Unfortunately, We Can’t Log Off

Social media sucks — but it might just be the best propaganda tool socialists have ever had. That's why we can't log off.

A person holds an iPhone displaying the Facebook app logo in front of a computer screen showing the Facebook login page on August 3, 2016 in London, England. Carl Court / Getty

I have no disagreement with the central contentions of Benjamin Y. Fong’s recent article “Log Off,” in which he details the ill effects of social media. It seems indisputable that social media enhances narcissism, encourages cruelty, erodes empathy, exacerbates social isolation and atomization, and presents enormous obstacles to left-wing political organizing. Effectively combating the single-minded forces of capital requires heroic feats of solidarity across personal and political differences. The behavioral habits encouraged by social media make this task infinitely more difficult.

My own experience can be summed up as follows: nothing that I’ve experienced in offline organizing spaces has ever made me feel as demoralized as the intra-left acrimony I’ve observed on Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook. And nothing that has ever crossed my screen has made me feel as buoyant, as admiring of my comrades, or as optimistic about the future of our movement as listening to a rousing speech on a picket line or taking in the crowd at a well-attended socialist meeting or hitting the pavement with a big crew to knock on our neighbors’ doors.

But here I run up against a problem. I learned about Jacobin, Bernie Sanders, and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on Twitter.

There’s no doubt that social media, for all its undeniable deficiencies, facilitated my political transformation from a liberal with radical sympathies into a socialist. It was on Twitter that I started to indulge my antagonism toward the bipartisan pro-capitalist political elite and discovered an alternative politics that appealed to this new antagonism.

This process eventually led me to become an elected leader in my chapter of DSA and a writer for Jacobin. Like many people in our bleak landscape of resistance, I’d never been presented with the opportunity to engage in active class struggle in my workplace or another community setting. So, I’m not sure I would’ve become a socialist without social media.

Once I was fully onboarded to the socialist project, social media’s utility began to fade for me, and after some months of tormented deliberation, I deleted my Twitter account. My life has improved, but I do wonder sometimes if I’m missing an opportunity to onboard others.

After all, though a world without social media may be aspirational — a case that Fong makes eloquently and convincingly — it’s not the world we live in right now. People are logged on. And because our politics aren’t hegemonic, those people are constantly bombarded with politics that are contrary to our own.

We face a choice: we can either relinquish the social media sphere to our class enemies, or we can attempt to infuse it with our own political perspective.

So, I’m compelled to suggest an additional set of prescriptions, building on the foundation Fong lays (and which I don’t suspect Fong will object to). The problems for the Left posed by social media are largely, as he argues, psychological. People identify strongly with their social media avatars, for example, and react in defensive, irrational, and even pathological ways when their avatars come under attack, because they feel acutely that their image and reputation are at stake. They also use their personal avatars to attack others in order to solicit engagement and build social capital, a temporary salve for feelings of isolation and impotence. An epic burn is rewarded with an avalanche of faves, and for a moment the sensation mimics solidarity and empowerment.

All this has me thinking: what if there’s a way to sever this relationship between the self and the avatar, to re-conceive of social media accounts not as extensions of one’s actual person but as vital propaganda tools, something we wield not something we are?

One way to do this is to disaffiliate social media accounts from our names, given or assumed, and divert our energies to posting on institutional accounts. Every socialist magazine and podcast and blog, and every chapter of a socialist organization, should have active Facebook, Twitter and Instagram presences — maybe even YouTube if we’re feeling ambitious (in fact, there are way more people using YouTube regularly than Twitter). Institutional accounts should be controlled democratically (which doesn’t mean horizontally). People who are good at messaging and have a strong grasp of the group’s shared politics should be given a mandate to intervene in the larger conversation in ways that promote the common political vision. Others can be tasked with taking and collecting photos and making great videos, graphics, and memes to share on these accounts in service of the collective propaganda effort.

I know people who run official DSA social media accounts, and I’ve done it myself. When someone says something cruel in the comments, it’s much easier to not respond than it is from a personal account. Depersonalizing and instrumentalizing social media accounts encourages more rational behavior — and we don’t have to retreat from important platforms to achieve this effect.

Since it’s often disastrous to have too many cooks in the kitchen, not everyone can always hold the institutional account keys. For those who don’t, there are two remaining options that I think are both better than using a personal social media account to recreationally participate in online intra-left commentary, and inevitably bickering.

