A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 4

This month’s post, the forth in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 US Elections,” comes from Anthony Warnke and Kirsten Higgins (Green River College). In their post, they discuss how the COVID-19 outbreak ups the stakes in the 2020 US presidential election, and they call for other teacher-scholar-activists to “reject the comfort of being sad” in favor of taking action around and through this election.

In the coming months, this series will feature critical perspectives on the elections, issues related to them, and thoughts about how scholar-activists (teachers and students) can intervene. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.

Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing Editors—Spark

Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist

Rejecting the “Comfort in Being Sad”: Relocating Agency within the Stakes of 2020

By Anthony Warnke and Kirsten Higgins

Strengthening Our Resolve

The Trump administration’s COVID-19 response has laid bare the stakes of the 2020 election in striking new ways. Our students—already at risk of deportation, gun violence, police brutality, predatory lending practices, racist attacks, financial abuse, and a thousand other assaults and indignities—are increasingly at risk of losing their lives as well as their paths to a reasonable livelihood. Grounded in the need for solidarity with our students, we call for clear, unequivocal action on the part of teacher-activist-scholars, especially two-year college writing instructors and basic writing instructors. We call for a resounding commitment to putting aside our divisions and rejecting the comfortable and/or critique-oriented postures of the privileged. Whatever our wish for the candidate of our dreams to take on Trump, we now face the stark choice: vote for Joe Biden, even if that feels like a personal compromise, or allow our students’ living nightmare under Trump to continue.

As tenured English faculty members, it’s easy for us privileged folks to retrospectively idealize the pre-COVID-19 Trump era. We have, over the last few years, fallen prey to a kind of sleepy crisis fatigue as our city has paid an increasingly steep price for its successes in the context of neoliberalism: a skyrocketing cost of living, an increasingly cut-throat housing market, and a lack of compassion for those who experience housing insecurity. As the city has evolved, some would say it has been nearly destroyed. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics have seemed prescient in their vision of rage at bureaucratic oppression that, embodied as a risen Frances Farmer, could “come back as fire/to burn all the liars/leave a blanket of ash on the ground.” But what we have experienced in our city with the civic and environmental destruction concomitant with its neoliberal successes is not that righteous revenge of a woman wronged by oppressive, patriarchal psychiatric and medical structures but the wages of years of neglectful, entitled affluence. The blanket of ash we see is in the air, not on the ground, in the form of the choking particulates from the climate crisis-induced, summer-long wildfire seasons that grip the West Coast and its interior forests. The burning is the dwindling of the resident Orca pods and the losses to the ecological web that go with them. The burning is the stark inequities of our economic reality, in which tiny-house villages and forested hillsides choked with trash are the most obvious symbols of the lackluster policy response to the housing crisis. The burning is the sapping of strength of our students, who take $15 per hour jobs at Amazon’s fulfillment centers until their youthful energy is sucked dry. In truth, these fires have been burning for a long time, and we have become somewhat inured to them. To acknowledge the truth of it, we have grown too used to the “comfort in being sad” (to quote Nirvana) and fallen into patterns of critique. In this posture of critique, we have left our region’s dispossessed, including our students and their families, without our aid in fighting the fire.

We now wake to an inferno. COVID-19 has thrown into stark relief the systemic inequalities which we have critiqued without experiencing firsthand. As full-time college instructors, we still have our housing, jobs, and places in society; many of us still have our health, too. In the past several years, right-wing authoritarian policy has further entrenched precarity for underserved groups that COVID-19 only further exacerbates; disproportionate death tolls among people of color are perhaps the starkest data points to illustrate this (Thebault et al.). While that precarity is a product of political forces that Trump and right-wing authoritarianism lead in the present, we know that oppression and dispossession long preceded his election. Only now, as media theorist Thomas de Zengotita argues in an interview, COVID-19 is bringing unmediated reality to everyone. Unlike disasters and crises that rarely go beyond our screens, “no one can opt out of this pandemic” (Wilkinson). As a result, a return to normal is, at best, a return to tragedy happening to someone else, somewhere else, tragedy that many of us can sympathize with but never feel ourselves. This post is an attempt to attest to the injustices of business as-usual, to enact the refusal of postures of critique that take comfort in being sad, as we strengthen our resolve to band together to resist the existential danger to some of the most vulnerable in our society.

