Notes on Social Media and Autocracy


by Justin E. H. Smith

Over the last few weeks we have learned that part of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US election included placing ads on Facebook that spanned the political spectrum: some were in support of Black Lives Matter against police brutality, others were in support of ‘Blue Lives Matter’, defending the bravery of police officers who put themselves in harm’s way. Some were in support of crackdowns on illegal immigration, while others promoted LGBT rights. Some pretended to be pro-Sanders, and others pro-Trump. None, however, were straightforwardly pro-Clinton.

What exactly was the strategy here? Some people have taken this willingness to play both sides as evidence that the Russian regime could not have been straightforwardly pro-Trump. But it seems to miss the point to suggest that that regime’s responsibility in Trump’s victory must have had anything straightforward about it, or that its support of Trump must have been in the same spirit as the support expressed by a misguided but nevertheless sincere American voter. The purpose of the Russian operation was to sow disorder and to weaken the American political establishment, and its agents understood that supporting left causes at the same time as they supported Trump was the best way to do this. In this far Russia was following the exact strategy already worked out during the Greek crisis, in which its agents supported both the far-left Syriza party and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. They didn’t want the Republicans to triumph as an end in itself; they wanted chaos to triumph, and here they clearly succeeded. Unlike misguided American voters, they understood that Trump is not in any meaningful sense a Republican, but rather an agent of chaos.

And so the Russian intelligence agents took to social media, or, more precisely, they paid young Russian college graduates to work for their cause by farming ‘likes’ from a troll farm in St. Petersburg. And soon enough Russian trolls were successfully goading Americans on Twitter and Facebook into debating, sharing, liking, content on all manner of distractious hot-button issues. At least one social-media user by the name of Jenna Abrams turned out not to exist at all, but to have been invented as a false identity for one or several Russian trolls. Before being exposed she had succeeded in riling Americans into engaging with her on the meaning of the Confederate flag, on Rachel Dolezal, and on ‘manspreading’, the recently concocted transgression by men on public transportation who do not hold their legs sufficiently close together.

Social pressure, largely generated by social media, had by 2015 pushed New York City to make sitting with your legs too far apart an arrest-worthy offence, and that same year the Police Reform Organizing Project released compelling data showing that arrests for this new crime overwhelmingly swept up black and Latino men. Yet in social media, any acknowledgment of anything that looks like an objective dilemma is more or less impossible, as for example that there might be a conflict between the imperative to eliminate patriarchy as manifested in the microagressions of male fellow citizens, on the one hand, and the imperative to combat police persecution of marginalized communities on the other. Acknowledgment of the complexities of reality is impossible, and so the social-media-based left came down decisively in favor of wiping manspreading from the face of the earth, and doing its best not to see the downside of this campaign.

A society that spends its time talking about manspreading cannot be doing well. Jenna Abrams’ role in keeping that particular conversation going was part of a broader campaign to ensure that public discourse not improve, at least long enough to whisk into office a new American president who is himself the personification of this sickness, whose own orally produced speech sounds, in style and grammar and syntax, more or less like his textual interventions in social media. The intelligence operation did not require any ingenious back-channel maneuvering, or any intelligence at all of the sort that we have traditionally expected spy agencies to excel in. In order to do their part in making a social-media celebrity the president of the United States, foreign intelligence operatives had only to get into the spirit of social media itself, to master the English lingo, become fluent in meme-making, and in general to adopt and promote the norms of discourse that in any case had already triumphed in the United States. Russian intelligence agents did not invent manspreading– on the Moscow metro in fact a man is much more likely to be confronted for the opposite transgression of crossing his legs, which is perceived as feminine (I should know: I myself have been assaulted in Moscow for this very thing). But they did understand how to weaponize this American invention and use it for the further corrosion of public discourse.

Nor, of course, did Russian intelligence come up with the new economy of ‘likes’, but this did not prevent its agents from incentivizing the work of its trolls by measuring their success in this new quasi-currency. As one troll told an interviewer about their work: “You should always write that sodomy is a sin, and that will bring you a couple dozen ‘likes’.” This economy was devised in the United States (the inventor of the ‘like’ button, Justin Rosenstein, born in 1983, has deleted his own Facebook account out of concerns about its addictive power). But unlike the attempts in the 1990s of Jeffrey Sachs and others to export economic expertise to a system that did not wish to receive it, like-seeking, though of course only in its early stages, appears ideally poised to take over the world. It is particularly well-suited to regimes, and to those sectors of society that serve them, that are intent on fostering chaos, precisely because, where likes are being sought, the goal of tolerance and understanding has almost certainly already been abandoned. In online discourse, to cite a well-known critic, “measured speech is punished by not getting clicked on, invisible Facebook and Google algorithms steer you towards content you agree with, and nonconforming voices stay silent for fear of being flamed or trolled or unfriended.” To certain hold-outs from the old world, these punishments might seem to have to do only with such relatively unserious matters as our circles of friends and our self-esteem. But the emerging reality, a reality the trolls knew how to exploit, is one in which what gets liked, and what gets flamed or trolled, is not just a concern that we have in our personal lives and that we leave behind when we move to think about political and economic matters. What gets liked or clicked or trolled, rather, is now, suddenly, at the very heart of politics and economics.

