I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

Even if I wasn’t a supporter, I’d have been fascinated by Labour’s use of social media in the last election and how this built upon prior successes in successive leadership elections. The new book by Steve Howell, deputy director of strategy and communications during the election, contains many fascinating snippets about this that I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Perhaps the most interesting is the Labour leadership’s embrace of social media outriders which I’d seen speculated about but never confirmed. From loc 818 of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics:

But, if I was ever frustrated by some of those early discussions, one thing that would always lift my spirits was the irrepressible activity of what were known in LOTO as ‘Jeremy’s outriders.’ There were dozens of them on Twitter and Facebook who, day in and day out, were pumping out great material exposing the Tories and putting across many of our arguments. I include in this organised groups such as JeremyCorbyn4PM and Momentum, but mostly they were people acting on their own initiative out of sheer personal commitment. And some of them, such as @Rachael_Swindon and @ScouseGirlMedia, have suffered a fair bit of abuse and harassment for their trouble. The two outriders I had most contact with were Eoin Clark and Peter Stefanovic. Eoin will be known to many people for his @ToryFibs Twitter feed and its forensic rebuttal of Tory claims and attacks in detailed memes. Peter specialises in hard-hitting videos on the NHS, on the miners’ compensation, and in support of the WASPI campaign against the raising of the state pensionI  age for women born in the 1950s. When I suggested to Jeremy that we should invite Peter in for a chat, he was very enthusiastic. The meeting was one of the highlights of those early weeks. Peter’s passion for what he was doing was inspiring and infectious. He had given up his day job as a lawyer to spend a year campaigning and was eager to persuade the groups he was working with that a Corbyn-led government would address their issues. “That was an incredibly important meeting,” he told me recently. “We discussed what might be included in the manifesto and that allowed me to go back to WASPI, the miners, and the junior doctors to tell them what Labour would do.”

What does this mean in practice? It’s hard to say but it seemingly reflects the most prominent examples of a much broader spectrum of engagement, extending as far as Howell having regular exchanges via DM with independent activists who provided on the ground perspectives of unfolding events which couldn’t be reached through the party machine. The importance of this could be overstated but I’m interested in how it strengthened their conviction to drop or downplay tactical aspects of political communication which were held as certainties by those within the party organisation. It’s also easy to imagine this activity being seized upon in the event of a poor result as an example of the leadership’s willing embrace of a filter bubble.

I saw a wonderful exhibition this weekend, collecting work by Alex Prager combining photography and film in intricately staged hyper-real scenes. The collection that has been playing on mind since seeing it is Face In The Crowd. If you click on the screenshot below, it will take you to the website where you can see the work:

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The accompanying notes described how these are “dynamic tableaus where individual characters are presented in equally sharp focus, seemingly lost in their own internal conversations”. It reminds me of Hannah Starkey’s work in its fascination with how interiority plays out in social scenes, showing how private experience nonetheless has a public existence.

However I found the staging of the scenes troubling, as much as I recognise the intention behind them. It feels like the relationality is washed out, as if collectivity is exhausted by the artefact of the social situation. There’s a strange emptiness between inner and outer, with interaction reduced to staging such that the bonds of social life appear as little more than fragile constraints.

Each of these scenes is a collage of individuals rather than a collective, creating images which are sociological in their intention but not in their enactment. Individuals are either lost in the reality of their own lives or looking forlornly through the artifice of shared reality, as is the case with the red-haired woman in the image above. It foregrounds that artifice but also inflates it, losing track of how it functions as a collective tissue which knits together individual lives in the mundane interactions throughout the day.

It is scaffolding which often fades into the background, facilitating the relationality which is lost in these scenes. It is a deliberately stilted vision of the social, hugely succesful in its staging and producing an aesthetic which I find immensely unsettling.

These notes are for the fifth and final week of the CPGJ platform capitalism intensive reading group. One of the themes running through the readings over the five weeks has been the political valence of platforms and its relationship to our analysis of them. My own instinct is that valorising platforms in an a priori way impedes our analysis of them but that an a political framing of platform capitalism is neither possible nor desirable. Rather than being an outright contradiction, I believe this leaves a small space for analysis which I hoped the readings for this week would help open up. The essay by Helen Margetts takes issue with the gloomy interpretations of recent developments with social media, contrasting to the now antiquated sense of excitement with which they were once greeted. As she put it in a lecture in Cambridge I helped organise in November, “social media have had a bad press recently”:

They are held responsible for pollution of the democratic environment through fake news, junk science, computational propaganda and aggressive micro-targeting. In turn, these phenomena have been blamed for the rise of populism, political polarization, far-right extremism and radicalisation, waves of hate against women and minorities, post-truth, the end of representative democracy, fake democracy and ultimately, the death of democracy. It feels like the tirade of relatives of the deceased at the trial of the murderer. It is extraordinary how much of this litany is taken almost as given, the most gloomy prognoses as certain visions of the future.

Her point is not to reassert tech-utopianism but simply to stress that “we know rather little about the relationship between social media and democracy”. After ten years in which the internet has challenged our previous assumptions about democracy, it is imperative that we do not rush to judgement in lieu of understanding how social media have “injected volatility and instability into political systems, bringing a continual cast of unpredictable events”. There is barely a feature of political life that has been untouched by these changes, posing profound questions for our conceptual, empirical and normative understanding of democracy. But as much as these platforms generate transactional data which could in principle help us to understand these changes, in reality “Most of this data is proprietary and inaccessible to researchers –  the revolution in big data and data science has passed by democracy research”.

