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FAKE NEWS. In the aftermath of Trump, we’re finding the term used everywhere. Most recently, the Washington Post suggested that it was time to retire the term, having become so capricious that it hardly meant anything. While typically a fault, this lack of definition has made fake news incredibly compelling to rally against. We don’t need a rigorous definition to understand it sounds Bad. And since the election, “Fake News” has become something of a meme, buzzword and common concern set in our collective subconscious. Two history academic listservs to which I’m subscribed have taken their own turns interrogating fake news, especially interested in separating lazy, bad, or ignorant reporting from news that is deliberately intended to mislead the public.

Regardless of the definition, it’s hardly novel to this election. Papers like the National Enquirer have been around since the early twentieth century. Most arguments for why fake news matters instead typically rely on its digital circulation. So BuzzFeed’s investigative report on fake news concluded that it had more political influence as measured by clicks, shares and comments on Facebook: 8.7 million compared to news outlet’s 7.3 million. The subsequent conclusion has led to dramatic drives for everything from a more educated electorate to direct censorship by our Silicon Valley Lords.

Even if we can’t come to consensus about a definition, we have some sense of where fake news is not found: BuzzFeed’s investigation, for example, listed twenty news sites who are categorized as mainstream with wide circulation. Similarly, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. reminded us about the mission of his New York Times: “to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you.” Since the election of Trump, MSNBC has been running similar TV spots, in which their claims to comprehensive analysis are paired with close-ups of Trump’s face. Combining intimate access to political celebrities with performances of technical expertise, many of these outlets depict themselves as objective forms of journalistic knowledge. Underlying this objectivity is some platitude about the potential of the truth and good ideas to successfully triumph over all other forms.

Claims towards objective analysis should always be treated with caution. After all, presenting “objective” analysis in a fair manner is what historian Peter Novick termed The Noble Dream. For the most part, media outlets in 2017 offer not an idealized objectivity, but the pragmatic reality of for-profit news coverage. What papers like the New York Times, and The Washington Post, or cable networks like CNN and MSNBC offer might be better termed the aesthetic of objectivity. Such an aesthetic consists often consists of a series of practices designed to cover news objectively, rather than betray a partisan (or moral) perspective. So when white nationalism entered mainstream discourse with Richard Spencer, many networks and papers found space on their panels or pages to discuss white supremacy as an abstract position, rather than invoke a particularly strong refutation.

Aesthetically objective to the point of offering Nazis free air time.
Aesthetically objective to the point of offering Nazis free air time.

But because the aesthetic of objectivity is, at heart, a marketing decision, they are beholden to market logic. Attempting to consciously create what media theorists Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green termed “spreadable” media means that attempting objectivity can be set aside for the need of clicks and the revenue they generate. Donald Trump–who, if nothing else, is an extraordinary showman–thus became a free pass for quick media commoditization. His tweets are full of typos and unprofessional behavior, which stimulate immense numbers of shares, comments, and likes that simply are not present for substantive analysis of his policies where they exist. His tweets about Hamilton or Meryl Streep often compete successfully for coverage of policy or political actions happening at the same time. Even where attention is successfully kept on a certain specific political concern–for example, Republican efforts to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics–a tweet by Trump receives the credit for what activists organized and people implemented: a massive phone campaign to demand the GOP back down.

If only a couple of journalists came to this conclusion, I would be inclined to view it as accidental; as it is, CNN, The Washington Post, Politico, Bloomberg, Business Insider, NBC, and the New York Times all ran similar coverage on the connection between Trump’s tweet and the GOP retreat. Instead, it seems more likely that coverage that can incorporate Trump’s Twitter presence can rely on more clicks, shares and comments. By safely critiquing the “unprofessional elements” of Trump, this type of coverage can offer some semblance of being against Trump, without offering concrete political responses. The spectacle thus displaces the politics.

