Political Strategy and Buzzfeed’s analysis of “the Twitter problem”
I often hear that the aggressive elements of the right do not have a strategy. In Europe, this is often said of the loose networks that run under the banner of Pegida or the violent men that travel to Greece and the Balkans to beat up immigrants and asylum seekers, the men who set asylum centers on fire in The Netherlands, etc. It is also often used as criticism of Geert Wilders’ political discourse (i.e. “he doesn’t have a strategy; he never offers solutions”). I have also seen it used as part and parcel of Donald Trump’s campaign and his seemingly lacking platform (i.e. “he does not have a platform”).
Now, this past weekend, Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel wrote an in depth feature about the problem of harassment on Twitter. It’s a very detailed look behind the scenes of Twitter’s struggles to come up with comprehensive policies that protect the victims of violent rhetoric on the platform. Again and again, the journalist points to the lack of strategy on Twitter’s leadership team.
Here is the problem: like in all the examples I listed above (and many more too long to include), harassment is the strategy. Argentine-Brazilian anthropologist Rita Segato talks about “the pedagogy of cruelty”. In an interview she gave last year (translations mine through and through), she pointed out a few key elements that, to me, are worth considering in these discussions. Namely, that today, capitalism depends on a strategy of habitual cruelty for the purpose of numbing us to its effects. The current paradigm of exploitation requires a wide spectrum of vulnerability of human life. In this context, harassment is the strategy. It’s not merely the tool to create and promote a state of helplessness and vulnerability but it is at the very root of a widespread system of violence on which the foundations of exploitation can be laid down.
Twitter’s “problem” is not a bug. It’s a feature on a system that functions on the basis of public violence as a warning. This violence can take multiple forms but ultimately, they manifest through the discursive (and eventually physical) attacks on those who are in need of a deterrent: Shut up or else. Pegida supporters, Wilders’ angry fans, Trump voters, etc do not exist apart from the violence that Twitter not only allows but actively enables on its platform under the excuse of “free speech”. That this violence more often than not comes from the same group that feels their entitlement to exploit others come under threat is not coincidental. Twitter might not explicitly say so but they very well know their role in this pedagogy of cruelty. That they use the excuse of “free speech” is merely a way to blur their participation in the perpetuation of these violences. “Free” as in, free for all who want to shout abuse.
The pedagogy of cruelty, then, part of the toolset to silence the dissenting voices who refuse to accept that “making a country great again” comes at the expense of their grief and uncontested exploitation. Buzzfeed’s article comes short in naming the ultimate price that the victims of the abuse pay: the toll it takes in their material realities. The price for being on the receiving end of the abuse is not merely an inconvenience, it’s also a constant chipping away at the victim’s mental health, capabilities to use the platform for their own work (and eventual economic profit) and their right to express their ideas without fear of retribution. The objective, in the end, fulfilled: the cowered, silent victim with less avenues of public participation and more vulnerable to exploitation.
I believe that one of the ways in which we have been desensitized to violence is in that we do not always see it as “strategy”. We tend to think of violence as either symptomatic of something else (i.e. as a symptom of toxic masculinity or racism or misogyny, or a combination thereof, etc) or as an expression of individual frustration (i.e. when discussing a mass shooter, “he was unhappy because X”). The violent political rhetoric of Pegida, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump and many others like them are not removed from the “Twitter Problem”. They are the strategy at the heart of the foundation over which our selves can be used in this dominant system of exploitation. And I doubt that Twitter’s leadership is keen on fixing that.