The Internet Conspiracy Machine

About a month ago, a post that felt weird to me started circulating within my small circle of Tumblr mutuals. To make a long story short, there was a smart post by a popular Tumblr artist that someone had reblogged with an inflammatory addition. The inflammatory addition was from 2018, so I was curious why it had started circulating again in December 2020.

I asked my mutuals if they were reblogging the post because something specific had happened recently, but they couldn’t give me any background. It seemed that the reblog was nothing more than clickbait making the rounds while riding on the back of the original post. Tumblr being Tumblr, this happens all the time.

But this reblogged addition still felt strange to me. The user who created the reblog had deactivated their account, so I searched for their username to try to figure out who they are. I wanted to figure out if the inflammatory addition was referring to something specific or whether it was just someone venting on Tumblr – which, again, is fair. I honestly didn’t expect to find anything, but I was working on an academic essay on the general topic of the original post and thought it might be interesting to follow up on this lead.

What I found was that the inflammatory addition had originated in 2018 and spread within a circle of blogs dedicated to video games whose users openly identified as male. All of these blogs were only briefly active and hadn’t been updated since 2018. Their reblogs alternated between memes, game release announcements, and incendiary “social justice” posts.

I’m not sure how to explain the particular flavor of circa-2018 “social justice” posts on Tumblr, save to say that they are totalizing, polarizing, and extremely aggressive to an absurd degree. In aggregate, these posts engender a sense that there is an elite group of enlightened people who all share the same position and values, and who must foster their anger in order to stand against their enemies, who are presumed to be an equally monolithic group. Let me be clear that these posts are not about any specific real-world issues or political groups, but more along the lines of general ideological programming spread through discourse surrounding fictional characters and entertainment media. Such posts have nothing to do with critical readings or cultural critique, but instead take the form of brief and easily digestible “this thing is bad” slogans with jingoistic “people who don’t agree are also bad” insinuations.

In any case, what I found regarding the circle of video game blogs on Tumblr seemed suspicious, so I tried to figure out who these users were and where they’d gone. (I was no longer doing research for my essay, by the way; now I was just morbidly curious.) Tumblr has an optional function that allows users to crosspost to Twitter, so I ended up tracking down a few of these blogs via reposts on Twitter, where I ran across a surprising number of deactivated accounts. Between one thing and another – and this was a very deep rabbit hole, so I’m afraid I didn’t document my process as well as I could have – I ended up on Parler, a social media platform for the sort of alt-right people who tend to get kicked off Twitter.

Along with 8kun, Parler is one of the main seeds of the QAnon material that makes its way to Facebook and YouTube, and the conversations I saw on the site were completely divorced from consensus reality. There’s an excellent article about this on The Atlantic (here); but, to summarize, “the QAnon conspiracy” holds that the American government is rotten to its core, and even conservative politicians are almost literal comic book villains. Donald Trump, as someone coming from outside these evil political circles, is only person that “real” Americans can rely on, and he must therefore be defended from Democrats and Republicans alike.

At the time I encountered Parler in mid-December 2020, it was filled with people talking about contesting the election results, by force if necessary. Many of the hashtags, like #HoldTheLine, were military in tone, and people were sharing state-specific resources for obtaining firearms. There were a lot of links to videos associated with the Dorr Brothers, who oversee various regional organizations devoted to “no compromise” “Second Amendment rights.” (NPR has a limited-run podcast about this, if you’re curious.) There was also an extraordinary deal of antisemitism, with coded references ranging from “global capitalists” to “lizard people.”

I did not stay there long. I got super creeped out, to be honest.

The worst thing was that, between all the “Take Back America” rhetoric, links to QAnon videos on YouTube, and announcements for the Facebook Live events of reactionary political groups, people were sharing memes and joke posts about video games… and a lot of them were really good. To my shame, that’s why I stayed on the site for as long as I did, even after it had become painfully clear what I was looking at.