While journalism is typically portrayed as always holding power accountable, this is actually a relatively novel perspective on print media. Jurgen Habermas pointed to the rise of periodicals in the seventeenth century primarily as a vehicle for the aristocracy and more affluent merchants and professionals to communicate. The production of the first “public” sphere was not a radical sense of inclusivity, but a development that allowed the literate populations to exploit political and economic changes to their own benefits (Even today in the United Kingdom, some of their most affluent private schools are considered “public” under this definition.) A truly “free” media—the world of pamphlets and printed visuals—often clashed directly with what the prince or religious official of any particular region allowed in circulation. As a result, official or formal vehicles of communication could often–and sometimes were treated by historians–hide as objective analysis of their places and times, despite needing formal approval for circulation.

Politicizing the circulation of fake news has allowed the mainstream media to similarly refute any periodicals or journals that are not household names. So The Washington Post’s investigation of Russia spreading fake news could happily incorporate a source whose method for finding pro-Russian sites was vague to the point that even the Washington Post could be found guilty. In practice, such a definition enabled the grouping of labor and ethnonationalist parties, as though both operated for the purpose of advancing Putin. Despite the shoddy work and the Post’s own retractions atop the page, the article currently sits on 10k shares through Facebook, and certainly has held influence over the DNC’s priorities.

In a year of solid rejection of establishment politics, we might also ask whether the aesthetic of objectivity has been kicked to the curb by consumers of media. From this framework, one immediate conclusion is that people who consume media in their “echo chambers,” on Twitter or Facebook do so intentionally, rather than accidentally. In fact, sources that profess political allegiance often emphasize some rejection of this mainstream aesthetic, whether it is justified in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of liberal bias purported by the Right, or rising class solidarity and social organization found on the Left. Given the realization that many political pundits continue to spread their own media despite eighteen months of being wrong about Trump, it may be time to re-evaluate not only how we consume media, but how the mainstream produces it.

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion 

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Spoiler alert: No, no he does not.

My writing this was inspired prior to last week’s result by an article from May of this year, which proclaimed 2016 as the first “internet election.” The author, Andrew Keen, was less concerned with rigorously defining what an “internet election” might entail, and more interested in throwing a variety of questions at 2016 in order to rip it away from the course of standard electoral discourse. The barely-implicit question, of course, was to explain away what seemed––at the time and until last week––the outlier that was Donald J. Trump.

Each question Keen threw at 2016 was less convincing than the one that came before. An “internet election” could not be one predicated on the virality of small moments taken out of context, because that is what halted Howard Dean in 2004. An “internet election” could not be one in which truth was coincidental to politics, because as Nathan Jurgenson aptly reminded us, that described most of Bush’s major policy decisions.

If an “internet election” means we’re post-ideology, Trump is a strange figure to examine how post-ideology functions. He has, generally speaking, espoused a narrative of self-improvement through freedom, using differences in identity as a scapegoat for severe economic depression, and emphasized the need for law and order to protect hard-working Americans. These are all fundamental tenets of a Right-nationalist ideology, one energized by populist support.

I was initially fascinated with the way that each of these questions accepted––and helped produce––a Transcendental Trump. Trump was constructed as extraordinary and unprecedented, which therefore amounted to unexplainable. In order to account for it, we had to look at what else happened to be distinct about this election: enter discussions about social media ruining the election. Throughout Trump, we’ve had fun pathologizing him.

Trump winning the election, however, has changed that narrative. Instead of a one-time anomaly, liberal pundits are learning a vocabulary that presents Trump as the apex of horrors outside of our liberal bubble. Paul Krugman epitomizes this narrative shift to a T:

“What we do know is that people like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in. We thought that our fellow citizens would not, in the end, vote for a candidate so manifestly unqualified for high office, so temperamentally unsound, so scary yet ludicrous.

We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time.

We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law.

It turns out that we were wrong. There turn out to be a huge number of people––white people, living mainly in rural areas––who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy.”