A Pragmatic Advocacy Among Real Tensions

As our students face erasure, we must do more than comfortably critique and condemn. Steve Lamos, among other scholars, details the way fragile progress, especially concerning racial equity and higher education, is possible even when circumscribed by problematic limitations. Although we question the privilege of “returning to normal,” we also want to protect hard-fought, if piecemeal, gains and achievements. Absolutism, at its worst, says, “if we can’t have it all, America deserves what it gets.” We share the values that “all” represents—such as affordable healthcare for all and a real living wage for all—and recognize the implications of dreams deferred. However, absolutism, and the resignation that follows, also sometimes comes from positions of privilege where one’s material existence is not under immediate threat. The absolutists ignore the reality we can’t opt out of: there’s a generation-defining election in about six months. The two viable candidates are a neoliberal centrist who has been nudged to the left after the Democratic primary; who authored the Violence Against Women Act yet permitted the ugly interrogation of Anita Hill; who led the 2009 Recovery Act as well as draconian bankruptcy reform; who advocated for minimizing troop presence in Iraq after voting to authorize the war. The other is a neo-fascist incumbent whose mad king persona is willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives for short-term economic gains—in just the latest iteration of his disregard for human life and protecting the most vulnerable among us. The unrelenting callous cruelty and incomparable corruption of the Trump administration are beyond question.

Pre-COVID-19, Trump administration’s searing attacks on underserved populations reverberated through our classrooms. Yet we were smart, so we found ways to resist, to push back, to reconfigure or “hack” the system, to build opportunity structures and improve access. We must not take comfort in the great ingenuity we have shown. Too many brilliant, responsive innovations rested, at least in part, on vestigial structures and practices that have been shaken or nearly destroyed under Trump. As many discerning commentators have noted, we are experiencing in the COVID-19 crises a dress rehearsal for the worsening climate crisis and its likely wave of climate refugees. How long, and under those conditions, will these vestigial structures and processes, hold?

In the midst of COVID-19, the Trump administration’s cynical indifference to our students’ and their families’ lived realities may, in a sense, feel normal, even comfortable, because we have been developing our capacities for resistance and innovation. Yet those of us insulated and privileged enough to be sheltering in our homes with paid work owe something to our society: our discomfort. Both in terms of basic human decency in times of crisis and in terms of the need to make visible the irrationality of the market’s hand in sparing us this time around, we need to stand in greater solidarity with our students, their families, workers who have lost their jobs, the dispossessed. We need to lobby our state leaders to increase investment in higher education, especially in open-access institutions, and to provide material support for students’ most pressing needs, especially in terms of housing and food insecurity. On the institutional level, we need to develop infrastructure for advising and other supports to ensure that our open-access institutions are not open access in name only.

What’s actually at stake for our students? If we can open our eyes to them, real material conditions show us. As The Hope Center’s #RealCollege Survey indicates, “In 2019, approximately 13,550 students from 28 Washington State community and technical colleges responded to the #RealCollege survey. The results indicate: 41% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days, 51% of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year, 19% of respondents were homeless in the previous year” (Goldrick-Rab, et al.). A disappointingly center-left neoliberal like Joe Biden, even one with a track record in racial justice, isn’t our first choice. But he’s someone to whose better angels we can appeal. (We have yet to spy an angel of any description resting on Trump’s shoulders).

In this political moment, we must explore these tensions: how do we resist nostalgia for a “comfortable” moment that never existed? How can we organize around the reality that the march of time does not guarantee progress? In other words, how do we work towards a more just future while also safeguarding what exists, believing it can always get better and witnessing how it can always get worse?

Agency within the Teacher-Scholar-Activist Tradition

As teacher-scholar-activists whose work is dedicated to promoting access at the two-year college, we are perhaps stepping out on a limb by acting as political pundits. However, these are the stakes of our own work in the current moment: as critics of the neoliberal influences on the two-year college, we see now, more than ever, how market logic is affecting the two-year college as well as how the Hobbesian-Trumpian individualism that comes with it is materially threatening and dispossessing our students.