The appeal of QAnon conspiracies is that they speak to the marginalized in their own language, whether that language is video game memes, “traditional feminist” slogans, or decontextualized Bible verses. These conspiracies provide both an “it’s not your fault” justification for why individuals don’t succeed in neoliberal capitalism and a concrete path of action that elevates a normal person sitting at a computer to the status of a righteous crusader.

This sort of messaging is designed to appeal to anyone who feels as if they’re under attack from forces they don’t understand, which is perhaps why it has appealed so strongly to Donald Trump himself. Once I started picking up on QAnon codewords and hashtags, some of Trump’s more bizarre tweets from 2020 (such as “Nothing can stop what is coming”) started to make much more sense.

When Trump posted a video telling the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6 that they’re “special” and that he loves them, this also made sense to me. Trump seemed to genuinely believe, as the rioters did, that they were on the righteous side of a holy war to protect the rights of the marginalized and prevent the fall of civilization at the hands of a nebulous and unspeakable evil.

Given my actual research interests, which have very little to do with American politics, you can probably guess that this whole thing started with Legend of Zelda. There may be some people reading this essay who might feel tempted to jump to the conclusion that the Zelda series is to blame for fostering an apocalyptic mindset because [insert racist generalization about Japanese people here]. I’m not saying that the Zelda games – or gaming culture and video games in general – aren’t without their problems, but please don’t let that be your take-away point.

I’m also not suggesting that the people on Tumblr who reblogged a post I found upsetting are ignorant. After all, most people on the platform are fully aware of how misinformation spreads, and we rely on a carefully curated grassroots social vetting system that serves as something of a Geiger counter to make sure we’re not getting close to anything radioactive. We’re all doing the best we can, and a few isolated posts from malicious actors aren’t going to hurt anyone.

Rather, what has struck me about this whole mess is how the tendency toward authoritarian thinking transcends political lines. I can’t say whether the Tumblr blogs that were active in spreading inflammatory “social justice” posts in 2018 were real people who ended up gravitating to the far right or the sock puppets of people already involved with far-right groups, and I don’t know who started circulating their posts again in December.

What I do know is that “us vs. them” essentialism is just as appealing to online communities in favor of progressive social justice as it is to online communities that propagate QAnon theories. Because of the way social media algorithms privilege content that evokes “engagement,” this type of thinking can spread far beyond these communities and become normalized even for people who don’t know anything about Wojak memes or video games or Tumblr or 4chan, whether they’re financially precarious retirees or recent college graduates who have just started to understand that they will never be able to pay off their student loans.

The key word here is “normalization,” because this is what makes extremists feel as though they have broad support for what they’re doing. For every one person who creates a social media account solely for the purpose of telling an artist or showrunner that she should kill herself because her content is “problematic,” or for every one person who showed up to the riot in DC on January 6, there are thousands of people in each of their extended communities who are directly supporting their actions online.

I think that, if both young people and older people could envision an actual future for themselves as valued members of society, then perhaps they wouldn’t be so invested in fantasies about destroying society. I know this makes me sound like a moderate apologist, but I’m not advocating for “compromise” or “seeing both sides.” What I’m trying to say is this: If there are multiple generations of people who are unemployed, underemployed, deeply in debt, and one random accident away from complete financial ruin, of course they’re going to be upset and looking for guidance, especially while they’re stuck at home or trapped in “essential worker” jobs during an ongoing pandemic. This is not a controversial statement to make.

Neoliberal capitalism is irreparably broken. So many people wouldn’t be in such a precarious position if it weren’t. Something needs to happen, because people need to be able to live without feeling as though they have to fight each other to survive.

In the meantime, social media corporations need to change their algorithms. It’s unnecessary, undesirable, and impossible to destroy the platforms on which authoritarian and apocalyptic discourses are created and disseminated. That being said, these fringe beliefs should not be as accessible, widespread, and normative as they are.

The individual and social formation of identity and ideology that happens online is real, and it has real consequences. I think it’s high time to start taking this seriously.

It’s True and They Should Say It

(Here’s a link) to the Buzzfeed article if you’re interested. It’s mainly about how people in their twenties and thirties can’t afford to live in cities anymore and feel intense loneliness and anxiety about feeling forced to relocate to the suburbs.

