The Collective Unconscious Is Creating Creepy Clowns

People just want to be scared about something…

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / tobkatrina

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: There are no clowns skulking around America’s neighborhoods, looking for children to abduct.

Since the first reports of creepy, potentially murderous clowns began surfacing across South Carolina in August, there have been supposed sightings in at least 10 states, as well as parts of Canada. Social media has been recast in its timeless role as the Perennially Loud and Wrong Town Crier, helping spread misinformation and “clown threats” across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Inside HigherEd reports that clowns have appeared at “the universities of Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Miami, Missouri at Columbia and Texas at Austin,” as well as “Bloomsburg, Butler, Sacred Heart, Texas A&M, Syracuse Universities [and] Mississippi and York Colleges.” Yesterday morning, White House press secretary Josh Earnest actually had to answer a reporter’s question about how the administration is addressing the clown epidemic.

“I don’t know that the president has been briefed on this particular situation,” Earnest answered, presumably with a straight face, and even acknowledged it’s “something that I’ve read about in some of the news coverage.” He went on to suggest that the reporter check in with “the FBI and DHS and see what they have to say,” because talking to reporters about imaginary clowns is definitely a good use of federal agents’ time, I’m sure.

Most of the reports have been revealed as pranks, obviously. The New York Times noted late last week that at least 12 people had been arrested for “clown hoaxes,” and there have been multiple arrests since then. Other cases have turned out to be a combination of real clowns and irrational panic, as when a 12-year-old Virginia boy with autism dressed up early for Halloween, only to become the subject of a viral social media post and a local news segment. Somehow, police dispatched to all the remaining sightings have found no red noses left behind at the scene and not a single oversized floppy shoe for the crime lab to study. Benjamin Radford, whose books on urban legends and the paranormal include the recent Bad Clown, explains how the lack of forensic evidence is less about stealthy criminal clowns than overactive imaginations.

“The problem is that when police investigate, they never find anything,” he toldUproxx. “These mysterious phantom clowns that these children, and occasionally adults, report—they don’t exist. There’s never any evidence of them, and more importantly they never actually harm anyone. This is one of the keys to understanding the phenomenon. It’s always just missed. It’s always, ‘A clown lurched at me but I ran away.’ It’s a potential menace. It’s not an actual menace.”

The only mystery here is how long the clown menace will continue to be a story before it fades from popular consciousness, like satanic ritual abuse, recovered memories and razor blade-stuffed apples before it. Imaginary clowns aren’t the cause of the mass anxiety we’re currently experiencing, they’re just the latest symptom and manifestation of it—and not for the first time, either. Scary clown sightings have trickled in from around the country since the early 1980s, when “stranger danger” first became the national concern that launched a thousand social panics. But the question remains, after 30-something years of clown sightings here and there, why the sudden peak in reports?

“I believe that the surge in phantom clown sightings in 2016 are a reflection of the fears and uncertainties in American society at the present time,” Robert Bartholomew, who writes about social delusions, fads and popular myths, “I think they are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers in an increasingly urban, impersonal and unpredictable world. Phantom clowns are essentially the bogeyman in a different cultural guise.”

That sounds about right. There is a huge part of America that virtually runs on fear, even in the best of times. An astounding part of the population is adept at, and secretly in love with, scaring the shit out of itself and dreaming up justifications for a paranoia that’s already embedded in its consciousness. In the worst of times, that fear is intentionally rattled by those who recognize its usefulness for their own ends. These operators know that nothing grips the imagination of far too many Americans quite like an imagined monster, come to threaten your home and take your kids away. When a fear-prone populace finds itself in a particularly frightening cultural moment—for reasons real or imagined—the hivemind can run amok.

“I know people are fed up,” one Florida sheriff said at a news conference late last month. “They’re tired of seeing demonstrations and riots. They’re sick and tired of terroristic threats. Now they’ve got to deal with these damn clown things going on.”

That statement, which stops just short of a rant about “law and order,” makes it seem like this is all psychic collateral damage caused by Black Lives Matter and immigrants, in tandem with terrorists crossing across our borders pretending to be refugees. The quote is a particularly good example of the thinking and rhetoric that propels these moments of social panic into arising. It suggests the blame lies with some “other” (instead of faulty systems and power mongers) and helps rile up those who need only the slightest nudge to buy into the idea in a moment of social unrest and economic insecurity. The sheriff’s theory ignores that menacing cartoon clowns are a projection of the contrived fears of a populace that can’t connect its own traumatization with the people who use it against them and essentially retraumatize them for social, political and economic gain.

