The sub-hegemonic power of social media

This is a fascinating idea from Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine. Exercising power without a strategic framework, shaping the social through a machinic repetition driven by nothing more considered than keeping users on the platform for longer & preparing a climate in which advertising can be sold. From loc 2745:

The underground persuasion of reality-shaping is what big tech does really well. It is quite different from what used to be called hegemony. Hegemony is a strategy of obtaining leadership of a broad civil society coalition to achieve political goals. It means building alliances with other groups by taking their interests and desires seriously, rather than just coercing them. It means offering moral leadership rather than simply material incentives. At their most successful, ruling groups are able to explain their own interests in terms of an ‘historic mission’ for the whole society. In the Cold War era, the struggle against communism was this sort of mission. While it surveilled and repressed communists, left-wing trade unionists and radical civil-rights activists, it also won broad popular consent. What the platforms have done is far more subterranean. The Twittering Machine proposes nothing, declares nothing good or bad, but works on the infrastructures of everyday life. It might be called a sub-hegemonic practice.

There is an agnosticism about content which is often misunderstood. As he writes on loc 2663, we can’t explain the spread of ‘extreme’ content without accounting for algorithmic amplifications but that does not in itself explain why this content resonates to the extent it does. To understand the platform we must look beyond it:

But what is so addictive about ‘extreme’ content? Part of the answer is that much of what is characterized as extreme in this context is conspiracy infotainment: for example, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the algorithms were promoting anti-Clinton conspiracy stories. 8 When so many distrust the news, and find it frustrating and confusing, infotainment seems to be less ‘hard work’. It offers what can feel like critical thinking in a recognizably digestible and pleasurable way. In the face of official agnotology–the practice of deliberately producing mass ignorance on major issues–it can feel empowering. But it may also be that the algorithms pick up on dark yearnings simmering below the supposedly consensual surface of politics. So not only do far-right YouTubers network, collaborate and signal-boost one another’s brands, driving their collective content up the viewing charts. Not only are they careful enough to avoid trigger words likely to be caught by an anti-hate speech algorithm. They can expect the platform to promote them precisely because of how riveting their content is supposed, by the algorithms, to be. Zeynep Tufekci argues that ‘YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century’.

It’s not a strategic colonisation of the social as much as something more subtly insidious, blindly weaving its way into the social fabric. From loc 2698:

It herds users together in temporary groupings based on this data. It establishes correlations over whole data populations between certain types of content and certain behaviours: stimulus and response. It works only because of the response. There has to be something in some viewers waiting to be switched on. The algorithms, by responding to actual behaviour, are picking up on user desires, which may not even be known to the user. They are digitalizing the unconscious. The platforms thus listen intently to our desires, as we confess them, and give them a numerical value. In the mathematical language of informatics, collective wants can be manipulated, engineered and connected to a solution. And new technologies have only been as successful as they have been by positioning themselves as magical solutions. Not just to individual dilemmas, but to the bigger crises and dysfunctions of late capitalism. If mass media is a one-way information monopoly, turn to the feed, the blog, the podcast. If the news fails, turn to citizen journalism for ‘unfiltered’ news. If you’re underemployed, bid for jobs on TaskRabbit. If you’ve got little money but own a car, use it to make some spare money on the side. If you’re undervalued in life, bid for a share in microcelebrity. If politicians let you down, hold them to account on Twitter. If you suffer from a nameless hunger, keep scrolling. The business model of the platforms presupposes not just the average share of individual misery but a society reliably in crisis.

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