I pick on Krugman, but Nate Silver also normalizes this outcome by explaining what happened fell in the realm of possibility according to his polls. Jonathan Chait was only joking about leaving for Canada: we will overcome Trump through a sheer determinism of individual will and liberal monopolization on facts. They lead to similar conclusions: the stupid, racist, ignorant, people were more powerful than most of us imagined, and they need to be kept underfoot, (perhaps by eliminating the electoral college or contacting faithless electors?) This is precisely the wrong type of normalization.

A more realistic approach might start with the premise “People are voting for Trump for particular reasons.” From such a premise we get into cohesive discussions about where Clinton lost ground, people who voted for Obama, then voted for Trump, the successful rise of voter restrictions in states like Wisconsin, and the surge of suicide rates since 1999 for all but two groups, a surge that includes a rate twice as high for people 10-24 in rural regions than their peers in cities. This is not a question about invoking empathy for the white working class, as though there were one group of ideologies, histories, and practices that constituted “the white working class,” a point that pundits would also do well to remember with “African Americans” “Women” and “Latinos.” It simply opens a facet of Trump’s victory that we must confront at some point or another: he won, in part, because he produced a particular vision of affinity politics. You’re hurting, Trump said, I will help fix that.

My initial conclusion was that the “internet election” embodied our need to rip Trump from our present moment, and freeze him in time as a barbaric inversion brought on by some people who refused to “get woke.” History was only helpful insofar as it described Trump as backwards, irrational, and emblematic of some social order from the pre-Civil Rights Era. Political pundits expanded on this vision, and ran away with mythologies of Trump free from any constraints of history. And I imagined that this would dovetail neatly into the dominance of quantitative methods to free ourselves from rigorous studies of the past.

My new conclusion is that if “internet election” is a term, it refers not so much to the loss of facts or ideologies but that information now flows with a particular force and volume to which we have yet to fully adjust, in a manner similar to the Catholic Church struggling against the printing press. Jurgenson has recently pointed to the commoditization of this amplification as factiness, and it operates on both sides of the aisle. Liberals are capable of weaving entire fantasies through the media we share, whereas “fake” news articles on the Right receive consistent and constant dissemination.   

While depressing, these threads of communication also have amazing potential for organization and protest. The successful marshalling of xenophobia and misogyny by the Right is a global phenomenon; tools like Bridge currently respond to it by pushing through language boundaries. Memes can play right into the machine as Crystal so carefully traced here yesterday; they can also bring into discourse groups of people who are illiterate, or otherwise struggle with textuality. From a national perspective, both Jacobin Magazine and the Democratic Socialists of America have reported surges in memberships and subscriptions. The protests against Trump have shown that no matter how large his shadow becomes, we are capable of finding new sources of light. And if Derek Black, the son of David Duke and socialized from birth to be the new face of the white nationalist movement, could turn his back on family, friends, and the world in which he was raised, I feel cautiously optimistic about our capabilities to bring a Transcendent Trump back to Earth.

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion.

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In 2014, a stalwart of the WarCraft III community passed away. SySShark, by any account, was the heart of a top American community forum called WCReplays.com, which dedicated itself to the coverage and community of the WarCraft III international scene . The game lost steam after the release of StarCraft II; the forums now are smaller than they once were. But the servers and forums are still robust with activity from people across the world. Even people who had not posted in years came back to this thread in order to offer their memories and regret for his passing. 

I was one of those players. From 2003 to 2009 the forums for WarCraft had been a significant portion of my social time. At the time, my mom worried that I was developing an addiction to video games. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it back then, but it was really the people–some of which I still see on Facebook–that drew me back. After all, it is extraordinarily addictive when you find people with whom you like spending time.

It was these communal experiences on games–Runescape, and Gunbound before WarCraft–that deeply influenced my own personal growth and formation as a social being. Mediating myself online since has always felt more intimate and full than it does offline. And to that extent, I became immeasurably curious about communities that had existed far beyond the purview of American culture.

