Mark Zuckerberg and Troy Davis

23 09 2011

Karl Marx famously stated that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”  By this, he meant that the institution of religion keeps the masses satiated and compliant to the will of those in power—those with the capital, those whose ultimate goal was profit above all else. Clement Greenberg had similar ideas about kitsch (though he would be appalled to be so closely linked to Marx). Kitsch satisfies the uncultured, the uneducated, and can be used by those in power to manipulate the opinions and will of the people to their own ends.  Walter Benjamin saw similar potential in entertainment, specifically in film—both Benjamin and Greenberg saw the way Hitler used propaganda and mass-appeal to his own ends as examples of entertainment, rather than religion, as the opiate of the 20th Century masses.

“Entertainment” as such is a bit more difficult to pin down in the age of simulacra, pastiche, and the hyperreal.  It has become ubiquitous and constant in American culture—the rise of the smart phone has brought the power of the internet into the palm of your hand.  Yet this power is used more often to play Scrabble with friends or fiddle around on Facebook or Twitter. One never has to wait to be entertained by an inane post from a friend, a Star Wars/kitten meme, or an insipid 140-character rant from a B-list celebrity or athlete.  Even while waiting in line at the movie theater to be entertained, we seek entertainment from our phones.

The infinite power of the internet... at its best.

The power of Facebook is both greater and less than it is purported to be, either by media outlets or by its own self-promotion.  There was fanfare and congratulations over the role the social media site played in the Arab Spring, with much media attention centered on its use in Egypt.  “Facebook made democracy possible in an oppressed country,” seems to be the underlying attitude of many.  But Facebook did not liberate Egypt:  Egyptians did.  Surely, there was some communication between protesters that did take place on the site, but it was the protests and actions taken by the people, and their resistance against being put down by force, that ultimately resulted in regime change.

Still, the perception of Facebook as the ambassador of democracy to a troubled region has led to an inflated sense of both pride and confidence among Americans. Since the ideology of democracy is at the core of our identity (i.e. “Democracy is Good”), and Facebook helped bring democracy to the Middle East, then Facebook is an example of democracy at its finest.  This, of course, is not true.

Facebook was invented, and is only possible, in a country that holds the Freedom of Speech in high regard.  Facebook is not a democracy, it is a corporation—a private enterprise.  The content placed on Facebook is the sole property of Facebook itself, which can censor anything it chooses (so far, it has chosen not to censor and has been banned in China since 2009 as a result). It can also make changes however it pleases, regardless of what its users may think about the changes.  This week has seen a major change to the layout of the site, with some new features added, and has brought the “wrath” of its customers, with countless angry posts (on Facebook) complaining and demanding a change back.  Mark Zuckerberg is not going to change it back.

This twerp's a billionaire. Do you honestly believe he gives a crap about what you think?

This is not the first time Facebook has made changes, and not the first time its users have been upset.  In the end, by and large, the users don’t leave.  There was an outcry over rules changes in 2009 that ultimately did pressure a reversal of stance by the website.  However, as far back as 2006, the “Students Against Facebook News Feed” group pressured the site to give some control to users to “opt out” of the news feed feature.  In 2009, those controls were removed.  In 2010, nobody was complaining about their lack of control of the news feed.  A year ago, the site made a gradual change to a “New Profile,” that initially seemed voluntary, until the “New Profile” was the only option.

What is dangerous is that Facebook provides the illusion of democracy outside of itself.  Jean Baudrillard made similar statements about the hyperreality of Disneyland.  Baudrillard is not concerned with the fiction that Disneyland presents (i.e. a cleaned-up version of American Main Street), but its function as a “deterrence machine… It’s meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere.”  For Baudrillard, the fiction of Disneyland allows us to think that the real world is just that—real.  When, for him it is hyperreal (especially Los Angeles):  a series of images and simulacra.

Facebook is not a democracy. However, the use of Facebook, even when acknowledging that it is an autocracy, allows users to believe that democracy is real outside of Facebook.  The ubiquity of the site—the fact that so many people use it—make it seem as if it is the perfect vehicle to enact democracy, even if it isn’t one itself.  However, this ubiquity feeds the notion that enacting democracy can be as simple as posting a link or a status or a profile picture.  “I’m communicating with so many people,” seems to be the thought, “of course this will make a difference.”  Posting on the internet, without any real-world action, is lazy activism.  It is akin to wearing a sandwich board on the sidewalk, shouting through a megaphone.

The same day Facebook users were writing outraged posts over the new layout, convicted murderer Troy Davis was put to death in Georgia.  The execution was controversial, not just because of the fact that it was an execution, but because many of the witnesses who had testified in the trial had changed or recanted their testimony.  Yet, through all the appeals and Supreme Court hearing requests, the verdict remained unchanged.

There was plenty of Facebook traffic regarding the case.  Many, many of my Facebook friends posted messages of hope for a stay or a pardon, dismay at the fact that the execution was carried out, and scoldings of the people posting about Facebook while a man who may have been innocent was put to death.

The similarity of the Facebook and Troy Davis posts struck me.  In a week, or a month, or a year, who will remember what the old Facebook layout even looked like?  Can you remember the layout in 2009?  Two days after the changes, I see no posts complaining about the layout, when it seemed to be all anyone talked about on Wednesday.  Those so passionately posting about Troy Davis are today posting about their writing, their workdays, their plans for the weekend.  There is no mention of injustice.  There are no links to websites organizing protests against capital punishment.  I am not saying there is no Facebook activity regarding Troy Davis—there are numerous pages and posts—I am saying that the traffic in my circle of friends has very little to do with the case two days after the execution.

This image puts the issues into perspective, but it highlights the limits of Facebook activism (I found this image on Facebook).

Facebook provides the illusion, not necessarily of democracy, but of involvement.  You can post, you can have your say, you can feel like you’ve been a part of something.  Then you can go back to your own life, back to your minutiae, back to being entertained.  When speech is not followed up with action, nothing changes.  When nothing changes, the powerful maintain power over the masses—whether it is Mark Zuckerberg, the State of Georgia, or a dictator in the Middle East.

As an Epilogue, I must say that I believe in the power of the Freedom of Speech, and I believe that Facebook (or, say, blogs) can act as a key communication tool to foment change—to act as the spark of activism.  But the key to activism is action—which takes work in real life, not just online.  I am curious to hear how people go about following up their internet communication with action, especially from those who may be rightfully angry about my dismissal of posts regarding Troy Davis.

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One response

23 09 2011
venzkarl

venzkarl reblogged this on venzkarl.

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