File Name  ↓ File Size  ↓ Date  ↓ 

If You're Not Outraged...

This article was published November 26th 2017 in "NXS #2 Synthetic Selves" in response to Andrea Karch's 'A voice that desires a reply sounds different'. The version published here is the pre-typeset version, licensed with the Free Art License.

Three days after the Charlottesville attack, far-right Breitbart's former executive chairman Steve Bannon called Robert Kuttner, a reporter for the progressive American Prospect. His goal was to gain an ally on the topic of economic nationalism, but he ended up dismissing his fans, the extreme-right groups he helped unite, in the process:

"Ethno-nationalism--it's losers. It's a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more."

"These guys are a collection of clowns."

"The longer they talk about identity politics, I got em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."

Earlier that week though, he had advised Trump to not condemn the 'collection of clowns' too strongly in his response to Charlottesville. An astonished Kuttner published the contents of the unlikely phone call, in which Bannon also openly contradicted Trump on his 'fire and fury' strategy in dealing with North Korea. Two days later Bannon was fired as White House Chief Strategist and went straight back to Breitbart.

While we are busy sharing our authentic selves, our outrage and grief on social media platforms, feeling like we have nothing to hide yet, but getting slightly nervous about it, there is a game being played on a whole different scale. Bannon is not dazed and confused in our post-truth universe, he is owning it. Well, in fact the billionaire Mercer family, who fund Breitbart and pumped millions into the Trump campaign, are owning it. Just how much money can buy was revealed by Buzzfeed in an article based on leaked Breitbart documents and emails (Bernstein, 2017). The article describes how the platform for the alt-right is on the one hand speaking of itself as a "killing machine" fighting the #war for the west, while at the same time showing in whose interests it acts, playing and manipulating its audience on behalf of its owners. Bannon pushes requests from the Mercers to his editors, and if neo-Nazis, white supremacists or neoreactionaries need to be involved, they are used but kept at a "sufficiently believable distance". In sum, Breitbart is part of an extremely effective propaganda machine (Cadwalladr, 2017), using whoever it needs to further its agenda: deregulate until there is nothing left of state influence on financial markets and manipulate until there is nothing left of democracy. In the end, the neo-Nazi's and white supremacists on the streets in Charlottesville were just pawns in an effort to establish a ridiculously shameless kleptocracy.

"If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention" (Heather Heyer, 2017)

The medium of the message is not insignificant. Facebook plays a role in the culture war waged by the alt-right, which has its own billionaire backed platform and social media alternatives, and uses regular social media for shitposting, trolling and harassing, but also for political campaigns using targeted advertising. The work of Cambridge Analytica during both the Trump and Brexit campaigns was welcome business. Twitter too has become a hate machine taking no ethical stance even when it is used for hate speech, nuclear war mongering and massive bot and AI powered propaganda. Twitter and Facebook are turning a blind eye, because they are profiting from it. There is no room for ethics in venture backed business (Monteiro, 2017). On top of this, together with the worlds prime search engines, they are harvesting our metadata and selling it to the highest bidder. Surveillance capitalism extracts, commodifies and controls through opaque mechanisms, "creating new markets of behavioral prediction and modification" (Zuboff, 2015). While we deeply care about what we write, the content really doesn't matter as long as it can be run through algorithms determining in which category we belong, and how this category can be best served with messages that nudge us in directions to buy, watch, click, vote, march... Next to the manipulation facilitated, this virtual segregation of people through social sorting doesn't open anyone's mind because we end up talking to ourselves, making polarization worse (Chun, 2017). Only those who run their own media platforms and who use social media to influence and manipulate will gain ground. It's time to reread Manufacturing Consent and update it with the strategies made possible using AI and social media.

Why is there no massive exodus from social media? Silicon Valley's ideology is deeply convincing and not only because of its democratic appeal of giving everyone a voice. It redefines parts of the human condition as problems and proposes technological solutions. We cannot all be heard at the same time, so it has provided us tools to all speak our minds at once. We cannot all be in the same place at once, now we can virtually herd together. We can not know everything about everyone, now we are encouraged to be radically transparent. Not to spy or gossip but to reach our full potential, being on our best behavior because we're watched. Zuckerberg, knowing well that too much pretending on his platform could hurt his business, professes that "having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity" (Foer, 2017). He wants to find "a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about" (ibid.). Both statements show on which assumptions Facebook is built. The first is that identity is the same as how you communicate, because the way you present yourself should always be true to this one authentic and unchangeable self. The second is that human social relationships are governed by a mathematical law. These assumptions originate from revolutionary engineering in the late 1940's, when Shannon published "A Mathematical Theory of Communication", a theory of signals transmitted over distance. Over time, this information theory got reinterpreted by social scientists, who mistook signal for significance (Peters, 1999). A technical model was applied to human experience and, based on this model, trouble between people could be resolved using technology.

But misunderstandings cannot be solved with improved wiring or freer self-disclosure, it's an unsolvable problem because it is not a problem, it's who we are. We can never truly transmit our inner selves to another person, we can never be each other. We also don't have one authentic inner self, we reconstitute ourselves every moment in time as part of our surroundings. We are no isolated islands and are incomparable to signal processing devices. And as Peters argues, authenticity is a profoundly selfish ideal, it misses the autonomy of the other (ibid. p. 266).

"To treat others as we would want to be treated means performing for them in such a way not that the self is authentically represented but that the other is caringly served." (ibid., p.268)

The discrepancy between the self as presented by individuals via tweets and status updates and the self that is extracted from a person's metadata stems from the business model that dictates the design of social media platforms. Identity is not only an individual's experience of themselves, it is also the point of departure for the most successful campaigns to control the masses and extract profit from them. The technical infrastructures currently in place are deeply political. There is no space for caringly serving the other, in the extractivist capitalist model of ever increasing efficiency and lowering costs. "We should be less worried about how signs arouse divergent meaning than the conditions that keep us from attending to our neighbors and other beings different from us." (ibid., p.269). Without regulations determining what and how information from social media, and social media itself, can be used, we can pay all the attention in the world but we won't be able to tell in how many ways this attention has been steered.


Bernstein, J., 2017. Here's How Breitbart And Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas Into The Mainstream. Buzzfeed [online]. Available at: https://www.buzzfeed.com/josephbernstein/heres-how-breitbart-and-milo-smuggled-white-nationalism[Accessed: 25-10-2017]

Cadwalladr, C. 2017. Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media. The Guardian, [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage [Accessed: 25-10-2017]

Chun, W. H. K. We're all living in virtually gated communities and our real-life relationships are suffering. Wired, [Online] Available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/virtual-segregation-narrows-our-real-life-relationships [Accessed: 25-10-2017]

Kuttner, R. Steve Bannon, Unrepentant. The American Prospect, [Online] Available at: http://prospect.org/article/steve-bannon-unrepentant[Accessed: 25-10-2017]

Foer, F. Facebook's war on free will, How technology is making our minds redundant. The Guardian, [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/19/facebooks-war-on-free-will [Accessed: 25-10-2017]

Monteiro, M. How Twitter Ruined Twitter, Donald Trump is just a symptom. Mother Jones, [Online] Available at: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/10/donald-trump-ruined-twitter/ [Accessed: 25-10-2017]

Peters, J. D., 1999. Speaking into the Air, A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Zuboff, S., 2015. Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization. Journal of Information Technology (2015) 30, 75-89. doi:10.1057/jit.2015.5.