Against Social Media Cynicism

advance; don’t retreat!

One of my socially-distanced self-improvement projects has been to streamline my social media use: deleting old accounts, streamlining “professional” content into “professional” accounts, finally updating my Facebook, and the like. While combing through archives of old content, I read through hundred-comment arguments on Leftbook in which I participated, cringed at some of the stupid ideas that I once held sacrosanct, and reflected on my continued development as a student of Marxism. Those arguments – as insular and masturbatory as they certainly seem – continue to be important to my learning process. It is moments like these where I am reminded that all things have both positive and negative aspects. It is a shame that Leftbook is often relegated only to its negative ones.

Briefly, Leftbook refers to a decentralized network of Facebook pages, groups, and profiles that target a progressive, socialist, communist, and/or anarchist audience. It is far from the first or only of its kind across social media platforms. Similar classifications attempt to encapsulate “leftist” (whatever that means) users of Youtube, Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit, among others. Due to the rapid-fire rate of communication, those who frequent these networks can sometimes grow notorious, accumulate rudimentary levels of social capital, and can even hold name-recognition in the real-life world of leftist activism.

The type of content circulated within and among these networks is heavily mediated by platform. This has drawn users to build creative, multi-media adaptions to the restrictions and opportunities of platforms, from video-essays on “Breadtube” to the tongue-and-cheek memes on Reddit. However, it also highlights the importance of adapting the form of one’s message. For instance, “Left Twitter” has earned an especially odious reputation for vacuity of discussion, due in part to the character limit on Tweets that make long-form discussion difficult.

Regardless, one thing that all these platforms have in common – some more infamously than others – is their instant presentation of endless, personalized content to the user. Through content curation algorithms, these platforms deliver more of what the user already likes, creating a feedback loop that reinforces one’s presently-held political beliefs. The result? According to liberal pundits, a threat to Western democracy so great that it has been the subject of multiple Congressional hearings, innumerable thinkpieces, and one of Bezos’s sickest burns yet: social media as “a nuance destruction machine.”

To spare you ten hours of decrepit parasites asking Mark Zuckerberg how ad revenue works, here’s a brief list of talking-points that usually characterize liberal thought regarding the relationship between social media and bourgeois democracy:

  • Social media contributes to political polarization by feeding users only the content that they are expected to enjoy rather than the content that may challenge their existing worldview. Thus, misinformed conservatives never learn the enlightened liberal perspective.
  • Due to its lack of intrinsic fact-checking and its reliance on rapid circulation of content, social media serves as a breeding ground for disinformation campaigns, “clickbait” alarmism, and, well, nuance destruction.
  • Social media platforms are hard-wired to discourage long-form critique, and long-form critique is the only way to foster productive political dialogue. Otherwise, meaningful critique is replaced with “cancel culture.”

When combined with the typical appeal to “human nature,” these arguments paint a harrowing picture of social media as a gladitorial arena where “might makes right.” In Steven Pinker-esque fashion, liberal democracy has all the virtue but none of the rhetorical appeal, so it gets crushed under the iron boots of the Alt-Right, the Russian Hackers, the Bernie Bros, and whoever else threatens the assumed perpetuity of the End of History.

The basic through-line that cuts across and troubles each of these arguments is this: the assumption that social media presents a new threat to political discourse that capitalism, with its privatization of the political, has not always relied upon. The implosion of deliberative dialogue, the spectacularization of information, and political polarization are at the bedrock of liberal “democracy” – a point I won’t belabor too much here. However, by assuming that these conditions are illiberal, liberals make the errant assumption that only the far-right can take advantage of social media to forward their agenda.

Unfortunately, this liberal argument has also infected some left-wing criticism of social media. While left-wing cynics tend to agree that the conditions fostered by social media are hardly new phenomena, they posture similarly when confronted with strategies to address them: Our ideology is at risk of being “tainted” by Leftbook charlatans and Twitter egos, so it cannot possibly be communicated effectively under such reactionary circumstances. In so doing, these critics undersell both the resilience of Marxism and the necessity for a revolutionary media strategy in favor of just “logging off.”

