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We desperately need social media literacy or the fascists will win

Get off the Internet
I’ll meet you in the street
Get off the Internet
Destroy the right wing
Le Tigra, 2001

Fiona was telling me about an acquaintance who has build up a reasonable five-figure social media following which augments their business in an “influencer” kinda way who had run into some nonsense after posting something related to Black Lives Matter. Amongst other things a pile-on had occurred when someone questioned something in a way that triggered… ah, you know the drill. A scene that has been positive, constructive and supportive suddenly switches into an accusative, defensive shitstorm. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter was or who was involved. It just happens again and again on social media platforms.

Back in the day we used to talk about “context collapse” where something posted to Twitter can be taken wildly out of context so your attempt at sarcastic humour makes you look like a racist or a terrorist. See also John Mulaney on jokes read out in court.

But there’s also something else going on. The social media platform to which you are posting is not a neutral thing. It takes whatever you were attempting to communicate and it weaponises the shit out of it. When you type your words their meaning is perfectly clear. But when you hit post they combine with the social media machine and that meaning mutates into a monster beyond your control.

So when your carefully thought out post about civil rights hits the eyeballs of another human being, especially someone you don’t have a personal connection with, it means something completely different. It’s not that the context has collapsed - the context has been thoroughly augmented by a fucktonne of other stuff that you have no idea about.

And then that person, who you barely know, leaves a reply on your post. And you’re confused because their reply seems to willingly miss the point of what you wrote. Not only that but they seem to be taking what you wrote personally, despite it being sent to tens of thousands of followers, and so now you’re taking their reply personally, so you reply.

This reply of yours highlights the exchange to your followers, but they’re also seeing it weaponised through the augmented context machine so they see something completely different again and before you know it everyone’s angry with everyone else about something you’d all probably agree on if you’d just stop trying to have nuanced conversations about important issues on an image-sharing social network.

It happens all the time and it’s depressing, not just because of the waste of time and effort but because it’s distracting good people from fighting the real battles. The far-right is laughing at us. Trump and Farage are the canaries in the coal mine. For the last few years we have been on the cusp of a fascist resurgence as good people are radicalised by those who understand how this weaponisation works really well for them. Brexit was the prelude and if we’re not very careful Covid could well tip us over the edge.

Let’s take the trans-rights vs feminism debate. As a straight white man I’ve watched this over the years with my head in my hands. I’m sure there are important issues to shake out in the overlap of women’s rights and transexual’s rights and I would never want to dismiss or diminish them. But for fuck’s sake there are more fundamental battles going on.

This was illustrated quite strikingly by the latest shit-storm to engulf JK Rowling. Battle lines were drawn, all the progressives chose a side, and then The Sun gave Rowling’s abusing ex-partner the front page to tell his side. For a wonderful moment everyone was united against Murdoch’s foul rag, although Murdoch had effectively taken control of the narrative and put an abusive man in the middle of it.

Divided we are nothing. Together we are stronger. We know this. We know how to do this. So what’s going wrong?

The tools we use to share our ideas and opinions are broken. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are weaponised for attention and clicks. They need you to be at the extreme ends of your emotions, be that delighted or outraged. React, react, react. Don’t think, don’t pause, don’t contemplate.

A photo on Instagram is radically different to a photo in on a blog post or in an email. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, but it’s always different. The problem is we don’t see this because we were never taught media literacy.

Have you ever had that thing where you write something in a word processor and you’re happy with it, but when you publish it somewhere, on a website or in a booklet, it seems… different? I always go back and tweak my blog posts once they’ve been published because I need to read them in that context in order to properly judge them. Being “out there” changes something in intangible but fundamental ways. The words go from being mine to being… ours?

I did a bit of Media Studies at 6th form and it was quite the eye-opener. It turned out that when something is broadcast or printed in the media its meaning is changed. And the people who control that media also control what the meaning becomes. The medium, as the man said, is the message.

In the 90s that was interesting and all but in the 2020s, when our conversations and debates take place through media that is owned by insanely large companies, it’s absolutely essential that we all know this. And not in an “oh, I know that” kind of way. Know it in a useful, practical, thorough way.

We need to be taught how to read the social media critically so we can use it effectively. Right now we’re blundering through it like monkeys in an orchestra pit.

Digital literacy, especially for adults, needs to get away from the short-term practical stuff and start teaching the theory in a way that makes sense to normal people. Otherwise we will continue to fight amongst ourselves like rats in a cage while the far-right mop up.

Park your differences, get the fuck off the corporate internet, I’ll meet you in the streets.

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