Our work on access in the two-year college has often centered on Basic Writing in terms of our efforts to reform developmental education on the ground. Basic Writing, too, is our scholarly touchstone for progressively committed work. We were inspired to read the spring 2020 issue of the Basic Writing e-Journal, which historicizes, challenges, and offers strategies for resisting the pernicious influence of neoliberalism on the two-year college. When the “free” market is under threat, social institutions, such as the two-year college, are further instrumentalized to serve the interest of capital. This timely and trenchant issue of the journal documents how these neoliberal influences threaten to cut off access to the most marginal students, further commodify the value of higher education, and stymie activist possibilities for engaged faculty. From innovative activist frameworks to instructive histories to on-the-ground work with students, the issue reminds faculty of what’s at stake when effectively responding to socio-economic conditions that threaten our professions, our students, and our communities.

In order to respond to and negotiate the neoliberal assault on higher education, the editors of this issue articulate a vision of “located agency,” and this orientation towards meaningful action runs throughout the issue. As they state, located agency is “action or intervention within a particular place or context meant to produce a particular effect” (Jensen and Suh 10). Rather than seeking an ultimately futile and enervating total negation of the neoliberal assault, located agency asks how we can assess our own material circumstances in a way that facilitates effective change action in our diverse institutions.

Many of these articles locate agency in the context of the 2008 Great Recession and its aftermath. We re-read our own article in the issue in early spring in Seattle as COVID-19 began burning its path through our city. It felt like an iconic moment, like a bastardized version of Kurt Cobain’s vision of Frances Farmer “[coming] back as fire” to have her revenge on Seattle. But for the wronged, bold Frances Farmer, substitute the corrupt, cartoonishly cruel Trump and his cronies whose refusal to properly prepare caused the near-term deaths of hundreds in our county. As the COVID-19 crisis encircled us, the “blanket of ash on the ground” Cobain and co. fantasized about had, in a sense, materialized here. We began to shelter-in-place, nostalgic Nirvana ringing in our ears, with a city’s worth of boarded-up theater and art spaces all around us. As we pondered our just-published article, we felt the curious anachronism of drawing conclusions based on the Great Recession and its aftermath.

It’s not 2008 anymore. New public-health and economic realities are rapidly reshaping the present and destabilizing the future. The tenure of Donald Trump and his response to this crisis, in particular, continue to marry neoliberalism with right-wing authoritarianism—birthing a horrific market-centric neo-fascism where one should get comfortable with the idea of dying for the economy. Antecedents of this, of course, run throughout history. However, the dominance of right-wing authoritarian neoliberalism, especially in this time, requires relocating our agency and facing the uncomfortable truth.

The viable options this November do not offer true alternatives to neoliberal capitalism such as the tightly regulated, New-Deal capitalism of Elizabeth Warren or the Scandinavian-style hybrid system of Bernie Sanders. What we are advocating might only be a stopgap. It certainly chafes to let years of the neoliberal, “Washington consensus” of both parties go unchecked because of how bad things are now. We largely agree with Henry Giroux when he argues that

“[r]avaged for decades by neoliberal policies, U.S. society is plagued by a series of crises whose deeper roots have intensified the stark class and racial divides… Neoliberal capitalism is the underlying pandemic feeding the current global shortage of hospitals, medical supplies, beds and robust social welfare provisions, and increasingly an indifference to human life.”