It also denies the fear of those who are afraid of very real things, from long-term state-backed terror to a rising tide of audible hate from multiple corners, and the way those issues might create an environment that’s inhospitable for everyone, even those who think it’s none of their concern. What’s more, it contributes to that fear in a way that pushes it toward a tipping point where the paranoia ultimately demands the projected, amorphous image of fear become fully embodied.

In the 1980s, bubbling hysteria about faceless marauding satanists eventually led to witch hunts that put real people in jail and ruined actual families and lives. If prankish teenage behavior becomes a reason for irrational national fear, punitive measures could follow. A case in Virginia that ended with two African-American teens being arrested and their mugshots splashed across the Internet for “chasing children while wearing a clown mask,” is a reminder of whose youthful indiscretions are most likely to count against them in the harshest way.

And like always, the hysteria feeds upon itself. Schools in Reading, Ohio, were closed after a woman claimed a clown physically attacked her. The Phillipsburg school district in New Jersey went into lockdown status after a “clown-related threat” appeared on social media. New Haven, Connecticut, schools announced a ban this Halloween on clown costumes and—wait for it—other “symbols of terror.” The police presence has been beefed up in Syracuse, Houston, St. Louis, and Winston-Salem, to name just a few places.

In Utah, police actually thought it necessary to use Facebook to gently suggest that maybe people should think twice before shooting at clowns. (Q: “Can I shoot or take action against someone that is dressed up like a clown?” A: “That’s not a simple yes or no question. It has a lot of variables to it.”) The police may be right, since there have been previous reports of people haphazardly firing guns into wooded areas where clowns were reportedly seen.

Yet, as Radford reminds us, “The fact is, to date, there are no confirmed reports of any clowns actually abducting, harming, killing [or] molesting kids. There just aren’t. There are zero.”

Amidst the other glaring reasons for the precipitous climb in clown hysteria, if you merely skim the surface of the fears plaguing the nation, is the season itself, which will culminate with the celebration of Halloween and the conclusion of a seemingly infinite and frightening election. There’s a chance the imagined clowns will pack up their imaginary cars and leave public consciousness with a proverbial whimper. All the better to make room for some other fabricated stand-in for American jitters about everything but the very real problems staring us in the face, before the clown car, at some point down the road, rolls back in again.

“By the end of November, it will become part of folklore,” Radford told Uproxx. “[But] this will happen again. I guarantee you this will happen again. It may be five years, it may be ten years, but someday, probably in my lifetime and certainly yours, there will be two or three more of these clown panics. They will be identical. There will be stories of clowns that are luring children. There won’t be anyone actually arrested for abducting kids.”

Apple sales decline points to faultlines in global economy


By Barry Grey
28 April 2016

Apple Inc., the world leader in market capitalization, reported on Tuesday its first quarterly sales decline in 13 years. The fall in both revenue and profits was worse than analysts had predicted and was led by the first quarterly decline in sales of the company’s top-selling product, the iPhone, since its introduction in 2007.

Apple shares, already down 20 percent on the year, fell another 6.26 percent on Wednesday, dragging the Nasdaq down half a percent for the day.

The sharp reversal of the company’s growth trajectory was a reflection not only of stagnation and slump in the real economy, behind the giddy heights on world stock markets, but a warning that vastly inflated asset values are unsustainable and will inevitably come crashing down.

Financial analyst John Shinal, writing in USA Today, summed up the implications of the company’s quarterly report by saying, “Put it all together and you get a recipe for a coming bear stampede out of Apple shares.”

Perhaps more than any other firm, Apple exemplifies the colossal and historically unprecedented inflation of prices assigned by the market to stocks and other financial assets since the Wall Street crash of September 2008. Driven upward by multitrillion-dollar bank bailouts and an orgy of money printing and debt expansion promoted by the world’s central banks, stock prices have tripled since the low point of the post-Wall Street crash recession, further enriching the world’s financial oligarchs and widening the chasm between the rich and super-rich and the rest of the planet.

This process is starkly illustrated by one statistic: In 2003, when Apple last suffered a quarterly sales decline, its market capitalization (the value of its shares) was $5 billion. Today, even with the recent drop in Apple stock, the company’s market value is well over $500 billion—more than a hundred-fold increase.

The massive and irrational inflation of stock values is an expression of the growth of financial parasitism. In the feverish pursuit of profit, capital is going not into productive investment—on the contrary, the social infrastructure is being left to rot and the living standards of the working masses are being driven down—but instead into increasingly risky, exotic and fraudulent forms of speculation.

The real economy is deteriorating. As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned in its “World Economic Outlook” released earlier this month, the rate of growth of trade, productivity and investment is slowing. The IMF downgraded its projection for world economic growth for the fourth consecutive time over the past year, and revised downward its estimates for every major part of the global economy, from the US, Europe and Japan, to Latin America, Africa, Japan and China. It warned of the “threat of a synchronized slowdown.”

