"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Have you heard? Social media is good again!
The last several years have been rather rough for the social media companies. These companies—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others—have gone from being hailed as the forces that would bring democracy to the world, to being seen as the forces that are murdering democracy while shoring up the power of authoritarians. The companies that once were praised for their goals of “making the world more open and connected” are now lambasted for enclosing people within bubbles and connecting people with misinformation. Yet, luckily for social media, thanks to the efforts of a ragtag legion of, predominantly young, TikTok users and K-Pop fans social media’s tarnished image has gotten some of its shine back.
When times are dark, any amusing glimmer of good news provides a boost. And thus, the story that some TikTok users came together to massively overinflate expectations for Trump’s Tulsa rally is highly welcome. While it is hard to fully attribute the sparse turnout at Trump’s Tulsa rally to any single cause (after all, we are still in the midst of a pandemic), what made the event such a public embarrassment is that attendance at the rally was expected to be massive. The Trump campaign had crowed about its expectations that hundreds of thousands of people would turn up, so overwhelming the capacity of the venue that an extra stage was even constructed so that Trump could address the hordes of adoring supporters who could not make it inside the venue. What was supposed to be a massive comeback rally that would reinvigorate Trump’s campaign, while demonstrating the ardent loyalty of his base, was a huge flop—exposing Trump to mockery from his foes while making even his allies worry.
And much of the credit, or the blame, has fallen to TikTok users and K-Pop fans who reserved thousands upon thousands of tickets for the event. This act of culture jamming succeeded in tricking the Trump campaign into believing that nearly a million supporters were prepared to brave the pandemic to show their love for Trump, and the mass ordering of tickets has likely swamped the Trump campaign’s significant voter targeting apparatus with a massive amount of junk data.
To be absolutely clear: the people who responded to this social media campaign (it may have started on TikTok but it eventually spread to other platforms) by reserving tickets to the event are to be applauded. Insofar as their goal was to overinflate expectations so greatly that the actual number of rally goers was underwhelming and embarrassing, they were tremendously successful. And, what’s more, the whole affair was pretty funny.
Nevertheless, even as it is worthwhile to be cheered by what happened, it is important not to get too excited about this story. After all, we’ve been here before.
“Young people with [new technology] are using it for activism!” is not a new formula, and it is a formula that swiftly morphs from “are using it for activism” to “will save the world!” Thus, “the TikTok teens will save us” is just the new version of “the Twitter teens will save us” which had replaced the view that “the YouTube teens will save us” which had replaced the view that “the Facebook teens will save us” which had replaced the view that “the smartphone teens will save us” which had replaced the view that “the Internet teens will save us” which had…well, you get the picture. If you had a dollar for every time it has been breathlessly reported that young people were using a new technology for activist purposes (gasp!), you’d have enough money to fund a new social media platform, and the young users of that platform would eventually be hailed as the people who will save the world. As the major social media companies have consolidated their power, there has been a slowdown in the emergence of new platforms on which such utopian hopes can be pinned, but by so thoroughly embarrassing the Trump campaign the TikTok teens have elevated their platform of choice from an app that was primarly seen as being filled with goofy videos into the thrilling “[new technology]” that is surely going to save the day.
People use the technologies available to them for furthering their political projects; this is true now, was true before the TikTok teens were born, and was true before Trump was born as well. Furthermore, that politically minded people and activist groups recognize and seize upon the affordances of technologies in novel ways that challenge existing power structures is not new either. Unfortunately, what is also not new, is the belief that access to new technologies is a magical solution to complex social issues. The danger here is that in the formulation “Young people with [new technology] are using it for activism!” what winds up getting the most attention is the “[new technology]” and not whatever cause the activism is about. This acts as a wonderful bait and switch for the media and for those in power who are able to now spend their time talking about that “[new technology]” as opposed to talking about the actual demands of the movement.
While discussions about activism that center new technologies are ostensibly about politics, they work by deflecting the conversation from a serious consideration of complex issues into a simplistic fantasy wherein there is a wonderful technological solution to those complex issues. Focusing on technological fixes is a great way of avoiding deeper conversations about the historical roots of a problem, they deflect criticism of corporations by celebrating tools created by corporations, and they replace the slow (often tedious) work of politics (and political education) with flashy high-tech gizmos where you don’t have to go to a meeting (or do the reading) you just have to push a button. It places the onus of political responsibility on the shoulders of young people, thereby shifting attention off of the ways in which the voting habits of their elders have produced the wretched situation in which these young people now find themselves Thus, it poses young people on social media as the solution to Trump, without addressing the far more thorny matter of what it is exactly that led to Trump’s rise in the first place. It can also serve to muddle the assessment of events; after all, that TikTok teens had driven up expectations of turnout does not really explain why so few Trump supporters actually turned out. And by making a platform appear as one favored by activists, it tends to create a homogenized view of the platform that creates a lopsided view of how the platform is being used—as the platform is also a hub for misinformation, racism, conspiratorial views, and plenty of innocuous goofy content. Of course, activist campaigns that make use of these technologies receive the level of attention they get as a result of the ways in which activists manage to genuinely accomplish things. Yet the present world situation is a grim testament to the fact that for all of the small victories young people armed with new technologies have won over the years, the systems of power and control have continued to trundle forward fairly unimpeded.
Where once social media was touted as the purview of progressivism, and closely associated with left-leaning young people, the Trump years have been a reminder that corporate technologies that are at core about exerting control and extracting profit tend to favor those whose political ideologies are centered on exerting control and extracting profit. Many on the left are loathe to admit it, but Trump and his acolytes have proven to be extremely savvy users of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—it may well be that social media does not truly favor technologically skillful young people, but their foes. In the Trump years, for good reason, social media has come to be seen in a fairly negative light—but thanks to the TikTok teens there are many figures (mainly in the media and Silicon Valley) who are eager to go back to singing the praises of social media. We find ourselves in the midst of multiple intersecting crises, and there are dark clouds looming on the horizon. Yet as we assess the mess we are currently in, it is essential to bear in mind that an uncritical adoration for high-tech tools is one of the things that helped get us into this mess.
Those who organized on TikTok to embarrass Trump are to be applauded, but as long as we believe that new social media platforms provide a solution to all of our political woes we are just embarrassing ourselves.