Her essay responds to this epistemic void by laying out a concise thought systematic account of what we _do_ know about social media and its relationship to politics. The positive part of this account rests on the value of what she terms “tiny acts” such as “Following, liking, tweeting, retweeting, sharing text or images relating to a political issue or signing up to a digital campaign” which have no equivalent prior to social media and extend “below the bottom rung of the ladder of participation, which stretches from small acts such as signing a petition, through voting, to attending a political meeting, and donating money to a political cause, right up to political violence or armed struggle”. These tiny acts bring new people into politics but the same characteristics which enable political activity to take place outside of organised groups render the ensuing actions unstable and unpredictable. The resulting pattern is akin to that of earthquakes, argues Margetts, with many trivial eruptions and a few enormous ones. These patterns of engagement challenge two democratic features (political identity and institutions) and render politics more unpredictable than ever before. Drawing an analogy with the stages of grief, Margetts identifies Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Resistance as stages of response to the profound change which has been brought about in democratic politics. This includes the interesting contradiction that ‘clicktavism’ is disdained while social media is also claimed to have massive pathological effects upon organised politics. Which is it? The final stage of acceptance entails the recognition that social media are here to stay and the ensuing difficult work of institutionalising them:

There is an alternative response to the role of social media in politics – to accept that they are part of our democratic system, the political weather, and that political systems must accommodate the change, through a process of institutional catch up. Most social media platforms did not exist 10 years ago, and they have been at the heart of our political systems for far less than that. So it is understandable that political institutions have failed to adjust, and the new institutions of democracy – social media corporations – have proceeded unchecked and unregulated, particularly given the power of the original cyber-utopian dream.


We have been using the terminology of ‘platforms’ through this reading group but have we paid enough attention to the implications of this? A number of the readings we have used make a strong case about the analytical value of the term, identifying it as a mode of organisation with ramifications for capitalism as a whole. But what should we make of the readiness with which companies adopt the terminology to describe their own services. Should this make us suspicious? This is the argument Tarleton Gillespie makes in the politics of platforms. This is a term which, as Gillespie puts it, is “increasingly familiar term in the description of the online services of content intermediaries, both in their self- characterizations and in the broader public discourse of users, the press, and commentators”. Understood as a discursive strategy, it is a crucial part of how these firms “establish a long-term position in a fluctuating economic and cultural terrain”. Gillespie insists we must unpack these strategic considerations, in order to analyse how firms seek “to position themselves both to pursue current and future profits, to strike a regulatory sweet spot between legislative protections that benefit them and obligations that do not, and to lay out a cultural imaginary within which their service makes sense”. To put it crudely: it is part of the self-branding of platforms and this should surely give us pause for thought. Nonetheless, analysing this self-positioning can help us make sense of the how these firms understanding themselves, what they see as their interests and how they intend to develop their businesses over the coming years.

Platform is a structural metaphor akin to ‘network,’ ‘broadcast,’ or ‘channel’ which “depends on a semantic richness that, though it may go unnoticed by the casual listener or even the speaker, gives the term discursive resonance”. Gillespie identifies four senses in which the term platform is used, expressed through fifteen entries in the dictionary: computational (providing an infrastructure), architectural (surfaces upon which people can stand), figurative (a foundation upon which we can build) and political (a body of commitments upon which a party and/or individual seeks election). These sense intermingle, such that “being raised, level, and accessible are ideological features as much as physical ones” conveying certain qualities in the system or entity which is designated as a platform. The computational meaning of platform precedes the current preoccupation with social media. This tracks a shift in the meaning, such that the quality of being a platform is identified “not necessarily because they allow code to be written or run, but because they afford an opportunity to communicate, interact, or sell”. Reflecting on the case of YouTube, Gillespie explains how the increasingly dominant sense of platform uses the discursive force of the trope to politicisation the facilitation of user generated content:

This more conceptual use of ‘platform’ leans on all of the term’s connotations: computational, something to build upon and innovate from; political, a place from which to speak and be heard; figurative, in that the opportunity is an abstract promise as much as a practical one; and architectural, in that YouTube is designed as an open-armed, egalitarian facilitation of expression, not an elitist gatekeeper with normative and technical restrictions. This fits neatly with the long-standing rhetoric about the democratizing potential of the Internet, and with the more recent enthusiasm for user-generated content (UGC), amateur expertise, popular creativity, peer-level social networking, and robust online commentary.

This positions YouTube as “unlike the mainstream broadcasters, film studios, and publishers” and rejecting the “role of gatekeeper, not even curators: they would be mere facilitators, supporters, hosts”. In spite of the prominence of their advertising model, much of the user-generated content cannot be paired with ads because concern of being paired with the wrong content is so widespread while YouTube itself is concerned about accidentally profiting from copyright infringement. YouTube have therefore sought commercial partnerships from the outset, dominating the platform in spite of being a minority of the content to be found on it. This entails a delicate balancing act and the terminology of the platform can help unify what might otherwise be competing accounts of YouTube and its role:

The business of being a cultural intermediary is a complex and fragile one, oriented as it is to at least three constituencies: end users, advertisers, and professional content producers. This is where the discursive work is most vital. Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them.

In the case of YouTube, it allows them to “make a bid to be the new television, convincing media producers to provide their valuable content and advertisers to buy valuable consumer attention, on the back of user-generated content and all its democratic, egalitarian connotations, offered to them as television’s antidote“. 
These discursive strategies have a legal as well as marketing component. As Gillespie observe, “what we call such things, what precedents we see as most analogous, and how we characterize its technical workings drives how we set conditions for it”. Firms seek “a regulatory paradigm that gives them the most leeway to conduct their business, imposes the fewest restrictions on their service provision, protects them from liability for things they hope not to be liable for, and paints them in the best light in terms of the public interest” with self-characterisation being a potent means through which this can be pursued. He deftly illustrates how the terminology of the platform can be used to avoid responsibility by defining themselves as technical companies rather than publishers. This has crucial significance within US law because under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as “long as you are a neutral distributor of information and are not aware of specific violations, you are not liable for the violations of users”. He draws an important comparison to the regulatory environment which the telephone companies used to be subject to:

For instance, before their deregulation the telephone companies were bound by two obligations: first, they must act as a ‘common carrier,’ agreeing to provide service to the entire public without discrimination. Second, they can avoid liability for the information activities of their users, to the extent that they serve as ‘conduit,’ rather than as producers of content themselves. Both metaphors, common carrier and conduit, make a similar (but not identical) semantic claim as does platform. Both suggest that the role of distributing information is a neutral one, where the function is merely the passage of any and all content without discrimination.

