Who Is Truly Marginalized? – Part 2

Tendayi Achiume - UN Special Rapporteur - Britain UK racism Brexit

Champions of intersectional identity politics in academia, culture and government have accrued near-hegemonic societal power for themselves by exploiting both the real and imagined oppression of certain groups on whose behalf they boldly presume to speak

Last month, I wrote a short reflection on who is and is not effectively marginalized in 21st century Western society, both societally and intellectually. Building on far more substantial contributions from Rod Dreher and Kevin Williamson, I concluded that while racism, sexism and LGBT discrimination remain very real and pressing challenges to be overcome, when it comes to setting the political and cultural agenda it is those who refuse to embrace, uphold and evangelise intersectional identity politics who are increasingly the most functionally marginalized.

To me, this seems self-evidently true. Try being a black conservative or libertarian politician in America, or a gay politician questioning of current gender theory in Britain and see how far you rise and how welcome you are in the Democratic or Labour parties, or the Op-Ed pages of prestige newspapers. In each case it will not be the color of your skin or your sexual preference which holds you back, stymies your career and invites social and professional ostracization from the most prestigious and influential networks; rather, it will be the “unacceptable” opinions you profess and the supposed harm you are doing to sweepingly designated victim classes.

Partly depending on how one defines being marginalized – and there are different perspectives here, one being the ability to speak up for one’s personal interests and meaningfully control one’s own destiny, the other being the ability to wield influence to shape wider society in one’s preferred direction – a powerful case can be made that race, gender and sexuality are now far less a determining factor than whether or not one possesses the education, social justice lexicon and properly conforming social viewpoints to avoid scrutiny and censure by other “gatekeepers”. In other words, we have returned to an almost class-based form of societal hierarchy where the new underclass do not necessarily work with their hands or sit on the dole queue but generally hold opinions and values now considered unfashionable or harmful, while the new upper class do not necessarily own mansions or penthouses but are uniformly fluent in the lore and language of intersectionality.

Note that this is very different to making the tedious, self-pitying Alt-Right claim that straight white Christian males are now a terribly downtrodden group while reverse discrimination-benefiting racial minorities or perpetually unsatisfied “feminazis” are on the ascendance and have the best of everything – far from it. In fact, a straight white male is still likely to do extraordinarily well, to the extent that he also holds a narrow range of opinions deemed acceptable by current elites, while a black lesbian woman who blasphemes against one of the identity politics movement’s main articles of faith is likely to find herself every bit as limited in opportunity and outcome as a straight white male who commits the same sin.

Thus we need to think about power in a more nuanced, multilayered way. There are differences in power between various individuals in society, resulting from numerous factors including (but certainly not limited to or even predominantly caused by) race, gender and sexuality. But there are also differences in power between various voices in the public square, and these differences depend even less on immutable personal characteristics and more on the particular political opinions which people hold and either choose to voice or suppress. The former may well often be overwhelmingly important to the individual, whose personal happiness or fulfilment is likely closely tied to getting through life unstymied by various forms of discrimination. But the other power differential – the ongoing interplay of voices in the public square, which slowly shapes society through rules, customs and laws – is far more consequential to us all. And it is here where the social justice left insult our intelligence by continually playing the overwhelmed underdog when in reality they enjoy every conceivable advantage and inch closer to victory with every passing day.

To this end, I was very heartened to read the latest blog post by Ben Cobley, a left-wing journalist who freely expresses qualms about the groupthink and illiberal authoritarianism now rampant on the Left. Cobley focuses on the work of UN “Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” E. Tendayi Achiume, who recently made an official fact-finding trip to Britain in order to apply a remarkably presumptive “post hoc ergo propter hoc” analytical lens to the supposed impact of “Brexit” (which hasn’t yet taken place) on racial equality in the UK.

Referencing the UN Special Rapporteur’s report, Cobley writes:

For this interpretation, which is appearing in our public life daily and prominently, the life chances and well-being of non-white-skinned people, women, the ethnically non-British, Muslims and disabled people are determined by those identity markers, so that they appear as universal victims of society and of the identity groups which dominate it. This is direct causation she is talking about – that identity leads to either success or failure. She makes no qualification on it and makes an unequivocal judgement on the situation as unacceptable and also sometimes unlawful – so assuming a kind of absolute authority over it.

Achiume, who The Times described as a ‘Zambian-born, US-based academic’ and ‘a UN expert’ on its front page, added, “Austerity measures have been disproportionately detrimental to racial and ethnic minority communities. Unsurprisingly, austerity has had especially pronounced intersectional consequences, making women of colour the worst affected.”