The inability of world capitalism to return to normal rates of growth, despite the recourse by central banks to zero and even negative interest rates and “quantitative easing” money-printing operations on a vast scale, is reflected in slumping demand and depressed prices for commodities such as oil. The imposition of ever more brutal austerity on the working classes of North America, Europe and, increasingly, the rest of the world only deepens the slump.

In recent months, the US has seen a wave of store closures by retail chains as the destruction of decent-paying and secure jobs undermines sales to working class customers. Last week, Sears/Kmart announced scores of new closures, following the shutdown of hundreds of stores by Walmart and Macy’s.

The slowdown in the Chinese economy, the main source of world economic growth in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, is wreaking havoc on countries that export both commodities and industrialized goods, and on the revenue and profits of major corporations. At the same time, private and public debt are spiraling out of control, leading to a new and even more disastrous financial crisis.

Over the weekend, the Financial Times reported that China’s debt had risen to a record 237 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, prompting warnings that the second biggest economy in the world could be heading for a Lehman Brothers-style collapse or a period of protracted low growth, such as in Japan.

This is the context in which Apple reported a 13 percent decline in overall sales and a 22 percent decline in profits for the first quarter of 2016. Sales of iPhones fell by more than 16 percent. Sales of the company’s other products also fell, with iPads falling 19 percent, Mac computers dropping 12 percent, and the “other products” segment, which includes the Apple Watch, plummeting 50 percent.

Sales to Greater China, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, fell faster than anywhere else. They declined 26 percent, compared to the same quarter of 2015 when they rose 71 percent.

Although the Chinese market accounts for only 25 percent of Apple’s total sales, it was responsible for 60 percent of the firm’s revenue decline in the first quarter. An analyst in Shanghai with the research group Canalys was cited by the New York Times as saying said he expected the Chinese smartphone market to grow only 4.7 percent in 2016, as compared to 50 percent annual growth as recently as 2013.

For the current quarter, Apple predicted an even worse performance, with estimated revenues of $41 billion to $43 billion, at least $7 billion below the first quarter.

Apple was not the only major US company jolted Wednesday by the impact of the global economic crisis. Twitter shares plunged after the social media company released financial results showing weaker than expected revenue and a second-quarter projection that disappointed market expectations.

In response to the turmoil in the energy sector from the collapse in oil prices, Standard & Poor’s stripped Exxon Mobil of its top credit rating for the first time since the Great Depression.

The decline in Apple’s sales is one more indication that an entire period of economic and geo-political development, spanning a quarter century, is coming to an end, ushering in a new and violent period of economic conflict, nationalism and militarism between major powers, together with an upsurge in the class struggle.

In October 1987, Wall Street suffered the biggest one-day fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in history. This signaled the collapse of the reactionary nostrums of the Reagan-Thatcher years.

The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later opened up new markets and new sources of raw materials and cheap labor for the US and the other imperialist powers, giving world capitalism a temporary boost. But the expansion of the 1990s was fueled above all by cheap credit provided by the Federal Reserve, the further deregulation of the banks, and the benefits for the ruling class from the collapse of the old labor movements.

This credit-fueled bubble came crashing down by the end of the decade, with the crisis of the so-called “Asian Tigers,” the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management, and the Russian default. Next came the bubble, which imploded in 2000-2001. It was followed by the sub-prime housing bubble, which burst in 2008, producing the biggest financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The current bubble is greater and more pervasive than any of the previous ones, involving at its center a massive accumulation of debt by the central banks themselves. And the gaping contradiction between the “recovery” for the stock markets and the bank accounts of the rich and the deepening social crisis facing the working class is sparking growing social opposition and a profound political radicalization.

How Facebook is making us all dumber. And racist.

An Orwellian, dystopian brainwashing of America is happening right now, but because it’s all virtual we don’t realize its hideous nature

Donald Trump, the sustainability of the KKK, Occupy anything, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Holocaust deniers, Climate Change doubters and everyone wearing man buns all share one insidious commonality: Facebook.

More specifically, they have in common the unnatural effects of rabid fans chattering on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and hundreds more services that allow us to censor the information we allow into our smartphone windows on the world.

The self-sustaining buzz creates a lot of noise, but in a small group, allowing something that maybe isn’t always good for our culture to incubate, grow and eventually, to hatch.

Orwell got it wrong in 1984.
Bradbury got it wrong in Fahrenheit 451.
It won’t be a totalitarian regime that gives us a dystopian society.
It will be ourselves.

Facebook and other crack-like addictions are engineered to let us self-censor our perspectives, affecting how we view our neighbors, teachers, co-workers, and even our children, our understanding of geopolitical challenges, and our very understanding of ourselves.

