streamingdataFake news among the alt-right has been central in post-election public discourse, most recently instantiated through Donald Trump’s dubiously sourced tweet about the “millions of illegal voters” supposedly driving Clinton’s substantial lead in the popular vote. Less attention, however, has been paid to the way “real” news is, to use Jurgenson’s term, “fact-i”. Based in data and empirical accounts, mainstream news gets cast as respectable and objective vis-à-vis the fabrications and embellishments that go viral in right wing echo-chambers. This is especially true when journalists, stack of papers and obligatory pen studiously in hand, point to statistics that back up their reports.

Such reliance on, and valorization of, “data” masks the human underpinnings of journalistic practice and the ways that things become numbers and those numbers become stories. So here I present a cautionary tale of a small missing data point, with big narrative consequences.

It is a common truism that white male voters without college degrees disproportionately supported Trump in the 2016 election. Indeed, the notion that men with high school as their highest level of education were more likely to vote for Trump is an empirically supported fact. This data point spread widely throughout the campaign season, and bore out in the post-election analyses. But also in the post-election analyses, over which researchers pored in response to the statistically surprising result, another data point emerged that could have, but didn’t, change the narrative around this demographic voting bloc.

The data point that emerged was that white American men without college degrees have remained economically depressed since the 2008 recession and subsequent recovery. Although the U.S. economy has been steadily improving, the economic reality for this particular segment of the population has not. This is what Michael Moore talked about experientially (but not statistically), claiming that he knows the people who live in the rust belt, and they are struggling. He was right, the data show that they are struggling. Highlighting the economic reality for people without college degrees in the U.S. tells a very different story than highlighting the fact that they don’t have college degrees. The former renders an image of a voting contingent who, in the face of personal economic hardship that contrasts with national economic gain, are frustrated and eager to try something—anything—new. The latter renders an image of ignorance.

Data about education levels of voters is transformed by its coupling with economic trajectories. What’s been strange, is that although this coupling was discovered, it never really penetrated the larger “what happened” narrative. This is particularly strange given the meticulous and sometimes frantic search for explanation and the media’s public introspective quests to understand how so many got it all so wrong.

The transformative effect of the economic data point and its failure to effectively transform the story underlines two related things: data are not self-evident and narrative currents are hard to change.

The data weren’t wrong—people without college degrees were more likely to vote for Trump—but they were incomplete and in their partialness, quite misleading. That’s not a data problem, it’s a people problem. Data are not silent, but they are inarticulate. Data make noise, but people have to weave that noise into a story. The weaving process begins with survey construction, and culminates in analyses and reports. Far from an objective process, turning data into narrative entails nuanced decisions about the relevance of, and relationship between, quantifiable items captured through human-created measures. The data story is thus always value-laden and teeming with explicit and implicit assumptions.

Framing a contingent of Trump supporters through the exclusive metric of education without examining the interaction, mediating, and moderating effects of economic gains, was an intellectual decision bore out through statistical analyses. That is, pollsters, strategists, and commentators treated “lack of education” as the variable with key explanatory power. Other characteristics or experiences of those with low levels of education could/should/would be irrelevant.

Such dismissal created a major problem with regard to Democratic strategy. To situate a voting bloc as “uneducated” is to dismiss that voting bloc. How does one campaign to those voting in ignorance? In contrast, to situate a voting bloc as connected through an economic plight not only validates their position, but also gives a clear policy platform on which to speak.

But okay, after the election, analysts briefly shed light on the way that economics and education operated together to predict candidate preference. Why has this gotten so little attention? Why is education—rather than economics or the economic-education combination—still the predominant story?

The predominance of education level remains because narrative currents are strong. Even when tied to newly emergent data, established stories are resistant to change. Narratives are embedded with social frameworks, and changing the story entails changing the view of reality. A key tenet of sociology is that people tend towards stability. Once they understand and engage the world in a particular way, they do social and psychological gymnastics to continue understanding and engaging the world in that way. To reframe (some) Trump voters as part of an economic interest group that has been recently underserved, is an upheaval of previous logics. Moreover, disrupting existing logics in this way forces those who practice those logics to, perhaps, reframe themselves, and do so in a way that is not entirely flattering or identity affirming. To switch from a frame of ignorance to a frame of economics is to acknowledge not only that the first frame was distorted, but also, to acknowledge that getting it wrong necessarily entailed ignoring the economic inequality that progressives take pride in caring so much about. Switching from ignorance to economics entails both a change in logic and also, a threat to sense of self.

Data are rich material from which stories are formed, and they are not objective. Tracing data is a process of deconstructing the stories that make up our truths—how those stories take shape, evolve, and solidify into fact. The “truth” about Trump voters is of course complex and highly variable. The perpetually missed nuances tell as much of a story as those on which predominant narratives hang.

 

Headline Image: Source

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

affinity

Editor’s Note: This essay originally ran on November 9, 2016 and included a call to politics of affinity. On November 10th, I added to the essay by applying the framework to ongoing protests. 

As the reality of the 2016 election results sunk in, my echo-chamber of a leftist newsfeed was full of two key things: heartbreak and I told you so’s. The heartbroken expressed disbelief that the U.S. would elect a person with an impressive record of bigotry coupled with an appalling record of incompetence. The I told you so’s said they already knew. Not knowing was a sign of privilege, naivety, foolish trust in big data. We should have nominated Bernie, they said. You should have voted, but not for Jill Stein.

Donna Haraway, so keen on blurring boundaries, promotes what she calls affinity politics, vis-à-vis identity politics. Identity politics mobilize around identity labels and the interests associated therein. Affinity politics intersect identities that share the same general agendas. Affinity politics circumvent identity boundaries and conjoin those who dream and work for similar causes. From Haraway’s  Cyborg Manifesto:

Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic. With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical constitution, gender, race, and class cannot provide the basis for belief in ‘essential’ unity…

The recent history for much of the US left and US feminism has been a response to this kind of crisis by endless splitting and searches for a new essential unity. But there has also been a growing recognition of another response through coalition — affinity, not identity

The I told you so’s represent identity politics, but so too do some of the heartbroken. In this moment of microcelebrity and performative social media, we are both people and brands. Politics, though always connected to sense of self, becomes a high stakes marker when sharing and posting are both expected and always up for comment and critique.

Today’s critical leftism is about being smart, owning the sharpest and most unexpected take, creating self-distinction and in so doing, creating fissures among those who grapple after the progressive label—fissures between pragmatists and hard-liners, anarchists and party members, collaborators and confrontationists. Identity distinction serves those who tack such distinction to themselves, but aren’t effective in the business of doing. And as is now spectacularly clear, the business of doing is serious.

Understanding the U.S. (and global) hard rightwing pushback makes for a complex puzzle. But let’s start with ourselves, the progressive left. What did we do and how can we do better? Politics of identity are a tangible culprit. The palpable elitism cited by those on the right is not off base. We’re snarky, and self-satisfied, and so caught up in “getting it” that we engage in esoteric conversations of relevance only to ourselves. For those who don’t understand, or who disagree, or who feel ridiculed and left out, Donald Trump is a validating force.

If we make it less about who we are and more about what we need to do, could we approach the business of doing, differently? If we root our movements in politics of affinity, might we recognize that our goals are the same even if the means and the tools might be quite different? I think so. Because affinity politics are animated less by ego and more by shared goals. If we begin at the hoped for end—obtaining national healthcare, ending the police state and its sharp effects within communities of color, replenishing environmental resources, distributing wealth in ways that are both equitable and humane, disconnecting moneyed elites from political elites, establishing a standard of global diplomacy, preserving women’s reproductive rights, and insisting upon safety and full inclusion for LGBQT* persons—we can perhaps have more sober discussions and flexible positions on how best to get there.