While I completely understand that it’s horrible not to have the agency to choose where you live, and while I understand that it can be emotionally devastating to be torn away from your friend group, I agree with the artist that the specific anxiety concerning “living with your parents” is largely based on an ideology of “independence” that’s socially constructed by a very small subset of people.

I don’t think I’m in a position to comment on whether this is a “white” thing, necessarily, but it’s definitely an American thing. A lot of other cultures, including many cultures in Europe, see the American insistence on single-generation households as not just absurd but actively pathological, and honestly, I tend to agree.

“Representation” in Final Fantasy XVI

I had to block someone on Twitter this week.

To make a short story even shorter: Issues surrounding representation in media and popular culture are very important but extremely complicated, and I’m not interested in decontextualized virtue signaling being used as a weapon to beat down individual members of marginalized communities on social media.

To set the stage: I watched the reveal trailer for Final Fantasy XVI, and I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually.

Seeing as how my PlayStation 4 plays DVD and Blu-ray discs just fine, I probably won’t buy the PlayStation 5 console, but that’s okay. Knowing Square Enix, they’ll probably release the “game” as a movie, an animated miniseries, a novel, a short story collection, a manga, a spin-off manga, a mobile-only trading card game, a series of themed deserts in their Tokyo café, and so on. Maybe I’ll play the actual game, and maybe I’ll engage with it through other media. Given that the project is still in development, this isn’t a decision I’ll have to make anytime soon.

Still, based on the trailer, Final Fantasy XVI looks like a cool game with an intriguing premise. After watching the trailer, I made three tweets about how:

(1) I like the dog,
(2) I like the Dark Souls aesthetic, and
(3) I like how this game seems to be developing the themes of the previous games.

Almost immediately, some random person whom I’ve never interacted with before decided that my positive reaction tweets about a promo trailer would be a good venue to tell me that it’s problematic for me to express appreciation about a game that doesn’t have any female or LGBTQ+ characters.

I also saw this sort of knee-jerk reaction from a few people I follow and respect, and I have to admit that I was surprised.

First of all, this was a four-minute trailer for a game that’s going to come out who knows when. “The next big information reveal is scheduled for 2021,” apparently. Although it seems as if the player will control a solitary male warrior, we don’t really have a lot of information about who the characters are and what their sexual histories and preferences might be.

Second, how dare this person come into Yoshi-P’s house and assume he’s not going to have female and queer characters in this game. Naoki Yoshida is famous in the gaming industry for hiring and promoting female staff members, and he’s been nothing but respectful of the LGBTQ+ communities that have formed within Final Fantasy XIV. All of the (female and queer-identified) translation and localization staff who have worked with him have nothing but good things to say about the creative environments he facilitates.

Third, although I may have once seen myself in Final Fantasy games in a way I didn’t see myself elsewhere, both the franchise and the gaming industry have shifted dramatically during the past ten years, and I think it’s unrealistic and unfair to rely on the four-minute trailer of a mainline Final Fantasy game for validation and representation.

Both as a queer creator (and translator) and as someone who works with and promotes queer creators (and translators), I always get defensive when people say that we don’t exist, or that the work we contribute to large projects is somehow invalid if the final product doesn’t meet certain arbitrary standards of “representation.”

When I look for representation – meaning, when I look for meaningful stories about identity that transcend mere tokenism – big-budget mainstream games are never going to be the first place I look. This is not to say that there aren’t female and queer protagonists in big-budget mainstream games, and this certainly isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like to see more of them. Still, I think it’s much more reasonable to expect a more specific type of “representation” from games created by smaller studios that are more invested in allowing individual voices to be expressed with clarity and distinction than they are in appealing to a broad audience. I’m almost 100% certain that there will be female and queer characters in Final Fantasy XVI, but that’s not why I would (or wouldn’t) play the game.

To me personally, it’s extremely insulting that someone would look at all the amazing and important work done by female and queer creators in the gaming industry, as well as all the powerful representation in both triple-A games and indie titles, and say, essentially, “That’s not good enough because it doesn’t interest me.”

