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Social media: How memes reduce protest to pastiche

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If religion is the opium of the people, then the designer drug of choice of practically everyone in the postmodern world is social media. Social media has become the most visible and widespread form of the collective hallucination that we call the internet. And while these Web 2.0 internet applications can be useful tools for communication, the problem is that for far too many people, social media has become a substitute for the real world, replacing instead of complementing real-world interactions while giving users the illusion of choice, influence, and power.

Imagine if social media as we know it had existed in 1986 during the first EDSA Revolution in the Philippines, or had replaced the text brigades that helped mobilize people during EDSA Dos, the Second EDSA Revolution, in 2001. Many people would have shared, liked, retweeted, and commented on Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin’s post if he had used social media to call on Filipinos to take to the streets. Probably many of them would have also created their own posts and tweets to express their support, and shared, liked, retweeted, and commented on user-generated content (UGC) by their fellow supporters. Sadly, most of them would be content with online activism and “amplifying” the on-ground event, and few would actually show up at EDSA. In fact, social media is changing collective human behavior so much that biologists have issued a warning.

Risk to humanity

If religion is the opium of the people, then the designer drug of choice of practically everyone in the postmodern world is social media. Image credit: Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash
Image credit: Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

In “Stewardship of global collective behavior”, a new paper published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 researchers across different fields said the study of technology’s large-scale impact on society should be treated as a “crisis discipline”. Here’s an excerpt from the Recode interview with the paper’s lead author Joe Bak-Coleman and co-author Carl Bergstrom.

“When I talk to people about social media, yes, there’s a lot of concern, there’s a lot of negativity, and then there’s bias by being a parent as well. But the focus is often on the individual-level effects. So it’s, ‘My kids are developing negative issues around self-esteem because of the way that Instagram is structured to get ‘Likes’ for being perfect and showing more of your body.’

“But there’s less talk about the entire large-scale structural changes that this is inducing. So what we’re saying is, we really want people to look at the large-scale structural changes that these technologies are driving in society.”

One of the problems pointed out in the paper is that social media content and behavior are guided by algorithms that most of us don’t even understand, and which were designed for click-based advertising. In a previous column piece, I noted how the outdated online advertising model was first introduced by the porn industry.

As the authors of the paper pointed out, they’re not necessarily claiming that exposure to advertising is bad. But the problem is that these systems were designed by Big Tech to optimize transactions and facilitate the clicking of links and sharing of content — without taking into account the veracity of information, or the effects on human behavior.

Filtered by algorithms

The irony is that we keep worrying about a science fiction future where artificial intelligence (AI) will take over, just like the Terminator franchise’s Skynet. When algorithms have already reshaped us and how we interact with the world and other people.

As serial tech entrepreneur Tyson McDowell says in his TEDxSantaBarbara talk:

“Here’s the fundamental issue: the artificial intelligence that filters the internet for each of us, overwhelms us into rejecting our own humanity. And the humanity we reject is empathy, compassion, open-mindedness, and curiosity. And we reject it because AI has the power to make the world seem to agree with us even when it doesn’t.

“AI systems like Google and Facebook and Alexa have this effect because they’re predicting how we might think and then driving information to you filtered to fit the prediction. And it’s so much easier to consume information that’s driven to you than to search by your free will alone that you’re very likely to accept whatever they send you verbatim. And everything from the internet’s affected, from what friend to connect with, a piece of news, a social media post, a product to buy. It’s all filtered by AI. So if you are digitally connected, AI is actively manipulating the majority of information that you see and heavily influencing the majority of people that you know.”

Here we are now, entertain us

In fact, social media has become both the tool and product of surveillance capitalism, invading our privacy and turning us into perfect consumers for the digital economy. While fooling us into thinking that we are enjoying more freedom than ever, that targeted ads give us more choice, and that tailored information makes us more knowledgeable.

Harvard professor Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, talks about how insidious surveillance capitalism is in this documentary by the Dutch public broadcast service VPRO.

“You are intended to be in the feeling of being served. You are intended to be saturated with convenience so that you will not notice and you will not complain, and all of this shadow operation will remain hidden because you will not ask questions. Because you’re so busy being entertained.

“So it’s no longer enough to just have what you’re doing online: you’re browsing, you’re sending messages, you’re sending emails. We want to know about your walk in the park. We want to know about what you’re doing in your car. We want to know about your home and what you’re doing in your home.”

And it doesn’t matter what your political beliefs or ideologies are. We are all being manipulated and abusing social media. It’s an echo chamber, where those who agree with us represent the “will of the majority”, while those who disagree are just part of a “vocal minority”. Where information that goes against our beliefs and biases is automatically “fake news“.

Prefab protest and pastiche

Social media is performance art, where we think our actions are completely free, but the forms, parameters, and metrics have already been predefined and prefabricated.

Even protest has become prefabricated in social media, while rebellion and dissent have become commoditized. Want to criticize the government? Use this meme. Want to support a cause? Add this frame to your Facebook profile. Want to show how woke you are about issues? Apply this filter.

Online activism is popular precisely because it is easy to do, lowering the barriers to entry and making the message easily replicable and shareable. Unfortunately, tweets and other social media posts won’t change the world if they are divorced from real-world action. In fact, that’s why majority of even “critical” or “subversive” social media posts are tolerated by governments and Big Tech, because they are controlled forms of expression. Like a legal graffiti wall.

Maybe it’s true that parody is dead, and all we have left is pastiche. As this video on “The Simpsons and the Death of Parody” says, citing Fredric Jameson’s quote in “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”:

“Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody.”

In this world of pastiche where social media masquerades as real life, and memes and UGC have replaced real art, it takes even greater courage to resist.

At the end of the day, real life, just like real art, requires sacrifice. So does real protest. So does real change.