There is one particular section in Jaron Lanier’s book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now that keeps me up at night. He describes the trajectory of online social justice movements. First, they experience a honeymoon phase of progress, but because of the invisible business model of social media, these social movements are algorithmically catalogued, manipulated, and studied for profit in a way that leads to greater social unrest, bigotry, and inequality. Lanier calls this process “Arc Burn,” in reference to MLK Jr’s moral ark quote.
Lanier uses several justice movements to illustrate this process, including the Arab Spring, online feminism, and LGBTQ rights. I will use his words on Black Lives Matter, though, to illustrate the point.
After a series of brutal police killings of unarmed black men, Black Lives Matter surfaced as a rallying cry on the internet. Lanier supports the cause, writing that “the slogan “Black Lives Matter” initially struck me as remarkably knowing and careful, for instance. Not a curse, not a swipe. Just a reminder: our children matter. I suspect that a lot of people got the same impression, even though many of them would come to ridicule the same slogan not long after.”
The honeymoon phase of Black Lives Matter began with a deep sense of hopefulness and optimism. But, writes Lanier, something sinister was happening on a deeper level; what he calls BUMMER (his acronym for certain social media companies) started soullessly doing what they do best:
But during that same honeymoon, behind the scenes, a deeper, more influential power game was gearing up. The game that mattered most was out of sight, occurring in algorithmic machinery in huge hidden data centers around the world.
Black activists and sympathizers were carefully cataloged and studied. What wording got them excited? What annoyed them? What little things, stories, videos, anything, kept them glued to BUMMER? What would snowflake-ify them enough to isolate them, bit by bit, from the rest of society? What made them shift to be more targetable by behavior modification messages over time? The purpose was not to repress the movement but to earn money. The process was automatic, routine, sterile, and ruthless.
Meanwhile, automatically, black activism was tested for its ability to preoccupy, annoy, even transfix other populations, who themselves were then automatically cataloged, prodded, and studied. A slice of latent white supremacists and racists who had previously not been well identified, connected, or empowered was blindly, mechanically discovered and cultivated, initially only for automatic, unknowing commercial gain—but that would have been impossible without first cultivating a slice of BUMMER black activism and algorithmically figuring out how to frame it as a provocation.
Inevitably, the honeymoon phase of online activism only feeds more human data into the algorithms, which isolates and provokes the social movement, which then helps cultivate aggravated, toxic reactionaries which overcome and disempower the movement. Writes Lanier, “meanwhile racism became organized over BUMMER to a degree it had not been in generations.” And later, “the stuff outside of a Twitter user’s frame of awareness is intensely favored to continue to subsume Black Twitter and make it powerless. I want to celebrate Black Twitter because it’s brilliant. But I need to point out it’s a cruel trap.”
Lanier’s critique might come off as catastrophizing to some, but I think he’s correct. I need to make clear that none of this is the fault of social justice or black activism; I support Black Lives Matter as a cause and I am a progressive. Rather, it is the sinister influence of the social media platforms we are all addicted to and use on a daily basis. Even if our individual experience and communities on social media are life giving, vibrant, and beautiful, the societal impacts of social media are an existential threat to progress.
This hidden, insidious process helps me understand so many of the insane dynamics on social media that are so startling. Things that seem incredibly banal IRL are warzones on twitter. Several months ago, when a black minister concluded a prayer with “Amen and Awoman,” twitter erupted. It was obviously a sign of wokeness run amok. It was obviously a sign of unbridled, unhinged lunacy. It was, in reality, a tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase often found in the black American tradition.
To people like me who try to stay out of social media as much as possible, this whole dispute was bewildering. It felt like walking into the asylum in the film Amadeus. Just like paranoid schizophrenia, social media seems to make us obsess over threats from the outside – from a black minister using the word “awoman” and the culture that enables him – without realizing that the bug is in our own brains.
Another example I’ve noticed lately: some podcasters I listen to are enraged and irritated by people on social media who put their pronouns in their bio. Worse, sharing pronouns is seen by some as evidence that you are actually an enemy. Only neoliberal cringe snowflakes who work at the New York Times put their pronouns in their bio. But that sentiment only makes sense within an algorithmic panopticon that is constantly prodding, testing, and manipulating you. We only see ill intent on social media, and sharing pronouns is clearly cynical virtue signaling. It could be, or it could just be a normal person trying to be polite because they were told some trans people appreciate the gesture. On social media the whole spectrum of human intention collapses into the most cynical interpretation.
The examples are endless: discourse over cancel culture, fascism, race, trans issues, immigration, free speech, Marxism, socialism are all tainted by this invisible machine on all sides. Everything – every phrase, every gesture, every bias – is a dog whistle of some kind, signaling your alliance with the evil other, which makes the real dog whistles all the more impossible to hear. And lest we think the right is the only wing that gets hacked by social media, the left is not immune. As Jaron Lanier points out, there is no right or left in the algorithms – there is only down, into the abyss.
This all has consequences beyond weird social media controversies, though. This process gets totalitarian presidents elected, it gets Qanon conspiracy theorists into public office, and it results in calculated human rights atrocities against ethnic minorities.
Yes, we should be worried. Digital Arc Burn is real, and it threatens to undue the progress we have made.
If you find this article on Twitter or Facebook, the irony is not lost on me. I feel bound to social media to promote my work, even as I loathe it and wish I could burn all my accounts down. The only thing I know to do is to encourage users of big social media to reduce their time on these platforms and instead opt for other, safer alternatives. There is no problem with social media, just social media that manipulates us for profit. Private community servers, chat threads, comment sections, and other platforms are wonderful places.
We all know we feel gross on social media and that our mental health will greatly improve if we break the addiction. But this isn’t just a matter of personal wellbeing: the future of justice and equality might hinge on all of us spending less time on social media.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. If your comment is excellent, I might feature it in my monthly Best Comments series. And by the way, most discussion of my posts takes place on my discord server, and I invite you to join in the conversation there. You can also become a patron and ensure that I bring you interesting content every single week, forever.