The business model of YouTube doesn’t leave them with the traditional interests of publishers but it does leave them with interests in what they publish. They unavoidably make choices which shape the production, circulation and reception of material accessible through the service and these choices have implications beyond the scope of the service itself. The terminology of platform obfuscates in the face of this responsibility and this is why we must recognises the strategic conduct underpinning it:

A term like ‘platform’ does not drop from the sky, or emerge in some organic, unfettered way from the public discussion. It is drawn from the available cultural vocabulary by stakeholders with specific aims, and carefully massaged so as to have particular resonance for particular audiences inside of particular discourses. These are efforts not only to sell, convince, persuade, protect, triumph, or condemn, but to make claims about what these technologies are and are not, and what should and should not be expected of them. In other words, they represent an attempt to establish the very criteria by which these technologies will be judged, built directly into the terms by which we know them.

If we do this, it becomes easier to recognise the similarities between platform businesses and traditional media, as well as the interest they have in obscuring this commonality. Gillespie’s argument is that the discourse of ‘platform’ actively works against us in trying to analyse their position and how they represent their actions.

I just returned from a Remembrance Day service, pondering the relationship between acceleration and the profane after finding the array of people walking past and through the service deeply irritating. It occurred to me that what marks out such a space as sacred, distinguished from the normal flow on everyday life, rests as much on deceleration as it does on silence. In fact the former could be seen as the precondition for the latter, in so far as that it’s hard to avoid making a noise unless you’re standing still. 

There was a constant stream of activity around the service: people walking past, the noise of bikes and cameras clicking as photographers roamed. People were silent during the formal silence but the movement didn’t cease. What happens to our aspiration to the sacred under such circumstances? It becomes harder to sustain but its achievement is all the more powerful for this reason. To actually have a crowd of people stop moving, stand still and focus upon a shared object of attention becomes a moving experience in its own right because there is little even approximating it in everyday life.
This might seem like a niche concern, a peculiarly long-winded way of complaining about the fact of people’s behaviour at a remembrance service. I nonetheless believe it highlights a more diffuse phenomenon, in which the harmonisation of attention is becoming decreasingly possible. This isn’t just a matter of movement or its absence, a proliferation of noise or a respectful silence. Take myself as an example: I’m complaining about the lack of attentiveness shown by others but I found myself writing this blog post in my head during the service. There are so many reasons to turn away from shared experiences, as the decreasing synchronisation of our work and lives (as well as the digital machinery of distraction through which this desynchronisation comes to characterise every facet of our existence) means the traditional pool of collective objects of attention seems to be in terminal decline.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of collectivity or even of collective attention. The role of mediation here is interesting e.g. television and Twitter combining to produce intense forms of mediated collective attention. If we accept that collective attention can be powerful even if synchronised then binge-watched television shows which reach the status of ‘cultural phenomenon’ represent an interesting case study. Nonetheless, we see an important and challenging transformation when collective attention comes to depend upon technologies of mediation for its very possibility. I suspect we begin to lose something quite profound, as collective affectivity dependent on real co-ordination of psycho-physical attention in time and space begins to fade away into an (imagined) past. The extent to which this is happening can certainly be overstated: the examples that have proved most transformative in my own experience illustrate this (e.g. key games in live football, the best live music, some protests). But even these are partial experiences, collective crescendos against a backdrop of individualisation, rather than defining features of the experience. The most moving examples also occurred when I was younger, long before any gig was filled with people constantly focused on filming the event using their phone. The only recent example I can think of was the memorial after the Manchester attacks this year, the effect of which upon me had been opaque until I found myself bursting into tears after a few minutes of standing with others in St Andrew’s Square. 

I’m worried that forms of collectivity like this, deeply precious but subtle parts of our lives, increasingly find themselves imperilled by social acceleration and that individualised enforcement of ‘proper’ comportment is liable to make the problem worse rather than better.

Social media is often accused of being an echo chamber, but has it played a role in empowering marginalised people and elevating their voices?

It has and it’s important that we don’t lose sight of this when we focus on the problems which social media is creating for politics. In recent years, cyber-utopianism has been discredited and that’s a good thing, if we hope to realistically appraise the political consequences of these technologies. It’s much less common now to find people making the case that digital media will empower individuals, undermine hierarchy and usher in a brave new world. This utopianism was rooted in a particular time and place, providing a technological equivalent to the breathless rhetoric of figures like Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair who claimed we were moving ‘beyond left and right’.

But an increasing scrutiny of the darker sides of digital media, particularly post-Trump, too often obscures the continued positive capacities of these technologies to bring people together and articulate a collective claim on the world. These positive and negative aspects co-exist: the risk of the echo-chamber is an unfortunate byproduct of the mechanisms through which social media allows new collectives to form. Nonetheless, we need to remember that this isn’t an inexorable consequence of the technology itself. Some of the unfortunate features of online political culture are as much a reflection of long-term political disengagement, particularly the decline in trade union and political party membership, as they are the influence of the technology itself. We can and should reclaim a positive vision of the capacity of social media to empower marginalised people and elevate their voice, while being realistic about some of the risks inherent in doing this.

Is activism through social media effective?

It depends what you mean by ‘effective’. It can demonstrably be an extremely powerful way of gathering people together in a particular place at a specific time. Furthermore, it can do so in a way which extends beyond existing networks, reducing the reliance of mobilisations on the more traditional forms of engagement such as stalls, leafletting and canvassing, seen most prominently during national elections. However there are important questions to be asked about whether this is necessarily a good thing. It might be easier to assemble people together but what do they once they are there? Can you keep them together after the initial assembly? The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has convincingly argued that networked protests don’t develop organisational capacities because of precisely this ease of assembly. They may be able to draw people out in large numbers but they’re ill-equipped for articulating demands or developing strategies, leaving them easily outmanoeuvred by more traditional political organisations. Social media offer powerful tools for movements but they also create problems.

Social media has been talked about a lot with regards to democracy after Trump’s win. Do you think there’s really any understanding of just how well social media can be used to campaign? It feels as though politicians may not have even scratched the surface, at least that we know of.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding social media and elections, much of which is indistinguishable from marketing material for the companies involved. Cambridge Analytica is the most prominent example of this, held up by some critics on the left as a terrifying exemplar of the coming digital authoritarianism in which elections are won by whoever can employ the most data scientists. Coincidentally, these claims about their influence match those made by the company itself, albeit without the critical spin. We need to be careful about blindly reproducing claims made concerning the role of social media in elections by companies whose raison d’etre is to help exploit social media data (alongside other sources) for electoral gain. Nonetheless, there clearly are changes underway. The role of technology in politics has never been static. There’s no reason to believe social media would be any less significant for electoral politics than radio and television were, as well as many reasons to suspect they might prove to be more so. It’s just important that we remain critical of the vested interests of those who are already playing this game.