The first is similar to the institutional account route, in that it’s a means of logging off without actually leaving the conversation: this option is to delete our accounts, but simultaneously take our strong political opinions and the argumentative skills we’ve honed through social media to other mediums. There we can spend our time making protracted, measured, and substantive arguments for the left politics we do want to see represented, instead of being content to take satisfying swipes at the left politics we don’t.

Venues for this might include a chapter website or blog, an internal listserv or discussion board, national DSA platforms like Democratic Left and Socialist Forum (or, for members of the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Worker), a personal blog or podcast, newspaper op-eds and letters to the editor, submitting to Jacobin and other socialist and progressive websites and magazines, and so on. If we feel that the kind of outlets we need don’t yet exist, there are few barriers to creating them.

We can rely on the institutional accounts and the remaining personal accounts to share our contributions. The upside to this approach is that it prioritizes our ideas over our identities, and therefore runs a smaller risk of triggering the panicked impulse to reputational self-defense and the narcissistic drive for popularity that spurs most online infighting.

The second option is to keep our personal social media accounts but make a concerted effort to re-imagine how we use them. Neoliberalism is characterized by privatization in every sphere of life, whether that’s making us each responsible for our own economic stability with no recourse to a public safety net, or relatedly transforming us into entrepreneurs of the self, everyone a hustler in a sea of competitors.

We see this hyper-individualization in the way people use social media: these are my opinions, my politics, my brand. This mindset often means that we don’t think twice about tearing down comrades and potentially harming our organizations and our movements, so long as we individually hit a satisfying threshold of affirming engagement and come out smelling like a rose (or so we think; nasty infighting usually smells pretty bad to outsiders).

A less privatized and less neoliberal approach to personal social media accounts is to treat them as tools for collective political education and agitation. If we as individuals absolutely must keep posting, let’s at least make an effort to promote the content that best represents our political vision — news articles that promote our perspective or celebrate our victories, thoughtful pieces about socialist strategy and the future of our organizations, institutional accounts’ beautiful graphics and hilarious memes, extremely good Bernie Sanders videos. We can try to think of our personal accounts as having the same potential function and utility that institutional accounts do: not tools of self-expression and self-representation, but of persuasion and promotion.

If we opt for this approach, we will always risk being absorbed back into, as Fong puts it, “the unthinking narcissism of pseudo-political statement pronouncement, where [we] enter the negative feedback loop that distances [us] from the reality of everyday human engagement.” It was my experience on Twitter that resisting that temptation was more time- and energy-consuming than it was worth. I think many other people who try to dramatically alter their online behavior will find it’s not so easily done.

But I’m not going to convince everyone reading this to delete their personal social media accounts, so I still think it’s worthwhile to propose a different behavioral paradigm for the perpetually logged-on, one that elevates the collective socialist propaganda effort over individual brand-building and social-capital accumulating (as well as a proper sense of perspective, remaining cognizant of how little that individual social capital actually matters compared to the larger objective of building a popular socialist movement).

Before we take a dig at a comrade we disagree with, salivating at the thought of likes and retweets to come, we might ask: How would this read to an onlooker who is entertaining socialist ideas but hasn’t yet fully bought into them? Might I level the same critique, and more productively, by digging up and sharing something thoughtful and eloquent that makes an opposing point to the one I disagree with?

With each day that passes, my loathing for social media, especially Twitter, grows and grows. Fong is right when he calls social media a “cesspool of vicious personal attacks and paranoid indignation.” But as long as it exists, we want people’s feeds filled to the brim with gorgeous and inspiring campaign videos, photos of strikes and protests and phonebanks, compelling arguments against free markets and privatization and austerity, and galaxy-brain memes where the ultimate cosmic brain is socialism.

Mainstream media is occasionally and perhaps increasingly sympathetic to our perspective, but in the end, news outlets owned by our class enemies will always side with our class enemies. This means we have to put in extra effort to get our ideas across to people. Social media will continue to play a huge role in the popularization of socialist ideas, as it has since Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign went viral in 2015.

Socialists therefore have to toe a fine line: we must maintain a strong and vibrant social media presence, but we can’t allow the medium to atomize us, as it’s designed to do. That’s a tricky task. If only it were as easy as logging off.