Our newfound existence in the ‘digital age’ is a vexing one. Social media is having an unprecedented effect on our society, but it doesn’t seem like we have the right tools to understand how.
The news, for example, has changed dramatically in the era of Twitter. Our exposure to current events is no longer catered by major publications and media outlets. Instead, social media platforms have become an increasingly popular source of news. Moreover, the social media ‘space’ is occupying a huge portion of our lived experience; we get cues about what’s going on in the world from our feeds, not headlines on television.
After some misguided reporting on a short clip from the Women’s March, the public conversation has returned to the precariousness of news. In light of this, we should attempt to understand social media’s role in shaping the current landscape of our politics. To do so, we’ll need to resurrect some ideas from our favorite German eccentric, Karl Marx.
Form and content in Marxist thought
The terms form and content are commonly known as categories of art: the content is the message of the artistic product, while the form describes the medium or tool in service to its expression. We can also think of formal aspects as those which mediate our experience of the art: the aspects which facilitate its presentation to us, as viewers.
In Edvard Munch’s Scream, for example, the content would be the underlying emotions this painting might convey: terror, despair, longing, dread, and so on. Its formal aspects would be the color, lighting, brush strokes, and any other qualities reflecting its medium of expression.
In Marxist critique of capitalism, commodities are considered a form of labor value. This means that the societal worth of labor cannot help but be expressed in the creation, proliferation, and exchange of commodities. This unit of value, called the commodity-form, is the object of classical methods of economic analysis.
But unlike previous economic theories, which focused on classifying the diverse kinds of commodity-forms by their properties and utility, the Marxist approach subverts the simple content vs form paradigm by asking: why did the value of labor become embodied in the commodity-form anyway?
In other words, the theoretical operation which makes Marxism so unique is its investigation of the ‘secret’ behind the form itself, not just the content. What were considered purely formal characteristics of labor value are brought to the forefront and made the foundations of Marxist economic theory.
Digital news and ‘Twitter-forms’
A similar operation of ‘subversion’ can help to shed light on social media. An increasing number of news stories are originating, in part, through viral Tweets. In the spirit of Marxist critique, we should always ask the pre-emptive question: besides the content of this news story, what were its formal aspects — that is, what were the conditions of its presentation to our public dialogue?
Let’s take the April arrests of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks as an example. This story originated when a CNN reporter shared a viral Tweet that depicted the two men being walked away by police. The Tweet had quickly racked up more than 250,000 likes and has been viewed more than 11 million times. The event’s publicity on social media ignited its coverage by major news outlets, not the other way around.
After the initial coverage, Starbucks became the object of intense scrutiny, and the public dialogue shifted to discussions about unconscious bias and corporate training policies. For a few weeks this issue dominated national headlines, and we quickly assumed our predictable political factions: pro- vs anti-, sympathetic or skeptical, and so on.
What would a ‘classical’ narrative of this event say? That what was originally being depicted in the viral video was inherently news-worthy: it possessed a kernel of truth that needed to come out, and Twitter’s role was simply in bringing this ‘essential kernel’ to the attention of major news outlets.
But we should be skeptical of this ‘social media to national headlines’ pipeline. Following Marx, we should investigate the formal aspects of this story rather than just its content.
It’s clear that the original explosion of the video’s popularity was strictly a matter of optics. Images of black men being handcuffed by officers would inevitably inflame a public concerned with racially-motivated police brutality. It was this that catapulted the video into notoriety: during the ‘viral phase’ of the story, we didn’t hear about unconscious bias, or corporate culture, or anything else.
But when the fuller context of the video was revealed, and it became clear that the police officers were simply following the manager’s policy, all of the pathos originally inspired by the prospect of police brutality was redirected into a new cause: the unconscious bias of the Starbucks employee. Suddenly, the focus shifted to the problems with corporate culture, and we heard hundreds of stories about ‘unconscious bias training’, diversity seminars, and so on.
This diversion of energy, this ability for a news story to transform but still retain some continuity, some momentum of energy, calls for a radically new distinction. Since Marx investigated the products of labor as commodity-forms, let’s call these manifestations the Twitter-forms of news.
The perverse reality of the Twitter-form is this: a news story can continue on, a ghost of its self, an undead thing, even after its conditions of possibility have been exposed as nonsensical or inapplicable. We could not ‘undo’ the viral-ity of the video — the emotional energy had already been invested — and we needed a new topic into which we could channel our passions.
All the subsequent discussions about ‘unconscious bias’ were, therefore, strictly incidental; the topic was merely a shell for the inertia of the original video to inhabit. This was not a proper news story: it was a Twitter-form which came on the scene of our public discourse based on a gut-level, emotional reaction, a reaction which was exposed by the full context of the incident, and therefore could only carry on like a parasite whose host had died, by latching onto a peripherally-related issue.
The emergence of subjective truth
This aspect of the Twitter-form reveals that it operates within a framework of subjective truth. After all, when it comes to viral Tweets, engagement is the only thing that matters: facts are seldom available or considered. And this engagement is a function of pure emotionality: to use a term introduced by Steven Colbert, pure truthiness.
Let’s suppose that a week prior to the Starbucks incident, a study came out with the definite conclusion that statistically, an equal proportion of white and black men are targeted by police. Despite this finding, I suspect that the video would have still garnered the popularity it did — if nothing else, for being a powerful and public anecdote contradicting it. All the empiricism of the study wouldn’t have mattered, because the images themselves would have been enough to incite the Twittersphere’s subjective notion of truth.
Subsequently, the mainstream media would have still reported on it, thereby recapitulating an issue which should have (in theory) been put to bed by the relevant science. This demonstrates, then, that we have departed from an objective standard of truth in reporting. When it comes to stories curated by Twitter, emotion weighs more than fact. As long as this is the case, we will always be subjected to ‘public debates’ which may very well be obsolete: whose relevance relies solely on the subjective truth of the masses.
How can we not relate this idea to the recent confrontation between MAGA-hat wearing teenagers and a Native American man? This ‘news story’ also rode the back of an emotional wave on social media, which quickly proliferated the (out of context) clip in sensationalized fashion. The only difference here is that, once the full context was revealed, there was no ‘peripheral issue’ in which the outrage could reincarnate: a fact which revealed the media’s hypocrisy.
By its nature, social media values subjective feeling over empirical facts as a criteria for selection and proliferation of content. As long as this is true, what is ‘newsworthy’ will increasingly be hostage to the dimension of subjective truth. Therefore, we should always keep an eye out for why a story has come to us in the first place: what kind of ‘subjective realities’ underly its elevation to a national headline.
We are the first generation that has to deal with such a complicated issue as the relationship between news and social media. In scarcely a decade, what was once the exclusive domain of narcissistic high schoolers with too much time on their hands has become a platform for journalists, celebrities, and world leaders. Frankly, we just don’t know what to do about that.
Above all else, we should continue to be skeptical of getting our news from a social media platform whose primary currency is outrage and emotion. This skepticism should be a properly Marxist one, in so far as we are attentive not only to what is being conveyed by a given story (its content), but also its formal conditions of possibility: what subjective truths assisted in its popularity.
By so doing, I hope that we can elevate the standard of our discourse and start having more mature discussions about topics that matter. Social media is a double edged sword: we should strive to use it as a tool for good.
Subscribe to my newsletter for updates on future articles: https://pages.convertkit.com/e8233d5800/cb92edd54d