Online harassment has not really been tackled and marginalised people are especially at risk (shown best perhaps by ‘Gamergate’). Is it a risk that social media is empowering the wrong voices and shutting down democratic debate?

It’s not so much that social media empowers the ‘wrong’ voices, as that the incentives for democratic debate aren’t there. Meaningful dialogue is a slow, difficult process which is particularly difficult when it takes place between those who lack trust in the good-will of those they are talking to. This would be difficult under the best of circumstances but it’s close to impossible within the environments of most social media platforms. For all the participatory rhetoric which surrounds them, the underlying economy is one of visibility and this is something accrued through generating a reaction. It might be that this reaction is praise for slowly and carefully seeking to understand the position of a person you are debating with. But it’s much more likely to be a witty quip that appeals to the lowest common denominator of potential viewers.

This is the problem on a micro-scale. Now what happens when millions of these interactions feed into each other over years? We have increasingly toxic cultures, driven by expectations of behaviour, within which harassment thrives. Only the most naive person could claim social media had created the hate we can see in so many corners of the internet. We live in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic world. But social media has created an environment in which this hate can be leveraged for visibility as far too many aggressively people compete to be seen to the exclusion of the dialogical and relational powers of these technologies. I’m not a pessimist about social media but I am increasingly a pessimist about people.

The important argument I took from Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies is that the ‘alt-right’ reflect transgression detaching from progressivism. The idea that an act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct is inherently progressive ceases to be tenable when progressive movements have institutionalised laws, rules and codes that serve progressive ends. Under these circumstances, transgressing against ‘political correctness’ or ‘cultural marxism’ can easily cast itself as authentic rebellion against received wisdom, with all this entails for its capacity to recruit.

There’s a passage in the forward to Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism which sheds light on how we got here. From xxvii:

The paradox is that “heterodoxy” itself has become conformist in liberal circles, and exercises that conformity under the banner of an antinomian flag. It is a prescription, in its confusions, for the dissolution of a shared moral order.

But that confused prescription was the progenitor of a new orthodoxy, something which Bell cautions is never “the guardian of an existent order, but is itself a judgement on the adequacy and moral character of beliefs”. The social victories of progressivism institutionalised a confusion about its character, perpetually valorising transgression even when the old orthodoxy it transgressed against had long since eroded. This is the aporia which the alt-right have (organically) exploited and perhaps why this strand of nascent right-populism has proved so baffling to orthodox liberals and leftists alike.

For a book of only 126 pages, Kill All Normies covers a remarkable amount of ground. Inevitably, the argument is underdeveloped at points and it perhaps offers less empirical detail about the alt-right than it promises, largely restricting its analysis to the study of (relatively) high profile cases and the inferences that can be made from them. But the underlying thesis is a provocative one, moving beyond the hyper-specificity of online culture and placing these politicised developments in an historical context.

Nagle’s argument is that the alt-right should be understood as an online politics of transgression, a cultural movement which has generated a political upheaval through a particular confluence of circumstances: internecine war with the ‘Tumblr left’, interaction with a more traditionally politicised far-right culture within online spaces and platform dynamics which have accelerated the development of this strange cultural mix. But at the root of it is an uncoupling of transgression from progressive politics. From pg 28:

Transgression has been embraced as a virtue within Western social liberalism ever since the 60s, typically applied today as it is in bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. So elevated has the virtue of transgression become in the criticism of art, argued Kieran Cashell, that contemporary art critics have been faced with a challenge: ‘either support transgression unconditionally or condemn the tendency and risk obsolescence amid suspicions of critical conservatism’ as the great art critic Robert Hughes often was. But, Cashell wrote, on the value placed upon transgression in contemporary art: ‘In the pursuit of the irrational, art has become negative, nasty and nihilistic.’ Literary critic Anthony Julius has also noted the resulting ‘unreflective contemporary endorsement of the transgressive’.

Those who claim that the new right-wing sensibility online today is just more of the same old right, undeserving of attention or differentiation, are wrong. Although it is constantly changing, in this important early stage of its appeal, its ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression and nonconformity tells us many things about the nature of its appeal and about the liberal establishment it defines itself against. It has more in common with the 1968 left’s slogan ‘It is forbidden to forbid!’ than it does with anything most recognize as part of any traditionalist right.

Her claim is that the association of transgression with the left has been predominately contingent, reflecting a past context in which new social movements organised against a broader culture which participants found stifling. We can see this in the “ease with which the broader alt-right and alt-light milieu can use transgressive styles” (pg 28) and the power incipient within the “new transgressive rightist sensibility” which has now begun to make itself felt politically (pg 33). While the transgressive sensibility strikes me as an inarguable feature of some of the cultural forms being subsumed under the category of ‘alt-right’, it is by no means true of all, though perhaps this points to the limitations of the category. There’s a straight-forward empirical question here but one tied in fascinating ways to a much broader array of emerging issues in political theory, political philosophy and progressive politics.

In an important essay earlier this year, Jan-Werner Müller identifies a dangerous tendency for leftist critics to take the claims of right-populist demagogues at face value. Suddenly vindicated in their struggle with the ‘third way’ that has dominated the centre-left, the claims of nascent populists to speak for a ‘left behind’ majority, created by the neoliberalism which has consumed mainstream social democratic parties, has imbued many leftists with a newfound self-confidence.

This risks simplifying events with a complex array of causes, like the vote for Brexit and Trump’s election, imputing them to the quasi-magical capacity of populists to speak directly to the people. In doing so, it hinders the detailed analysis of these events which we so urgently need: see for instance this important essay by Mike Davis which discusses the American conservative movement’s massive investment in political infrastructure across every state in the country.