And yet, it was examining the material limits game worlds that drove some of the first works on online communities. Synthetic Worlds was recognized as an immediate classic of the emergent Game Studies field upon its publication in 2004. Castronova refused to separate the online and offline economies; he instead elided them by emphasizing the economic productivity of the labor both sides produced. This emphasis was likely a result of his own position as a serious economist, interested in the “hard economic, political, and security-related questions that synthetic worlds bring up.” Castronova was bound by his relationship to games–a leisurely indulgence of his youth–and the commitment that games had only become topics of interest when he realized that currency was being exchanged; he translated the significance of this exchange by emphasizing that if Norrath–a region on the EverQuest server–was a country, its Gross National Produced would have been on par with Bulgaria and four times higher than that of China.  

Legitimizing the study of the web was necessary for groups of academics who, in 2004, had no personal reason to care about it. This was partially generational; Castronova came to study synthetic worlds because he had experienced the Golden Age of Arcade Games. The generation of students now likely grew up with their own friends on forums, games, and fanfiction sites. For many of us, the force of the question needs no legitimation; it simply exists. However, the generational shift is less significant than the ways that we have been taught to think and write about communities, a category that has come to encompass everything from nations to families.

The need to legitimize the field via studies of economic productivity, however, has limited its potential to theorizing about such communities in a typical fashion. Castronova, for example, was content to render a theory about government as transcendent to the contingencies of politics or history. While the rejection of democracy on MMORPGs might give certain theorists pause, Castronova powers through to explain that, actually, the anarchy of EverQuest is akin to the writing of English political theorist Thomas Hobbes. When PvP modes were introduced on MMORPGs, they brought out sadistic behaviors of slaughter and massacre wherever players could get away with it. Because this happened to coincide with a lack of government, Castronova was comfortable aligning correlation with causation in the case of this synthetic world.

The move towards Hobbes and democracy as the immediate categories of analysis is familiar. When Europeans began writing history from primary sources, they naturalized their own behaviors, their societies, their ideologies, and wrote about other forms of life as alien or backwards by comparison. It was this project of naturalization that historian Dipesh Chakrabarty called “political modernity,” in his book Provincializing Europe. Political modernity is the type of thinking that assume concepts like “citizenship, the state, civil society, public sphere, human rights, equality before the law, democracy, scientific rationality” and so forth are marks of enlightened and liberal states. In the context of his work, Chakrabarty addressed his theory to historians who were educated in this intellectual tradition, and studied non-European regions. Hence, to provincialize Europe was to ask why and how political modernity was being applied to regions whose history was entirely distinct from the European tradition. Not only was Chakrabarty’s book geared towards the Eurocentric nature of intellectual production, it also was a critique of any writer who aimed to naturalize specific political developments of the Enlightenment. Thus, people who study the Middle Ages have sympathized with the book.

It’s seemed to me for some time now that if we cannot assume the value of such analytical categories is intrinsic to communities in the medieval past or the non-European present, we also cannot assume their value in the synthetic future. A digital community like the group of people who gathered to watch and partake in the Twitch Plays Pokémon series, for example, were only bound by their relationship to the Pokémon universe. They came from a range of national traditions, they spoke a number of languages, they had a disparate set of goals, and more than likely an array of beliefs and ideologies. Attempting an analysis of this group that seeks to make a cohesive homogenous entity on the basis of “modernity” would only confuse tendencies of this group with some kind of determinist narrative.

These determinist narratives almost always make some use of political modernity. The main thesis of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone declared a decline in civic participation. This decline was rooted in the lessening of social leisure time, which Putnam attributed to technologies that made isolation preferable. Sherry Turkle in Reclaiming Conversation similarly argues that the act of conversation has been diluted by the introduction of digital devices, which suppress empathy in order to function. Neither author asks a historical question about social capital or empathy, which could provide insight as to whether technological advances were incidental to the narratives they weave, or causal.