I am always disappointed when I see communists, socialists, and the like uncritically adopting liberal talking-points when attempting to fathom our world. Just because liberals don’t know how to handle their datafied self being thrown back at them doesn’t mean that Marxists should capitulate as well. It is undeniable that social media presents a unique social, political, and rhetorical challenge. However, as Khawer Khan reminds us in his critique of Marxist media analysis,

“As dialectical materialists, we must look at the internal contradictions in any phenomena. Nothing is static and unchanging, and internal contradictions themselves are the motor force for change and development. Small quantitative changes accumulate over time and lead to qualitative leaps, changing the entire character of the system.”

Khawer Khan, “Marxism and the Media — Part one”

Social media is here to stay in the cultural climate of capitalism; it is only a question of how we treat it as a front of struggle. Shall we abandon one of the most ubiquitous sites of political identity formation in our times in favor of maintaining so-called “rational” so-called “discourse?” Or shall we experiment with new styles of communication to adapt to our objective and subjective conditions, using whatever tools we have to build a new world?

Social media cynicism is practically quotidian in many organizing circles and across tendencies. To properly represent the ideological breadth of this error, I will pull from three articles representing three different tendencies: “Interrogating Social Media” on the “principally Maoist” blog Struggle Sessions, “Log Off” by DSA Steering Committee member Benjamin Fong, and, most recently, “Social media spectacle: work and leisure” over on the anarcho-communist

I’ll sketch out my critique by tracing concessions to liberalism throughout these articles, explaining how they impact our politics, and providing brief comments toward a revolutionary social-media strategy. Before I do so, a disclaimer: By defending social media as a front of struggle, I do not mean to contend that it is the only, or even the primary, area where political work should take place. We need not understand social media as a palliative if we are to understand it as a potentially useful tool. Cultural fronts are necessary to unite the people behind the political project of communism. Twentieth-century communists weaponized the artists, the authors, and the newspapers. For our time, we need to both build upon what we have and to fashion different tools for liberation that are best suited to speaking to our audience, which is to say, the oppressed masses.

Social(ist) Alienation

The first theme to address can be best summarized as a question of uniqueness: Are the problems with left-leaning social media spaces unique to those spaces or endemic to political discourse under liberalism in general? Fong addresses the question directly:

The question here is whether the negative effects of platform capitalism on our lives are specific to capitalism … To answer this question, let’s start with a shocking fact: bad behavior happens on the internet. It occurs in real life, too, of course. But there is a special quality to the depravity exhibited on social media that is particular to that domain.

Benjamin Fong, “Log Off”

Fong argues that social media contributes to a societal reduction in empathy, confirmed by myriad studies, due to the disconnection between interactions on social media platforms and interactions in real life. Social media uniquely contributes to this trend due to the features of the medium: the “obsession with self-perception,” the negative feedback loop between social media use and real-life human interaction, et cetera.

Here, Fong begs the question. It is undeniably true that social media fosters an alienated form of communication, perhaps even adding a few more layers of abstraction between the speaking subject(s), the object(s) of conversation, and the medium/a. This has been proven. But to what extent does this communicative style represent a significant change from pre-digitized (political) communication under capitalism which has always been characterized by the both social and economic alienation? In what mythical pre-Twitter era have our communicative practices of self-representation not been riddled with the drive to brand ourselves and to accumulate social capital at the expense of others?

To concretize this argument, take the typical liberal hysteria surrounding algorithmic polarization that we’ve already briefly explored above. The effects of social media polarization are hardly different from the effect that suburbanization plays on the development of white, bourgeois subjecthood and the political ideas that are engendered by virtue of maintaining that position within racial capitalism. I dare say that social media has not, in fact, made a forty-something white corporate lawyer from some suburb in the Midwest more racist than they already were. Perhaps it has given them a few more talking-points to circulate, but it has not contributed to a paradigmatic shift because no paradigmatic shift has taken place. The feedback taken up by social media platforms does not fall from the sky. It is the data that we have already input: our class, our race, our pre-existing beliefs, et cetera. Racial capitalism is just doing its work in double-time.

