Science & Tech

Social Media Have Been Captured by Elitists, Demagogues, and Mobs

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
How the dream of digital equality became a nightmare

As has become increasingly evident in recent years, the utopian hope of early Internet proponents has, like that of starry-eyed enthusiasts of similar projects, sometimes led to surprising reversals in reality. One of the claims of early Internet culture is that the World Wide Web would help connect diverse communities and lead to a more democratic culture. Social media have in some ways fulfilled that promise. Everyone can have a platform now, accessible to people across the world. The user-friendly format of modern social networks is a lot more accessible than HTML coding. Varieties of online simulacra of communities have proliferated.

However, the growth of social-media platforms has also led to the creation of a few centralized nodes. A relatively small number of players (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.) have gained immense power in determining which voices can be heard through community standards and ever-shifting (and opaque) algorithms. Social-media companies have built attractive “walled gardens” and pretend that such manicured zones can be the public square as a whole.

In recent months, that pretension to universality has become less and less plausible. In part in response to the ongoing populist disruption, social-media companies have taken a much more aggressive approach in de-platforming users. That such community standards are not equally enforced across the ideological spectrum only increases the quasi-editorial power of these platforms. The power of these community standards can be seen in the fact that a fair amount of political energy is expended on battles over who can even have a voice on the platforms in the first place. The flamewars that used to happen on discussion boards and blogs across the Internet have now been funneled to a few places, which gives the moderators of such locations increasing power. Now the purported digital public square increasingly resembles a first-grade classroom, echoing with shrill volleys of “I’m telling!” (That some media corporations have led various efforts to de-platform rogue media outlets is another sign of how the currently entrenched power elite can use the digital landscape to protect its own power.)

Of course, social-media scalp-hunting does not confine itself to de-platforming; it often involves targeting people IRL. Because much of the media class spends an inordinate amount of time on Twitter and because this class is particularly attuned to peer-group signaling, it has become a major battleground for those who control (or seek to control) the commanding heights of culture. To follow media Twitter is to see a real-time negotiation of the bounds of public debate, which will be later reinforced by news coverage, cultural criticism, editorials, and so forth.

The social-media sphere is an arena for occasional blood sport. Publications are denounced, and careers are torpedoed. Critics of social-media anathemas sometimes refer to the “Twitter mob,” and there can be an element of the mob mentality. However, these media campaigns are often not bottom-up affairs. Instead, social-media pressure campaigns are often harnessed by people who already have significant platforms, in order to argue for a given cause. Key influencers pick out targets for their followers to assail, share posts attacking the hate-object du jour, and collaborate with one another to magnify a given message.

For instance, when Steve Bannon was disinvited from the annual New Yorker festival earlier this year, marquee celebrities and top-tier writers led the call for his de-platforming. So, when New Yorker editor David Remnick ended up rescinding Bannon’s invitation, he was less bowing to the online masses and more going along with a faction of media elites who opposed giving a public forum to Bannon. (Some of this faction seems to have included staffers at the New Yorker itself.)

At times, social-media outcries can be more a pretense than a cause of a firing. Megyn Kelly’s NBC show was canceled after she made some controversial comments, but there are many reasons to attribute that outcome to longstanding issues. For months, Kelly’s show was bedeviled by stories about disappointment with her ratings, and reading between the lines of much news coverage suggests that she had some foes within NBC itself. The backlash after Kelly’s comments (some of which was fed by her colleagues at the network) provided a convenient excuse for her removal, but there’s some evidence that it was not the cause of it.

That’s not to say that Internet culture in 2018 is purely a top-down affair. Organic, bottom-up campaigns still do happen. There’s also a case to be made that current social-media dynamics increase the power of the middle ranks of the media class; they foster a class consciousness among writers and enable mid-level editors to cross institutional lines. The public negotiation of reputations might also help spur on ideological conformity across institutions (as the sweeping pace of the “Great Awokening” indicates); even if social media may give the mid ranks of the media class a vehicle to object to the imperatives of top-line editors, the burdens of peer self-policing can weigh heavily indeed.

Moreover, those at the highest rungs of media institutions know that the peer scrutiny they receive will no longer just be muttered over drinks at the bar. Instead, it will be broadcast over the Internet in second-by-second increments. The fear of social-media embarrassment can cause major institutions to terminate a person for a single infraction. (On the other hand, the willingness of organizations to terminate an employee before any boycott has taken effect might be a sign that such organizations are less worried about the behavior of consumers and more about the opinions of their peers.)

In any case, at least some online battles can be read not as the “people” asserting themselves but instead as members of the entrenched elite using the invocations of “the people” to target some of their rivals within this elite or those who dare to aspire to the corridors of power. Roman history offers many examples of the mighty using demagoguery to rouse mobs for their own purposes. The novus ordo of Silicon Valley may end up not escaping history (as many utopians fantasize) but, instead, repeating it in a digital mode.


The Latest