However it also lends credence to the populist right, supporting claims of speaking for those left behind which belie the naked class hatred which some of these figures exhibited in the recent past. This is what Angela Nagle argues in her important book Kill All Normies. From pg 101:

Ann Coulter had long drawn upon the elite fear of the hysterical and easily led crowd. In her book Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America explaining how ‘the liberal mob is destroying America’ she drew upon Gustave LeBon, the misanthropists’ favorite theorist of the masses. Her writing on overbreeding, overcrowding swarms of immigrants is a direct continuation of this theme, which has been consistent in elite circles since the beginning of industrialized urbanized mass society, first applied to their multiplying native proletariat and later to new waves of immigrants. Before the ‘ordinary people’ narrative became suddenly ubiquitous on the new online right after the election results, Milo could be seen in photo shoots wearing a ‘Stop Being Poor’ T-shirt, a quote from the heiress Paris Hilton, one of his idols. After the election results he was giving talks about the white working class. The hard alt-right had also rejected the idea that the masses were their naturally traditionalist allies any longer, as the conservative establishment had typically believed. Instead, they had argued that the great mass of society had been tainted and indoctrinated by liberal feminist multiculturalism, and were close to beyond redemption. It was no longer ‘five minutes to midnight’ as the anti-immigration right had long claimed but well past midnight. While the Trumpians are busy quickly rewriting history, it is important to remember that behind the ‘populist’ president, the rhetoric of his young online far-right vanguard had long been characterized by an extreme subcultural snobbishness toward the masses and mass culture.

I wonder if Graham Turner’s distinction between the demotic and the democratic, made in the context of reality television, might be useful here. One could be said to involve foregrounding ‘the people’ as an imagined construct, the other involves empowering people as a social reality. The populist right is demotic, not democratic. This is what the leftist critique of mainstream social democracy, which I’m otherwise entirely in agreement with, risks obscuring.

This is a question which Zeynep Tufekci recalls in her Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, posed to a group of young Turkish activists about 140journos, a crowdsourced citizen journalism project which they started. As she writes on pg 37:

In Turkey, like much of the Mediterranean, there is a tradition of slow, conversational drinking that is the opposite of a loud, hurried bar scene. Such conversational drinking often leads to discussions of politics. The stereotype of these all-night drinking locales in Turkey is that everyone has a plan to “save the nation” after the first glass of raki, a strong aniseed-based drink that is considered the national liquor (it is nearly identical to ouzo, the Greek national drink). In a previous era, an all-night drinking and talking session on the sorry state of news and the extent of censorship might have ended merely in a hangover the next day. Even if it might have gone further—for example, the people might have decided to try to start a journal or a newspaper—a lot of work, resources, and luck would have been required. However, unlike citizens in a previous era for whom frustration with mass-media bias had engendered little more than sour feelings the next day or an uncertain, lengthy, journey, these young men—only four of them—immediately conceived 140journos, a crowdsourced, citizen journalism network on Twitter.

The low costs involved facilitate a particular culture of project work, comfortable with sometimes vague aspirations and working out the details on the fly. But while Tufekci’s interest in this concerns activism, I wonder about the effects in other spheres. What about higher education for instance? What Dave Beer describes as ‘punk sociology’ shares much of the mentality which Tufekci describes. 

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself using the term ‘playbook’ in a number of contexts. It’s typically defined as “a book containing a sports team’s strategies and plays, especially in American football” but I’m not quite sure where I picked up the phrase from as someone who hasn’t had much interest in sport for a long time. 

It’s been on my mind since reading Merchants of Doubt, an incisive historical exploration of a dangerous corporate tendency towards the deliberate cultivation of doubt in relation to pressing issues such as nuclear winter, acid rain, DDT and climate change. As I suggested in a post a couple of weeks ago, we can talk meaningfully of a ‘playbook for merchandising doubt’. In fact something akin to this was once explicitly published, as the authors of Merchants of Doubt summarise on pg 144-145:

Bad Science: A Resource Book was a how-to handbook for fact fighters. It contained over two hundred pages of snappy quotes and reprinted editorials, articles, and op-ed pieces that challenged the authority and integrity of science, building to a crescendo in the attack on the EPA’s work on secondhand smoke. It also included a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite. 42 Bad Science was a virtual self-help book for regulated industries, and it began with a set of emphatic sound-bite-sized “MESSAGES”:

1. Too often science is manipulated to fulfill a political agenda.

 2. Government agencies … betray the public trust by violating principles of good science in a desire to achieve a political goal. 

3. No agency is more guilty of adjusting science to support preconceived public policy prescriptions than the Environmental Protection Agency. 

4. Public policy decisions that are based on bad science impose enormous economic costs on all aspects of society. 

5. Like many studies before it, EPA’s recent report concerning environmental tobacco smoke allows political objectives to guide scientific research. 

6. Proposals that seek to improve indoor air quality by singling out tobacco smoke only enable bad science to become a poor excuse for enacting new laws and jeopardizing individual liberties.

Has anyone encountered comparable documents to this? The scale and organisation of doubt merchandising surely means they have been produced. But perhaps there’s a broader category to be explored here: the explicit articulation of surreptitious tactics

It highlights how coordination presupposes communication, suggesting that even the most duplicitous strategies of the powerful will tend to leave a paper trail. Where we see what appears to be organisation, even if the actors involved deny this, do we have reason to believe there may somewhere exist a ‘playbook’ or something akin to it? I would  tentatively define this as the formal articulation of a tactical repertoire that can be drawn upon in informal contests, even if the definition of these elements may be obscured behind a thick veneer of technocratic distance. By ‘informal contests’ I mean those where rules are not defined or a contest actually declared. The existence of a playbook reveals how advantages in organisational capacity might translate to a practical advantage in competition.

I’d be intrigued to know if these ruminations resonate with anyone, particularly those who might be able to furnish further examples 

It’s conventional wisdom that Corbyn’s leadership campaign was the target of brutal coverage by the media. I was interested to learn in The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, that this wasn’t quite how the campaign itself saw the situation. Understanding why can help elucidate the surprise that was #Election2017. From loc 4591-4556:

Ask some of Corbyn’s allies about the press coverage they received during the leadership contest and a surprising response comes back. “There are very few campaigns on the left that I’ve been involved in where we’ve had good press,” says Jon Lansman, “but this is one of them.” His definition of “good press” is unconventional, a variation on ‘all publicity is good publicity.’ Of course there was hostility, but the campaign managed to connect with its intended Labour audience in spite of it. “We always made the agenda. The others didn’t get a look in. We were the story throughout.” It was all about Corbyn. Because of the scale of interest, the campaign’s press officers found that along with the dross came greater opportunities to place their stories in the media than would normally be afforded to a left candidate. “The majority of things we tried to land landed, and in the ways we wanted them to land,” says James Mills, who was seconded to the press team from CWU. Whatever was being thrown at them, Team Corbyn pushed on with scheduled policy announcements, getting out a positive message that Mills believes cut through.

