From the Brutality of the Crowd to the Docile Public
With Twitter, the business enterprise, now joining other social media companies in enforcing country-specific censorship of content, Web 2.0 will perhaps lose much of its revolutionary appeal (The Guardian, Monday 30 January 2012). This failure to adhere to fundamental democratic rights certainly questions the willingness of social media to disassociate itself from state mechanisms of tyranny. In its rush to do business with dictatorships social media has become absorbed into the public. The question that needs to be addressed now then is not how social media changes the world, but how the desire-events of one crowd can be steered toward political revolution while the other heads straight for the shops. The answer in the UK will certainly not be found in the established media system.
In the wake of the riots the artifice that separates Labour from their Neo-Conservative foil is exposed to some extent. Indeed, while the corporate media endeavours to position the public on either side of an increasingly narrow and irrelevant political divide, the bourgeois domination of British “democracy” becomes absolute. On one hand, the neo-cons of course blamed the crowd, clamouring for vengeful payback in terms of long draconian sentences. On the other, Labour made a desultory effort to condemn the corrupted values of consumer society for the production of a disenfranchised mob hell bent on satisfying its desire for stuff.
Yet, more than that, the riots draw attention to the failure the neo-liberal Labour Party to connect with the poor. It was after all they who encouraged a deregulated City of London. It was Tony Blair who wasn’t that bothered by the ever widening gap between rich and poor. It was Labour who saddled up with the Murdochs. It was also Labour who began the process of dismantling the university. A new social and political arrangement of desire is needed that can challenge these political centres: an arrangement that can harness the kind of energy that the “desire for stuff” inspires and steer it toward new democratic forms of organization. Social media will of course play a part, but what must be reversed before any of this can happen is the continuing move away from the potential of the crowd toward an evermore docile public. As nineteenth century social contagion theory argued, more than it flatters the public corrupted institutional power fears the crowd.
John Postill sees this age of protest as synonymous with an “age of viral reality.” His work on viral media, protest and the potential for rebellion is indeed a very welcome intervention into a debate so often marked by the puff of the popular press. In the UK, for example, the BBC recently broadcast a documentary claiming that “Facebook Changed the World.” Of course, social media has had a demonstrable influence on events in North Africa and the Middle East. However, such claims concerning the Arab Spring need to be seen alongside the growing impetus of a desire to fight on the streets with authoritarian regimes that are prepared to kill their own citizens. What triggers such a desire is not simply the product of Facebook or Twitter. See the references in the BBC documentary to Imbaba and how taxi drivers were used to spread the word of protest. To be sure, it took years of cruelty, injustice and poverty under these brutal regimes to trigger revolt. Revolutionary contagion needs to exceed the information cascade.
The role social media plays in building such a momentum for rebellion cannot however be ignored. Certainly in “democratic” countries, where protests and riots have spread as a result of anger expressed at the unequal imposition of austerity on people who had nothing to do with the financial crisis, the impact of social media is yet to be fully appreciated.
In the UK the student protests went viral for a while, but they never reached the magnitude of an epidemic of celebrity gossip. The necessary leap from social media to mainstream media is still a difficult prerequisite for all-out-contagion, unless, that is, the story concerns a footballer cheating on his wife. Why is it that this kind of mindless trivia seems to spread well while social rebellion does not? This is not simply a problem of the old media. I suspect that Facebook, along with wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity crap on Twitter, plays a bit part in suppressing anger as much as it provides ignition.
It is also a problem for democracy. After staging some of the most potent protests in recent UK history (smashing up Tory HQ and clashing with a royal celebrity couple on their way to the theatre) student desire has, it would seem, been snubbed out by bourgeois democracy in action. The British are free to tweet their protests, they can mobilize protesters online, and in some cases put a million people on the street, but successive UK governments still go on to fight illegal wars in our name, break election promises (on student fees and health care), hang out with the Murdochs, and cut social benefits and living standards for the 99% while cutting the taxes of the 1%.
So the promise of a confluence of anthropological cultural work and media epidemiology seems like a good way to cut through the popular media hype and try to get at the real potential of virality. Postill’s focus on Spain, where unemployment is currently running at 23%, is particularly fascinating. If some kind of tipping point is to be breached in these so-called democratic countries then it is perhaps more likely to be where the pain is felt most.
Many questions still remain though as to what is driving virality. What can be learnt from protests that actually “go viral”? Can these contagions be repeated or are such contagions mostly accidental and largely unpredictable? Is it possible to steer virality? What tactics help to push an informational pandemic from 2,000 Twitter users in April to over 94,000 followers in August! I’m now following Postill’s work…