If even the President can be censored, what hope is there for the rest of us?-isms Science and Tech
Twitter was right to expel former President Donald Trump. Free speech doesn’t tend to count insurrection, as anyone who’s read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty knows. But Trump’s expulsion from Twitter points to the power of corporate tech giants to censor and regulate our lives. If even the President can be censored, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Yet it isn’t simply that Twitter decided to ban Trump. Rather, user and business pressure empowered, even legitimized social media giants in their role as digital moderators. This is a problem that I call digital deregulated regulation.
What is deregulated regulation?
In my book, Capitalism and the Enchanted Screen (Bloomsbury, 2020) I coined the concept to articulate the expanded control handed to digital platforms. I define the concept in a section on selfies: “selfies are a testament to what could be called ‘deregulated regulation,’ where regulation is decided by corporations and also encouraged by the users of social media platforms.”
I go on to explain that “I use the term ‘regulation’ as there is still regulation with selfies, but it is regulation encouraged and engendered by other social media users.”
Clearly, this explanation is too cursory. But at its most basic it names the way that users must adhere to standards that are constantly being updated both by corporations and by other users. From signing constantly updated contracts in the form of “terms of service,” to Twitter arbitrating speech, to users encouraging or discouraging one another’s speech in the form of reacts and shares of posts, we have witnessed an expansion of control. Every time you evaluate your Uber driver, or they rate you, you are participating in a form of mutual regulation.
But why deregulated regulation? Why not just digital regulation? Deregulation is most commonly associated with neoliberalism, which is to say the dismantling of collective and government structures intended to limit the power of capital.
As such, deregulated regulation emphasizes the way that neoliberalism pervades our interactions online; the way that digital space, often mistaken for public space, is in fact privately owned. But the term also directs attention to the loss of collective power and the failures of Keynesian measures to prevent neoliberalism. After all, Keynesian policies were implemented only in the most dire circumstances (the First World War, the Great Depression, the rise of alternative political ideologies and governments) and was ripe for dismantling once capitalism stabilized.
When we sign-on to social media we are forced to agree with the terms of service; but we have no power not to. How on earth could we renegotiate the contract? What right do we have not to have our data harvested and sold? After all, user information is big bucks for what Shoshana Zuboff calls Surveillance Capitalism, the state in which our data is bought and sold, and where money is accumulated through digital surveillance.
It may be that the concept of individual rights is something of a misnomer because rights emerge from collective struggle, not from individual bargaining. The political scientist Jodi Dean has described the way that our posting online constitutes a kind of work, a kind of proletarianization whereby our digital labor creates profit.
Yet on another level, online spaces can still seem free and open, and are often user-centric. They are marketed as spaces for sharing, spaces of community. This points to a shift in the rhetoric of neoliberalism, where, as Sean Cubitt observes, “the language of community has been taken up in corporate culture, applied both to employees and to consumer” — the distinction between employee and consumer being effaced online.
Curiously, users end up creating new forms of regulation online. Facebook groups, for example, increasingly have rules about what can and can’t be posted. In this way, the phenomenon points to the paradoxes of the digital.
The Paradoxes of the Digital
The digital has been framed as affording infinite customisability, control, and interactivity by the user. The philosopher Byung-Chul Han has argued that such interactivity has led to a growth of psychopolitics, where we are controlled by ourselves: we strive to be active all the time and reframe our lives as projects. Han argues that the very idea of being a subject already contains the idea of being controlled, that we are effectively, what he terms, “auto-exploiting.” Psychopolitics is a neoliberal, individualistic form of self-tyranny: our phones give us the ability to be active entrepreneurial workers all of the time, and therefore to be drained all of the time.
Another discourse frames digital technology in the opposite direction, namely that of powerlessness. Popular tech writer Cal Newport has argued that we are no longer in control and no longer feel in control of our devices. We are addicted to checking notifications, and algorithms are shaping our thoughts and behaviour. More and more, we are manipulatable. The popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma positions the way that digital technology has been designed to trick users in order to generate data that can be sold. Algorithms manipulate our behaviour and we become manipulatable social media addicts.
This paradox is gestured to by the very idea of being a social media user, as the term itself has paradoxical connotations. User implies a relation to power: a user being one who abusively manipulates to their own advantage (in terms of personal relationship; “using up” their partner), but also a powerless addict or drug user. Deregulated regulation exemplifies this break, this fissure. The term doesn’t mediate as much as position the meeting point between these two extremes of digital power: that of the user’s sense of power and that of the user’s sense of powerlessness.