This dynamic within the print media played out in turn within the broadcast media. Not only were the campaign setting the agenda, with journalists responding in ever greater numbers to the issues they were raising, it led to increasing television coverage which highlighted the mismatch between the construction of Corbyn as a dangerous radical and the nice beardy chap who no one could really take much of a personal dislike to. From loc 4530:

Broadcast media followed a journalistic agenda that was still largely set by newspapers, despite the precipitous decline in their circulation. But broadcast had an inbuilt corrective missing from print—viewers and listeners could see and hear Corbyn for themselves. “They threw everything at Jeremy and it was so over the top that when he came on TV you expected him to be a combination of all sorts of villains,” says McDonnell. “When he came across as just a nice bloke answering questions honestly, that was it.”

This is something which the media themselves could be drawn into. As Phil BC insightfully pointed out some time ago, professional commentators are prone to confuse an absence of the presentational skills common amongst the political elite with a profound naïveté, as if Corbyn and McDonnell hadn’t spent their entire lives negotiating the political machine with some success from a position of marginality. As he asked in response to media astonishment at McDonnell’s apparent competence in his first speech at a Labour conference as Shadow Chancellor, “Were they really expecting him to commit Labour to a programme legislating for full communism?”

An escalating media campaign against Corbyn brought him endless ‘earned’ media, while offering an opportunity for the public to make up their own mind about the hyperbolic cliches in terms of which such media warfare was inevitably fought. If he got dragged into this, perhaps punching back against the onslaught, he likely would have been torn apart as self-defence would be cast as ‘gaffes’ and replayed endlessly. But by choosing to ignore media condemnation, in a way analogous to but different from Trump, it could be exploited for the benefit of the campaign. A similar effect was at work with denunciations from within the party. After Blair’s famous speech in which he attacked members drawn towards Corbyn as needing a heart transplant, the campaign saw an immediate influx of donations and volunteers.

I’d like to understand the mechanisms at work here: when do media attacks have their desired effect and when do they simply drive welcome coverage of a candidate? How does social media work to undermine the former and bring about he latter? One clear effect is that fighting back against this media onslaught can provide a way for followers to participate. There are legitimate issues which can be raised around ‘digital activism’ but I find it plausible that this social media activity helped the campaign consolidate, amplified its message and drew people into ‘offline’ participation. Though how, if at all, these effects worked to blunt media attacks is a more complex question. From loc 4530-4545:

Perhaps the most important factor explaining why the press onslaught backfired was the existence of social media. The old press no longer enjoyed a monopoly on having a voice. Through Facebook and Twitter ordinary people could critique and rebut journalists’ output directly. “Every time the mainstream media attacked Jeremy the social media shield would go up around him, bat it off, and get to the truth of the matter,” says Marshajane Thompson. Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 per cent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of the other candidates. 78 “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more,” believes Ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation run by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips).

There was an interesting finding before the election that there were more Labour tweeters who also tended to tweet more. There is a wide network, retweeting Labour candidates, with a larger and sustained focus on Corbyn than was the case with the Conservatives. Identifying what role this played in the general election will be central to understanding the rise of Corbyn. My suggestion is that the use of social media in the earlier leadership election would be a useful place to begin this inquiry.

How has social media contributed to the growing success of Corbynism? In asking this question, we risk falling into the trap of determinism by constructing ‘social media’ as an independent force bringing about effects in an otherwise unchanged world. This often goes hand-in-hand with what Nick Couldry calls ‘the myth of us’, framing social media in terms of the spontaneous sociality it allegedly liberates as previously isolated people are able to come together through the affordances of these platforms. It’s easy to see how one could slip into seeing digital Corbynism in these terms: the power of social media allowed ordinary labour members to come together and take their party back from the Blairite bureaucrats. Such a view would be profoundly misleading. But social media has been crucial to events of the last few years in the Labour party. The challenge is how we can analyse this influence without allowing ‘social media’ to take centre stage.

It’s useful to see these issue in terms of institutional changes within the Labour party. Membership had declined from 405,000 in 1997 to 156,000 in 2009. The election of Ed Miliband in 2010, with his union-backing and soft-left presentation, led to a surge of 46,000 new members. This stabilised throughout the parliament, with continued new members replacing those who left or lapsed, before another small surge took membership past 200,000 in the run up to the 2015 election (loc 377). The fact this influx of new members took place while social media was on the ascendancy in the UK implies no relationship between the two trends. But it’s interesting to note that substantial numbers of new (or returning) members were coming into the party at precisely the moment when new tools and techniques for interacting with each other and with the party itself were coming to be available.

It is convenient for some to blame social media for how events unfolded. We see this view reflected in the complaints of some on the Labour right that the nomination for Corbyn in the first place represented MPs crumbled under an orchestrated social media onslaught. However as Nunns ably documents, we can see a clear political calculus at work in many cases, with many feeling the need to keep the left onside, within their constituencies and beyond. In some cases, he speculates, such pressure provided an excuse to act on pre-existing concerns. There can be a cynical aspect to attributing causal power to social media, deflecting the assertion of incoming members and refusing to engage with developing trends that might threaten one’s political self-interest.

However what fascinates me is those for whom these events were inexplicable. In a way, it is a flip side of attributing power to social media, even if there might also be a cynical aspect to such a judgement. We account for events we don’t understanding by blaming a mysterious new element (‘social media’) which interrupted something that was previously harmonious. If these events are seen as inexplicable, what does it say about the person making the judgement? As Nunns observes, it was the subterranean nature of Corbyn’s early campaign which allowed later mass rallies and mass actions to appear as if they were the work of some malign outside agency. The processes through which he gathered support were largely invisible to party insiders and this rendered the eventual outcomes close to inexplicable.