So what does affinity politics look like? It looks like meeting those who share similar goals where they are, appreciating their positions and their courses of action, and figuring out how to incorporate those positions and those actions into the tangible change that we all want. It means offering gentle critique and remaining humble and open to those who challenge your perspective. It means remaining firm and also, pliable.

Lest I deal in abstractions, let’s go now to a concerete case: the post-election protests.  Presented in generalities, those protesting represent radical leftism with goals of upturning existing structures. Progressives who oppose the protests represent a more moderate position that maintains value in the democratic system. The latter is a pragmatist approach to change from within. “Let’s be reasonable,” the pragmatists say, while the radicals claim that the time for reason has past. Okay. But we need to do something, so let’s figure it out.

Each of these are valuable positions and important tactics. Both of these groups share the goals of equality and inclusion. Neither group’s positions or strategies negate the other’s. Let’s think about how we can reconcile these divergent logics in a productive way.

My proposal, subject to the tweaks and critiques of memeification in its most collaborative form, is to maintain the protests but reframe them symbolically and tie their symbolism to action items.

Call it a demonstration and/or a unity march instead of a protest.

What’s so valuable about a gathering like this is the symbolism of strength against oppressive powers. The demonstrations across the country make clear that although our electoral system produced a right wing president, that decision far from reflects the sentiment of all the people. This symbolism can be a key source of strength for all of us, but especially those who have been harshly cast into the role of target. A unifying show doesn’t need specific demands. It doesn’t need to protest something. It is instead a demonstration of strength and caring that communicates a powerful message: We are here and we are together and we are ready to get to work.

Insist on accountability instead of calling for obstruction.

Michael Moore’s day after to-do list includes a call to obstruct all legislative action in ways that mirror Obama’s experiences with conservative lawmakers. This sentiment can be remolded into accountability. Rather than preemptively stopping everything (a distinctly political move), we can construct positions on actual policy proposals once we know their content. It is far more effective to make specific demands upon specific legislative documents. Doing so creates an opportunity to collaborate across political identities (even conservative ones) in ways that keep end goals at the center. Plus, maybe Trump will propose something good. I could get behind congressional term limits and would hate to already commit to opposition.

Draft a list of legislative priorities and link them to existing and potential lawmakers who would enact these policies. Support those politicians.

What do we care about and how can we make those things happen? Which senators and representatives support bolstering the ACA? Who has expressed support for Black Lives Matter? Who wants to raise the minimum wage? Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are obvious allies, but others are too. Kai Degner just lost in my district, but he’s pro-union, pro-LGBQT*, active in campaign finance reform, and an environmental protectionist. I’m certain we can identify others like Degner at the local and state levels and work to lift them up.

Draft a list of legislative redlines and link them to existing and potential lawmakers who would enact these policies. Push back against those politicians and support their adversaries in upcoming elections.

What are we most worried about and who do we think will put those worries into action? Who fought the hardest against marriage equality? Who wants less regulation? Who is adamant about law and order? Mitch McConnell, Sarah Palin, and Rudy Giuliani are known culprits, along with the lesser knowns like Bob Goodlatte, who beat Degner in my district. Just as we lift up those who share progressive values, we can take down those who traffic in oppression.

 

 

*Special thanks to James Chouinard who should probably have shared authorship and was especially helpful thinking through leftist fissures and their tangible consequences. And special thanks to the whole Cyborgology team, whose thoughtful discussion and debate helped me formulate the second half of this essay.

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

Headline Pic Via: Source

A substantial part of my graduate research work focused on the vernacular creativity of Chinese digital media users. In practical terms, this meant participating in various local social media platforms and collecting content that my contacts shared through chat applications and posted on their personal social media feeds. Given that most of my friends and acquaintances knew I was doing research about 网络文化 wangluo wenhua [Internet culture], it wasn’t uncommon to receive proactive updates about newly-minted slang terms or hot-button funny images of the week, often accompanied by detailed explanations and personal interpretations of the content in question. Sometime in 2014, right at the beginning of my actual fieldwork, a friend from Shanghai sent me a stylized image of a frog with teary eyes and pouty lips on the popular chat application QQ. “What is this?” I asked. “It’s 伤心青蛙 shangxin qingwa [sad frog],” he replied. “I see… but do you know where it comes from?” I continued. “Hahaha, no, I don’t… it’s just funny, it’s really popular now on the Baidu Tieba forums, I got it there. There’s many versions of it.”

“I’m so sad I mutated”, one of the Pepe images I collected on Chinese social media platforms.
“I’m so sad I mutated”, one of the Pepe images I collected on Chinese social media platforms.

In fact, I knew that the vaguely humanoid frog was Pepe, a character originally appearing in Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club comic series that had by that time already become an archetypal figure of American digital folklore, circulating from relatively unknown bodybuilding forums to massive discussion boards like 4chan and Reddit, and mutating from his trademark “feels good man” comic panel into an endless series of self-referential variations and meta-ironic phenomena such as rare pepes. The fortuitous and unpredictable popularity of Pepe, rising from one among many characters of an independent comic to paragon “Internet meme”, has been amply chronicled as one of the most evident examples of how the creative practices of digital media users can near-instantly put anyone or anything under the spotlight of “Internet fame”. Matt Furie himself, reflecting on the unexpected rise to fame of one of his artistic creations, describes the cultural dynamics evidenced by the circulation of Pepe in terms of “post-capitalist” vernacular creativity: “It’s like a decentralized folk art, with people taking it, doing their own thing with it, and then capitalizing on it using bumper stickers or t-shirts.”

Despite the global reach of its iconicity, the history of Pepe – from its origins in independent comics to its “going mainstream” on the social media accounts of celebrities like Nicky Minaj or Katy Perry – is for the most part narrated as a thoroughly American story. Most recently, the archetypal chill-frog has experienced a further bout of popularity after being adopted as a humor device by Donald Trump supporters across multiple online platforms, subsequently identified by the Hillary Clinton electoral campaign as “a symbol associated with white supremacy” and eventually condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as an “anti-semitic symbol”.  Interpellated again regarding the latest problematic re-appropriations of his iconic character turning into a “culturally thick object”, Matt Furie has minimized the phenomenon as “just a product of the internet.” Yet, years before his mainstream popularity and politicized re-appropriations, Pepe had already made it to Chinese social media with surprising results.

At the beginning of my research on vernacular social media content in China, commonplace idealizations regarding “the Chinese Internet” – often imagined as an exotic cyberspace sealed off by the Great Firewall – had led me to expect a neatly separated local repertoire of vernacular content. But as often happens, engaging directly with the circulation of digital folklore results in unexpected insights. Indeed, protectionist policies, censorship mechanisms and the governmental clutch on the development of Chinese Internet industries have evidently resulted in clearly separated technical and economic infrastructures, yet the existence of a self-contained “Chinese internet” of vernacular content is much less evident. Along with repertoires of local QQ emoticons, TV series animated GIFs and Jiang Zemin antics, user interactions on Chinese social media platforms also make use of content sourced from more global repertoires such as Rage Comics, Japanese anime characters, Doge the Shiba Inu dog and Wojak the Feels Guy. During my data collection, I started to file this sort of content under the tag “transnational,” and Pepe is perhaps the single most striking example of the transnational circulation of digital folklore.

