Friday, July 26, 2019

Concerning Social Media

     I know, I know: It’s all been said already. So why am I about to whip the disintegrating carcass yet again?

     Blame it on the hours I keep – and be glad the C.S.O. doesn’t have a compulsion to write, as she gets up even earlier.

     Social media seemed a harmless development at first. Facebook, Twitter, et alii looked like simple communications mechanisms oriented toward ordinary people who merely wanted to “keep in touch.” I suppose they could have been just that and no first. But owing to the dynamic of such things, they didn’t prove to be so for long.

     Perhaps the original model was to charge “users” nothing and sell advertising space to corporate entities. If so, it was foreseeable that it would not stay that way, owing to the values of the things at issue.

     Competent advertising executives are aware that the value of a medium for advertising lies not in its aggregate “eyeball count” but in how the medium’s audience conforms to the advertiser’s target market. That elusive factor is determined largely through experience – and experience can yield some surprisingly counter-intuitive results. For example, a few years ago Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse was in danger of mid-season cancellation by its host network (Fox) for low viewership...but the cancellation was thwarted by its sponsors. Research had indicated that the Dollhouse audience was buying the sponsors’ products. Fox yielded to the sponsors’ requests to keep the series alive for a full season and part of another.

     So mere audience size isn’t strictly determinative of advertiser interest. The cost of advertising has caused firms to concentrate their efforts in “enriched” venues where their target customers are more likely to be found.

     The consequence was data mining: first by the firms that advise other companies as to where their advertising dollars would be best spent; later by the social media companies themselves in the quest for greater advertising revenue. The “users” of the various social media platforms, through the things they expose about themselves in their usage, became the platforms’ principal product.

     This is the case today.

     The information that advertisers value is of even greater value to politicians, political interest groups, and political parties. Thus there was a powerful incentive for those persons and entities to get into the act. Activists, especially left-wing activists, began to swarm into the fray.

     “Why ‘especially left-wing activists?’” you ask? Because the leftist could exploit the social media in more ways than the conservative. The conservative who took an interest in its possibilities was solely concerned with getting his own messages out; to that the leftist added suppressing the communications of his opponent. The first important battle for freedom of expression in the digital domain was thus destined to be joined over Facebook and Twitter, the largest of the domains in which it could be fought. In a garish demonstration of the inexorability of Robert Conquest’s Second Law of Politics, the ethical constraints that bound those in the Right but were ignored by the Left preordained the outcome.

     In recent years a number of newer and smaller social media sites have emerged that have made guarantees of freedom of expression, to avert the colonization that afflicted Facebook and Twitter. I have no doubt that those guarantees were sincere. That does not armor those sites against attack from the Left, which has proved more agile than anyone imagined.

     If one cannot silence one’s opponent, there remains the possibility of prejudicing the audience against him. There are several approaches to this. Simple slander was the first to be tried – cries of “they’re racists!” “they’re Nazis!” and the like — but as this proved insufficient, the Left compounded the tactic with trolling of a sort designed to confirm their slanders. In short, Leftist operatives entered the new free-expression sites specifically to behave in the fashion the Left was accusing the free-expression sites of enabling.

     Freedom of expression includes, in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s formulation, “freedom for the thought we hate.” Thus, to be true to its representations, a free-expression site would have to permit users’ expressions of the vilest imaginable sentiments: “Hitler was right,” “Kill all the niggers,” and the like. Leftist trolls proceeded to inflict exactly that on them. That, of course, was grist for the Leftists’ mill. The free-expression sites have found counteraction difficult.

     One consequence has been the imposition of various forms of censorship by the free-expression sites. In the case of, Andrew Torba’s brainchild, the censor is the individual user, who can choose to block anyone he finds intolerable. Yet this approach leaves the trolls visible to Leftist attackers, who use them to argue that Gab is unacceptable and should be avoided – preferably deplatformed.

     Other sites such as LibertyRush have backed away from a pure free-expression stance and instead acted to filter out the trolls, thus averting the sort of assault the Left has mounted against Gab. While this approach has proved more successful at thwarting the Left’s attacks, it has some obvious limiting features. Most important is the creation of a filtering agency that could, in theory, become a censor of particular, otherwise acceptable viewpoints and sentiments. In theory it could become a target for Leftist colonization. We shall see.

     The overall verdict on social media is this: It isn’t terribly social. That’s not the fault of the original concept, but of the political milieu as we currently suffer it and seem destined to suffer it for the foreseeable future. People can be very, very vile. They can also convince themselves that “the ends justify the means,” especially once they’ve framed their opponents as the embodiment of human evil. The evil that’s been rampant in social media to date suggests that Americans would spend their time more constructively on just about anything else.

     Might that change? It could...but I shan’t hold my breath while I wait.

1 comment:

Glen Filthie said...

I wonder if you might not have gotten part of that one exactly backwards, Francis?

Sure, Lefty would love nothing better than to use social media and weaponize it against those icky, christian/fascist/hatey-hate-haters. But the way I see it is that Lefty is consistently getting arsed on it. Social conservatives draw ever larger numbers of followers both on and off the platforms. When Lefty goes to pull a fast one, it is instantly on the net and everyone is in on it. They can’t get away with their dirty tricks anymore. Donald Trump won the next election last week when he told four foreign weirdos from over the rainbow to go back where they came from. The screams off racism were promptly drowned out by the derisive laughter.

Regardless, I think a hot culture war is now all but assured, and it won’t be resolved on social media.