Hence the preponderance of bewildered lashing out, vacuous psychologising and conspiratorial theorising about a planned influx of far-left activists. These tendencies are more pronounced when the activity in question is disorganised. As Corbyn’s press spokesperson described the leadership campaign, this central organisation which sought to direct national activity was often “at the reins of a runaway horse”. To a certain extent these incoming groups were disorganised, sometimes acting in ways which reflected that, striking fear in the heart of some MPs familiar with limited contact with ‘the public’ under strictly defined conditions. These ‘normal people’ might prove baffling to career politicians:

We can see a positive myth of us and a negative myth of us, defined by a shared belief that social media has facilitated a transformation of the Labour party. Where they differ is in whether that involves authentic members taking their party back or outside agitators invading the party with malign intent. If we want to understand the role of social media in bringing about Corbyn’s ascent, we need to reject both and look more deeply into how the new tools and techniques they offered were just one amongst many factors in bringing about a profound transformation in British politics.

Well over a decade ago, I was due to start a PhD in Political Philosophy looking at ideas of the individual within liberal thought. There are many reasons why I ultimately moved into a Sociology department instead, though my lack of regrets about this choice hasn’t stopped me occasionally wondering what might this thesis might have looked like. It occurred this morning when reading a collection of Bourdieu’s political writings (Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action) that one likely outcome would have been a subsequent study on liberalism’s difficulty with collectives. As Bourdieu writes, reproduced on pg 58:

Liberal philosophy identifies political action with solitary action, even silent and secret action, its paradigm being the vote ‘acquired’ by a party in the secret of the polling booth. In this way, by reducing group to series, the mobilised opinion of an organised or solidaristic collective is reduced to a statical aggregation of individually expressed opinions.

The difficulty posed by collectives concerns the empirical refutation of this often unstated principle. Actually existing collectives, with all their emergent mess, make it difficult to reduce group to series by methodological slight of hand. The noise and assertion which characterise them challenge us to treat them as collectives. But the broader edifice of liberal thought is dependent on melting collectives into aggregates:

Political action is thus reduced to a kind of economic action. The logic of the market or of the vote, in other words, the aggregation of individual strategies, imposes itself each time that groups are reduced to the state of aggregates – or, if you prefer, demobilised. When, in effect, a group is reduced to impotence (or to individual strategies of subversion, sabotage, wastefulness, go-slows, isolated protest, absenteeism, etc.), because it lacks power over itself, the common problem of each of its members remains in a state of unease and cannot be expressed as a political problem.

How should we conceive of the relationship between individuals and collectives? Much of what I’ve done in the last ten years is ultimately motivated by this question. This paper last year explored the biographical constitution of social movements under digital capitalism, arguing that ‘distracted people’ have much more inconsistent trajectories of participation, with implications for the emergent characteristics of social movements themselves:

Social movements often make an important contribution to the normative order within social life but how are their dynamics changing under conditions of social morphogenesis? It is clear that the emergence and normalisation of social media entail affordances for mobilisation that have important implications for social movements. However there is little agreement upon precisely what these implications are and whether they can or should be evaluated in general terms. This chapters takes a novel approach to this question, exploring the technological dimensions of social morphogenesis and their consequences for the ‘distracted people’ who comprise social movements. Using the relational realist theory developed by Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, I offer a novel account of the constitution of social movements that invites us to ask questions about the emergence and durability of new movements that are obscured by alternative theoretical approaches which fail to recognise both the emergent and relational constitution of collectives.

At some point I’d also like to pursue these issues at the level of cultural representation. For instance in the representation of mindless hoards posing a threat to the liberal order:

The relation between individuals and collectives plays out at many levels. My concern is to reclaim it as a meta-categorical feature of discourse, such that the connections between these different levels can be explored. I’m still rather far away from doing this, but at least the ambition is relatively clear to me now.

In an early essay on post-war Algeria, Pierre Bourdieu reflected on the existential experience of the urban sub-proletariat and its political significance. This is reproduced on pg 16 of Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action:

Habituation to prolonged unemployment and the most casual and poorly paid work, along with the lack of any regular employment, prevent the development of a coherent organisation either now or in future of a system of expectations towards which all activity and existence can be orientated. For want of possessing this minimum grasp on the present that is the precondition for a deliberate and rational effort to grasp the future, all these people are prey to incoherent resentment, rather than inspired by a genuine revolutionary consciousness; the lack of work, or its instability, go together with the absence of perspective on hopes and opinions, the absence of a system of rational projects and forecasts of which the will to revolution is an aspect. Enclosed in a condition marked by insecurity and incoherence, their own vision is generally itself uncertain and incoherent.

I’m immediately struck by the parallel between the experience he describes and what I write about as distraction in digital capitalism. As he puts it on pg 17, “Everyday life is experienced as the result of a kind of systematic plan dreamed up by a malign will”. People become objects to which things happen. Life becomes episodic, lacking in continuity. What narrative unity people experience is one of frustration, recurrent attempts to exercise agency being denied by forces that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. The tempo of life undermines the capacity to gain purchase upon the conditions of existence, impeding any capacity to reliably pursue a change in them, let alone overcome the obstacles inevitably encountered in such a pursuit. From pg 17:

With steady work and a regular age, with the appearance of real perspectives of social advance, an open and rational awareness of temporality can develop. At that point, the contradictions between over-ambitious expectation  and available possibilities, between opinions offered on an imaginary level and real attitudes, disappear. Action, judgements and aspirations arrange themselves as a function of a plan of life. it is then, and then only, that the revolutionary attitude takes the place of escape into dreams, fatalist resignation, or a raging resentment.

Could anyone recommend material I could read which explores this issue in greater depth? I’m immediately struck by how Archerian this Bourdieu seems. Or perhaps how much Archer was influenced by the Bourdieu of this period. But my broader interest is in how “disintegration and disarray supply a favourable soil for ideologies of passion, and possibly retrograde ones” (pg 19). How can distracted people be mobilised?

What I take Bourdieu to be saying is that collective action, if it is to be sustainable, necessitates a grounding in a degree of regularity within everyday life. The existential conditions of individual life, in a way shaped by but irreducible to the material conditions, provide a basis upon which different forms of collective action become more or less feasible.