Here we see the logic of this form of knowledge, attributing victimhood along the lines of identity categories – so, combining women and people ‘of colour’ as victims, we arrive at a maximum victimhood of ‘women of colour’. This type of knowledge, of ‘intersectionality’, will be familiar to anyone accustomed to the theories coming out of the social sciences (and wider humanities) departments of Western universities.

However the ability to make assertion in the public sphere – and to have it leading the news with the one making the assertion described as a ‘UN expert’ as in this case – is an indication of political power. The domination of academic discourse by this sort of universalising theory is a sign of political power. That someone propounding this theory gets appointed by the body that brings the world together to go and inspect countries and tell them what to do is a sign of political power.

Absolutely so. Such is the power wielded by devotees of intersectional identity politics within academia that reputations can be ruined, careers terminated and cringeworthily fawning apologies extracted by identity politics practitioners, not on the basis of an intellectual refutation of a contrary argument but by the mere assertion that merely having to hear such alternative opinions constitutes intolerable cruelty and harm.

Such is the power wielded by identity politics practitioners within British politics that a one-time party leader – Tim Farron of the risibly named Liberal Democrats – can be forced through media pressure to publicly deny what we all know to be his true beliefs on certain hot-button social issues, and ultimately to quit his post because of the incompatibility of private conscience with the totalitarian demand that he personally approve of alternative lifestyle choices rather than simply promising never to legislate against them.

The power to hand down a statement or opinion of any kind – from a UN report accusing Britain of becoming a land of racist oppression following the Brexit vote to a university professor redesigning a curriculum or writing a grievance-soaked Op-Ed – and receive unsceptical, unquestioning newspaper coverage or approving cable news commentary is immense indeed. They who control the universities, cultural outlets serving mass markets and the media outlets consumed by political elites can be reasonably said to control the basic narrative of society. Sure, dissenting voices are still permitted to appear (though less frequently in prestige outlets, and often with various disqualifying provisos attached) from time to time, but as a general rule they who control the narrative determine the future.

Those in opposition to the social justice and identity politics movements simply do not possess this media or cultural reach. Their arguments are not given the same weight by opinion-makers and their messages are not amplified to nearly the same extent by media gatekeepers. Bad individuals on this side of the societal divide remain intermittently capable of causing physical or emotional harm to others through their private actions, which is always reprehensible, but the conservative movement as a whole is firmly in retreat on a societal level. Even many of those most concerned about the rise to power of Donald Trump concede that this historical aberration is very much a “last gasp” from a segment of society they openly write off as unimportant and “deplorable”.

Cobley continues to explore:

[..] how this power works through relationships which have built up between what I am calling ‘the liberal-left’ [..] and these favoured groups via those who appear as their representatives – so feminists, Islamists and ethnic group activists for example. These relationships make up what I am calling ‘the system of diversity’ – a form of society grounded in these relationships of favouring and representing, linked to assumptions of identity group victimhood.

As I am seeing it, many of our major institutions, including major media organisations like the BBC, Sky NewsThe Times and especially The Guardian and Channel 4 are constantly being drawn towards the system of diversity and its ways of relating to the world – seeing fixed and ‘quasi-fixed’ identity as primary to what is going on in the world and primary to how they should address it.

And warns:

This agenda is increasingly working its way into our daily lives as rules and orders and social norms – to implement positive discrimination in the workplace, to attend training to correct our ‘unconscious bias’ and to report assertions that are not favourable to favoured group members to the police as ‘hate crime’.

The natural response in this situation is to give way, which is after all, fundamentally, a giving-way to power. We evade, we protect ourselves, while the winners go on producing their reports and setting the agenda and setting the rules that govern our lives.

It takes a strong person to resist all of these pressures to conform. Only the very brave, generally reckless or those with little to lose will readily voice dissent against the identity politics left’s stark design for society, which is why such dissent is concentrated among a handful of brave and exceptional academics or journalists, opportunistic politicians or disenfranchised and often under-occupied young men online.

Unfortunately, despite the ability to generate the occasional flashpoint of resistance, these groups count for little against the great mass of middle class opinion which is either actively supports the identity politics message saturating the culture or (perhaps more often) is too fearful of negative personal consequences to question or object to the present direction of travel.

And all the while opposing voices are silenced, careers ended and lives ruined for failing to move in fast-enough lockstep with evolving identity politics orthodoxy, those powerful figures doing the silencing, ending and ruining have the temerity to portray themselves as the underdogs in this culture war. We must not fall for their charade.

 

Update – 30 May 2018

Ben Cobley has a new book on this very subject coming out on 1st July, entitled “The Tribe: The Liberal Left And The System Of Diversity“. I will be getting a copy and encourage my interested readers to do the same, as it promises to delve into these issues in more depth and certainly with a more scholarly eye than I currently possess.