Indeed, racial capitalism has always been adaptable, but it has never been one for self-invention. Its innovations have been more like accelerations of the previous form, while the essence – private ownership of the means of production – remains relatively stable. In social media, we see alienation reach its new zenith, only to be outdone by the next: The entanglement of user-as-producer, user-as-consumer, and novel forms of exchange value make the dividing line between social and economic alienation appear much foggier.1 As Marxists, we should think of this not as a sign to retreat but as a sign to prod even deeper to expose these contradictions and craft revolutionary tools out of what we find within.

However, by viewing the conditions of social media as separate from the conditions of capitalism, we risk dulling these contradictions by reinforcing the myth of consumer sovereignty. The media cynic’s solution to the crisis of social media, simply logging off, is oddly reminiscent of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No!” The notion that the average person can and should rationally choose what items to purchase or what services to solicit is one of the subjective bases through which the “bootstraps” narrative is perfected and real critique is dulled. It is on-the-nose, but elucidating, that Fong employs an addiction metaphor to make his points. The myth of consumer sovereignty assumes that the individual can make good choices for themself despite the coordinates of their society, not to mention that it completely erases the stratified options presented to various individuals based on class, race, gender, and myriad other spectra of difference.

In his defense, Fong admits that his view “must, however, be complemented from the social perspective” to ward off the assumption that the ill-effects of social media (which he, obviously, sees as both overwhelming and unresolvable) can be challenged on an individual basis. However, he offers little in the ways of collective solutions, other than a vague promise at the end: “The sooner we realize this about social media, the sooner we can get to the work of dismantling it.” The lack of detailed investigation as to how social media can be dismantled is telling: Under capitalism, there will be no such thing. The question is only whether to use social media or abandon it.

At least Fong pre-empts the critique of consumer sovereignty: Struggle Sessions leans all the way into its subjectivist errors. While they spare us an extended addiction metaphor (though they do make the eyebrow-raising comparison of “oppression Olympics” to drug addiction), they contend that the style of criticism endemic to social media inculcates an aggressive consumption pattern. Struggle Sessions:

“This psychology [of Leftbook] fits well with the average consciousness of consumers in an imperialist country with higher than average living standards, they are taught after all and from an early age that if they want cookies for dinner anyone who tells them ‘no’ is being repressive. An aggressive consumer is the ideal type of consumer in an imperialist center. This serves beautifully in the division of the masses into individual consumption units away from their unified class interests and is one of the best counter-revolutionary measures the ruling-class has at play at any given time.”

Struggle Sessions, “Interrogating Social Media”

This argument is self-defeating: If it is true that the inhabitants of imperialist nations are taught to stratify ourselves due our living standards, then abstaining from social media use will hardly do anything to change that, even at an individual level. The problem (the subjective terrain of capitalist-imperialism) is too large for the paltry solution (deleting your Twitter account) to address. We will still be fed the cultural scripts of capitalism from every other media outlet that we are taught to consume. The end-game of this argument can only pan out in two ways: on the individual level, the enforcement of the myth of consumer sovereignty that mystifies the nature of social media, and on the strategic level, the complete abdication of a potentially-effective propaganda tool.

As I’m sure the Maoist author would agree, only revolutionary struggle can truly change subjective outlook. However, scapegoating social media does little to prepare us for such struggle. To recognize the lack of uniqueness within leftist critiques of social media is not just to play a game of chicken-and-egg; it has real ramifications for how we engage in struggle, online and offline. Neither Fong nor Struggle Sessions seriously question whether social media can actually be dismantled on a collective basis under capitalism because they take social media to be fundamentally distinct from any other ruling-class media. As such, their suggestion to the reader is mere abandonment of social media, the liquidation of a potential front of struggle, and the adoption of a cynical attitude toward media work in an age where “media work” implies, to a large extent, engagement with social media.

The liquidation of social media goes part and parcel with a self-defeating nihilism as demonstrated in the piece, “Social media spectacle: work and leisure.” In it, Liverpool-based anarchist blogger argues that social media is saturated not just by the basic economic essence of capitalism but then “illusion of engagement and involvement where there is none.” The assertion that there is neither engagement nor involvement on social media because it is, indeed, owned by capitalists for the purpose of profit is nonsense: There is nothing in a capitalist society that is not tainted by capitalism. By this logic, organization is impossible, stymied by the facetious drive for purity. We mustn’t step foot in the universities, in the town halls, in the cafes, for there be capitalists!