First Steps for Responding to the Moment

Yet as we reflect on the precarity of our institutions, students, communities, and fellow faculty members, we believe it’s reckless to say that, no matter what happens in November, neoliberalism wins. Such a reductive move might be academically satisfying, but it is divorced from the real consequences at stake in this generation-defining presidential election. On the left, we need to grasp the distinctions between the permutations of neoliberalism, permutations that can literally mean life or death for our students and their access to education. For example, in our work, we often focus on racial disparities in two-colleges, especially in the context of disparate impact, writ large (enrollment and completion rates) or small (classroom-level disparities perpetuated through unexamined writing assessment practices). Mainstream racial discourses in the two-year college posit colorblind opportunity structures where equality is prized over equity, where the impact of racism is diminished to just one of a list of possible -isms, where students are reduced to data points and completion metrics (see Coleman et al. for further discussion). These discourses must be deliberately, unwaveringly opposed. But we are also witnessing the right-wing authoritarian prerogative of division through race-baiting—racial othering for economic scapegoating, the demonization and elimination of immigrants, the existential threat towards public programs and institutions that serve marginalized groups. If a more centrist neoliberalism proposes reductive categories and insufficient, and harmful, metrics, right-wing authoritarian neoliberalism promotes decimation and stokes racial conflict.

Holding onto an idealized progressive position—refusing to ally with the squishy middle—can feel comfortable, as though it is ideologically and ethically consistent. Yet we wonder whether our own privileged conditions have lulled us into a sense that things can’t get worse. Things are getting worse. At this moment, we must honor coalition building, even though it is uncomfortable at times, in order to address the greatest needs of and threats to the population. In a macro sense, of course, coalition building means massive organizing and turnout in the 2020 election. In the context of the two-year college, we must see to the needs of students, then staff and adjunct faculty, and then full-time faculty. In part, coalition building requires centering adjunct faculty in departmental conversations and the institution’s ad hoc policymaking. It requires assessing and attuning ourselves to the needs of students, even when online teaching lends a cloak of invisibility, where we can mistake their not reaching out for the absence of their needs. It requires a belief that we can move forward together while holding space for grief towards what, and who, we’ve lost. For we agree with Marcy Isabella and Heather McGovern when they caution that “[t]here is no going back. Despite how often or how rhetorically we respond to the neoliberalist agenda in/at/of our institutions, universities will not ‘return’ to anything (there is no there there)” (2). We will keep humming Nirvana. But we’ll reject the nostalgia for the last safe harbor while also realizing that we are at a vital moment of struggle, a moment when “responding rhetorically matters” (ibid.)  This post is our first, messy step at responding to this destabilized moment by beginning to relocate our agency.

Anthony Warnke and Kirsten Higgins teach writing at Green River College in Auburn, Washington. As co-Writing Program Administrators, they helped design an equity-focused Accelerated Learning Program to revamp their department’s developmental English sequence. Their scholarship has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Basic Writing e-Journal, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, as well as edited collections on autoethnography in co-requisite courses and emotional labor in writing program administration. Their article “A Critical Time for Reform: Interventions in a Precarious Landscape” was selected for the Parlor Press anthology Best of the Rhetoric and Composition Journals 2019.

Works Cited

Coleman, Taiyon J., et al. “The Risky Business of Engaging Racial Equity in Writing Instruction: A Tragedy in Five Acts.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 43, no. 4, 2016, pp. 347–70.

Giroux, Henry A. “The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Exposing the Plague of Neoliberalism.” SP: The Bullet, 18 April 2020, socialistproject.ca/2020/04/covid19-pandemic-exposing-plague-of-neoliberalism/. Accessed 20 April 2020.

Goldrick-Rab, Sara, et al. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. February 2020. hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2019_WashingtonState_Report.pdf. Accessed 23 April 2020.

Jensen, Darin, and Emily Suh. “Introducing Lived Interventions: Located Agency and Teacher-Scholar-Activism as Responses to Neoliberalism” Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–11.

Isabella, Marcy, and Heather McGovern. “Reviving Administrative Amnesia: Basic Writing Faculty Looking and Responding Rhetorically in the Neoliberal University.” Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–27.

Lamos, Steve. Interests and Opportunities: Race, Racism, and University Writing Instruction in the Post-Civil Rights Era. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

Nirvana. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” In Utero, DGC Records, 1993.

Thebault, Reis, et al. “The Coronavirus Is Infecting and Killing Black Americans at an Alarmingly High Rate.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/coronavirus-is-infecting-killing-black-americans-an-alarmingly-high-rate-post-analysis-shows/?arc404=true. Accessed 28 Apr 2020.