What do you share? What do you read?

These networks create insulated, closed-minded communities that only read and share one perspective, repeated, parroted, memed, and repeated.

It’s peer pressure, writ large.

If you’re uncomfortable with this indictment of our ubiquitous behavior, I’ll cut to the point right now:

If you make one New Year’s resolution, make it this. Follow a new blogger  or news outlet with which you disagree.

More on this at the end of the article.  First, some perspective on just how often we’re consulting our circle of friends.

Realize that we’re checking Facebook 14 or more times a day.

We miss our child’s winning soccer goal because we were reading a post from our high school study buddy about his kid’s soccer game.

Why can’t we stop looking? Because Facebook is more addictive than cigarettes, according to the University of Chicago.

These shared “news items” are how the entire Internet learned about the blue and black (or was it white and gold) dress back in February.

It’s how this month, 119,997 people shared a fake Facebook post about a burned dog that actually had a piece of ham on its face. Pray for this poor burned dog. 1 share – 10 prayers.  And they believed the hamdog was truly horribly disfigured.  Until someone pointed out it was ham.

Meanwhile, hundreds of children, adults and the elderly were killed, or worse–raped then killed– last year in South Sudan and no one talked about it.  The story, still on SFGATE has 0 comments as of this moment. Maybe that will change.

We follow only those we like or agree with.  And that’s what we read. Then the algorithm serves us more of those posts.

And when something we dislike somehow manages to sneak past those software gates, we can instantly block that person or source forever, report it, or hide the post.  Done. No more of disagreeable ideas.  Just more of people agreeing with us.

And the way things go viral is when they’re so innocuous and so UNIMPORTANT that our right wing and left wing friends can talk about them with equal ignorance or wisdom, and we allow them through the filters. They make it to our feeds not because they’re important but because they’re inane.

Because we don’t care enough about whether a dog wears pants on its bottom half or on its back half to actually block our friends with whom we disagree.  We let this discord permeate our closed-minded, insulated circle. We comment on them, talk about them, and share them again.

And the important things going on?  We don’t even know they exist.

Consider all the fuming people, rending their garments to say the media never covered all those terrorist attacks on non-whites before the Paris attacks.  Many people got worked up, shaming the media about not covering the 147 killed in Kenya by gunmen.   Then the media fought back.


We simply posted the links to our stories and said, as San Francisco Chronicle editor in chief Audrey Cooper wrote on Facebook, “Don’t mistake reading your FB feed for being an active consumer of smart news.” Then she posted this article that explains it best.

Narrow mindedness is now normal mindedness.

I’m an anachronism.  I do something every day without fail. Something 70% of people my age do not do. (I’m 41).  I read a daily paper.  Cover to cover, at least the headlines.

The numbers of us reading a daily newspaper has been plummeting since the rise of social media in 2008.

The reason I do it is because I want to see the broad perspective on all the news. I know (personally) the vast team of editors, writers, layout staff, and the copy desk have meticulously gone over every part of this to make sure it’s an accurate reflection of what happened in the world and in the Bay Area during that 24 hour period.

The other alternative is also dying: the evening newscast. Along with it, balanced reporting

Fox News is rising, with an unapologetic bias.  I’m fine with the existence of the network. I’m just not fine that those who follow Fox News don’t hear any other opinions because they no longer read the paper, or watch the objective newscasts from ABC, CBS, and NBC that are broadcast for free to everyone.

Cable can narrowcast. The Internet can microcast. But now, anyone and everyone can broadcast something that will reach the entire world with their often un-researched and unconfirmed and unchecked views.

It’s how we can deny climate change because our feeds are cleansed of any points we disagreed with.

And Donald Trump’s “brilliant ideas” are lauded among his fervent followers while the context of his embarrassing, imbecilic, childlike rants are suppressed by the same algorithms.  The right get righter and the left get lefter.   And in the middle, the informed, the open-minded, and the intelligent get angrier.  Or give up.

The tyranny of personalization that leads to self-directed mind control, groupthink and xenophobia

A group that wants to win your hearts and minds doesn’t need to burn the books. How quaint was that.  We stopped reading them long ago.  These overlords merely need to create great memes, preferably with cats and clever white block, sanserif text.

The only solution I see to the homogenization of ideas in our culture?  We must purposefully subscribe to Facebook feeds with which we disagree.

If you make one New Year’s resolution, make it this.  Follow someone or preferably some media source with whom you disagree.

• If you’re a Democrat, follow Conservative Daily.

• If you’re a Republican, follow Occupy Democrats.

• If you want it lighter, and you’re an evangelical Christian who doesn’t believe evolution had anything to do with anything, follow IFLScience. (Warning, expletive).