In any case, engagement and involvement is possible through a strategic use of social media. Activists are already proving this by using social media to fund-raise, coordinate logistics for actions, share information, propagandize, criticize and self-criticize, among others. For example, in the Public Seminar essay “In Praise of Clicktivism,” Adam Tomasi highlights how NoDAPL supporters “checked in” at Standing Rock on Facebook to disrupt police surveillance. These tactics are effective enough on this quotidian, ephemeral basis, but the possibilities only expand when Marxists begin to understand social media as an avenue for serious political work, not a self-indulgent cesspool. Capitalism will always try to adapt and overcome through its schemes of surveillance and incorporation, but that does not mean we should surrender the front of social media on sole account that it has been “commodified.” Instead, it means that we should learn what makes the algorithm tick, exploit what ground we can find, and build up a strong security culture to keep ourselves safe.

The arguments presented in this section primarily sought to indict social media by virtue of its association with capitalism, a fact of capitalist society that cannot simply be logged off. In so doing, these arguments reinforce a cynical conception of social media by emphasizing its worst inevitable effects and erasing its best ones. In the next section, I will trace how these cynics assume that the spectacular(ized) nature of social media content production is always detrimental to the cause of liberation, rather than a potential rhetorical tool in the arsenal of revolutionaries.

Shock and Aww…

In their various condemnations of social media as a political technology, liberals like to argue that social media uniquely serves to spread misinformation. They have a point here: It’s true that the far-right has effectively utilized a strategy of “memetic warfare” to drum up support by encouraging their base to be more aboveboard about the reactionary views they already had.2 Standard-issue liberals have not learned to do the same. Bernie-esque social democrats have done slightly better with the online presence of the DSA, Jacobin, among others.3 Marxists can and should take up more work on this front.

Some lefty detractors of social media take this fact as a reason to reject the strategic use of social media all-together, claiming, essentially, that if reactionaries can use social media to make reactionary ideas popular, then social media must be reactionary in essence. However, this argument is not very popular because it is an obvious association fallacy. The more common version of this argument attributes something reactionary to the essence of political communication on social media, not the platforms themselves. These critics try to find something that ticks for the right, but not for the left, in the way we talk to each other on social media. This dynamic plays out in all pieces, but most spectacularly (and absurdly) in the Struggle Sessions text.

In Ben Shapiro fashion, the Struggle Sessions text presents us with a lamentation of the emotionally-charged nature of political discussion on social media, arguing that pathetic appeals come second-nature to fascists, but not to communists, because fascist propaganda “builds on a basal resentment no matter how deep down it resides.” First and foremost, emotional appeals are not only for fascists. It been proven more times than I can hope to hyperlink (but here’s one for good measure) that we make political decisions primarily through emotional appeal and that feeling does not subordinate but rather accompanies rationality. This is exactly why the cultural front is so important for Mao Zedong: He knew that the people of China would not accept new ideas just because the flag of Communism flew over the land, so he invested in art, literature, and propaganda that stirred the emotions.4

The people are not an empty, unfeeling vessel in which you throw in the correct political line and a Communist comes out. People take persuasion, and persuasion using only the logical faculties, as if they are separate from any other form of knowledge production, is like running into battle with the newest rifle and no pants on. We need more propaganda, not less, and a propaganda strategy is only effective to a broad audience when it takes up every persuasive avenue at its disposal. We must not discount resentment, for instance, as a persuasive tool: Make videos, write essays, and spread memes that encourage people to resent their class enemies, as they should.

Without persuasive strategies that utilize ethos (character-based appeal) and pathos (emotion-based appeal), communists are bound to get lost in the weeds of discourse, as the article goes on to prove. The absolute foolishness of the Struggle Sessions argument is revealed when they attempt to compare Leftbook and the Far-Right. Apparently, someone on Facebook claimed that the American Red Guard formations are predominantly white, and the author compared this to fascist argumentation because it was a lie that talked about whiteness as a mythical construct – somehow. The author writes about this most-horrendous scandal:

“What is insinuated is far more devious, charges of ‘all white’ implicitly claim that these organizations either bar people who are not white from joining (making them white supremacist organizations) or that they just consciously refuse struggle alongside the most oppressed sections of the masses, and focus exclusively on white struggles (again white supremacy)—in both cases this translates to arguing that an anti-fascist movement is the real fascist movement. The so-called internet left has come around again to agree with the internet right.”