Series of Mandarin-captioned sad frog biaoqing collected on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo.
Series of Mandarin-captioned sad frog biaoqing collected on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo.

Friends who introduce Pepe to me during QQ conversations call him shangxin qingwa, or sad frog. When I ask them why they like him or enjoy using his pictures in chat messages, they reply that he is weird, funny, and they can empathize with his existential sadness. Multiple local versions of shangxin qingwa, augmented with Mandarin captions, accumulate over the years in my database of Chinese digital folklore. Pepe becomes a sad frog crossing local genres of vernacular content, from pixelated screen-captures shared on QQ and edited on-the-fly to more codified 表情 biaoqing [literally ‘expressions’, a wide category including emoticons, reaction images and stickers] popular on WeChat and collected in variegated 表情包 biaoqing bao [expression packs] ready for use on chat programs and apps. Pepe has made it to China as a sad frog, and sits snugly in personalized sticker menus, reaction image folders and biaoqing repositories along with political figures, Korean celebrities and local social media mascotte Tuzki the rabbit.

Besides its popularity as a semiotic resource, the sad frog phenomenon is also extensively discussed across social media posts and articles. A Douban post by Shi Yezhong chronicles the online circulation of frogs from the Crazy Frog song and Kermit the Frog captioned GIFs to the Foul Bachelorette Frog advice animal and Pepe himself. Yet it is the comment section that interestingly reclaims a local frog heritage, with other Douban users suggesting that 蛤 ha [‘toad’, a humorous nickname for ex-president Jiang Zemin] should be included in the list as a “Chinese mutation” wearing the leader’s iconic high-belt trousers and thick glasses. One thread on the Q&A website Zhihu titled “Why did sad frog become so popular?” receives a detailed answer by a user recounting of an intensive three-day exposure to sad frog biaoqing in a WeChat group chat: “there were more than 1,000 new messages every day, and this girl surprisingly kept participating in all discussions without sending any text or voice message, she! just! used! sad! frog! expressions!”. A few days later, another girl from the same WeChat group started drawing sad frog profile pictures caricatures of all group members, transforming the character into an intimate creative device. Notwithstanding his popularity across Chinese social media platforms, some local explainers blame most users for not understanding Pepe and not respecting his origins: “filenames like ‘World’s Saddest Frog biaoqingbao’ are just too stupid – if Matt Furie ever saw them, he would cry”.

Personalized sad frog profile pictures drawn by a WeChat group member. Source: Zhihu
Personalized sad frog profile pictures drawn by a WeChat group member. Source: Zhihu

As expected in light of the pervasive commercial aspect of digital media in China, vernacular creativity doesn’t stop at co-produced emoticons and profile picture drawings. The Rule 34 of the Chinese Internet could read: “There’s nothing you can’t find on Taobao”, and Pepe is a case in point. A simple search for shangxin qingwa on the e-commerce behemoth results in a wide variety of sad frog merchandise, from WeChat sticker packs (¥1.98) and smartphone covers (¥26.90) to frog eyes sleeping masks (15.50¥) and Pepe-head tissue dispensers (¥35.00). The description of another product – a sad frog handwarmer pillow – provides an constellation of terms useful to understand the context of this sort of merchandise: ACG [animation, comics & games], QQ biaoqing, and 情精神污 jingshen wuran [‘spiritual pollution’, an ironic term for obsessive online phenomena]. As shangxin qingwa, Pepe has entered a vast pantheon of characters drawn from the universes of ACG fandom, found spaces in the customizable features of social media platforms, and is being profited off as a popular ‘spiritually polluting’ phenomenon. Matt Furie has declaredly been collecting artisanal Pepe pins, t-shirts and earrings sold on websites like Etsy, and has even launched a Pepe Official clothing line, but has probably no idea of the degree to which his character is being commercialized on industrial scale in China.

 

 Some of the shangxin qingwa merchandise sold on Taobao, China’s largest online trading website.

Some of the shangxin qingwa merchandise sold on Taobao, China’s largest online trading website.

Where does all of this leave us? Matt Furie’s insights on the fortuitous career of his own character seem more relevant than ever: just like in many other places and through many other media, Chinese users are taking Pepe and “doing their own thing with it” – being it expressing their existential sadness through a QQ emoticon, compiling sticker packs to share with friends, drawing a caricature of WeChat group members or mass-producing frog-shaped tissue dispensers. In China, he is shangxin qingwa, a sad frog, one of the many characters belonging to the ever-growing pantheon of tongue-in-cheek ‘spiritually polluting’ content, accompanying digital media users all the way from their chat conversations to their smartphone covers. More generally, Pepe’s Chinese career offers a new perspective on “Internet memes”, a genre of vernacular content which is all-too-often described through the debatable vocabulary of memetics and interpreted through predominantly Euro-American cultural politics. The social life of sad frogs, along with that of many other examples of transnational digital folklore, invites to consider other parameters (funniness, expressivity, guilty pleasure), practices (interpreting, translating, explaining) and dynamics (circulation, collection, commercialization) in order to move the study of locally constructed genres of vernacular content such as biaoqing and jingshen wuran beyond the moral politics and diffusionist explanations of our memetic obsessions.

Gabriele de Seta is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. His research work, grounded on ethnographic engagement across multiple sites, focuses on digital media practices and vernacular creativity in contemporary China. He also experiments with ways of bridging anthropology and art practice. More information are available on his websitehttp://paranom.asia

rigged

Pundits across the political spectrum have expressed outrage at Trump’s continued insistence that the presidential election is rigged, and seem quite scandalized at his stated unwillingness to agree, apriori, to accept the final results.  Trump’s critics argue that his distrust of the election process threatens to destabilize U.S. democracy by undermining the ideology of citizen-driven governance. It is horrifying they say, and more than that, his claims are dangerous.

While a smooth transition of power is indeed a hallmark of democracy, there is a distinct disingenuousness about the breathless moralizing against Trump’s claims. It’s hard to ignore the sharp dissonance that emerges when broadcast journalists report on the economics of campaign finance, the political collusion and corruption revealed through an email leak, and then, without even the interruption of a commercial break, turn to Camera 2 and condemn Donald Trump for questioning the integrity of the democratic process.  

A true representative democracy is derived entirely from the expressed needs and wishes of the electorate. I don’t imagine many people believe—or ever believed—that the U.S. practices democracy in such pristine form (the very existence of private campaign financing, under any sort of regulatory policy arrangement, automatically disavows the notion of a true meritocratic and voter-driven system). In practice, all systems of government are versions of themselves. They encompass the spirit of the ideology, rather than the rule.  Governing bodies are not, to use a Weberian term, “ideal types” of the ideological system that they represent.

The distortion of democracy is an open secret among the populace. Citizens know, or at least sense, that governing bodies are selected by, and in the service of, elite networks over which voters themselves have little control. This is reflected in truisms about the fate of third-party candidates, whose primary relevance is their fractional vote siphoning from democrats and republicans; it’s how you know, and I know, that nobody we know, could ever run for national office. So why get bent out of shape when a presidential candidate calls the democratic process into question? The answer is twofold. First, Trump’s brazen and explicit mistrust of the process undermines the ritual of a democratic system. Second, Trump misunderstands how the system is rigged, and thus makes unsubstantiated claims that are both incendiary and also, easily refuted.