I agree with this person that there should be more female and openly queer characters in big-budget mainstream game franchises. Of course I do. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I’ve been engaging in a PLAYABLE ZELDA 2020 online campaign since at least 2015. Attempting to shame random people on Twitter for being fans of large franchises isn’t going to dismantle systems of inequality, however, nor is denying the existence of the diversity and representation that so many individual creators have fought and sacrificed to make happen.

But I couldn’t say all of this in a Tweet, so I just blocked this person. If nothing else, it’s rude to invade someone’s space for the sole purpose of publicly engaging in performative wokeness, and I don’t have the time to spend on that sort of emotional vampirism.

So I don’t care that the main protagonist in Final Fantasy XVI is probably going to be male. Once the game has been released, I might have more to say about what it does and doesn’t do regarding representation. Until then, I’d much rather devote my limited emotional resources to appreciating games from diverse creators that speak to me in a meaningful way.

Voices Are Not Commodities

I Know I’m Late
https://medium.com/@rebecca.albertalli/i-know-im-late-9b31de339c62

So why do we keep doing this? Why do we, again and again, cross the line between critiquing books and making assumptions about author identities? How are we so aware of invisible marginalization as a hypothetical concept, but so utterly incapable of making space for it in our community?

Let me be perfectly clear: this isn’t how I wanted to come out. This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe. Honestly, I’m doing this because I’ve been scrutinized, subtweeted, mocked, lectured, and invalidated just about every single day for years, and I’m exhausted. And if you think I’m the only closeted or semi-closeted queer author feeling this pressure, you haven’t been paying attention.

And I’m one of the lucky ones! I’m a financially independent adult. I can’t be disowned. I come from a liberal family, I have an enormous network of queer friends and acquaintances, and my livelihood isn’t even remotely at risk. I’m hugely privileged in more ways than I can count. And this was still brutally hard for me. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for other closeted writers, and how unwelcome they must feel in this community.
As someone who was disowned by my family after being outed at fifteen, and as someone who was very recently forced to leave a stable job after disclosing a disability, my position on the matter is clear: Personal identity is complicated, and no one should be made to feel pressured to disclose sensitive personal information in a public venue. This is not social justice; it’s real violence performed against people in vulnerable positions.
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Also relevant:

Social Media Self-Care

During the past few days, I deleted about four hundred posts on Tumblr:

Posts where I reblogged people’s stories, meta, and art with supportive comments and tags, posts of original art and stories and jokes I made for people’s ideas and headcanons, and reblogs of people’s creative projects and commission info.

I applied the same level of attention to weeding my blog on Tumblr that I’ve devoted to developing my island on Animal Crossing, and it was incredibly cathartic.

I don’t need to see a snapshot of myself going out of my way to be kind and friendly to someone who thought it would be a good idea to send me a message asking if they could commission me to drink an entire bottle of NyQuil and pass out with a plastic trash bag over my head, for example.

I was never friends with any of these creeps. It never happened.

For me, the purpose of Tumblr is and always has been to create a small garden of things that make me happy. I scroll through my own Tumblr when I’m stuck in a waiting room, or during some impossibly long train or car ride, or when I’m exhausted but can’t sleep. “Interesting but relaxing” is the vibe I’m going for, and I think I’ve gone a decent job, for the most part. After all, I’m fairly skilled at catering to myself as an audience of one.

I’ve never been comfortable with the expectation to behave like a brand; and, regardless, activity on Tumblr has declined rapidly during the past month or so. I’ve gone from getting well over a thousand notes a day at the beginning of the year to getting less than a hundred a day during the past three weeks, and it only takes me about fifteen minutes to scroll through an entire day’s feed – if I even bother, which I mostly don’t.

What has ultimately come out of my social experience of fandom on Tumblr are lowkey but lasting friendships with professional artists and writers who have mostly moved to Twitter. I understand the value of online anonymity, but I think there are benefits to allowing yourself to be a real and fully-rounded person online. There are also benefits to being able to mute people, as well as being able to choose never to see certain tags and keywords. I’m not saying that Twitter is a good platform, because it’s objectively awful, but it’s become a much easier place to manage the social aspects of fandom.

