. Protest that does anything more than gather people together to chant and hold signs, could add fuel to the growing nazi fire.

The effective-protest-is-not-actually-good-but-in-fact-is-bad line of reasoning is best articulated in Thursday’s Observer article by Ryan Holiday where he writes:

Most brands and personalities try to appeal to a wide swath of the population. Niche players and polarizing personalities are only ever going to be interesting to a small subgroup. While this might seem like a disadvantage, it’s actually a huge opportunity: Because it allows them to leverage the dismissals, anger, mockery, and contempt of the population at large as proof of their credibility. Someone like Milo or Mike Cernovich doesn’t care that you hate them—they like it. It’s proof to their followers that they are doing something subversive and meaningful. It gives their followers something to talk about. It imbues the whole movement with a sense of urgency and action—it creates purpose and meaning.

Holiday knows what he is talking about. His book Trust Me I’m Lying lays out the tactics that got rape culture media artifacts like Tucker Max’s book and movie into the national spotlight. By taking out highly offensive ads (e.g. rape jokes about blind women) and then participating in the coverage of the ensuing controversy, a “niche player” like Max can not only get loyal fans, they can find every single one of them thanks to all of the media attention. Holiday contends giving away his tricks by publishing Trust Me I’m Lying was necessary because “others might soon use them to sell something more nefarious.”

It is difficult to get past the fact that liberals are earnestly and completely believing (and sharing!) an essay prescribing protest techniques in the Observer, a magazine owned by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Still though, let’s take this professional media manipulator at his word (for some reason, everyone else is doing it) and look at where it takes us.

Holiday argues that, “The last thing you ever want to do is give an opponent the moral high ground—and attempts to suppress, intimidate and revoke constitutional rights do exactly that.” He goes on:

If you actually want to fight back against these trolls, here’s a strategy to consider: Organize all you want, get as many people as you can to show up at their events, but don’t try to shut them down. In fact, the only thing you should try to shut down are the instigators who try to incite violence. Regain the moral high ground by saying that you absolutely respect their right to free speech.

This is nonsense for three reasons. First, this is precisely what the mainstream left has been doing for 30 years with little-to-no-success. The single largest day of peaceful protest in world history wasn’t enough to prevent the War in Iraq. The “when they go low you go high” tactic of the 2016 campaign doesn’t seem to have convinced anyone of anything either. The so-called moral high ground was no use then, and it is far from useful now. If the secret to political success was polite protest then Democrats would not be the minority in governors’ mansions, Congress, and (soon) the Supreme Court.

Second, Holiday’s formulation misses the content of Milo’s talk and its direct consequences. Milo sought to name undocumented students and call for their expulsion through legal and extralegal means. Such an action seems far more violent than burning trash cans and fireworks aimed at well-armored police. Holiday is trying to compare an (admittedly disgusting) movie and book to Milo’s campaign to incite targeted violence on specific groups of people. He is equating hate speech with advertising a movie.

Which brings me to reason number three: The moral high ground is not simply claimed, it is created. The idea that protestors stopping hate speech through direct action is somehow something to be ashamed of is the exact reason why Democrats are often caricatured as cowards and fair-weather friends. By sharing articles that cast direct action as unseemly, liberals are building a moral high ground for Milo to stand on. The idea that using a booking agent to rent an auditorium to spew hate imbues you with legitimacy while protestors who are protecting vulnerable members of their community are cast as rouge vigilantes, is not an immutable truth. Holiday’s prescription becomes more true the more you share his article. The very sharing of articles like Holiday’s is what creates the kind of moral high ground that Milo can stand on and undocumented UC-Berkeley students cannot.

What dissolves the moral high ground as it is presently conceived is changing the discourse around structural violence, property damage, and free speech. Structural violence must be understood as something that can happen in private, in secret, and just because a black bloc appears more violent on its surface it pales in comparison to the regular deportations in this country that rip families apart. Reactions to property damage must be couched in a history of humans-as-property, that is, property owned by white people should not be afforded the same care and concern as living black and brown bodies.

Finally, there is the matter of free speech. Rather than accept the conservative frame that all speech is equal, we need to adopt a more justice-oriented understanding of speech that acknowledges the fact that the free expression of white supremacist views hampers the free speech of many others and, if left unchecked, leads to the silencing of everyone else.