In his Uberworked and Underpaid, Trebor Scholz draws out an important parallel between the platform capitalism of YouTube and the near universally praised Wikipedia:

Unsurprisingly, YouTube hires countless consultants to better understand how to trigger the participation of the crowd. They wonder how they can get unpaid producers to create value. But equally, on the not-for-profit site, Wikipedia is asking how they can draw in more female editors, for instance.

Both involve an orientation to their users which sees them as objects of management, even if we might see the ends to which they are being managed in very different terms. This makes a lie of what Nick Couldry describes as the ‘myth of us’: the imaginary of platform capitalism which sees it as facilitating the free expression of natural sociability which older socio-technical systems had constrained

This is interesting. I’m instinctively sceptical of it for a number of reasons but I’m very interested to see how it unfolds:

Meetup has always served as an organizing platform for a wide range of political views, welcoming everyone from the Howard Deaniacs to the Tea Party. Meetup will always welcome people with different beliefs.

But after the recent executive order aimed to block people on the
basis of nationality and religion, a line was crossed. At a time when core democratic ideals feel under attack, we feel a duty to spark more civic participation.

Last week, we created 1,000+ #Resist Meetup Groups to act as local hubs for actions on behalf of democracy, equality, human rights, social justice, and sustainability. Already 50,000+ people have joined.

These #Resist Meetups are open to anyone who want to create a bright future that’s rich with opportunity and freedom for all.

Meetup exists to connect people so they create opportunity and make the world they want. We hope members take these Meetups forward to be powerful together.

From Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, loc 685-704:

“Users happily do for free what companies would otherwise have to pay employees to do,” says former Wired editor turned drone manufacturer, Chris Anderson. It’s a capitalist’s dream come true. “It’s not outsourcing, it’s crowdsourcing. Collectively, customers have virtually unlimited time and energy; only peer production has the capacity to extend as far as the Long Tail can go.” 10 Following a decade-old trend, crowdwork is globally dispersed. The crowd is no longer understood as riotous; it does not have to be feared because globally distributed individuals are avaricious, selfish, and for the very most part isolated from each other. According to Anderson, as long as people are submitting themselves, they must not find it objectionable. What is missing from this analysis is that, systemically, there is no choice for these workers.

This excellent essay by Jan-Werner Müller in the London Review of Books raises an important issue about the forms of political mobilisation facilitated by social media: 

Trump has called himself the Hemingway of the 140 characters. He has ‘the best words’. He loves Twitter, he says, because it’s like having one’s own newspaper, but without the losses. Twitter shares something of the echo-chamber effect of Facebook, but it also makes possible a form of direct identification between the individual citizen and the supposedly sole authentic representative of the people. It is hard to see how this might have been possible before, at least as a matter of daily experience: perhaps going to a party rally and feeling a direct connection with the leader while surrounded by others who feel exactly the same thing. Now, that sense of a direct link is just a click away, day and night: ‘Hey, I’m up at 3 a.m., and so is he, and he’s thinking exactly what I was just thinking!’

This is an illusion, but it is a powerful one. Media-savvy politicians can exploit it in unprecedented ways. For instance, in Italy the anti-establishment Five Star movement emerged from Beppe Grillo’s blog. ‘Hey folks, it works like this: you tell me what’s going on and I will play the amplifier,’ he’d written to his followers. Grillo had been a well-known comedian before entering politics. He has never merely amplified the concerns of ordinary people; the way il popolo speaks is decisively shaped by his leadership even though he has no official position of authority. Trump of course had also been a TV star, someone partly famous for being famous. But the peculiarity of Trump is that he seems the equivalent of Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi merged into one person. Whenever he was accused during the campaign of being just an entertainer, he could point to his competence as a businessman; whenever it was pointed out that his ventures mostly went bankrupt, he could respond that he was primarily a media star.

What forms of political organisation emerge from such a dynamic? Fleeting and fragile ones, predicated on imagined links with the leader rather than relational bonds between the followers. This gives reason to be hopeful but it also creates dangerous incentives for the leader, inviting them to escalate their rhetoric in order to mobilise a base over whom, at least as a collective, their hold remains unreliable. The problem is, as he puts it later in the essay, “The supply of enemies is inexhaustible.”

This is why it’s so important to refuse the story such populists tell about their own success. They ascribe an outcome with complex origins to their own quasi-magical powers to connect with ‘the people’:

Liberals have been wringing their hands at their seeming inability to reach citizens with ‘fact-checks’ and incontrovertible demonstrations of Trump’s continual self-contradictions. It’s curious that in their despair they have resurrected some of the clichés of 19th-century mass psychology. While disputing virtually every claim made by populists – especially their supposedly simplistic policy solutions – they buy without question the story that populists sell about their own successes. When Arron Banks proclaims that ‘Facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally,’ they just nod. But it isn’t true that ‘the masses’ are emotional basket-cases ready to be seduced by a charismatic demagogue. For a start, the neat distinction between reason and emotion is misleading. People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives. Trump gained some trust as an outsider and, even more, as a credible exemplar of what it means to be unprofessional in politics. Some trusted him because he told it like it is; but in other cases the trust came first, and led them to believe that he was telling them the real story. 

Reading this section in Brad Stone’s The Upstarts, it occurred to me this faith* displayed by the airbnb founders is an interesting example of what Nick Couldry describes as ‘the myth of us’. From loc 2171:

EJ had also raised fundamental questions about the safety of users on its site and Airbnb’s role as an arbiter between hosts and guests. Until that incident, Chesky had subscribed to the purist’s view of online marketplaces: Users were supposed to police one another by rating their experiences. Untrustworthy actors would be drummed off the platform by bad reviews, rejected by the web’s natural immune system. It was a libertarian view of the internet and had the whiff of Silicon Valley snake oil. The prospect of a negative review is of little use after a serious breach of etiquette —or a criminal act. But because of their shared faith in the power of self-policing marketplaces, Chesky and his colleagues hadn’t made serious investments in customer service or customer safety. The fact that Blecharczyk, as well as the company’s controller, Stanley Kong, had been put in charge of customer service at a company now with over 130 employees while the other founders looked for an executive to run the department was telling. “We viewed ourselves as a product and technology company, and customer support didn’t feel like product and tech,” Chesky says.

It is of course particularly easy to have faith in something when it’s making you a lot of money.