Legitimizing technology became dependent on showing that it was part of engaging other people, whether for empathy or social capital. In danah boyd’s It’s Complicated, we receive a narrative of the web’s normalization, and its pragmatic role in either enforcing racial and gendered structures that existed beforehand, or else offering a social space for teenagers in particular to cultivate connection at a time when regimented schedules offer fewer and fewer outlets. Similarly, Whitney Phillips closed her ethnography of trolls by suggesting that the web functions primarily as a mirror; that the distortions and corruptions we view in digital social relations are best addressed through asking questions about the world that enables them to operate.

These scholars had to defend their studies of the web as a relational project; one where the web derives its significance primarily from the social relations that preceded it. However, one way of producing a new theory of society is to ask what social relations exist that are primarily made possible by the web itself. In other words, what does an archive of anonymous online chats look like? How does the exchange on internet forums or Twitter differ from the varying Republics of Letters that existed in the past? What do deeply intimate friendships look like when the individuals who DM each other after a chance occurrence on Weird Facebook? Where do international boundaries come into play? How does the web connect the least suspecting of individuals (à la ISIS and the Lonely American)?

This is a difficult set of parameters to navigate, particularly because I suspect many of these questions are older than most people imagine. But they also represent an opportunity to forge new modes of analysis that privilege the ways that communities are produced not only by the global cosmopolitan elites, but also the majority of people who constitute web users at this point in time. Not only will it be possible, but it will be essential given the porous nature of the web.  


Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion.

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Pepe, oh Pepe; who knew a frog could be so hateful? The Anti-Defamation League has had enough, and a brief stroll through alt-right Twitter appears to confirm their anxieties: Pepes at the camps, Pepes smugly smiling at the World Trade Center burning, Pepes watching as people fall from helicopters.

This is hardly the full Pepe experience. Both the ADL and the comic’s creator agreed that the majority of Pepes out there are entirely harmless. Where they differ is in interpretations of Pepe as alt-right white nationalist icon. The ADL’s designation implies a very static interpretation of Pepe, one that implies an immediate connection between certain corridors of the web and Anti-Semitism. These corridors of the web-Reddit and 4chan among them-gain an exclusive monopoly on societal production of discrimination. 

Human societies are generally anxious about change. In the case of technology, this anxiety expresses itself by reifying “the digital” as an experience: it transforms everything. Whether people embrace “the digital” as beneficial to the point of calling it a “New Enlightenment,” or lament it as detrimental to society, there is little space to describe digital media as simply a new layer in the construction of society.

This homogenization of “the digital” as one broad-sweep transformation of everything is brought to an analytical limit when we think about the individual people and events that constitute everything. In Network Aesthetics Patrick Jagoda suggests that a fundamental flaw in the way we describe networks of everything–like the internet–is our assumption that such networks’ normative states imply stability. Such normative states are more fantasy than reality; while many individual people approach and mold a network with a determined stability in mind, it is inevitable that such a network is also contingent on how the desires of those individual people clash and evolve.

Networks of memes never reach a moment of stability; they don’t prefer a mode of stability. The dissemination of memes through different forums, sites, and blogs make stability nearly impossible. A meme on 4chan means something fundamentally different than the same meme on 9gag. Each circulation brings new layers to the meme; by the time it reaches the “mainstream” of digital society (aka, Facebook), the meme is dead. When the ADL admits that the vast majority of Pepe-usage is not driven by anti-Semitism, it recognized the best its logic could do was indicate a point of no return, where a vocal minority could seize the meme from its production, wherever that production occurred. 

While the particulars of the alt-right and Pepe are specific to the twenty-first century, the issue in which the ADL specializes–anti-Semitism–has a longer story. For centuries, the whole body of knowledge production itself was perceived as a very Jewish phenomenon: Christians focused on the spiritual, Jews on the material. The exchanges of commerce, science, and law were all focused on the success of our own earthly kingdoms. Even now, the threads of anti-Semitism that lump “science,” “economy,” and “Jewish” are from a long tradition of association.

These ideas were robust elements of Christian thought with the production of a new technology: the printing press. The engine of the Protestant Reformation was the press shop, protected by a prince or court whose politics defied the papacy. In historian Elisabeth Eisenstein’s account, the printing press was what gave the Reformation its political and populist power. The widespread dissemination of pamphlets, books, and leaflets in vernacular languages turned previously elitist debates into a popular revolution. 