Then there is the matter of Holiday’s assessment of past activism and what constitutes “effective counterinsurgency.” He suggests we focus on “bargaining, partnering and the reestablishment of norms—not hardlines.” Essentially, you have to offer Milo and his ilk the opportunity to actually have a say in something—“put up or shut up” as he puts it—and watch the whole thing fall apart because the Alt-Right are all bark and no bite.

None of this is even remotely connected to reality. This suggestion might be close to the truth if Milo’s former boss Steve Bannon didn’t have an office in the White House where he is writing executive orders with the same speed and ideological purity of a Breitbart article. The Alt-Right has an immense amount of power and they have bitten hard.

What is particularly frustrating here is that people who are sharing this Observer article are likely to have shared Lindy West’s landmark 2013 Jezebel article, “Don’t Ignore the Trolls. Feed Them Until They Explode.” In this essay she argues that, rather than ignore every troll that threatens you on Twitter or some other kind of semi-anonymous internet forum, you should talk back: “I talk back because the expectation is that when you tell a woman to shut up, she should shut up. I reject that. I talk back because it’s fun, sometimes, to rip an abusive dummy to shreds with my friends. I talk back because my mental health is my priority—not some troll’s personal satisfaction.”

West further argues that this is much more than talk and can have very real, material consequences that can keep people safe. If such an argument holds for white liberal feminists it should hold for undocumented immigrants. If this argument holds for high-profile writers on Twitter, it should hold for radicals and undocumented immigrants that are being threatened by a well-financed author with direct personal ties to the President’s senior staff.

Creating a 21st century attention economy helmed by people with more expertise in statistics than theories of attention was a bad idea, and this has made our media deeply susceptible to manipulation. Holiday is certainly right that we have to be careful about how we use the media in the next few years, but this fight cannot be reduced to optics. Holiday is making a clear “don’t feed the trolls” argument which is no different than West’s detractors telling her to just ignore her harassers. To fuss and hand-wring about confronting fascists because you might be giving them the attention they crave is to ignore the deeply violent things they will do to others when you are not paying attention.

David is on Twitter.

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Lots of people have been sharing mashups of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched in the face and, as Natasha Lennard wrote in The Nation, you can thank Black Bloc for the original source content. (My favorite right now is set to “The Boys are Back in Town.” ) Black Bloc is a tactic that has a unique relationship to attention and anonymity. Individuals mask up to remain anonymous but the collective group is meant to draw and direct attention. It is, in this way, not unlike Reddit and so it should be no surprise that black bloc is so compatible with virality. The tactic, however, was invented pre-internet and so it is worth looking at how radicals are weathering (and strategically utilizing) this relationship to digital networks and mass media.

That person who punched a Nazi may be facing up to 10 years in prison on felony riot charges if they were one of the 200 people arrested that day. Even if they escape state prosecution, white supremacists are crowdsourcing a bounty for information on the anonymous Black Bloc participant. More than a funny meme, what happened on inauguration day is a political act that is still playing out. How this event and similar ones are covered in the media has tangible consequences.

One common criticism of the Black Bloc is that white people are overly-represented in the bloc which points toward a dynamic where privileged folks are making an otherwise safe environment, dangerous. Proponents of Black Bloc tactics turn that argument on its head by saying, as Lennard does in her piece:

Not everyone can participate in a black bloc. Those with a vulnerable immigration status, or arrest records, or good reasons to fear police repression because of the color of their skin, often don’t participate in activities where the risk of arrest is high. Friday’s bloc was by no means all white, but it was predominantly white. If bearers of white privilege can do one thing, it is put ourselves on the line and take risks where others can’t.

Black Blocs draw the attention and resources of the police away from other parts of a demonstration and have even been known to “unarrest” people who have been kettled. They also, as the video of Richard Spencer attests, will violently engage people who pose a danger to others.

All of this was true before the internet though, and what has changed is the degree to which particular moments can be captured in media and precision-guided into specific audience demographics. Whereas the Black Bloc tactics deployed in years past were subject only to the framing of mass media gatekeepers, today we have access to a wider range of media producers. It is perhaps only because of individuals’ ability to record and distribute what happened on #J20 that a wider discussion of the Black Bloc can take place at all. How the Black Bloc shows up on our screens may be just as important as what the Black Bloc does in the streets.

New technologies, however, do not automatically change the common sense around political tactics. I won’t draw actual quotes from specific people but a cursory reading of the comments on Lennard’s article and in my own social media feeds indicates that Black Bloc is largely seen as a delegitimizing force. By smashing windows, openly confronting the police, and punching Richard Spencer the media narrative will decenter the message of the protestors and instead “turn violent.” That is, the cameras will seek out anything resembling a riot and largely ignore law-abiding citizens exercising their first amendment rights. When the media produces their piece on what happened that day the protestors in a permitted march get lumped in with the broken Starbucks windows and the word “incivility” gets thrown around.

