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The Politics of Trolling

Back in the mid-90s, when the Internet was first taking off, spurred by AOL’s making the web available to the masses, it was easy to become a cyber-utopian. Manuel Castells, a Spanish sociologist, became one of its prophets. In books like the 2001 “The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society”, Castells recognized its drawbacks—particularly its being materialized by money-driven entrepreneurs—but ultimately could “unleash the power of the mind” and allow individuals to achieve “greater spiritual depth and more environmental consciousness.”

Just three years after Castells wrote this book, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. And then, two years later, Twitter joined Facebook in constituting what we call “social media”. Other services such as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat were added to the toolbox, allowing anybody with a smartphone to spend all day long on the net and eventually addicted.

It did not take long for social and technology critics to become cyber-dystopians. They not only opposed the profit-seeking designs of Mark Zuckerberg and company but the atomization and sadism social media fosters. Among them is Evgeny Morozov, the author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” a 2011 book that Amazon describes as showing why the “cyber-utopian stance that the Internet is inherently liberating is wrong.”

Another is Jaron Lanier, the founder of virtual reality technology who wrote “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” in 2018. Meanwhile, Zeynep Tufekci, a monthly contributor to the NY Times op-ed page and former moderator of the Marxism mailing list that preceded my own, has been one of social media’s sharpest critics. In a June 4, 2015 article titled “Mark Zuckerberg, Let Me Pay for Facebook”, she argues: “Many users think their feed shows everything that their friends post. It doesn’t. Facebook runs its billion-plus users’ newsfeed by a proprietary, ever-changing algorithm that decides what we see.”

I hadn’t been paying much attention to these critiques but finally weighed in after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s October 4, 2010 New Yorker Magazine article titled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” Gladwell drew a contrast between the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s and more recent protests that rely heavily on social media. My blog post stated, “I doubt that most people using Facebook or Twitter to publicize one struggle or another view these products as a substitute for traditional organizing. Gladwell does not get why they are resorting to such technologies. As A.J. Liebling once said, freedom of the press belongs to those who can buy one. In an age of growing corporate control and monopolization, the Internet provides an alternative to the ruling class’s political agenda.”

Until reading Richard Seymour’s “The Twittering Machine”, my views on social media were narrowly focused on their utility to revolutionaries. I really hadn’t thought much about their impact on the ordinary citizen who has likely never read Karl Marx or any other serious written material. As Richard aptly points out, they do their reading through a smartphone rather than books or magazines. And, if they bother to read anything online, it is only to trawl for some tidbit that they can “share” with their FB friends or Twitter followers in the hope of being validated through a “like”.

“The Twittering Machine” is a book that not only gets to the heart of social media’s deficits but is a joy to read. Richard Seymour is an erudite public intellectual with a Ph.D. to match. He writes books that can be appreciated by Marxist malcontents like myself but the ordinary person whose addiction to a smartphone and social media might be overcome through reading such a book. Dedicated “to the Luddites”, “The Twittering Machine” begins with an author’s note that I urge others on the left to emulate. It would help us reach a broader audience for our ideas: “In writing this book, I set out to avoid burdening it with references and scholarship. I want it to be read as an essay, rather than as a polemic or an academic work.” He succeeds admirably.

The book’s title is a reference to a 1922 painting by Paul Klee in which connects a group of nightmarish birds to a hand-crank that lures people into a pit. This painting is a perfect metaphor for Twitter, a medium I only use to cross-post my blog articles. Generally, it takes me about 1,500 words to warm up to a topic, so the idea of saying anything in 140 characters strikes me as ludicrous. From the brief time I’ve spent there, I understand why it is the preferred domain of Donald Trump, Roseann Barr and Aston Kutcher. The idea of anybody spending hours at a time reading and posting to Twitter over a smartphone (I use a flip-phone myself) strikes me as indicative of bourgeois society in decay.

Serving as Virgil to escort us on a slog through the inferno of social media, Richard’s prose convinced me that Dante’s underworld was not nearly as hellish. In chapter two titled “We are All Addicts,” we learn how social media can be as bad for you as crack cocaine. He refers to “internet addiction,” which became a widely discussed problem in the 90s. Kimberly Young, a psychologist and founder of the Center for Internet Addiction, saw similarities between the people who bet their house on a football game and those who bet their lives on a blinking screen. Neither involved a physical drug, yet both showed addictive patterns.

This observation was borne out for me when I wrote about Facebook’s exploitation of people with a gambling addict that cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. They both bet their house and stared at a blinking screen on the road to ruin. A middle-aged woman named Suzie Kelly became addicted to Big Fish Casino, a suite of Las Vegas type games on Facebook that—believe it or not—were never intended to pay cash to winners. Instead, playing blackjack was supposed to be “fun”. You paid into the game with real money but never got anything back except credits to play again. This was like the pinball games I used to play for five cents back in the fifties. When you ran out of credits, you had to pony up some more cash. In her case, this cost Kelly more than $400,000 over the years.

In addition to functioning as a virtual opium den, social media has a knack for turning its young users into sadists that make the kids in “Lord of the Flies” look angelic. In the chapter titled “We Are All Trolls”, Richard begins with the story of Natasha MacBryde, who in 2011 was driven to despair by schoolmates who posted anonymous messages about her on a social networking site. Fed up with the abuse, she stood on a railroad track and waited for the next train. The next day, they discovered her mangled body 500 feet from her home. This was just the beginning of a hellish journey for the rest of the MacBrydes. When her brother set up a tribute page for her on Facebook, it was trolled with such messages: “I fell asleep on the track lolz, “I caught the train to heaven lol” and “Train late and bloody. My bad”.