Part of the Reformation and its theological challenges incorporated threads of anti-Jewish thought. One such wildly popular pamphlet was Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies (sidenote: it’s available as a pdf with a complaint against the “political correctness” of contextualization.) After a long career of attempting––and subsequently failing––to convert the Jews with his approach to Christianity, Martin Luther wrote about their poisonous corruption, their unending filth, their fascination with the physical flesh in rejection of the faith. His last section offers solutions that advocate deprivation of property, burning of their houses, and wholesale murder of their communities. 

Why does any of this matter? When we imagine print, we don’t associate it with the dissemination and accessibility of anti-Semitism, despite its very real presence. Instead, we think about print’s propensity to fight falsehood. We think about the Enlightenment discourse and ideals of statehood. We think of when Belle sees the Beast’s library for the first time. These associations of print with Good Things feel natural, but they were only produced through the struggles, arguments, and experiences that came with the maturation of text as a medium.

Memes have yet to receive this type of consideration. The ADL’s actions embody a typical experience with “the meme economy.” Instead of working to understand the value and significance of memes as a cultural medium, it is easier to write them off as obscure and odd expressions of a select few people; and if those select few people can be written off as alt-right white nationalists, all the better. NPR concurs: “Life is short, much of internet communication is more Dada-esque than denotative, and mastering dank memes has an effort-to-payoff ratio that really, truly is not worth it.”

It remains unclear whether dank memes are more Dada-esque than putting a ball into a hole in the ground, gushing over some words written and performed by a guy eight times a week, or making pretty buildings to store books in order to assuage the feelings of a guilty capitalist. The web’s position as a significant political, economic, and social sphere has created an expansion of culture that reflects those spheres. In order not to reduce cultural practices to the absurdity they appear as to outsiders, anthropologist Clifford Geertz expanded on a method he called “thick descriptions” of practices in the context of their societies.

Memes are the epitome of culturally thick objects. They reflect human conscious effort and action that often cannot be understood without knowing the conversation from which they are taken. In her podcast Pushing Hoops with Sticks, Ayesha Siddiqi describes “Memes as a language for quickly identifying social commentary… it can very quickly identify or call out a specific type of character or cliche, which would have taken books to do before.” And much like any language, translating them without the salience of context is a pointless endeavor.

A case about the meaning of a meme is found with China. An Xiao Mina has written about the ways a mythical alpaca-looking animal–the mud grass horse–existed in strictly political terms as a meme. While the Great Firewall moderates and suppresses anti-government speech online quite effectively, these images of the mud grass horse got through for their seeming irrelevance. Mina points out that the Chinese name for the mud grass horse, when intoned in a slightly different manner, sounds like “Fuck your mother.” From this, many activists, organizers, and other political groups used the mud grass horse to circulate a variety of subversive messages about the Chinese government through the Firewall.

Of course, it is important to evaluate a meme’s potency for hate-speech, but this potency is not found in the macro of a frog face. Pepe has a rich history that has gloriously come to the surface as a result of his new infamy. The ADL’s decision only ignores the very contextualization they advocate.

The strategy to align Pepe with anti-Semitism–rather than ideologies and people who constitute anti-Semitism–is analogous to the strategy that concerned English professor Whitney Phillips in her work on trolls. Instead of rejecting trolls as communities pushing “edginess” and hatred “for the lulz,” Phillips argued that communities like 4chan are mirrors; the elimination of behaviors we loathe in trolls cannot be separated from the elimination of the racism, sexism, and classism that are inherent in the structure of our society. That we should be take Pepe as the icon for societal problems is indicative of our inability to distinguish symbols from human intent. Feels bad, man.

Many thanks to Britney Summit-Gil for her review and thoughts on an earlier draft.

 

Marley-Vincent Lindsey is a doctoral student in history at Brown. He tweets on occasion