The internet is destroying everything. In the aftermath of its Shiva-like arrival, the rest of the world, all that was here before, can easily appear as a ruin. It has destroyed or is in the process of destroying long-familiar objects: televisions, newspapers, musical instruments, clocks, books. It is also destroying institutions: stores, universities, banks, happy hours, movie theaters, democracy. Some findings indicate that it is even bringing down teen-pregnancy rates and, in Japan, fertility rates in general. Shiva, traditionally called ‘the destroyer’, is not for that reason an entirely negative force. It is good and natural to raze down the old, to slough off what is no longer vital or useful, as hunter-gatherer cultures understood already in deep pre-history when they mastered the practice of controlled burning. Fire, in fact, seems like the most suitable comparison in the prior history of technology: when our hominid ancestors learned to use it at least 400,000 years ago, the suite of changes they initiated was immense. It brought cooking and heating, and it also brought countless deaths and immeasurable environmental destruction. It made us what we are, and the internet is already in the course of making us what we will be.

If we think this is unjust, this cannot be because it does not continue the general course of human history since the Paleolithic, but rather because it is a sudden transformation that has taken place without any collective decision having been made about it, in an era in which we had come to believe that great transformations required, and deserved, collective rational deliberation, followed by a vote, followed by citizen oversight. The fact that there has never been any question of such a procedure for determining the way the internet is to be incorporated into our lives, is in itself a clear indication of how much more powerful it is than liberal democracy. The internet trumps liberal democracy, as fire surely burned right through the myths and practices of hominid groups that had previously got by without it.

This in turn helps to explain why, even though it was still being heralded just a decade ago as the bringer of a new liberal-democratic utopia in the very near future, when Twitter was still winning awards for its role in bringing the Arab Spring, it nevertheless could reveal itself to be doing exactly the opposite in such a short period of time. After all, its destructiveness has consisted largely in amplifying the very powers that had long been taken to be the bedrock of liberal democracy– most notably free speech. Billions of people now have a sort of free speech, in the sense that they have the power to say more or less whatever they think they want to say, and generally to get at least a few likes for it.

But they have this power in a new and mutated form, where it is disconnected from any obviously binding standard of truth, or any expectation that it will be deployed for the purpose of sincere communication, that computers, in sum, will be used in anything like the spirit Leibniz had in mind with his irenic-rationalist hortation, “Let us compute!” The new free speech is only free, moreover, in that it seems to flow directly from the desire of the speaker (or writer, or tweeter), yet once it is released it is channeled by secret algorithms (on which, again, we have made no collective decision and in relation to which we have no oversight) along pathways where it is practically guaranteed not to bring any more light to anyone regarding the subject of interest, but only to reinforce group solidarity in an online community, or to accost and attack an outsider to that group, usually by means of ad hominems and in total ignorance of the past few millennia’s hard-won effort to lay down rules for the avoidance of informal fallacies.

Online discourse feels free, to the extent that it is pleasing to the individual who puts it out there, but it is more or less always channeled either down the path of like-seeking, or down the path of trolling. This pseudo-freedom affords authoritarian leaders, in turn, the appearance of at least a vestigial concern to protect the core values of liberal democracy. As long as individual citizens continue to believe that democratic citizenship has attained its full realization in an unending online argument about manspreading, the autocrats, as they say, have won.

Nor is it the case that within a bubble, that is, within an algorithmically generated imagined community, all is peaceful and stable. Bubbles are fragile, and soap gets in your mouth. This is particularly so when other members of the community are constantly seeking to wash the mouths of those whose speech they deem insufficiently pure. This dynamic seems to be intrinsic to left-wing debate online, to the so-called ‘call-out culture’ that reigns there. As the critic Mark Fisher wrote, this culture is “driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.” Thus, to return to the issue of manspreading, it is not just that the left is exhausting itself arguing with Russian trolls pretending to be American conservatives who think it is a man’s right and an anatomical necessity that he spread his legs as widely as he wishes; but the left is also exhausting itself, and needlessly and destructively hardening itself where obviously some flexibility is in order, to the extent that its members are perpetually seeking out and condemning any hesitation, uncertainty, recognition that sometimes legitimate desiderata are mutually exclusive.

When expressions of such things are essayed online, the enforcers of the community are ready to pounce, and to make the doubter know he is not in the in-crowd. This may be a small punishment, compared to public stockades or flogging, but it adds up to real-world effects. It is not the Cultural Revolution, but that does not mean that its spirit is not fundamentally Maoist. The fact that Maoism can thrive at a sub-state level, and have real political consequences, even in a world that is governed by right-wing populism, is a significant lesson, and one Mao himself surely could not have predicted. In the UK police forces are now sending out officers who are purportedly specialized in LGBT issues to exert pressure on supermarkets that guide customers towards products using language that is deemed too gender-specific, and thus ‘transphobic’– for example, associating tampons with women. Thus the state apparatus of a country now governed by craven populists who have come to power by exploiting ethnonationalist ressentiment and fear of immigrants is also using its power to impose norms of language that are, first of all, patently against the will, the sensibility, and the understanding of the vast majority of citizens, and, moreover, that have emerged out of the online activity of a small minority.

Meanwhile, back online, it is typically the most cut-throat and unflinching personalities who thrive, the Robespierres and the Berias. Virtually no one whose public reputation was built up entirely in social media can be said to be noteworthy rather than notorious. It is an ugly dystopia, and has utterly failed to deliver on its promised goods.

Piece crossposted with

[To appear, in some modified version, in Justin E. H. Smith’s forthcoming book, Irrationality: A History (Princeton University Press, 2018)]