To be honest, it’s because of Twitter that I no longer think of “fandom” as a discrete area of my life that needs to be contained and concealed as a shameful waste of time. I am a writer who writes reviews and critical essays about media. Sometimes I write fiction and draw comics. This is who I am, and I’ve found it much easier to interact with people when I don’t have to hide aspects of myself. I’ve also found it much easier to pick up the sort of high-quality freelance assignments that enabled me to quit the soul-crushing job that was making me sick.

Maybe it took me a little longer than other people to find my voice and surround myself with a supportive community, but I’m happy I’m here now.

Re: A Golden Mean

Okay, I’ll admit it. There’s one thing Twitter is extremely useful for, and that’s organizing grassroots protest movements. I wish, though…

…and I’m not saying that everything needs to be SERIOUS BUSINESS all (or even most of) the time, because lord knows life is hard and we all need a break, but…

…I wish that conversations about social justice on social media were less about attacking people who like “abusive” fictional characters and more about sharing concrete resources (not to mention specific times and places) for civil disobedience. I’m so fucking scared of mentioning anything even remotely related to race and gender and sexuality and disability in fandom that sometimes I forget how incredibly empowering it feels to actually be a part of a real social movement.

That being said, I’m happy that I’ll be moving to Philadelphia, where community action and organization tends to be easier to access and join in person. I’d like protest to be an aspect of my daily life, not something I can only learn about and join when I get the news that something is happening on Twitter.

As a bizarre side note: This was a weird time to learn, without doubt, that J.K. Rowling does in fact spend time on TERF blogs and forums. Yikes. I hate call-out culture when it’s directed against independent creators in marginal positions, but this is the sort of thing I would in fact like to know.

Karen Would Like Your Attention Please

How ‘Karen’ Became a Coronavirus Villain
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/05/coronavirus-karen-memes-reddit-twitter-carolyn-goodman/611104/

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, “Karen” has been adopted as a shorthand to call out a vocal minority of middle-aged white women who are opposed to social distancing, out of either ignorance or ruthless self-interest. It’s the latest evolution of a long-standing meme. In The New York Times last year, the writer Sarah Miller described Karens as “the policewomen of all human behavior,” using the example of a suburban white woman who calls the cops on kids’ pool parties. Karens have been mocked for being anti-vaccine and pro–”Can I speak to your manager?” They’re obsessed with banal consumer trends and their personal appearance, and typically criminally misguided, usually loudly and with extreme confidence.

Their defining essence is “entitlement, selfishness, a desire to complain,” according to Heather Suzanne Woods, a meme researcher and professor at Kansas State University. A Karen “demands the world exist according to her standards with little regard for others, and she is willing to risk or demean others to achieve her ends.”

This is a relatively short article, and it’s worth reading to the end. I would say that it goes to a surprising place, but at this point I’m not actually all that surprised to learn that some of the more high-profile Karens on Twitter were manufactured by right-wing content farms.

Technologies of Behavior Modification

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff review – we are the pawns
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/02/age-of-surveillance-capitalism-shoshana-zuboff-review

While insisting that their technology is too complex to be legislated, there are companies that have poured billions into lobbying against oversight, and while building empires on publicly funded data and the details of our private lives they have repeatedly rejected established norms of societal responsibility and accountability. And what is crucially different about this new form of exploitation and exceptionalism is that beyond merely strip-mining our intimate inner lives, it seeks to shape, direct and control them. Their operations transpose the total control over production pioneered by industrial capitalism to every aspect of everyday life.

I’m not sure I’m up for reading the actual book, which sounds miserably depressing, but this is an interesting review. Two paragraphs are devoted to a blunt deconstruction of Pokémon Go, which is fair.