• If you’re an atheist who thinks all Christians are naive hypocrites, follow Fr. James Martin.

And please, comment on this post.

Tell me how crazy I am. Tell me what an idiot I am. Tell me where I got a fact wrong, or missed some perspective, or am a crazy conservative or whackjob liberal.  Talk about this post.  Because that will make more people read it, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll seek other perspectives before making the important decisions that happen in the ballot box, and not in the Facebook feeds.

Twitter Is So Hopelessly White Its Only Black Engineering Boss Just Quit in Protest

Twitter Is So Hopelessly White Its Only Black Engineering Boss Just Quit in Protest

Leslie Miley was “the only African-American in [engineering] leadership” at Twitter, a company that employs thousands, and owes much of its success to adoption by non-white users. Then he quit, as he explains in a new blog post, because the company is absolutely brain-dead on race.

Despite repeated “commitments” “to” “improving” “diversity,” Twitter remains as lily white as the day it was founded by a cabal of white people. According to Miley’s account, it’s because everyone inside either doesn’t really give a shit about diversity in hiring, or is too clueless to be helpful:

There were also the Hiring Committee meetings that became contentious when I advocated for diverse candidates. Candidates who were dinged for not being fast enough to solve problems, not having internships at ‘strong’ companies and who took too long to finish their degree. Only after hours of lobbying would they be hired. Needless to say, the majority of them performed well.

Especially painful is this quote by Twitter’s (white) Senior VP of Engineering:

Personally, a particularly low moment was having my question about what specific steps Twitter engineering was taking to increase diversity answered by the Sr. VP of Eng at the quarterly Engineering Leadership meeting. When he responded with “diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar.” I then realized I was the only African-American in Eng leadership.

In other words, hiring more black leaders at Twitter would require Twitter to “lower the bar” on talent and ability, which is absurd.

Miley also says the few black employees at Twitter often felt like they’d been forgotten:

Twitter sponsored an event celebrating the work of Freada Kapor Klein and the Level Playing Field Institute. The former Head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous was a featured speaker. This event was attended by many a variety of leaders in tech representing a broad cross section of races, genders, and backgrounds. However, the employee resource group representing Twitter’s black employees (@blackbirds) did not receive an invitation.

And in June of 2015, Jesse Jackson was allowed to present at the Twitter shareholder meeting. Again, there was no communication to Twitter’s black employee resource group. In comparison, when Hillary Clinton and Mellody Hobson visited, the Twitter Women Engineering resource group was notified and given an opportunity to meet privately.

When Twitter did make an effort to find non-white talent, it derailed itself by taking a painfully dense data-centric approach, rather than just trying to act like humans. It’s Silicon Valley to a dumbass T:

As we continued the discussion, he suggested I create a tool to analyze candidates last names to classify their ethnicity. His rationale was to track candidates thru the pipeline to understand where they were falling out. He made the argument that the last name Nguyen, for example, has an extremely high likelihood of being Vietnamese. As an engineer, I understand this suggestion and why it may seem logical. However, classifying ethnicity’s by name is problematic as evidenced by my name (Leslie Miley) What I also found disconcerting is this otherwise highly sophisticated thinker could posit that an issue this complex could be addressed by name analysis.

Miley laments that now that he’s gone, “Twitter no longer has any managers, directors, or VP’s of color in engineering or product management.” This doesn’t sound good for the chances of including people who don’t look like Jack Dorsey.

Contact the author at

Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?

By Thomas Swann On July 31, 2015

Post image for Social media and movements: is the love affair really over?Social media are monitored and controlled by large corporations. Can they also facilitate the kind of self-organization that defines radical politics?

When I started my PhD in 2011 there was a strong feeling that radical politics was changing. On the one hand, there was more of it. The Arab Spring, theindignados, Occupy: they all made it seem like direct action and direct democracy, were moving out of the ghettos of what remained of the alter-globalization movement. With mass assemblies and a radical DIY (or even DIO: Do It Ourselves) politics, something was changing across the world. In the face of austerity and totalitarianism, an actual alternative was being prefigured.

At the same time, the tools of these protests and uprisings came into the spotlight. Not only the democratic mechanisms of decision-making but also the digital infrastructures that, many argued, were facilitating what was so promising in these movements.

Social media was increasingly seen as an essential element in how large groups were able to organize without centralized leadership. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter were allowing people to mobilize not as hierarchical structures like trade unions and political parties but as horizontal networks. Individual activists and sub-groups enjoyed a tactical autonomy while remaining part of a larger whole.

Almost four years have passed, and now at the end of my PhD the gloss to this narrative has to a large extent worn off. Some elements of the 2011 uprisings have been consumed by the tragedy of civil war and renewed dictatorships, while others have dispersed.

