The claim that social media is a neutral platform for the amplification of free speech does not hold up to scrutiny.
Does it matter that Mark Zuckerberg dines with far-right politicians and activists, or that he genuinely seems to believe their websites are trustworthy fact-checkers? Does it matter that Jack Dorsey personally overrules Twitter bans on white supremacists but allows Donald Trump to ignore the acceptable use rules that the rest of us must obey?
Yes and no. Yes, it matters because the political preferences and blind spots of social media C.E.O.s influence their businesses. And no, because leaders’ opinions matter less than how right-favoring ideas, incentives and ways of organizing are baked into social media’s business models in ways those executives don’t even seem fully aware of.
We know that Facebook’s Washington D.C. lobby-shop and electoral integrity work is dominated by Republican party operatives and members, and we know Twitter prefers to give Nazi sympathizers a blue check mark rather than the boot. Google funds climate change deniers and YouTube is a right-wing radicalization engine. There is no shortage of evidence that America’s West Coast tech unicorns qualify as liberal only on a narrow range of identity issues. They’ll stand up for LGBTQ rights, but they’ll come down hard on any union activism among their own employees.
Less obvious is the fact that social media itself is structurally right-wing. Not because its CEOs are tech-bro libertarians or even because of their suspiciously agile pivot to Trump, but because social media affords advantages to the ideas, feelings and organizing principles of the hard-right. Oh, and also because of the money.
First, some heavy lifting. Social media as we currently organize it is trivially easy to weaponize in ways that favour autocracy and damage democracy. Political scientist Henry Farrell* and information security expert Bruce Schneier recently explained why democracies are so easily harmed by disinformation attacks while autocracies are actually strengthened by them. It’s because democracies and autocracies rely on people having two different kinds of shared knowledge; and social media disinformation disrupts one and favours the other.
In an autocracy, you know who’s in charge and what they want, but you’re not sure who the different political movers in society are, how much power they have and who you could form a coalition with. Certainly, political conflict occurs in societies that are dominated by the power vertical, but mostly off-stage or in ways only insiders can interpret. That’s why we still use the term ‘Kremlinology’ to describe the study of subtle public signs of largely secret power struggles. In an autocracy, shared knowledge about other people’s political views is low. This makes it risky and difficult to organize an opposition. In 2010, democracy activists in Tunisia had very little idea how many other people felt the same and were prepared to rise up against the regime until Mohamed Bouazizi, that fateful vegetable seller, set himself on fire and triggered the entire Arab Spring. Social media did help those protests to go viral — though its role has been exaggerated — but autocratic rulers learned quickly how to turn social media against citizens.
The main tactic autocrats use is “flooding,” sending huge numbers of often contradictory political messages via automated social media accounts to drown out discourse and make it impossible to figure out who’s friend, who’s foe, or who’s even a human. The Chinese government strategically uses social media flooding both as a censorship tool — “who knows what’s really true?” — and to distract and divide people, weakening them as a political force. Autocracies are strengthened by divisions that prevent people coming together as a political force. The tactics autocrats use at home can quickly become part of their strategy abroad. Russia is known to have used flooding to undermine shared belief in the validity of electoral politics in Ukraine and also in the U.S., U.K., France, and Germany. Social media makes flooding cheap and successful because increasing the quantity of noise degrades the quality of discourse. It might even make it impossible to sustain. When a tactic becomes a strategy, things can change, sometimes very quickly.
An aside: I recently heard a well-connected U.K. conservative saying something I’ve heard from at least a dozen people in powerful positions: “Social media doesn’t do anything new. It just lets people express themselves, for good and for ill.” Wrong. Different technologies — embedded in different business models — have different affordances. They encourage certain kinds of behavior, ways to make money and means to concentrate power. Those who benefit from these affordances seem to be almost unaware of the advantages thus bestowed, as though they’re used to playing the game of life on “easy.” The same person later regretfully confided that yes, it was dreadful their own party was going to fight an election campaign that would pit parliament against “the people,” but no, there was nothing to be done about it. Nothing at all.
Farrell and Schneier’s article explains that democracy is so vulnerable because flooding destroys precisely the kind of information democracy depends on. In a stable democracy we disagree about who should be in charge, but we share — and depend on — common knowledge about who the political actors are, how much support they have and how we can form coalitions. That shared knowledge allows us to have a functioning political opposition. We also share the knowledge that our electoral systems are basically fair, that outcomes approximate what enough people really feel, and that if we lose this year’s election we still have a good chance of winning the next one. If that knowledge goes away, then the institutions that depend on it can, too.