Even though most of the people (especially artists) I used to follow on Tumblr have moved to Twitter and Instagram, I still feel a bit weird about engaging with those two platforms. Despite its flaws, I appreciate that Tumblr is relatively chaotic and isn’t making money for anyone. Activity on the site has dropped off since the beginning of the year, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. Also, as much as Discord annoys me for being exclusive, inaccessible, and difficult to use, I’ve found myself spending more time on art and sketch channels during the past few months.

Meanwhile, AO3 remains the Gold Standard of Internet and continues to be my happy place.

Algorithmic Time

The 2010s Broke Our Sense Of Time
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/katherinemiller/the-2010s-have-broken-our-sense-of-time

How did everything get so jumbled? Stories about our phones, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest often concern Nazis, grifters, scammers, plagiarists, the aesthetes who reject that online life, the famous, the infamous, people who are making a buck, and anyone else who pushes the logic and limits already in place. But what about the rest of us?

The 2000s were a bad decade, full of terrorism, financial ruin, and war. The 2010s were different, somehow more disorienting, full of molten anxiety, racism, and moral horror shows. Maybe this is a reason for the disorientation: Life had run on a certain rhythm of time and logic, and then at a hundred different entry points, that rhythm and that logic shifted a little, sped up, slowed down, or disappeared, until you could barely remember what time it was.

The writer isn’t wrong, but holy hell do all of the flashing GIF images make this article difficult to read. I understand that this is (probably?) the result of an intentional artistic decision to create a format that mimics the experience of having your attention constantly divided between multiple competing demands online, but it works a little too well. The essay is about how having our lives mediated through social media disrupts our memory; and, lo and behold, I can barely remember what I read.

All that being said, I’m planning to cut and paste the text into a document to study later, as what the author is describing mirrors my experience of the past four years almost perfectly.

Vetting and Sharing on Social Media

I used to think that, the more followers a blog has, the more popular its posts will be. It only stands to reason, right? I also had this idea that artists have a lot of influence on Tumblr partially because of how the platform privileges images but mainly because of their relatively high follower counts.

I’ve since figured out that what’s actually going on is that a post needs to be “vetted” in order to spread. In other words, a post needs to be reblogged by someone whose taste other people trust. Or, well, “taste” is a strong word, as is “trust.” What I mean is that people are far more likely to reblog a post if someone they’re following reblogs it, even if they’ve already seen it posted on the original blog. If that “someone else” is associated with the same fandom as the post, then it will spread farther. In this case, “fandom” can be very broad; like, say, the “intellectual shitpost” fandom.

At this point I have far more followers than my small blog on Tumblr deserves, but it’s not my follower count alone that enables any given one of my posts to spread. By itself, one of my fandom-related posts might get forty to ninety notes, and it’s only when someone associated with the fandom reblogs it that it will get more than a hundred.

I’ve seen this happen on posts I’ve reblogged as well. Sometimes I’ll reblog something from a few months (or even years) ago, and it will go from having about twenty to thirty notes to having several hundred almost overnight.

Once a post reaches a certain level of critical mass, the number of notes alone will indicate that it’s already been vetted, and it will also be picked up by the site’s promotional algorithms. Before it can go viral, however, a post first needs to have community support.

I feel like the same applies to Twitter – albeit to a lesser extent, as Twitter’s septic open wound of an algorithm aggressively prioritizes a handful of tweets while hiding most of the rest, even if you turn off the “best tweets first” feature. As far as I can tell, Twitter doesn’t have the same “recommended for you” algorithm that Tumblr has, in which the posts liked by your mutuals – and the posts posted by people followed by your mutuals – will sometimes appear at the top of your feed. Rather, Twitter has figured out what types of tweets are most likely to provoke a reaction (generally negative) from you and show those tweets to you over and over until you either like them, hide them, or blacklist whatever keyword or hashtag they’re using.

Regardless, I’ve noticed that there’s still something of an influencer culture on Twitter, whereby people are more likely to respond to or retweet something if it’s already been vetted by someone they trust, even if they already follow the OP.

Meanwhile, Instagram is testing a feature that will hide the number of likes a post has received specifically for the purpose of protecting the mental health of their users, and I for one could not be more relieved.