Struggle Sessions

There’s a lot going on here. To start, I doubt you can find anyone who both knows who the Red Guards are and assumes that they only let in white people. Even then, someone who thinks that the Red Guards are mostly white is not likely to make the logical leap toward viewing the organization as white supremacist – for the same reason that people do not think of the DSA, by in large, as a white supremacist organization on account of its majority-white base. I do not presume to know whether the claim made on Facebook is true, but it is clear that the Horseshoe Theory extrapolation does not indict social media but their own comprehension of what was likely a worthy political critique. Not to mention that the author takes the words of a handful of commentators to be representative of “the Internet left,” which is constituted by innumerable users at various levels of engagement, the vast majority of whom probably don’t even know who the Red Guards are.

I haven’t even touched the surface of what could be said here, from the author’s strange fixation on a dragged-up picture of Mao to their disdain toward “tankie hoes.” Needless to say, this “facts over feelings” critique relies on far more feelings than facts, and in doing so, it attempts to negate the powerful role that emotionality can and should play in the struggle for hearts and minds. In order to harness this rhetorical avenue, we need to toughen up – not taking online comments as representative of anything more than infinitesimally small parts of the broader whole of online public discourse. We must seize all persuasive tools available to us, regardless of whether they fit into a long-form WordPress essay, and we need to use all media at our disposal to advance the cause of socialism. We need to use every facet of communication to our advantage, from the lauded socialist newspapers to the experimental formats. And, most importantly, we need to have faith that our ideas are strong enough to survive the test of fire that is public opinion.

Optimism, Not Cynicism!

Social media is hardly a newfangled contraption anymore, yet it still attracts a strong share of old men yelling at clouds, refusing to divide one into two in favor of their comfortable pessimism. Like the Luddites before them and like every other vulgar-materialist after, these critics obfuscate the progressive qualities of social media by completely subordinating analysis of subjective reality to objective reality. It is for-profit, it is illogical, it is spectacular; thus, Marxists cannot bother themselves with it. Ironically, they take up the same cynicism of which they accuse the interlocutors of Leftbook!

By framing their critiques as rejections, the articles I’ve mentioned here all feed into pessimism – they refuse to apply dialectical materialism to find the positive aspects of social media, instead treating the negatives as totalizing. This is a subjectivist, liberal logic that makes the liquidation of struggle inevitable.

In so doing, the cynics outright ignore every positive aspect of social media: Social media is a ubiquitous technology where, with the right tricks of the trade, our messages could reach people we never thought possible before. The masses are online, because they want to be and, in many cases, because they must be. It is only a question of if, when, and how we reach them.

This is, of course, not to say that no critique of leftist social media is valuable. The Struggle Sessions piece is absolutely correct, for instance, that Leftbook-types should criticize and dismantle their online cliquishness and engage in real outreach and educational work. I find Kyri Lorenz’s “Leftbook, we need to talk” instructive as the author invites the Online Left to self-criticize and correct for the tendencies of social media discourse that Fong, libcom, and Struggle Sessions all name. The difference? Lorenz offers a precise critique and a precise solution: a critique of dogpiling, not a rejection of social media all-together.

Abandon media cynicism and instead foster an organized Marxist media strategy! Bring line struggle to the Facebook comments and Marxist memes to the TikTok zoomers. Partisan discipline, not totalizing rejection, can help us fashion revolutionary rhetorical tools within and against these platforms. In our times of acute, rebellious energy, to leave any option by the wayside is to abandon a potential weapon that can help us deliver a blow to Empire.

1 – James Reveley, “Understanding Social Media Use as Alienation: a review and critique”

2 – Dan Prisk, “The Hyperreality of the Alt Right”

3 – Meagan Day, “Unfortunately, We Can’t Log Off”

4 – Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art”

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