Wilkinson, Alissa. “No One Can Opt out of This Pandemic. And That Will Change Us Forever.” Vox, Vox Media, 13 April 2020, www.vox.com/culture/2020/4/13/21213820/coronavirus-reality-tom-de-zengotita-mediated-theory-philosophy-interview. Accessed 21 April 2020.

 

A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 3

This month’s post, the third in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from Michael Trice  (MIT). In his post, Michael implores us to move away from online targeting as a form of activism related to the elections, and he discusses the relationships among identity, online presence, social media activism, and local activism. In doing so, Michael argues for activism to focus on outcomes.

In the coming months, this series will feature critical perspectives on the elections, issues related to them, and thoughts about how scholar-activists (teachers and students) can intervene. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.

Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing Editors—Spark

Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Online Targeting for Activism

Michael Trice

By Michael Trice

Social media is always also personal media.

We make an account. Assign it an identity or pseudo-identity. Generate content. Yet, the content is never far from the identity. When my content is retweeted, I’m retweeted. When I receive a like on Facebook, my picture is right by the post. Personal identity (real or anonymous) exists in the structural foundation of social media. This personal foundation is what makes online targeting so effective. Retweeting a bad take is tied to the person expressing that take. That person’s account becomes the focus of the replies and attention, not the content of the post. Moreover, nothing spreads a message on social media like engaging a popular account—or being called out by a popular account. The importance of celebrity in spreading messages online is why so many accounts rush to be the first critical or supportive reply to every tweet from President Trump. Successfully targeting the President is rich with reward for both successful praise and successful attacks.

But the President isn’t just a target on social media; he excels in political targeting himself. In fact, the ability of the politically powerful to effectively use social media targeting as means of oppression has replaced a lot of optimism around social media activism (Tufekci, 2017).

Online targeting by politicians and their supporters has become a central theme in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The President’s regular targeting of political foes has already ratcheted up to include not only members of Congress and Democratic primary candidates, but even going so far as to openly accuse the foreperson in a trial against of one his oldest political allies of bias. And while the Democratic candidates have not descended to the President’s level, we have seen the supporters of multiple Democratic contenders rely on online targeting. By way of example, supporters of both Yang and Sanders managed to trend #FireChuckTodd over completely different episodes of Meet the Press in the past three months. While neither activity was openly sanctioned by either candidate, existing networks of supporters on Twitter and in subreddits spread and championed both hashtags, including support for media personalities sympathetic to the candidates. And these are far from the only examples of online targeting that supporters of various candidates have used online. Surrogates and supporters of candidates have learned that what DeVoss and Ridolfo (2009) call rhetorical velocity (or the fastest way the re appropriate content to new a space) means targeting individuals and identities in order to spread support online.

Part of what separates the GOP and Democratic candidates for president is that no Democratic campaign has made the President’s direct-style targeting and aggression a hallmark of their official campaigns—a wall continues to exist between the campaigns and the online supporters and friendly pundits (such as Chapo Trap House) who engage in online targeting. That said, supporters of the Democratic candidates have engaged in significant targeting online to serve indirectly the needs of the campaign. For example, the online targeting of Chuck Todd by Yang supporters served as a means to raise donations and protest exclusion from news coverage. Sanders supporters targeted Todd for an on-air quote of pundit Jonathan V. Last, who had referred to a segment of Sanders supporters as Brown Shirts in an article for The Bulwark. What is notable here is that online targeting of a person, Chuck Todd, stood in for either fundraising or protesting the quote of another, far less well-known, author. In the realm of social media, #FireChuckTodd is a complicated signifier for outcomes that rely on the attention drawn by a specific celebrity target.

Yet, the use of targeting for simple in-group versus out-group dynamics with no other strategic outcome is social media activism at its most dangerous—and it’s a method that easily fits the technical design of social media. The application of targeting in social media is inseparable from its form and function at a technical and social level. You like an account’s post or retweet an account—never just a piece of content. You reply to an account. Social media networks center around celebrity and microcelebrity. Thus, out-grouping Chuck Todd easily becomes a fundraiser for Yang supporters or serves as a way to protest the Brown Shirt label of a far less famous conservative writer for Sanders supporters.