Such stories fill the entire chapter. After reading it, I posted a query on Facebook:

Something I find puzzling in Richard Seymour’s “The Twittering Machine”. In the chapter on trolling, he describes a number of suicides as the result of people being tormented on social media. Why would anybody put up with a troll in the first place? Are such people masochists?

One reply was so perceptive that it deserves repeating:

Same reasons (and there are many) anyone tolerates any form of disruptive and / or abusive behavior. And the people who end their lives over such torment typically get bombarded. If people have PTSD, for example, that can complicate their ability to recognize and / or cope with abuse, especially if it’s a bombardment.

And there are also the many ways trolls show up–Many pretend to be supportive or allies and use the context and strike out which also confuses the recipient of such behavior.

And there are people who are so deprived of human company (a growing dynamic of this society), that they actually believe this is something they can work out in a conversation online, believing that it’s better to “fix” things than walk away—”Maybe these people mean well.”

And the social media commodification phenomenon means people “invest” in generating attention, for income. Capitalism always makes it harder to see the real world’s abuses.

I am very far removed from the social milieu that uses (or abuses) social media in this way. My only purpose is to connect with other people on the left. My chief complaint with social media is that it is an obstacle to the kind of serious exchange of ideas that I am used to through the Marxism list or on my blog. Tracking down a post from a previous week or month becomes an exercise in futility. Also, unlike mailing lists, you do not see the characteristic automatic “>’ when you are replying to someone’s post or comment. You have to manually copy and paste the relevant text for others to get an idea of what you are replying to. And most importantly, the scope of FB friends or Twitter followers is so wide and scattered that you often have to remind some 911 Truther or Assadist (views often held in common) that he or she sent a friend request to the wrong person.

In the chapter titled “We Are All Dying”, Richard’s techno-dystopianism reaches the lowest depths. This time he opens with a ghastly social media-bred homicide rather than suicide. We learn about Darren Osborne, a man from Wales who decided to kill Muslims at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London on June 19, 2017 by mowing them down with a rented van. Fortunately, there was only one casualty. Friends, family and neighbors had no idea why he would do such a thing, with one neighbor commenting that he was a “complete cunt” but never a racist. His sister said that he couldn’t even tell you who the Prime Minister was.

It seems that Osborne happened upon the social media produced by Tommy Robinson, the notorious far-right activist, and Britain First. He chugged away at it like it was an antidepressant. From a prior existence as an alcoholic and unemployed loser, he found himself deluded into thinking that a homicidal act would gain him the celebrity sought by so many alienated souls on social media. Richard sums up this deadly farce in his customarily erudite and incisive fashion:

The psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni once remarked on the surprising numbers of Europeans who, having never been to the colonies or seen a colonial subject, dreamed of them. The same could be said of many Britons who had encountered Islam only as a manifestation of their own unconscious. The propaganda of Twitter Nazis and YouTube fascists tuned into this dreamwork and turned the volume up by several orders of magnitude. Tellingly, on the day after the murder outside Finsbury Park Mosque, Tommy Robinson took advantage of an ITV platform to say that the Quran was an incitement to violence. For Robinson, having never demonstrated any expertise on the Quran, this too was dreamwork.

As highly as I value “The Twittering Machine” and urge CounterPunchers to read it, I do have one cavil. I find Richard just a bit too pessimistic about the possibilities of social media. Despite the wide gap between Richard’s Marxism and Malcolm Gladwell’s shitty liberalism, they both devalue the role of social media in the Arab Spring.

For the activists of 2011, it seemed that all you needed was to set up an event-on Facebook, share it across the platforms, hashtag meme it and wait: build it, and they will come. Those who fetishized social media underestimated “the fragility of any organization so cheaply had”. The reduced costs of organizing also reduced the costs of quitting – as well as the costs of infiltration and disruption. The fate of the “Arab Spring” would soon demonstrate just how exceedingly difficult it is to achieve lasting social and political change, even with much more sustained organization behind it.

I would argue that Assad and other dictators made it impossible to have a sustained organization beyond social media. Having seen at least a half-dozen documentaries on Syria since 2011, it became clear to me that the “civil society” needed to build something like a broad political front such as the ANC or the July 26th Movement was virtually impossible. The militarization of the revolutionary movement left it susceptible to influence from the reactionary Sunni states that could supply arms. While opposing Assad, they opposed a democratic, secular and egalitarian Syria even more. Those young people with their smartphones were either murdered or driven into exile, leaving the battle to hardened men capable of nothing more than providing a feeble defense for cities under siege and barrel-bombed on a daily basis.

Over the past five years or so, I have become FB friends with at least 300 people in Syria, many of whom are in Idlib now, including a law student from Aleppo. In the next wave of resistance to tyranny in the Middle East, many of these young people will be looking for a socialist alternative to sectarianism and oligarchic rule. If there were some other way to connect with them other than through Facebook, I’d use it. Until something better comes along, I’ll stay with it for the sake of the world revolution.

More articles by:

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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