As a progressive who works in digital marketing, I often wonder how those who spend time on social media in the name of progressive principles (universal healthcare, getting big money out of politics, stopping endless wars, paying a fair wage, affordable housing, etc.) reach average social media users — and what that means for those who don’t have the time and luxury to spend their days on those platforms.
While I understand what social media can do for companies that can afford to invest in reaching a wider audience, it’s also clear that platforms designed to addict users and serve the highest bidder won’t save us from tyranny. In fact, their executives are likely to partner with anyone in a position of power, as that inevitably prolongs the wide use of their products, which brings Big Tech’s big shots that much closer to moving up corporate and government ladders, colonizing space, achieving immortality, and whatever else is on the preoccupied minds of the U.S. elite.
Common definitions of social media tend to ignore those companies’ business models and peculiar designs, and instead focus on aspects connected to “community,” “sharing,” and “user-generated content.” However, when we focus on how such companies turn user data into profit, our perception of Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter becomes much more grounded in reality.
When we look beyond the portrayal of social media as a vital component of human communication, we are able to pursue questions that are rarely discussed on mainstream media, such as: Could those who fight for the working class achieve anything through companies that ultimately serve advertisers? Or, is what’s known as “social media” a way to pacify, spy on, and ultimately subdue those fighting for a world in which our lives are not dominated by economic concerns? To answer these questions we have to consider what happens when users decide to sign up and give their time and attention to “feeds” and “timelines.”
One of the main selling points of social media is the perception that literally anyone and anything (business moguls, fascists, liberals, activists, Marxists, companies, magazines, TV channels, organizations, etc.) can have a large following, if only they are persistent, creative, and witty enough. What’s usually omitted is that, while someone with modest means has to spend a portion of their day managing their online presence, wealthy individuals and companies have marketing teams, institutional support, and unlimited budgets that allow them to achieve the same results, but with much less (if any) effort. Popular accounts are more or less unavoidable even if one “mutes” or “blocks” them — simply because their follower count (the Holy Grail of social media) compels users with fewer followers to “engage” with their content. This distinction is one of the more obvious signs as to how the social media communication model is tailored for the ruling class.
As far as majority rule on those platforms, we don’t have to look further than their business operations, which — like most modern workplaces — have little to do with democracy; those companies are owned by a small group of executives who favor the online personalities, companies, and governments that are willing to invest in their products. It doesn’t matter what brand of authoritarianism emerges on the political landscape in the U.S. and abroad, if world leaders are willing to make the required investments, they’ll have access to tech executives and their manipulation tools.
When it comes to the experiences of average users — the supposed audience of most commentary on social media — those platforms’ value becomes even more questionable. If you are not in the game of promoting your product or content, or racking up as many followers as possible, there’s very little that social media can offer you. Want to follow certain accounts? Get ready to scroll through ads and other content deemed popular by the Algorithm. Want to avoid petty arguments and harassment? Dunking on people through bits of text is one of the defining characteristics of social media. Want to connect to a particular account or an organization? They might not even look at their comments and you might actually be reaching a marketing employee who would then have to serve as an intermediary.
Underneath the surface, browsing social media feeds is a lonely endeavor, as paying attention to ever-changing boxes of text, images, and videos can’t be a substitute for our need to connect to humans in real life.
The lack of control on social media — which allows advertisers to insert ads and companies to promote sponsored content to users — is another reason why social media is not as public-friendly as some would like to believe. For example, Twitter followers often see content derived from the “engagement” of those whom they follow. In other words, if you follow someone on the left who shares right-wing propaganda (presumably to criticize it), that propaganda gets delivered to your timeline, even if you have muted or blocked the account in question. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the engagement given to right-wing content is generated by those who claim to oppose it and their followers.
To avoid this “flaw,” which is just a clever way to increase engagement and keep users occupied with content specifically designed to negatively affect them, those who would like to respond to content on Twitter without amplifying its source have to reference it by taking a screenshot. Given that companies, oligarchs, celebrities, and politicians have readily embraced Twitter’s limited communication, commentators and journalists have increasingly resorted to using screenshots of tweets in their presentations to the public. This is how we end up with someone on YouTube pointing at Twitter screenshots to make their point. The proliferation of tweets and Twitter handles reinforces social media’s communication models, which ultimately benefits those companies and their investors.