The question then becomes not whether we target, but how we target, when we target, and why we target. Civility isn’t what matters so much as accountability. Activism calls for incivility at times, but incivility with purpose, ideally higher purpose. Yet social media, personal media, requires targeting but asks little of us in understanding how or why we target.

Further, it rarely asks us to be held accountable as we can act anonymously, as part of a much larger network, and as we opt not to make the vital move to public, physical protest. In many ways, we remain as uncritical about our targeting as the first social media mob in 2008.

At the South by Southwest (SXSW) tech conference in 2008, journalist Sarah Lacy interviewed Mark Zuckerberg. The interview had all the characteristics one might expect from a SXSW keynote interview: casual, non-threatening, bordering on interesting but well short of insightful. What was insightful was a rare opportunity to see the infamously private Zuckerberg handled live questions in public. It also provided our first good look at what social media activism would become due to a fledgling app barely in its second year of availability: Twitter.

Personal from the Start

Back in 2007, Twitter made its name at SXSW. By 2008, it was already a backchannel darling of the conference. Attendees could discuss panels live without disrupting the presenters. It would be a user experience Twitter would build upon to make it a go-to app for conferences, live events on television, and key cultural moments. But even in year one of Twitter, something far less benign lurked within the backchannel. And, it proved from the start that what happens on Twitter manifests offline as well.

Something during the interview between Lacy and Zuckerberg went wrong for the crowd. Emboldened by a chorus of tweets about how Lacy was talking too much, flirting too much, and asking the wrong questions, the crowd grew restless—and noisy. People heckled and tried to interrupt the session. The heckling drew cheers and applause from a crowd that had formed a firmed consensus on Twitter that Lacy was the problem, much to the confusion and frustration of those on stage who had never experienced anything like this type of audience revolt before.

It went personal. A crowd had formed a strong anti-establishment view and targeted the female journalist as the source of their consternation. This personal targeting, and the targeting of the media and women in particular, would come to define Twitter. In that first major moment for the app—before hashtags, RTs, faves, and moments were even functions—Twitter had defined its purpose and key genre: not the conversational backchannel, but personal targeting as means of organized dissent and activism.

Again, this post isn’t about civility. Civility as a rhetorical device has a time and place, as does incivility. No, the point I wish to make is that the social application of networked activism goes hand in hand with technical constraints and functionality. Constraints and functionality that activism must more critically engage with and understand. We need more precision in how we enact civility and incivility online, and we need to question to what extent social media is enacting us. Are we simply that SXSW crowd experiencing something new while lashing out uncritically at the more vulnerable target in front of us? Or, do we look at the technology and social systems in front of us before we choose a target and a course of action?

To this day, Twitter runs on personal celebrity. When Zeynup Tufekci (2013) initially articulated the power of Twitter as a form of activism in The Arab Spring, she noted the role of microcelebrity. For Tufekci, social media activism required attention that was reliant upon interconnected pathways to share organizational and operational knowledge. However, those pathways needed semi-centralized shared hubs to maximize organizational knowledge flow. Tufekci called the larger intersections that would emerge microcelebrities. Like bullhorns in a crowded protest, these microcelebrities could help communicate the key points and keep the protest network focused, energized, and directed. Since Tufekci, others have noted how microcelebrity and targeting works across social media, including YouTube (Lewis, 2020) and GitHub (Trice, 2015). But back in 2013, microcelebrity would shape the application of martyrdom and accountability with the birth of Black Lives Matter.

The Black Lives Matter movement serves perhaps as the most notable American incarnation of the social media driven protest movements that began with Occupy Wall Street and included various versions of The Arab Spring. Formed after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin that would precede the controversial killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter became a global movement that is perhaps remembered more for its power to occupy the real, physical public squares of major cities where direct political action was needed rather than its ability to trend on Twitter. In fact, the formation of chapters across the United States and Canada as well as a clear articulation of values and mission makes BLM less resemble a modern social media collective and more a traditional 20th century model of an organization of local communities that utilizes social media as one of many communication channels. Its social media beginnings notwithstanding, BLM’s public demonstrations, municipal organization, and clearly stated values are a clear lesson for what responsible and accountable social media activism can be. It serves as a strong counterpoint to some of the movements that would follow in 2014 and beyond.