The Dangers of Deregulated Regulation
There are various problems online that can be understood in terms of deregulated regulation. One such form is identified by Donna Freitas, which she calls The Happiness Effect. The Happiness Effect occurs when people suppress their own feelings in order to maintain a happy-façade on social media. This leads to feelings of depression and anxiety as users compete to appear more happy in order to receive “likes.” Freitas conducted her study on college students, but her research points to a larger problem. Instagram, Facebook, and other social media apps and sites enforce, via likes, emoji reacts and comments, rules about appearance, about what counts as happy, professional, or sexy. Amid this turn, plastic facial surgery has risen, and so too has dangerous forms of attention seeking behaviour, where people take risky selfies to stand-out.
In contrast to the happiness effect, reddit forums and Chan boards provide avenues for people to post ugly selfies in order to be roasted. This tendency is particularly prevalent among Incel communities who crave the negative reinforcement. Suicidal ideation proliferates on such forums and positivity is often forbidden.
Deregulated regulation swings toward imbedding reactionary tendencies. The researcher, Ian Danskin has explored how forums can be attacked and taken over by the alt right in an informative YouTube essay. Deregulated regulation affords the alt right a chance to proliferate on message boards by eschewing rules — formal and informal — against politicisation. Often rules such as “no politics” applies to posting in fandom communities. Thus, the alt right will use edgy jokes, proclaiming that objectors shouldn’t take the statement seriously or be “so political about it” and thereby forge an inroads into recruiting other users and changing the norms as to what is considered acceptable. Effectively, the alt right are able to censor or isolate critics in message and Chan boards while simultaneously seeming to be proponents of freedom of speech.
In the opposite direction, deregulated regulation happens amid increased censoriousness online from liberals and those identifying as leftists. Public and private figures are called on to condemn or distance themselves from others online. This phenomenon has a name, “Twitter mobs,” and it speaks to how ugly deregulated regulation can become. Yet on some level, there is a very private aspect to Twitter mobs. The individuals participate in an overzealous trawling to spot transgression. Mark Fisher has described such tendencies as the Vampires’ Castle:
“The Vampires’ Castle feeds on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students, but most of all it lives by converting the suffering of particular groups—the more ‘marginal’ the better—into academic capital. The most lauded figures in the Vampires’ Castle are those who have spotted a new market in suffering—those who can find a group more oppressed and subjugated than any previously exploited will find themselves promoted through the ranks very quickly.”
Fisher frames a privatisation and territorialisation of online and emotional space, where “in theory [the Vampire Castle] claims to be in favor of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behavior.” What Fisher effectively discerned is the way that the absence of overt codes allows for an infinite generation of new codes, rules and practices, that are forever being updated but also arbitrarily created and enforced.
In a twist of fate, Fisher himself became a victim of Twitter mobs, as explored in Angela Nagle’s powerful polemic, Kill All Normies. She gives an example of one Twitter account triumphing over Fisher’s suicide:
“In January 2017, when news broke that Fisher had committed suicide, those in the same online milieu that had slandered and smeared him for years responded as you might expect—by gloating.
"Stavvers (aka Another Angry Woman), an influential Twitter figure among what the alt-right call SJWs, had already written ‘Vampires Castle’ sarcastically down as her Twitter location and responded to the news of his death by tweeting: ‘Just because Mark Fisher is dead, doesn’t make him right about ‘sour-faced identitarians’. If only left misogyny ‘would die with him,’ with the follow-up: ‘*dons vampire cape, flies off into the night*’"
What is curious about this Tweet is the way that it affirms pleasure in censoring another. There is an evident enjoyment in it. Such a fusion of pleasure and scolding accentuates a contour running through some strains of deregulated regulation, relating to desire and guilt. In this way, it invites a psychoanalytic framing.
According to the psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek, the superego in Freudian psychoanalysis isn’t meant to be the conscience but rather a cruel entity that harasses the subject. While the superego is usually contrasted with the pleasure-seeking id, Žižek breaks from this dichotomy. Žižek argues that a dominant pact and complicity between guilt and pleasure emerges when “permitted jouissance necessarily turns into obliga¬tory jouissance.” Žižek’s example is the way we feel guilty for not having fun; we feel guilty even for feeling guilt amid “the superego injunction to enjoy.”
Deregulated regulation online can be linked to this perversity but in reverse. While Žižek frames the id as preforming the function of the superego, deregulated regulation situates the superego functioning as an id, hence underscoring the self-indulgence and glee coupled with moralizing that we saw in the wake of Mark Fisher’s suicide.
All this speaks to the dangerous and mysterious forces online. Neoliberalism far from setting people free, has encouraged community controls and the return of public shaming. Online spaces were meant to be a democratic and free space; opened up by the free development of tech. Instead, they provide an avenue for more insidious forms of control that encourage our complicity and legitimate corporate power to regulate us more.
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