But of course, four years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things, and the examples of Podemos and Syriza suggest that perhaps these movements are in fact evolving and developing new strategies. While the story of mass mobilization and radical social movements is by no means over, what has been disputed perhaps more than anything else in the last four years is the promise that lay in the tools of the 2011 uprisings.

Social media, once held up by some as the very essence of contemporary radical politics, is now seen in a harsher, less forgiving light. A number of experiences have underlined the implicit hierarchies and inequalities that were reinforced by social media.

Others have pointed towards the ways in which social media exploit, for profit, our online behavior. The Edward Snowden saga has shown how vulnerable our online organizing is, as has the repression of social media-based activism seen inTurkey and elsewhere.

But among these critiques of social media, is there something that can be salvaged? Can platforms like Facebook and Twitter be useful in radical politics, and if so how? Perhaps we don’t need to abandon social media just yet. Perhaps it can, in one form or another, still facilitate the kind of organization that was so promising in 2011 and that continues, in many ways, to define radical left politics.

The promise of social media

Social media platforms are often discussed as means of communication, self-expression and forming public discourse. As well as this, however, social media platforms — and communication practices more generally — also act as infrastructures that support the actions we take. They allow us to share information and resources, and to make decisions that can then be enacted.

In this way, communication practices can also be understood as information management systems. This is a concept borrowed from the world of business and management and refers to any system, normally electronic and increasingly digital, that facilitates organization. Work email and intranets are of this sort. They don’t just let people talk to one another but also contribute to getting tasks completed.

What social media might offer when viewed as information management systems, as platforms that facilitate certain forms of action, is a way to make radical and anarchist forms of organization more like the participatory and democratic structures that characterized the 2011 uprisings and radical left politics since at least the Zapatista rebellion, the alter-globalization movement in the 1990s and, even earlier, the radical feminism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Social media can provide the infrastructure for both democratic decision-making and autonomous action, with activists given access to resources and information that may enable them to act in ways that more hierarchical communication structures reduce to command and control processes.

While there are significant critiques of social media from activists and scholars alike (focusing on privacy and surveillance, corporate and state control, the political economy of free labor and the psychology and behavior that is encouraged by the architecture of mainstream platforms), I want to suggest that there is still a potential inherent in social media owing to the nature of the communication practices it supports.

These practices can be described as many-to-many communication. They are potentially built on conversations with multiple actors that reflect some of the necessary foundations of the participatory democracy of radical Left politics. Social media can, therefore, be seen as systems that facilitate radically democratic forms of organization and that can support the kinds of autonomy and horizontality that have in part been seen in the 2011 uprisings.

This is the promise of social media. And it is a promise that may yet be fulfilled. If social media present opportunities for horizontal, conversational communication, and these types of communication are consistent with the ways in which we try to imagine non-hierarchical social relationships and decision-making structures, then social media can be considered as having at least the potential to be a part of a radical left politics.

Internal and external communication practices

As part of my PhD research I interviewed a number of activists involved in the Dutch radical left and anarchist scene. The pictures they provided of the communication practices of the groups they were involved in can be used to work through some of the ideas around many-to-many communication, its relationship to radical politics and the promise of social media.

Internally, the radical left groups in question all more or less conform to the many-to-many communication model. Much of this communication is done through face-to-face meetings at which members aim to reach consensus on the topics being discussed and the decisions that need to be made.

In terms of social networking technologies, however, activists spoke of the email listservs and online forums that have been common to radical left politics at least since the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the beginnings of the alter-globalization movement.

While none of the groups used newer, mainstream platforms like Facebook in their internal communication practices, one of the groups did use the alternative social networking site Crabgrass as a core part of their discussion and decision-making infrastructure. Crabgrass was developed by people connected to the RiseUp collective that provides secure email addresses for activists. It aims to facilitate social networking and group collaboration with a specifically radical, left-wing bent.

Externally, many-to-many communication practices became much rarer. While most of the groups use Facebook and Twitter, they use them primarily as extensions of their websites, which in turn act mainly as extensions of their printed newspapers.

The three exceptions to this highlight the abilities of both mainstream and alternative social media platforms to play this role. One group, involved in community organizing, was active on Facebook not only in sharing articles and announcements but also in responding to comments and engaging in discussions with other users.

Another made use of crowd-sourced mapping in a way that reflects the scope of many-to-many communication to support autonomous action. The third example of using social media in line with this participatory ethos came from one group that printed comments and responses from Facebook and Twitter in their newspaper, facilitating some level of conversation between the group and those outside it.