2014 and the Ascendance of Organized Targeting

While I often start discussions of organized online targeting with GamerGate in 2014, that year also offers an intriguing counterexample of targeting: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. As a quick reminder, in July 2014 the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge became a viral sensation that would raise more than $115,000,000 for Lou Gehrig’s disease research/awareness between July and August of that year. Started by Pete Frates, the challenge rose to popularity on the Today Show, but its impact would arise from 17 million people who participated online. Those participants would drive 2.5 million donations in the United States. The scale of impact and its mechanism matter. The Ice Bucket Challenge had clear rules: a person videos themselves being dunked over the head with a bucket of icy water. After the dunking, the person calls out additional people to perform the challenge next.

The challenge was social media gold for a variety of reasons. First, it employed a dual targeting mechanism. The person dunked on became central target, offering a bit of comedy and suffering in the video for viewers. Secondly, the callouts offered another round of targeting. Who would rise to the challenge or face (good-natured) public shame? The celebrity angle also played a huge role—and taught a vital lesson about online virality. While Tufecki had noted that activist networks created microcelebrities as a means to circulate information across larger networks, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge proved that traditional celebrity presence on social media could exponentially amplify messaging and activism beyond that of microcelebrities. The $115m in donations speaks for itself in many ways, and had the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge been the social media story of 2014, our view of targeting and activism would be quite different than it has become.

Yet, in August 2014 as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was winding down, GamerGate was ramping up, emerging quickly and using the same core mechanics of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in drastically different ways and to far more perverse ends. The story of GamerGate has been told many times. For quick reference, a group of 4chan users propagated salacious rumors about an independent game developer across Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter as a means to attack feminism, the media, and cultural criticism. They did so by targeting very specific women with tactics that promoted anonymous harassment from online networks formed into mobs. The importance of celebrity and targeting to the success of GamerGate cannot be understated. GamerGate was simply another minor online tussle until actor Adam Baldwin tweeted about a YouTube video he had watched, dubbing the “controversy” discussed as GamerGate. Breitbart and other fringe media would soon pick up the story, launching investigations into the targets of GamerGate. Extremists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich would make names for themselves via the investigations of GamerGate’s victims, generating sufficient infamy and following to become key online players during the 2016 election due to their effective use of targeting to build online networks. Yiannopoulos rose to fame in GamerGate by investigating and calling out victims of abuse. His early articles challenging whether police and FBI reports even existed for those who had been threatened. They did, of course. But, Yiannopoulos would quickly build a career of creating controversy by intimidating the vulnerable and attacking the marginalized, primarily by social media until he was banned.

2016 can be seen as an evolution of the GamerGate playbook. In fact, many of the microcelebrities of GamerGate, like Yianoppolis and Cernovich, were central to the troll and meme campaigns of the 2016 election. But, most importantly, 2016 saw the social media effectiveness of future president, Donald J. Trump. Then-candidate Trump’s online presence fit the era perfectly. Prone to personal attacks and with an array of celebrity alliances and feuds, the persona and temperament that Trump had cultivated since the 1980s fit perfectly into the mechanisms of online activism in 2016. What Trump added to this mix were his rallies, which incorporated the cruel online targeting of digital aggression but played out live to a community and often covered by cable news. These rallies offered a public, physical manifestation of the digitally aggressive targeting that previous forms of online activism had lacked. Even more importantly, it made online targeting TV-ready, generating a much, much larger audience.

Finding Accountability

My goal in reviewing the history of targeting on social media is three-fold. First, we must recognize that the social and technical systems behind targeting are not so new, and the case studies for evaluating these issues now date back decades with many commonalities. Second, it’s important to understand that targeting comes with real harm. Whitney Phillips (2015) offered a masterful deconstruction of for the lulz culture in “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” by connecting it directly to not only irony but to classical rhetorical practices that enact power while also serving to persuade. Understanding what power is enacted and what the unspoken goals of persuasion might be in online targeting is key. Finally, I want to demonstrate that while targeting is as old as social media, we are seeing an escalation in its application and its role in politics. Millions of dollars can be raised via online targeting whether those millions are raised for ALS research, political campaigns, or the career podcasters.