All very interesting, you might say, but this shows that social media helps autocrats, and autocracy can be of the left, too, at least in its self-justifying propaganda. What is peculiar to how social media helps right-wing autocracy?
Social media is structurally disposed to weaken our real-life horizontal ties with one other, to poison our ability even to imagine a social contract, to disrupt our drive to discover shared interests and shape them into collective political action. Social media is great for democracy only if you think democracy is a an exercise in ticking all the boxes for crowning a strongman. I say social media is inherently right-wing because it is structurally predisposed to making social democracy impossible.
Social democracy depends on the ability to form rolling coalitions of different groups around broadly shared goals. If I’m the middle-class parent of a disabled child, I can make common cause with an unemployed miner hundreds of miles away. We both want the state to be a social safety net for when life throws us a curveball. We don’t want all the same things, but we agree on enough to vote for or even belong to the same political party. And it’s not purely transactional. In our kinder moments, we feel solidarity, even though we are in different places and belong to different social classes. But what happens if I start seeing that ex-miner as an enemy, and vice versa? If our tribal identities have become so narrow and hardened that we no longer feel we’re on the same side? Hell, that we no longer even live the same world? If the broad-based coalitions that built social democracy can no longer recognize each other as allies, then it’s devil take the hindmost in a world of an unchecked and punitive state. Goodbye fraternity, hello Koch brothers.
Social media is the ideal medium and amplifier for the actively divisive and zero-sum politics of the hard, populist right. It disadvantages any politics based on compromise, on solidarity, on a forgivingly broad concept of who ‘the people’ are. Social media’s methods structurally favour Duterte, Trump, Orban et al the way tennis disinterestedly favours athletes with long arms.
Facebook and Google act as advertising consolidators, collecting vast amounts of personal data on users and renting that data and access to their users to advertisers. So the more you use their services, the more data they can gather and ads they can sell. This is called adtech, and it is social media’s chosen business model. The official version regarding the unique selling point (USP) of adtech is that social media firms can target ads to us more closely because they know so much about us. The private, and more accurate, USP to advertisers is that they have finely segmented the markets we inhabit in order to identify the tiniest possible groups for advertisers to target. The key to adtech is market segmentation— i.e., breaking people down into ever smaller groups to sell things to. We sell things to people by convincing them of the importance and uniqueness of their group. What sells is making people feel they are different, special and even superior. They deserve things most others don’t. In society at large we call this “fomenting division.” Social media, the pill we swallow to ingest adtech, is based on creating and exploiting social division. So too, it turns out, is the right-wing project whose goal and working methods are to create in-groups and out-groups for an ever-smaller number of people who count as ‘people’. Social media’s business model is to make us feel more divided than ever, and monetize the finest of distinctions we can be made to feel.
And what keeps us clicking? Strong emotions like fear, anger and even hate. By now, most of us know that YouTube and others drive “engagement” by presenting the most emotive content, with most of us barely three clicks away from politically extremist content.
Social media divides us ever more finely, all the better to market our profiles to its real customers, the advertisers, and then it makes us internalize distinction and divisions by force-feeding us hateful clickbait.
Xenophobia and conspiratorial distrust create clicks. These are the signature emotions of the far right. It’s anger with no purpose except to be monetized. Clickability almost always leads to the dark side. The political radicalization that helps make social media so wildly profitable is almost exclusively to the right. As well as fomenting division and making political solidarity harder to evoke, the dark emotional palette social media spatters everywhere has a deeper effect on what we think politics is actually for.
Firehosing is a technique used by disinformation merchants to pump out a stream of often contradictory lies. No one has the time, energy or resources to dispute each lie, and airing out lies to debunk them can make even more people believe them. This method is used by anti-vaxxers, far-right media sites and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. Firehosing floods what used to be a conversation with wacky grimdark lies that cumulatively insist that nothing really works, everyone is on the make and no organization or authority can be trusted. It implies that nothing we do to collectively improve the state of the world can work, because someone, somewhere is gaming the system and that someone is probably brown or female or educated.
Firehosing helps explain why people who think the government should slash taxes and drop environmental regulations also think it should kidnap immigrants’ children and micro-manage women’s uteruses. The world of the firehose is one in which reality is not true and almost everyone is bad. In this world, the only useful way to use state power is to punish, to coerce, and to hurt. It reinforces a world where states can do no positive good because it will be taken advantage of — someone, somewhere is getting stuff for free that you have to pay for. If the only effective state power is violence, the only role of politics is to decide who to target. This isn’t an intentional effect of the medium, but it is a real world consequence of the quality and sheer volume of the messages it transmits. Social media is rightwing because its amplified nihilism makes far-right misanthropy sound like a fundamental truth and ushers its dream into being; a world where the state exists only to punish outsiders and throttle the poor, not to rebalance wild excesses of inequality.
