As part of the State of Nature’s series ‘One Question‘, Christian Fuchs, along with 12 other leading thinkers, gives his response to the question Have social media become a divisive force?
The question posed is misleading because it implies that social media is doing something (‘becoming’) and is an actor that is autonomous from society and humans. Technological determinism is a logic that is based on sentences such as ‘Technology X results in Y’. ‘Social media is or is not a divisive force’ is an example of technological determinism. Social media is embedded into society and reflects in complex ways what is going on in society.
‘Social media’ such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have from their start been operated as capitalist businesses focused on accumulating capital by selling advertisements. The logic of these capitalist platforms is based on the assumption that ‘the more data and content is generated, the more likely it is that lots of people spend lots of time on the platform and that we can sell more advertisements’. Capitalist ‘social media’ are unsocial because as capitalist businesses they operate as digital tabloids that advance superficial and brief information at high speed and do not care if the content is about chocolate cookies or fascism, because the profit imperative drives them to commodity attention and selling ads.
The anti-democratic potentials of ‘social media’ that became evident with the Cambridge Analytica scandal are the consequence of social media platform’s capitalist character. It is not social media technologies that have become divisive. It is rather the capitalist character of these platforms that has rendered them unsocial, undemocratic and divisive right from the start of their existence.
The Christchurch terrorist live-broadcast on Facebook via a head-mounted camera how he murdered 50 Muslims and injured 50 more. Social media platforms were falsely blamed for enabling this form of symbolic terror. Given the Streisand effect, it might never be possible to completely take down information that has been uploaded to the Internet. One would have to abolish the technological possibility for user-generated content, which is a design option that many users would oppose. Platforms should do their best as soon as possible to take down terrorist images and videos, but their technologies are not the cause of the informational dimension terror takes on in the networked environment of the Internet.
It is not technology, but fascists such as the Christchurch terrorist who upload and live-broadcast fascist images, texts and videos. And that they do so has to do with negative transformations of society that have resulted in the emergence of authoritarian capitalism, the rise of new nationalisms, etc. One needs to fight the underlying causes of the fascist ill, not its symptoms. What can be done by mainstream media is to stop giving so much attention to terror and fascism as spectacle, and to tell different stories, namely how citizens express solidarity with victims’ families via social media and how anti-fascists use social media.
We need to change the context and structure of ‘social media’ in order to make them truly social. This requires the advancement of public service Internet platforms, platform co-operatives, and new formats such as Club 2.0 that advance political debates that overcome filter bubbles and post-truth politics.
Read other responses from: Paolo Gerbaudo, Christian Fuchs, Lizzie O’Shea, Geert Lovink, Eva Anduiza, Joss Hands, Zizi Papacharissi, Alfie Bown, Panos Kompatsiaris, Eugenia Siapera, Eran Fisher, Dal Yong Jin, Tanja Bosch.