Erving Goffman’s theory of ritual interaction is instructive in understanding the backlash against Trump’s claims of a rigged election. Goffman theorizes that human interaction is fragile. Each interaction entails the possibility of a misstep, causing embarrassment for all involved and dissolving the shared definition of the situation. Goffman says that people work collaboratively to maintain smooth interaction in the face of threats such as bodily emissions, misspoken comments, interruptions, distractions, etc. A key tool in maintaining smooth interaction is what Goffman calls tact, or civil inattention. This is the practice of actively ignoring, as long as possible, those missteps in others that would cause the interaction to break down. Concretely, this means diligently avoiding the spinach in someone’s teeth; it means intentionally mispronouncing a word that one’s interaction partner mispronounces so as not to call attention to the mistake; it means covertly inserting one’s own name into conversation to compensate for, but not call out, another who seems to have forgotten it.

As a system of human interaction, democracy too, is fragile. It is vulnerable to its own imperfections and requires elaborate rituals to maintain ideological integrity, including civil inattention. Claims of a rigged election are not a lie that dishonors an otherwise pure democratic system, but rather, an impolite truth that disrupts the ritual interaction by which democratic ideology is maintained. In short, Trump’s grievances against the democratic process represent a failure of tact.

Refusing to engage in tact at a societal level is an important political tool. #BlackLivesMatter, #OccupyWallStreet, and the civil rights movement are all examples of factions who did away with tactful inattention and instead, disrupted economic and political institutions that systemically exclude and marginalize entire groups of people. In this way, a tactless call-out of the democratic process itself is both healthy and, with the conditions of a digitally mediated social structure, increasingly inevitable. Even Goffman says that tact has its limits, and this election cycle, those limits have been pushed.

In the contemporary U.S., divergences between political convention and the ideological spirit of democracy have become blaring. The use of electronic and digital communication tools means that political, business, and media elites document their interactions and negotiations. These exchanges are vulnerable to hacks and leaks, and substantiate the kinds of arrangements that many Americans felt but couldn’t directly point to. These documents and their circulation in a 24hr news cycle bring the inner-workings of the political sausage factory more plainly into public view. Tactlessly calling elite actors to account and pushing the democratic system to adhere to its principles is a laudable response.

And yet, Trump remains indefensible, or at least ineffective.  Trump and his surrogates engage tactlessly towards democratic practice, but they misarticulate how the election process is corrupt. In doing so, they undermine the potential for real, tough conversations about who benefits from existing political arrangements.

Trump’s claims of a rigged election are based on supposed widespread voter fraud. Trump’s campaign cites dead people, fake people, and non-citizens who are on voter rosters. But these claims are simply not substantiated.   Neither the deceased—nor those impersonating them—will show up to the polls on November 8th. Trump tacks his claims of corruption to the practice of voter fraud likely because this makes for a more digestible message than interrogating the complex and nebulous ways that political, media, and economic elites swing in the same circles, think in similar ways, and serve each other’s interests with the tools at their respective disposals. Democratic corruption is more ambient and diffuse than the hand-wringing conspiracy that voter fraud represents. But Trump and his campaign leverage claims of corruption to discredit a system in which he now finds himself on the losing end. For such purposes, simple messaging is perhaps of greater value than precision.  And so Trump’s tactless message bounces off of the political system, easily dismissed for its inaccuracy without compelling any real change. And that’s a shame.

It’s a shame because this election—and the political system more generally—is absolutely rigged, but not because of voter fraud. It is rigged in the sense that larger mechanisms are at play than individual voter decisions. By the time a voter steps into the voting booth, the terms of the election are already set, the choices already winnowed down so that no matter what box voters check, power-elites remain intact. This doesn’t mean that democracy is a farce or that transitions of power should be violent. It does mean that we should have frank discussions about the real workings of what we call democracy. And more than ever, the public is poised to push such conversations. We have the many-to-many communication tools, the capacity to self-publish, the capacity to surveil figures of authority, and we have access to political documents never meant for citizens’ eyes. We are in a position to refuse political tact, as long as we get the critique of democracy right.

Any system worth its salt should be robust enough to absorb a tactless challenge, maintaining integrity even as weak spots are identified and holes poked through. Refusing tact can indeed be an important way of shoring up and sharpening a political system. It is not an overthrow, but a harsh audit; rudely but effectively, and lovingly, drawing attention to the spinach in America’s teeth.

 

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

Image via: Source

pegida-anti-immigrantThe presence of white nationalism has been well explored in the run-up to this election, with the alt-right breaking onto the global stage of mainstream media publications. Yet there has been little consideration of the theory of ‘white genocide’ – a recent George Washington study on the Twitter lives of white nationalism and ISIS found that in the case of both Nazis and other white nationalists, white genocide was the 10th most popular hashtag. Whilst it seems unusual for white nationalists and neo-Nazis to place themselves in the position of weakness, the concept of white genocide is not new. Its dissemination, however, reveals the disturbing dangers of the narrative conventions of the hashtag.

The concept of white genocide is that multiculturalism and non-white immigration are part of a conspiracy to eradicate whites through miscegenation or state-sanctioned murders. Its antecedent in the white nationalist movement is the ‘14 words’ of David Lane that “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”. However, it also draws on a far older fear of colonisation, similar to that identified by Michelle Warren in Welsh Arthuriana in History on the Edge. She sees the heroic figure of Arthur assuming three particular political cadences – the myth of a glorious past, defeat at the hands of outside enemies and internal traitors, and a prophecy of a return to prior strength; all of these can be detected in white nationalist dogma.

Whilst the ideology is not new, the use of the hashtag #whitegenocide has been a novel and pivotal method of dissemination and legitimisation. Where white nationalist theories had previously been relegated to fringe websites, Twitter allows for easy access to a non-nationalist audience, and grants de facto legitimacy-via-publicity. Broadly speaking, there are two main focuses of #whitegenocide tweets: the ‘defensive’ (the myth of the glorious past) and ‘offensive’ (threats from the Other and from traitors). Taken together, the thousands of tweets with the white genocide hashtag present a narrative far more compelling than traditional white nationalist polemic by dint of its size and multiple narrators.

As Michelle Warren writes, to be colonised is to have boundaries rewritten. In claiming to be subaltern, white genocide theorists shift boundaries so that affiliation is based around ethnicity and a supposedly shared culture instead of national peculiarities (an idea which some members of the alt-right describe as ethno-nationalism). This allows for defensive tweets which uphold broad values of whiteness, through references to the “Pure beauty” of white women and a general emphasis upon genetic superiority:

In contrast to this is the offensive focus: the threat of the Other and the traitor. In part, the power structures described resemble Ranajit Guha’s stratification grid. Jews are presented as a “dominant foreign group”, with their foreignness – and specifically anti-whiteness – emphasized. They are cast overwhelmingly as the architects of white genocide.

By comparison with Guha, however, white genocide theorists also make claims for what can be described as a “subservient foreign group” – usually people of African origin, but more recently Muslim refugees. They are typified as brutes, deployed as part of a Jewish conspiracy to ‘destroy the white race’, either through physical violence or through miscegenation. They are characterised by their interactions with the white population (rapefugee has also become a buzzword amongst the alt-right).

And then, beneath them, there are the “dominant indigenous groups” at both a national and local level. These are liberals and ‘cuckservatives’ – turncoats who betrayed their race for political gain. The term cuckservative, borrowed from pornography, is deeply telling: the imagery of a Euro-American male allowing a black man to dominate his white wife is more than a little reminiscent of David Lane’s concern for the future of white children. Although used more often as an insult by itself, the idea of the cuckservative as race traitor does have some currency, as shown in an attack on Ted Cruz.