But if social media companies are making money from advertisers, and advertisers – most of them aggregators – are making money from the companies whose ads they place, who is making money from the emotive content that keeps people clicking? Who is paying to feed the beast? All those videos, images and stories that trigger and sustain the outrage cycle aren’t going to just make themselves.
New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel asked whether the Democrats can compete with Trump’s Twitter feed and concluded that “one of the few ways to power right now is to never, ever stop making content.”
A Photoshopped image of a dog getting the Medal of Honor. Sharpiegate. A Fourth of July military parade. They’re all attention spectacles.
To “win” social media you must spew out content optimized for virality. Individuals can only do so much. Volunteer organizations don’t have the time and are too busy firefighting (and, let’s be honest, infighting). The organizations manning the firehose are top-heavy political outfits with strong message control – typically the preserve of the hierarchical right — and astro-turf fronts pretending to be grassroots organizations. Yes, there is an ecosystem of ad aggregators and content amplifiers. But the optimal organizational form to create firehose content at scale isn’t the pyramid of large and unwieldy membership organizations so beloved of the left, but a thorn — rigid, narrow and sharpened to a point — all the better to sink deep into the flesh of the body politic.
Social media lets small, well-funded organizations convert grey and dark money into attention. It makes big money’s ideas look like they’re backed by the masses. People on the left almost never have hundreds of millions of dollars sitting around waiting for a vast, anonymizing influence engine to convert money into power. People on the right do. Fake organizations are more effective than real ones. Sock puppets, amplification accounts and automatic reply-guys work 24/7, never disagree with the leader, get disillusioned or split into factions. Social media makes fake organizations look real, and real ones look like dinosaurs. Only on the right is there a sufficient concentration of capital with the means and motivation to exploit this.
None of this can be unknown to those running the big social media companies. Their job is to understand what works on their websites in ways we outsiders can only guess at. Science writer James Gleick recently observed that “people on the left and people on the right BOTH understand that Facebook’s policy of allowing lies benefits the right.” Monetizing lies drives profit. How can anyone possibly defend that?
In the US, free speech absolutism is a feature of the right. Liberals argue for laws banning hate speech and incitement, while conservatives and the far right insist freedom of expression is enshrined without condition in the U.S. constitution, even if that means people are hurt or sometimes die. This year, as the clamour has grown against Facebook’s damage to democracies around the world, the company has doubled down on its insistence that advertising is protected speech. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, has said: “We believe that ads are a big part of [freedom of expression].”
Social media executives’ insistence that their companies are just neutral bystanders but that the most important value of all is free speech shows how closely aligned their interests now are to the right. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t invite Tucker Carlson home to try and understand the alien mindset of America’s hard right, but because they share a common financial interest in protecting the peculiar political ecosystem of which Facebook is the apex predator.
Social media companies share ideas with the right not because they are awkward fellow travellers but because they share fundamental interests. But just as my conservative acquaintance couldn’t admit, even to themselves, that social media’s affordances privilege the ideas and organizations from which they personally and politically benefit, so social media executives seem to believe their pursuit of self-interest is simply the acting out of self-evident philosophical imperatives like the absolute value of freedom of speech.
But guess what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether Mark Zuckerberg holds his nose when he dines with the far right, if Jack Dorsey torments himself about open Nazis he keeps inviting back in, or if Susan Woijicki truly believes YouTube is a force for good. It is wholly irrelevant whether these individuals believe they are speaking in good faith or how deep any self-deception may go. Their interests are fully those of their companies, and their companies exist to make money. Their companies are once-in-a-century concentrations of capital whose only imperative is survival and growth. Capital doesn’t care if the boss still thinks he’s one of the good guys, if, in his heart of hearts, he’s truly not a racist but just happens to run a company that monetizes racism. Capital doesn’t care if he can’t sleep at night. Capital calls to capital everywhere.
Social media empires are big business and history shows us that big business doesn’t have a problem with the far right. They want many of the same things; to act unfettered, to weaken horizontal social ties, to re-shape the world in their own twisted image. Social media driven by adtech will only, always serve capital, however many beanbags they have in the office.
* Henry Farrell is the writer’s brother.