You might be thinking — how is using social media to get your news better than creating a simple document of the websites and commentators you want to follow, and putting yourself, rather than algorithms and digital “influencers,” in control of content curation? When we look at what these platforms actually do for regular users — disseminating and curating content for them with little regard as to what and whom they actually want to follow — it becomes clear that a simple list of sources accessed at the user’s discretion would do a much better job at gathering information from diverse sources. Given how little say average users have over what content reaches them, it makes sense to cut out the middleman, which is why it’s important for those platforms to maintain the perception that they are indispensable.
Unfortunately for the majority of us, those who are otherwise critical of corporate greed and censorship can become so dependent and addicted to social media that they probably wouldn’t want to criticize their pay-to-play model. How does one critique a platform which claims to provide them with hundreds of thousands of “followers”? The fact that progressives don’t have external platforms like those funded by right-wing, “free market” oligarchs (BlazeTV, Breitbart, Daily Wire, etc.) makes it even easier for progressive commentators to justify their presence on the feeds. A common argument in defense of embracing Silicon Valley’s products is that any other alternative would be an “echo chamber,” but that notion completely ignores social media’s addictive and constraining nature.
Once critics are neutralized by means of their own participation in amplifying social media realism, it becomes easy for corporate media to do the rest. Traditional newspapers, TV channels, political organizations and companies, which depend on Silicon Valley’s favoritism for their own proliferation into the minds and hearts of the public, are skilled at turning questions about rigged social media environments into heated debates about “Russia” and “China,” controversial tweets and posts, eccentric tech executives, and so on. Diversion is the bread and butter of the current media landscape, especially when it comes to the tech companies that disseminate news and opinions to the public.
If that wasn’t enough, we have the platforms themselves which specialize in directing the focus of their users. When in July, 2020 Twitter experienced “some of the most widespread and confounding breaches the platform has ever seen,” its users were celebrating the fact that the most influential of them, the so-called “blue checks,” couldn’t post for a few hours due to a security measure. It makes sense that a platform that curates content for its users and tells them what to talk about through sponsored “trends” is also well-equipped to minimize any potential damage that could harm its future revenues and reputation.
Add to all of that the well-documented addictive design of those platforms and it becomes clear why people keep coming back for their daily dose of dopamine. As users attempt to funnel their ambitions, anxieties, excitement, anger, and frustration into text and video boxes, what’s shared on those platforms becomes increasingly esoteric and self-referential. To understand what’s going on, regular users have to keep up with phrases and affiliations that have little meaning in the real world.
If addictive design, algorithmic curation, and lack of criticism weren’t enough of a reason to reflect on whether well-meaning commentators can reach social media users (let alone the wider public), then perhaps the fact that impersonators are given a level playing field could put things into perspective. Not only is it easy for fake accounts to infiltrate those spaces and to pretend they are one of “us,” but it’s extremely likely that social media companies would invest in someone, or something, to pump content into them in order to make users come back for more. Even if we were to leave those platforms tomorrow, social media platforms could simulate “user activity” as long as that’s needed.
The inability to defend against the ways in which social media divide and conquer their users is part of our collective failure to address what’s causing other structural issues in our communities. The executives and Boards of Directors who make the major decisions about their social media enterprises are part of the same economic forces that are leading the world to an imminent economic and environmental catastrophe. Yet, we keep logging in the same 2–3 places and hoping that, eventually, we will achieve something through them, as if we could somehow post and tweet our way out of hopelessness and depression. In a lot of ways, modern communication tools are designed to accommodate the rampant greed and desires of those who are determined to accelerate the pace of our death march in the name of capitalism and its many supplemental movements and ideologies.
In his August, 2019 article about Twitter addiction, Peter Isackson describes how social media companies have re-engineered their users’ thinking process. “Like so many social media networks, Twitter follows 20th-century consumer society logic but deploys it to a 21st-century end: not just to provoke a purchase, but to re-engineer the minds of its users,” writes Isackson. “And it does this by making them complicit in its strategy. Users feel empowered precisely because they are ‘afforded’ the opportunity to recruit other users and build their own audience. But they have unwittingly empowered the platform to control an important segment of their lives. They feel that they are engineering the experience, but it’s their minds that are being re-engineered by Twitter.”
Attempting to reach the wider public through platforms that are designed to addict and manipulate their users may give popular online commentators the attention they seek, but those activities seem to have little effect in the real world where people could care less about artificial trends and “likes.”
Social media unite the public similarly to how a movie theater “unites” its customers — the “solidarity” ends after the movie is over and everyone is asked to promptly leave and go on with their lives. The difference is that social media make the spectacle portable and all-consuming. Instead of leaving, viewers become fixated on the same accounts and trends that suck their attention through bits of text, media, and addicting interfaces.