The power of the hashtag is to bind together disparate strands so as to suggest a coherent narrative. A search for #whitegenocide immediately reveals dozens of claims of Jewish conspiracies, attacks on white women and girls, and treacherous politicians. None of these are particularly unique to 2016; what is, however, is that they have been combined into a single story through Twitter. The result is a compelling narrative for those who want to believe in the apparent horrors of non-whites, subverting the real grievances of minority groups by turning them into the monstrous Other. White nationalists are self-designated subalterns (re)writing their own history and that of those around them via a zone which supposedly supports free speech. In reality, the sheer xenophobia and hatred of the white genocide narrative effectively occludes dissenting voices – often through threats of violence.

 

Siddharth (Sid) Venkataramakrishnan is a reporter at Columbia Journalism School and contributor at The Daily Telegraph’s education section. He previously read English Language and Literature at Oxford, specialising in medieval vernaculars, and completed his dissertation in intersectionality in early cyberpunk. He can be found @SVR13.

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PowellThe hack and leak of Colin Powell’s emails have brought with them a national conversation about journalistic ethics. At stake are the competing responsibilities for journalists to respect privacy on the one hand, and to inform the public of relevant ongoings on the other.

Powell’s emails, ostensibly hacked and leaked by Russian government forces, revealed incendiary comments about both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Known for maintaining a reserved and diplomatic approach, the indiscreet tone of Powell’s emails had the appeal of an unearthed and long suspected truth.

The news media responded to the leaked emails by plastering their content on talk shows and websites, accompanied by expert commentary and in depth political analyses. Line by line, readers, viewers, and listeners learned, with a sense of excitement and validation, what Colin Powell “really thinks.”

The leak itself exemplifies a privacy violation that Helen Nissenbaum calls a breach of contextual integrity. Powell wrote the emails in the context of informal communication between he and trusted individuals. The leak ripped the emails from that personal context and displaced them into public view. Powell’s emails were an expression of political opinion, the leak turned them into political commentary.

As the initial flurry over the leak began to settle, a telling meta-conversation emerged and continues to get play in the news cycle—a conversation by journalists, about journalistic ethics. At the center of the conversation is a question of the degree to which journalists exacerbated the breach of contextual integrity by publishing the emails and centralizing their content. This conversation was spearheaded by political commentator Dan Abrams, who apologized to Powell in a post on his political news site, Mediaite. Spreading the emails was unconscionable, Abrams acknowledged, and a generally unethical response to the initial privacy breach. Abrams’ public apology initiated a collective journalistic blush, in which the commentators who had pored over each line during their nightly newscasts and weekly op-eds offered a retrospective pause to consider if reporting on the emails was in fact an ethical decision. In these (late) moments of reflection, journalists articulated the grey area of their email reports, noted that sharing the email content did not meet the ethical ideal, but concluded that the emails were out there anyway, and so they may as well they had little choice but to report. Abrams, the original apologist, writes in his apologia post that his team ultimately reported on the emails first, because they were newsworthy and second, because not reporting would put them at a “competitive disadvantage.” Later, in an interview on CNN, Abrams and CNN’s Smerconish agreed that in the end, their journalistic duty required that they report on the emails due to the email’s status as “news,” and their jobs as journalists to report the news.

With rapid changes to the media landscape, this moment is indeed ripe for public ponderings about privacy and journalistic ethics. But let’s be clear, news organizations’ ongoing reflections about their reporting on the Powell emails are not an earnest exercise in ethical consideration. The emails presented an ethical quandary that the journalism community simply got wrong. The way they explain it away—under the guise of a journalistic responsibility to report—fundamentally mischaracterizes the nature of news and provides a weak and indefensible justification for unethical reporting practices that, I’m certain, journalists knew to be unethical from the beginning.

Journalists have the difficult job of reporting The News. This is more art than science.  News is not a concrete object, but a cultivated subject. News is not some extraneous thing out there in the ether waiting for capture. News is not objective. Rather, news is whatever journalists, broadly conceived, decide to report on, coupled with the frame and style with which they choose to report. News is a delicate process of curation and cultivation, imbued with politics and editorial negotiations. Powell’s emails were news because the journalism community treated them as such.

This is not to say that journalists select and report stories based entirely on personal whim. On the contrary, there are significant events with relevance to local, national, and international audiences. The fact that Powell’s emails were hacked is an example of a relevant event—General Powell is a prominent political figure whose personal communications were infiltrated, quite possibly by a foreign government, potentially to influence the U.S. presidential elections. This is news. But the email hack itself is a qualitatively different story than that told through the content of the emails. While Powell’s hacked email is a newsworthy story of relevance, the content of his hacked emails is gossip to which the public was not meant to have access.

The hack was a serious privacy violation. The moment any news organization reported on the content of the emails, they became complicit, acting in accord with the nefarious actor(s) who instigated the breach.

The key motivation for reporting on the email content, as Abrams points out, is the competitive edge lost by not doing so. “Everyone else is doing it” justifies sharing Powell’s private communications only in the context of news-as-business, an idea antithetical to the journalistic ideal of public information and dialogue. If we generously accept that reporting on the content of Powell’s emails is a responsibility, then it is a corporate responsibility, not a journalistic one. The push to unethically violate Powell’s privacy is born of a responsibility to share-holders, advertisers, and executives who stand to lose revenue by reporting the story but omitting the gossip. It is not, as billed by the defensive journalism community, a service to the news consuming public.

 

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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snackwells

Doctor’s don’t want you to self-diagnose and would prefer you got rid of the internet entirely—a sentiment that is quite understandable. Medical professionals have gone through extensive training, continue to keep up with recent research findings, and are there to help the patients who come under their practice. Moreover, doctors have to maintain these laudable goals under tight time constraints and competing pressures. When a patient comes in with a self-diagnosis and treatment plan acquired through WebMD and responses to their Facebook blast, it not only dismisses the physician’s professional expertise, but also requires time and energy in which the physician has to consider—and often debunk—patients’ firm sense of knowledge based on incredibly partial and unreliable information. I get it.  But with an article released this week that traces the direct influence of the sugar industry upon heart health research, seeking crowdsourced medical advice that originates outside of the established medical canon emerges as both appealing and entirely reasonable.

The past several decades have seen what sociologists call the shifting engines of medicalization. While physicians once held full authority over body knowledge, the rise of internet technologies, in combination with huge advertising campaigns from pharmaceutical companies, has fostered the rise of patient-consumers. Patient-consumers understand medical professionals as service workers upon whom demands can be placed. Patients are no longer wholly reliant upon the medical establishment, but enter into medical encounters armed with information and often, an agenda. Patients’ information comes from pharmaceutical advertising (e.g., restless leg syndrome commercials) and also, web forums, medical blogs, and informal information sharing through personal and anonymous social networks (e.g., Facebook and Yahoo Answers). The debate over patient empowerment through the shifting engines of medicalization is complex, made even more so by role of big pharma. But based on my own interactions with medical professionals and family members who work in the medical field, it is clear that the medical establishment would largely prefer the engines shifted back in their favor.