Institutionalizing autonomy

The many-to-many communication social media facilitates, insofar as it allows for conversation rather than merely the broadcast of information (or even orders), is intimately connected to a radical left and anarchist vision of organization. If prefiguration, the realization of the goals of politics in the here and now, is taken as one of the core concerns of radical social movements, then a commitment to many-to-many communication might need to be seen as just as important as the commitment to democracy and equality.

It has the potential to empower activists to take autonomous action and the bedrock of participatory democracy. In this way, social media platforms can contribute towards freeing activism from the top-down structures of political parties and trade unions.

But is there another way of looking at these types of organization and of the structures suggested by social media and many-to-many communication? I mentioned at the start of this article that social media and the examples of the 2011 uprisings have lost some of what made them so attractive at the time. Activists are, it seems, increasingly (and perhaps rightly given the limitations) wary of both networked organization and networked communications. In the last year or so, however, radical politics has shifted somewhat.

In place of social movements that are completely opposed to, and autonomous from political parties, the rise of Podemos and Syriza, and indeed the surge of support for the Greens in England and Wales and the Scottish National Party in Scotland, might point to a return of the mass party as an element of radical left social movement strategy.

Podemos and Syriza, by many accounts, have become the institutional articulations of mass social movements. They haven’t replaced them and are clear that they aim to act as parliamentary wings subservient to those movements (although the current tensions in Syriza suggest that this is much more problematic that some might make out).

In the case of Podemos, this has meant a continuation of the radical, direct democracy of the 15-M movement and the party has relied on social media and many-to-many communication not in getting its message across to voters but in defining the very content of that message and of its policies.

Social media might continue to have a role in radical left politics after all. The many-to-many communication practices it supports can be, at their best, prefigurative of the goals of radical politics, of democratic and participatory decision-making. As information management systems, facilitating concrete action, the examples of the radical left groups involved in my PhD research point towards this conclusion.

Both mainstream social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and alternative platforms, such as Crabgrass and n-1, can be an important part of radical left politics, whether in the form of mass social movement mobilizations or the articulation of those movements in more democratic political parties.

Thomas Swann is a PhD student in the University of Leicester School of Management and member of the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy. His research focuses on radical left organization, social media and organizational cybernetics. Follow him on Twittter via @ThomasSwann1.

Fueled by outrage: Why social media ultimately drives us apart

I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!

Above: I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!

Image Credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock

Clearly it didn’t turn out that way.

If anything, social media has driven us further apart. On top of the filter bubbles that push us toward more extreme and entrenched beliefs, social media has become an environment fueled by outrage.

Outrage is viral, outrage is easy, and with anonymity — or at least distance — screaming your outrage on social media or even launching personal attacks carries no consequences. Expressing outrage makes people feel good, allowing them to believe they are doing something to bring attention to things they think are problems. Outrage often masquerades as strength and action, and requires no admission of vulnerability or weakness. Outrage sells pageviews. And outrage is the easiest emotion to elicit.

Think about how social media platforms are designed. They are often anonymous, allowing people to yell, scream, and name call, all while remaining safe in hiding. Even when anonymity is not allowed, the physical distance between participants means nobody has to ever face one another.

The short message nature of many of the platforms also serve to discourage in-depth conversations while being perfectly designed for expressing outrage. Consider Twitter’s 140 character limit. It’s virtually impossible to have an intelligent debate in 140 characters, but the format works just fine for name calling, ad hominem attacks, and expressing outrage. Add in the fact that it is largely anonymous, and allows anyone to address anyone else, and you have a nearly perfect platform for outrage and bullying.

Compare social media conversations to real life conversations. What percentage of the people who tweet nasty things at celebrities, or even at other regular people with whom they disagree, would say these things to their face? Maybe one percent?

How many people would start real life conversations the same way they start online conversations? Imagine meeting someone at a party, “Hi, I’m Francisco, and I’M OUTRAGED MONSANTO IS POISONING US WITH GMOs!!! THE GOVERNMENT IS OPPRESSING US!!! PEOPLE USE WORDS I FIND INSENSITIVE!!! AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!!” and then having five people standing nearby repeat, “YES!!! I’M ALSO OUTRAGED MONSANTO IS POISONING US WITH GMOs!!! THE GOVERNMENT IS OPPRESSING US!!! PEOPLE USE WORDS I FIND INSENSITIVE!!! AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!!” Sane people don’t talk this way in real life but this is exactly how people communicate on social media when they post and repost links about the latest thing that has them outraged, and then follow it up by shouting down anyone who dares to disagree.

The end result of all of this outrage is that valuable, well reasoned conversations disappear from social media. As Sam Altman of Y-Combinator said recently, “Most smart people I know have decided to just not discuss anything sensitive because of the Internet lynch mob looking for any slight mistake.” Fittingly, in reply to his tweet, some people attacked Altman for what they viewed as his insensitive use of the word “lynch mob” while others accused those leaving the public conversation of being cowards — essentially they were outraged that outrage is driving the reasonable people away.