The number one question I always get after a talk is, “this is useful analysis and depressing, but what can we do?” I want to end on where we can start.

First, we need more self-targeting. As I said earlier, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge offered us a different path forward. We could have built activism around targeting ourselves, exposing our humanity and humility first and foremost. Certainly, some of this activism still exists, but we need more. Again, Black Lives Matter offers the ideal example of being accountable through stated values, physical protest, and geographic community-based chapters. They’ve built local chapters that organize the community directly and address specific local problems created by global challenges. All activism needs more of this structure that allows local-global justice to emerge. And this idea isn’t new nor mine. Haas and Eble (2018) presented us with this challenge in all areas of technical communication justice when they stated—buildings off of Rude’s reminder that the work of technical communication can also serve the oppressor—that  “As public intellectuals, knowledge workers, and advocates for users, technical communicators have a responsibility to advocate for equity in local and global networks of scientific, technical, and professional communication”.

We need to apply the same concern for balancing local and global justice to making social media activism into local activism. In enacting just activism and politics, we must actively, vocally, and wholeheartedly resist becoming the oppressor.

Second, we need more of a focus on content. Perhaps it is time for fewer retweets of other accounts and more quoting of comments. Powerful ideas need to be shared and challenged. Conspiracy and hate need to be ostracized. But, fame and infamy too often become the primary consequence of online communication. Social media incentivizes the ridiculous because the ridiculous is novel, and few things make identity more valuable online than novelty, especially novel cruelty.

Third, we need responsible celebrities. Yeah, I’m being exceptionally pie-in-the-sky here. Yet, celebrity accounts need to understand the role they play in both spreading rumor and targeting individuals. They must understand that the bullhorns they use drive activism, harassment, and outcomes.

Finally, activism matters in its outcomes. Fundraising and occupying the public square remain the primary points of impact, especially for online activism. Without the accountability and power of occupying the public square, online activism is too easily dismissed (often rightly so) as harassment or slacktivism. Without a physical presence and visible identity, it’s too easy for online targeting to exist solely as trolling—or something worse.

Michael Trice is a lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication at MIT. His research has covered a variety of community media, including LocalWiki, Bristol’s Knowle West Media Centre, and various forms of online activism. His volunteer work has included working with survivors of domestic abuse, counseling of parolees, and Photo Voice projects for foster kids.

References

Haas, A. M., & Eble, M. F. (Eds.). (2018). Key theoretical frameworks: Teaching technical communication in the twenty-first century. UP of Colorado.

Freelon, D., McIlwain, C., & Clark, M. (2016). Beyond the hashtags:# Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice. Center for Media & Social Impact. http://archive.cmsimpact.org/sites/default/files/beyond_the_hashtags_2016.pdf.

Lewis, R. (2020). “This is what the news won’t show you”: YouTube creators and the reactionary politics of micro-celebrity. Television & New Media21(2), 201-217.

Massanari, A. (2017). #Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New Media & Society19(3), 329-346.

Phillips, W. (2015). This is why we can’t have nice things: Mapping the relationship between online trolling and mainstream culture. MIT Press.

Ridolfo, J., & DeVoss, D. N. (2009). Composing for recomposition: Rhetorical velocity and delivery. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy13(2), n2.

Trice, M. (2015, July). Putting GamerGate in context: How group documentation informs social media activity. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual International Conference on the Design of Communication (pp. 1-5).

Trice, M., & Potts, L. (2018). Building dark patterns into platforms: How GamerGate perturbed Twitter’s user experiencePresent Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society6(3).

Tufekci, Z. (2013). “Not this one” social movements, the attention economy, and microcelebrity networked activism. American Behavioral Scientist57(7), 848-870.

Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and tear gas: The power and fragility of networked protest. Yale UP.