Even in common parlance, the shared wisdom is for those who feel ill to steer clear of the internet. Googling will make you certain of imminent death. If you dive into the swarm of medical information online, you will leave both misinformed and terrified. Instead, listen to the medical authorities. They went to school for this. They know the research. You can trust them.  Only, you can’t trust them, even if they are individually trustworthy. It’s not that individual doctors are ill-informed or malicious, but the research on which medical professionals rely has as much (if not more) to do with market economies as it has to do the health and wellbeing of patients.

This week, the Journal of the American Medical Associate (JAMA) published an article revealing how, 50 years ago, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to write a literature review that downplayed the negative effects of sugar on heart disease and instead, cast fat as the prime culprit. This informed years of nutritional advice and affected American’s everyday food lives (and likely had a global affect, due to the general Westernization of global diets).

Research findings begin in the abstract world of ivory tower scientists and then, find their way to regular people. In the case of medical and nutrition research, the findings make their way into our bodies.  It’s not a direct path, but a mediated one that fosters a feeling of remoteness between those scientists in their lab coats and you, packing lunches and dropping by the pharmacy. The official chain looks something like this:

laboratory –>journal –>practitioner –>consumer. However, the actual chain looks more like this:

INDUSTRY –> laboratory –>journal –>practitioner –>consumer.

Research isn’t cheap and industries invest in research findings that serve their interests.

Although the sugar industry case happened 50 years ago, the practice it represents is far from a past-ill upon which we can look back with the disapproval afforded by wisdom that comes with time and progress. Rather, the sugar industry’s influence on heart research is an early example of a corrupt relationship between food industry and science that continues today. As nutritionist Marion Nestle points out in her commentary on the JAMA article, industry funded research is a continued norm, not an exception, citing ties between Coca-Cola, the candy trade association, and obesity researchers. Just last year, the meat industry successfully lobbied away USDA recommendations for Americans to consume less red and processed meat, despite studies linking these foods to higher rates of cancer and heart disease.

What happened 50 years ago has staying power and affects the lives and bodies of people today, just as ongoing science-industry relationships will stay with us far after the researchers and business tycoons have retired. The outcomes of the laboratory work their way into everyday practices, into folk wisdom passed from parents to children, between colleagues and friends, and indeed, work their way into consumer’s physical bodies. Nutritional research findings inform consumption practices which shape physiology. Those researchers in coats, and the industries that fund them, become inscribed in the bodies of those who—often unwittingly—heed their advice. As a child growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I can attest to the place of fatphobia vis-à-vis sugar’s acceptability. My “nutritious” lunches in high school often consisted of a white bagel, grape jelly, and juice. This supplemented breakfasts of large bowls of cereal—usually Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Cocoa Krispies.  I basically mainlined sugar all day and felt good about myself (at least I felt good about myself for the 20 seconds I stayed awake after consuming these meals) because their contents had green “fat free” and “low fat” labels plastered upon them.  I followed health guidelines, as did many in my generation, and they were entirely wrong. In this way, the candy industry and meat industry, who invest in research that renders animal protein and white sugar acceptable in the public imagination today, implicate themselves in our bodies for generations to come.

Medical and health information online is not just a product of the ability to create, share, and find content, but can be read as a response to the vacuum created by an untrustworthy medical establishment. Googling your way through food and medical forums may leave those who aspire to good health partially or even entirely mis-informed. But, as long as industry ties itself to science (and as long as scientists allow that relationship to persist), consumers are already misinformed. At least when your fumbling through the internet, you can be sure that the researcher—i.e., you—has your best interests at heart.

 

Jenny Davis, who still loves a good bagel and wouldn’t say no to a bowl of Cocoa-Krispies, is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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Via https://blog.nextdoor.com
Via https://blog.nextdoor.com

Nextdoor is a local social network site that connects people who live in the same neighborhood. Neighbors use it to exchange information and keep up with the ongoings of a geographically bounded community. Nextdoor seems like a relatively innocuous site for block party advertisements and zoning debates, and it is. It is also a site on which racial profiling has emerged as a problem and in response, a site on which important debates are currently playing out.

In short, people on Nextdoor have been reporting crimes in which race is the primary descriptor of the subject, casting suspicion upon entire groups of people and instigating/exacerbating racial tensions among neighbors.

Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia does not want his site to be a space for racial profiling, and recently instated a policy to ameliorate the problem. The policy is simple: Do not racially profile. What is contentious, however, is how this policy is enacted.

In contrast to Facebook (and more recently, Twitter), whose terms of service warn users that they can be censured or removed for discriminatory language, Tolia instructed his employees to build anti-profiling conduct into the site’s architecture. Specifically, the site provides a crime reporting form in which racial designations can only post if they are accompanied by two additional descriptors (e.g., clothing and hair style). In addition, reports that include race have to be of sufficient length. Otherwise they will be tagged by an algorithm and potentially removed.

Nextdoor’s tactic is exemplary of the politics inherent in codes and algorithms, and it is thus unsurprising that their anti-profiling codes and algorithms have been the subject of political debate. While the CEO makes a strong case for the move away from race-based criminalization, those opposed find the new requirement an impingement upon free speech, as well as a potential threat—if race is the only identifier a witness perceives, that witness is prevented from posting about potential dangers. As quoted on NRP, one person wrote the site administrators and complained: “Why would you engage in anything that limits people’s expression? And especially people who are trying to keep their neighborhoods safe?”

The debates—and potential outcomes—of Nextdoor’s anti-profiling code can be well explained using a gradated theory of affordance.

Broadly, an affordance is what a technological object enables and constrains, given a particular user. While historically, “affordance” is tied in a blanket way to each object—the object either affords or it does not afford a particular action—a gradated theory of affordance recognizes that a technological object affords in degrees.

In a gradated theory of affordance, technological objects request, demand, allow, encourage, and refuse[1]. Requests and demands are how an object influences the user, while allowances, encouragements, and refusals are how an object responds to a user’s desired actions. In the case of Nextdoor, the written policy—like Facebook’s and Twitter’s—requests that participants refrain from racial profiling. The new form, which requires multiple non-racial identifiers, demands it. In turn, the written instruction allows racial profiling, while the form refuses to let profiling persist.

Thus, the debate surrounding Nextdoor is not whether racial profiling is acceptable or not, but about whether antiprofiling policy should come as a request or a demand; whether its response to racist acts should be an allowance or a refusal.

 The pilot program, which rolls out nationally in a few weeks, comes down on the side of demand and refuse.

The demand that users include multiple identifiers for the alleged perpetrator and provide a description of sufficient length does two important things, one practical and the other ideological. First, it makes content itself more precise, reducing broad accusations against entire local populations and aiding law enforcement who, certainly, benefit from greater levels of detail. Second, and this is admittedly aspirational, it could teach people to perceive differently.

Communication technologies don’t just inform how we write and share, but how we frame the world and our place within it; social media doesn’t just shape how we communicate, but how we are. As bloggers, we at Cyborgology craft key points into 140 character tweetable lines. In this way, Instagrammers make their way to sunlit mountains and ask their friends to wait a moment before eating so they can capture interesting content with a particular aesthetic, while Facebookers show up to the party, even if perhaps they feel tired, partly because they want to be included in the document of the event–they want to be part of the archive.

Social psychologists have found that along with gender, race is the first thing people notice about someone else. By demanding a new practice of documenting, Nextdoor may, at the same time, shepherd in a new practice of looking.To be sure, and as noted by Tolia himself, forms are not the solution to racism. Certainly, users can (and likely will) revert to coded language and more granular ways of signifying race. But, users will be encouraged to look more holistically, and I hope, if too optimistically, that they will unlink race and criminality–at least to some degree.