Protest tactics in one form or another are all about attention and awareness. When protests are violent or destructive it is because another form of violence has been sanctioned or left unseen for a long time. That is why riots, as the Martin Luther King Jr. quote goes, “are the language of the unheard.” The decision by protestors to set a trash can (or limo) on fire is at least partially informed by the desire to direct attention. It is through empathy—the assumption that people would commit these acts because something truly bad is happening—that this tactic works. If media makers and their audiences focus only on property destruction that is a failure of empathy, not tactics. It is ironic that media Twitter loves to describe bad things as a dumpster fire only to fight for the ability to photograph actual trash fires during protests.

To put this in Stuart Hall’s terms, the idea that property destruction is never a legitimate form of protest, or that the police should never be met with resistance is part of our dominant cultural order. Protestors, according to the dominant American culture, are the ones that decide to make protests violent and police simply react when laws (and windows) are broken. This culture has taken years to cultivate but that does not mean it is immutable. Through careful work activists and media makers can popularize an alternative interpretation.

Hall argues that media making and consumption is a process of encoding and decoding. Media are encoded by their producers and decoded by audiences. Interpretations of news events are created by power elites and are broadcast by professional media producers. “When the viewer,” writes Hall in his essay Encoding/Decoding, “decodes the message in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded, we might say that the viewer is operating inside the dominant code.” Put another way, when you don’t question how the news frames an issue, you are perpetuating the hegemonic discourse that benefits power elites in a systematic way.

Questioning or interpreting media in a way that runs counter to elites’ interests is what Hall calls an oppositional code.  When reading media against the encoders intended message, the decoder must have some “alternative framework of reference.” Hall suggests by way of example that when people hear that some policy is in the “national interest” they should assume that to mean it is in the “class interest” of the elite.

What would be the oppositional code—the alternative framework of reference—for Black Bloc coverage look like? We can start by inverting many of the value connotations within the dominant code. The oppositional code should flip present common sense on its head.

It is the police’s decision, not protestors’, to make arrests. Many news outlets were quick to draw contrasts between the inauguration Day actions and the Women’s March the next day. While 200 people were arrested in the former, there were no arrests in DC, LA, and many other cities during the latter. There are countless examples, from Standing Rock to Ferguson, of peaceful protestors being violently arrested. Or, as Zeba Blay in The Huffington Post put it: “Let’s be real. A large group of mostly white women wearing knit pink hats is simply not going to be policed in same way a large group of people of color would be.” The Black Bloc was far less destructive and violent as past Super Bowl “revelers” but faced far more arrests and harsher charges.

What gets called a riot matters: The double standard of what gets called a riot and who is deserving of police violence is also a function of race and class. One could even go so far as to say that riots have been unfairly maligned. Regardless of whether riots eventually lose their negative connotation that word is used today as a means of dismissing legitimate dissent.

Assuming violent and destructive protestors have no reason to do so is the result of a profound lack of empathy. The present hegemonic discourse assumes that riots and demonstrations are collective tantrums at worst, and tragically wasted energy at best. An oppositional code interprets property destruction and violent acts as a sign of deep injustices having been ignored. This decoding scheme posits that humans do not choose violence lightly and so something profoundly wrong has taken place. Something that must be rectified and, if possible, reconciled.

Categorically denouncing the black block normalizes Trump. If open white supremacists are taking up key leadership positions in the White House, if David Duke feels like his community won a national election, then there is a much larger and more organized form of violence taking place here that must be opposed.

These are just four small steps toward what needs to be a comprehensive, totalizing, worldview that opposes our present dominant discourse. It is not (only) up to those that participate in black bloc tactics to normalize and legitimize their behavior. That is up to the people who cover and write about what happens at political events. Digital networks and media making technologies mean that a far wider range of people and perspectives can frame the discourse.

The very fact that a Nazi getting punched has gone viral is a signal that oppositional media practices are already forming and that more mainstream media outlets will look different juxtaposed to Richard Spencer getting punched to the beat of X Gon’ Give It To Ya. They will look different precisely because that viral video will breed more essays like Lennard’s, and essays like Lennard’s are what will propagate oppositional codes.

David is on Twitter.

Image is a still from this video.