As outrage has come to be the dominant culture of social media, what started as a way to connect people has largely become a way to attack people or simply express anger. Like a giant dysfunctional family consumed with animosity and who thinks yelling is the appropriate way to communicate, social media interactions are far more likely to consist of expressions of outrage, accusations, and name calling instead of conversations. Ultimately, what was supposed to bring us together is serving to drive us apart.

Big Data Is Watching You

The hidden price of Google, Twitter and Facebook.



Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money.

What are we prepared to give up in the name of convenience? ThroughoutJacob Silverman’s capacious study of the world we’re in and the world we’re making—or rather, allowing tech companies to make for us—it’s demonstrated repeatedly that billions of us are happy to surrender our privacy to save a few keystrokes. Why not log in to that other website with your Facebook or Twitter or Google ID? Why not use your real identity and photograph, with a record of your movements, all across the web? You have it on Google’s word that they’re not “evil”; what could be the harm?

Silverman’s new book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, does a thorough, if sometimes long-winded, job of explaining what the harm is and what it could become. He begins with an analysis of the philosophy, variously termed “techno-utopianism” or “cyber-libertarianism,” that drives the major social media companies. The ideology should be familiar in essence, if not in name—we’ve been soaking in it for the past decade. Media theorists, long before the advent of Facebook, were calling it “the Californian ideology.” It’s what happens when youthful rebelliousness and a countercultural, anti-authoritarian spirit meets gobs of cash and untrammeled power. It’s the myth—tirelessly peddled by optimistic tech, business and culture reporters and embraced by the customers who line up for new gadgets—that a corporation that calls its headquarters a “campus” and equips its offices with slides, snacks and free daycare is something other than a capitalist entity, with motives other than profit.

To be fair, the big tech companies—Google and Facebook are the stars here, with Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn singing backup—do have goals beyond their bottom line. They want to do the kinds of things that beauty-pageant contestants want to do: cure diseases, end terrorism, go to the moon. They share a disdain for government—Mark Zuckerberg is committed to the idea of “companies over countries”—but also share a zeal for surveillance.

For Silverman, the harm of social media is both specific and philosophical. It turns journalism into a clickbait race, for instance, but it also radically changes our concepts of privacy and identity. He considers the fate of those who are chewed up and spat out by the Internet’s nano-fame cycle (nobody gets 15 minutes anymore), whose embarrassing or self-aggrandizing antics, captured on video, do the rounds and attract a quick, overwhelming torrent of derision or rage. But while we might shrug our shoulders at the fate of an Antoine Dodson or a Taylor Chapman (respectively a viral hero and villain), Silverman argues that we should be aware of the numbing and alienating consequences of the viral instinct. Not only does it frequently make clowns of those who are seriously disadvantaged, and destroy reputations and careers, it also molds the larger media world in its own image. Hate-watching a two-minute video of a reality show contestant’s racist rant is a sign that you’ll give attention to this kind of content—and the site that hosts the video, beholden to its advertisers, traffics in your attention, not your intelligence or humanity.

Headlines have always been composed to grab attention, but now they can gather intelligence too. Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money. As Silverman describes it, the urge to gather endless data about all of us—from our spending habits to the pace of our heartbeats—is a huge, lucrative industry, driven by the fantasy that correlation is causation, that because you did X activity, you’ll buy Y product.

It may be foolhardy to make predictions about the fast-evolving tech world, but Silverman offers some chilling evidence that the world of “big data” is beginning to affect the choices available to us. Some healthcare companies will lower your premiums if you use a fitness-tracking app (and share that data, of course). Data about what you eat and buy is increasingly being used like your credit score, to determine if you are worthy of that job, that car or that home.

So what? A good citizen who eats her greens and pays her bills has nothing to fear! And if she worries that some misstep—glancing at an unsavory website, running a red light, suffering a computer hack—will damage her, she can just pay protection money to one of several companies that exist to safeguard their clients’ online reputations. Silverman has no solution to these linked problems, of course, since there is far too much money driving this brave new world and far too little government will to resist. Mass surveillance is the present and the future. But if information—meaning data points—is corporate power, then knowledge and critical thinking may be citizen power.

Silverman is too cautious and self-conscious a thinker to inspire a revolution. Instead, he advocates a kind of lowlevel “social-media rebellion”—messing with, rather than rejecting, the digitally networked world in which we live. Putting up a cartoon monkey as your online avatar might not feel like much of a blow to the Facebook assault on privacy, but it’s an annoyance to the booming facial- recognition industry—and perhaps a few million determined annoyances can disrupt the techno-utopia in favor of the common good.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.