 

 

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

[1] “refuse” is an addition to the original formulation linked her. An extended version is under review in manuscript form.

 

worry piece

I’m the first to admit that coming up with new material to write on a regular basis can be really tough. I also think that important arguments bear repeating. So I’m not mad when I see multiple versions of essentially the same story pop up in op-eds and essays. But I do feel the need to step in when stories that repeat themselves, repeatedly get something wrong. Such is the case with what I call the worry piece.

The worry piece is a particular brand of techno-skeptism. It addresses technology as an overwhelming force that on balance, changes people and relationships for the worse. It is concerned with the very nature of humanity and saturated with visceral anxiety. It is personal, and meant to shame you, but in a collective-we-should-all-be-ashamed kind of way. One can (and should) be skeptical and critical of technology for a host of reasons—mostly with regard to patterns of exploitation from its production, distribution, and use. The worry piece is less concerned with these structural issues and instead, occupied by the loss of dinnertime conversation and the influx of content to which readers can presumably pay only fleeting attention.  

The worry piece has a standard formula and predictable conclusion. It begins with a personal anecdote, cites Sherry Turkle, metaphorizes media consumption as food consumption with a tie to health and morality (McDonalds often ends up on the losing side of the metaphor, despite their nugget makeover), the author confesses hir own “unhealthy” technological practices, nods to technologies’ benefits, and ends reflexively with some comment on the likelihood that the article itself is probably too long to keep readers’ attention. Columbia Journal Review recently published a worry piece that is conveniently meta, citing many of the existing worry pieces that have been popularized over the last several years.

The point of the worry piece is twofold: to discern the etiology of technology overload and provide practical advice for managing its effects. It places blame in some interrelated combination of technology companies, the media industry, and individual users. It tells  us that technology companies are invested in keeping people tethered to screens, which we regularly need to upgrade to keep up with new advancements. Media industries fight for eyeballs in a crowded attention economy and prioritize content quantity over quality. And individuals are weak and insatiable, addicted to the constant stream of information and attention. The advice is almost exclusively aimed at individual practice—log off, be intentional, detox, read a book. The worry piece fear mongers for several thousand words before placing the onus on the reader to push back against what the author has depicted as an unstoppable machine.

Clearly, the worry piece speaks to some experience that resonates with readers. Big outlets keep publishing them and people keep sharing them. But from my own recent slate of interviews with social media users, I think the worry piece resonates more with an ingrained, abstract, and habitual idea of technology, and less with people’s actual experiences with technology in their everyday lives. In this way, the worry piece contrasts markedly with what people tell me when they talk about their own relationships with platforms and devices.

I have been studying new and social media for almost 10 years. I collect data every few years, which lets me identify trends as they develop, and practices as they evolve. I am currently collecting new data. What stands out about this round of data collection is a general decrease in passion among participants. Their opinions are more fully formed but also less adamantly held. Things annoy them but don’t infuriate them. They laugh about the potential for distraction, but then elaborate on how they manage this for themselves. They know how to use privacy settings, they know how to navigate large content pools, they know how to hide, seek, tune out, turn on, and generally curate information and notifications.

In 2011, a woman I interviewed slammed her hand on a table and swore prolifically when describing a Facebook Friend who posted too frequently. It ate at her. Today, people mostly roll their eyes and laugh, then say that they hide those Friends who clog their feeds, generally qualifying their decision with a “you do you” kind of statement.  In previous iterations of data collection, people agonized over the ways the internet only showed people what they wanted to see. They feared the filter bubble and its effects on democratic discourse. Today, participants acknowledge the echo chamber and embrace their role in maintaining it. “Facebook isn’t where I go to learn things about ‘the other side,’” said one participant. “I can find what I want on my own.” In 2008, people talked about “going online,” as though it were something separate, something distracting. Today, people talk about how being online is part of their workday, social engagements, news consumption, and entertainment. Platforms and devices are how they communicate, as a matter of course and convenience.

Some participants still worry that people don’t talk as much or don’t connect as well, but the vast majority think we are both more widely connected and also maintain the deep connections we have always had. Even those who are concerned about the loss of social connection also feel generally confident in the strength of their own relationships—isolation is something that happens to other people, mostly teenagers who haven’t learned the skills that these participants have presumably mastered. Some people talk about the struggle to keep up with news and content, but most have systems that they imperfectly employ—lots of open tabs, RSS feeds, apps, dropbox folders— which they are generally comfortable neglecting.

This round of interviews is bearing out a relationship to technology that is decidedly settled. New platforms emerge, but this too is ordinary. A frequently changing technological landscape is expected and does not elicit panic. The older participants sometimes ask about “that Snapchat thing”, and a smattering of participants from varied age groups admit that they “don’t get” Twitter, but they also report that they don’t feel like they are missing out. The participants in this round of interviews engage with social media, but don’t feel compelled to engage on all social media, nor do they fear that the world is passing them by. Participants’ responses—both about themselves and about the place of new technologies in society—are tempered, nuanced, and quiet.

It’s not that worry pieces aren’t tapping into anything, it’s just that they are tapping into an affective sensibility that’s on its way out.

Ironically, the continued prevalence of the worry piece is most certainly a product of some of the very patterns that the articles worry over—a 24hour news cycle, a competitive attention economy, and the need to produce new content, regardless of whether an outlet and its writers have something meaningful to say.

Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

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This is part two of an essay on René Girard’s influence on Peter Thiel. Part one ran last week and you can read it here

In my previous post, I examined social theorist René Girard’s influence on tech investor Peter Thiel. Previous observers have picked up on Thiel’s remark that Girard’s mimetic theory helped him identify the promise of social media, but they have left out a crucial dimension of Girard’s thought: mimetic violence, also a central preoccupation for Thiel. In what follows, I will make the case that Thiel invested in and promoted Facebook not simply because Girard’s theories led him to foresee the future profitability of the company, but because he saw social media as a mechanism for the containment and channeling of mimetic violence in the face of an ineffectual state. Facebook, then, was not simply a prescient and well-rewarded investment for Thiel, but a political act closely connected to other well-known actions, from founding the national security-oriented startup Palantir Technologies to suing Gawker and supporting Trump.

According to Girard’s mimetic theory, humans choose objects of desire through contagious imitation: we desire things because others desire them, and we model our desires on others’ desires. As a result, desires converge on the same objects, and selves become rivals and doubles, struggling for the same sense of full being, which each subject suspects the other of possessing. The resulting conflicts cascade across societies because the mimetic structure of behavior also means that violence replicates itself rapidly. The entire community becomes mired in reciprocal aggression. The ancient solution to such a “mimetic crisis,” according to Girard, was sacrifice, which channeled collective violence into the murder of scapegoats, thus purging it, temporarily, from the community. While these cathartic acts of mob violence initially occurred spontaneously, as Girard argues in his book Violence and the Sacred, they later became codified in ritual, which reenacts collective violence in a controlled manner, and in myth, which recounts it in veiled forms. Religion, the sacred, and the state, for Girard, emerged out of this violent purgation of violence from the community. However, he argues, the modern era is characterized by a discrediting of the scapegoat mechanism, and therefore of sacrificial ritual, which creates a perennial problem of how to contain violence.

For Girard, to wield power is to control the mechanisms by which the mimetic violence that threatens the social order is contained, channeled, and expelled. Girard’s politics, as mentioned above, are ambiguous: he criticizes conservatism for wishing to preserve the sacrificial logic of ancient theocracies, and liberalism for believing that by dissolving religion it can eradicate the potential for violence. However, Girard’s religious commitment to a somewhat heterodox Christianity is clear, and controversial: he regards the non-violence of the Jesus of the gospel texts as a powerful exception to the violence that has been in the DNA of all human cultures, and an antidote to mimetic conflict. It is unclear to what degree Girard regards this conviction as reconcilable with an acceptance of modern secular governance, founded as it is by the state monopoly on violence. Peter Thiel, for his part, has stated that he is a Christian, but his large contributions to hawkish politicians suggest he does not share Girard’s pacifist interpretation of the Bible. His sympathetic account, in “The Straussian Moment,” of the ideas of Carl Schmitt offers further evidence of his ambivalence about Girard’s pacifism. For Schmitt, a society cannot achieve any meaningful cohesion without an “enemy” to define itself against. Schmitt and Girard both see violence as fundamental to the social order, but they draw opposite conclusions from that finding: Schmitt wants to resuscitate the scapegoat in order to maintain the state’s cohesion, while Girard wants (somehow) to put a final end to scapegoating and sacrifice. In his 2004 essay, Thiel seems torn between Girard’s pacifism and Schmitt’s bellicosity.

The tensions between Girard’s and Thiel’s worldviews run deeper, as a brief overview of Thiel’s politics reveals. As a libertarian, he has donated to both Ron and Rand Paul, and he has also supported Tea Party stalwarts including Ted Cruz. George Packer, in a 2011 profile of Thiel, reports that his chief influence in his youth was Ayn Rand, and that in political arguments in college, Thiel fondly quoted Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society.” As George Packer notes in his New Yorker profile of Thiel, few claims could be more alien to his mentor, Girard, who insists on the primacy of the collective over the individual and dedicated several books to debunking modern myths of individualism. Indeed, Thiel’s libertarian vision of the heroic entrepreneur standing apart from society closely resembles what Girard derided in his work as “the romantic lie”: the fantasy of the autonomous, self-directed individual that emerged out of European Romanticism. Girard went so far as to suggest replacing the term “individual” with the neologism “interdividual,” which better conveys the way that identity is always constructed in relation to others.

In a seemingly Ayn-Randian vein, Thiel likes to call tech entrepreneurs “founders,” and in lectures and seminars has compared startups to monarchies. He envisions “founders” in mythical terms, citing Romulus, Remus, Oedipus, and Cain, figures discussed at length in Girard’s analyses of myth. Thiel’s pro-monarchist statements have been parsed in the media (and linked to his support for the would-be autocrat Trump), but without noting that for a self-proclaimed devotee of René Girard to advocate for monarchy carries striking ambiguities. According to Girard’s counterintuitive analysis, monarchical power is the obverse side of scapegoating. Monarchy, he hypothesizes, has its origins in the role of the sacrificed scapegoat as the unifier and redeemer of the community; it developed when scapegoats managed to delay their own ritual murder and secured a fixed place at the center of a society. A king is a living scapegoat who has been deified, and can become a scapegoat again, as Girard illustrates in his reading of the myth of Oedipus (Oedipus begins as an outsider, goes on to become king, and is ultimately punished for the community’s ills, channeling collective violence toward himself, and returned to his outsider status).

If Thiel, as he reveals in a 2012 seminar, views the “founder” as both potentially a “God” and a “victim,” then he regards the broad societal influence wielded by the tech élite as a source of risk: a king can always become a scapegoat. On these grounds, it seems reasonable to conclude that Thiel’s animus against Gawker, which he has repeatedly accused of “bullying” him and other Silicon Valley power players, is closely connected to his core concern with scapegoating, derived from his longstanding engagement with Girard’s ideas. Thiel’s preoccupation with the risks faced by the “founder” also has a close connection to his hostility toward democratic politics, which he regards as placing power in the hands of a mob that will victimize those it chooses to play the role of scapegoat. Or as he states: “the 99% vs. the 1% is the modern articulation of [the] classic scapegoating mechanism: it is all minus one versus the one.”

No serious reader of Girard can regard a simple return to monarchical rule – which Thiel has sometimes seemed to favor – as plausible: the ritual underpinnings that were necessary to maintain its credibility, Girard insists, have been irreversibly demystified. Perhaps on the basis of this recognition, and even while hedging his bets through his involvement in Republican politics, Thiel has focused instead on the new possibilities offered by network technologies for the exercise of power. A Thiel text published on the website of the libertarian Cato Institute is suggestive in this context: “In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create . . . new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states. By starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new world. The hope of the Internet is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the existing social and political order.” Although Thiel does not say so here, from a Girardian point of view, a “founder” of a community does so by bringing mimetic violence under institutional control – precisely what the application of mimetic theory to Facebook would suggest that it does.

As we saw previously, Thiel was ruminating on Strauss, Schmitt, and Girard in the summer of 2004, but also on the future of social media platforms, which he found himself in a position to help shape. It is worth adding that around the same time, Thiel was involved in the founding of Palantir Technologies, a data analysis company whose main clients are the US Intelligence Community and Department of Defense – a company explicitly founded, according to Thiel, to forestall acts of destabilizing violence like 9/11. One may speculate that Thiel understood Facebook to serve a parallel function. According to his own account, he identified the new platform as a powerful conduit of mimetic desire. In Girard’s account, the original conduits of mimetic desire were religions, which channeled socially destructive, “profane” violence into sanctioned forms of socially consolidating violence. If the sacrificial and juridical superstructures designed to contain violence had reached their limits, Thiel seemed to understand social media as a new, technological means to achieving comparable ends.

If we take Girard’s mimetic theory seriously, the consequences for the way we think about social media are potentially profound. For one, it would lead us to conclude that social media platforms, by channeling mimetic desire, also serve as conduits of the violence that goes along with it. That, in turn, would suggest that abuse, harassment, and bullying – the various forms of scapegoating that have become depressing constants of online behavior – are features, not bugs: the platforms’ basic social architecture, by concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies toward envy, rivalry, and hatred of the Other that feed online violence. From Thiel’s perspective, we may speculate, this means that those who operate those platforms are in the position to harness and manipulate the most powerful and potentially destabilizing forces in human social life – and most remarkably, to derive profits from them. For someone overtly concerned about the threat posed by such forces to those in positions of power, a crucial advantage would seem to lie in the possibility of deflecting violence away from the prominent figures who are the most obvious potential targets of popular ressentiment, and into internecine conflict with other users.

Girard’s mimetic theory can help illuminate what social media does, and why it has become so central to our lives so quickly – yet it can lead to insights at odds with those drawn by Thiel. From Thiel’s perspective, it would seem, mimetic theory provides him and those of his class with an account of how and to what ends power can be exercised through technology. Thiel has made this clear enough: mimetic violence threatens the powerful; it needs to be contained for their – his – protection; as quasi-monarchs, “founders” run the risk of becoming scapegoats; the solution is to use technologies to control violence – this is explicit in the case of Palantir, implicit in the case of Facebook. But there is another way of reading social media through Girard. By revealing that the management of desire confers power, mimetic theory can help us make sense of how platforms administer our desires, and to whose benefit. For Girard, modernity is the prolonged demystification of the basis of power in violence. Unveiling the ways that power operates through social media can continue that process.

Geoff Shullenberger teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University, and sometimes tweets at @daily_barbarian.

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