 

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Who Is Truly Marginalized?

Kevin Williamson - The Atlantic - When the Twitter mob came for me

The marginalization of people and the marginalization of supposedly harmful ideas are very different phenomena, and the continued existence of the former neither requires nor excuses the latter

Rod Dreher has a great reflection on his blog today about who and what viewpoints in our present society are truly marginalised. Unsurprisingly, he is of the opinion that the side which bleats the loudest about its vulnerability and powerlessness is, more often than not, actually the one which is not only ascendant but effectively dominant, wielding both the power to destroy nonconformists and an increased willingness to deploy that power for social and political ends.

Dreher quotes a powerful passage from fellow writer Kevin D. Williamson, who made much news this month for being first hired and then swiftly fired from The Atlantic because of previously-expressed heterodox opinions. Williamson writes of a journalistic panel event he attended at South by Southwest on the subject of marginalized points of view:

Which brings us back to that event at South by Southwest, where the Atlantic was sponsoring a panel about marginalized points of view and diversity in journalism. The panelists, all Atlantic writers and editors, argued that the cultural and economic decks are stacked against feminists and advocates of minority interests. They made this argument under the prestigious, high-profile auspices of South by Southwest and their own magazine, hosted by a feminist group called the Female Quotient, which enjoys the patronage of Google, PepsiCo, AT&T, NBCUniversal, Facebook, UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Deloitte. We should all be so marginalized. If you want to know who actually has the power in our society and who is actually marginalized, ask which ideas get you sponsorships from Google and Pepsi and which get you fired.

My emphasis in bold above. Note Williamson’s correct observation that the “advocates of minority interests” increasingly see themselves as persecuted underdogs, not just the minority groups on whose behalf they claim to speak.

Dreher goes on to give another example provided by a reader, all the more serious because it impacts a private citizen who is simply attempting to go about their daily life (as opposed to making a living by expressing opinions in the public square like Kevin Williamson):

True. This past weekend, I heard from a reader who holds a management position in a Fortune 100 company. The reader is a Christian, and is struggling because the reader’s company has been pushing its employees, especially at that level, to get involved in their community as advocates for LGBT inclusion. The reader, who is closeted as a Christian inside the company, has stayed very quiet, but the reader’s bosses are starting to wonder why the reader isn’t signing on. The reader is dealing with a serious medical disability, and cannot afford to lose this job. Understandably, the reader is really starting to get anxious.

[..] This Christian reader is at the mercy of this woke corporation. But as a traditional Christian, this reader will always and everywhere be the Oppressor in the eyes of this company, even though people with the views of this reader are powerless within its culture.

Dreher’s conclusion:

Williamson is on to a truly remarkable thing about the way the power-holders in our society work: their ideology allows them to tell themselves that they are advocates for the oppressed, and stand in solidarity with the marginalized, etc. But it’s a sham.

I think it is important here to distinguish between those on the sharp end of lingering prejudice and discrimination to a greater or lesser degree – groups which certainly include ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals and those who place themselves outside what is now called the “gender binary”, but also other far less favoured groups like white working class boys, people whom it is not fashionable to pity – and those who experience blowback either voluntarily expressing their own opinions on social issues in the public sphere (including journalists and public figures) or in the course of their daily lives (people of faith working for corporations, etc.)

In the case of the former, reasonable people still ought to be able to agree that historically disadvantaged minorities still have it worse on aggregate, despite often-tremendous strides of progress and occasionally even surpassing parity with the “privileged” majority. The aggregate experience of most minorities in countries like Britain and America is significantly better than would have been the case just two decades ago, but it would be churlish to deny that the legacy of past discrimination and its lingering remnants do not have a disproportionate effect on those who are not white, male and wealthy (though we can certainly quibble over the degree).

Where it gets far more interesting, though, is who wins the “marginalization contest” when it comes to publicly expressing viewpoints or living one’s values in modern society. And here, I think both Rod Dreher and Kevin Williamson are right that the situation is almost completely reversed. When it comes to which worldview and values dominate our society (from the political and corporate worlds down through academia, high and low culture) social progressivism is utterly ascendant. More than ascendant, in fact; it has won the battle of ideas and done so without grace or magnanimity towards those it vanquished along the way.

When somebody like former Google engineer James Damore can be summarily fired from his job for publishing a controversial but eminently reasoned and defensible memo on Google’s hiring policies, it is not the supposed “victims” of his memo who lack agency, power or a platform to defend themselves. When so many prestigious and supposedly trustworthy news sources can casually refer to Damore’s “anti-diversity screed” without critically reading it or placing it in proper context, how is Damore the all-powerful oppressor who must be purged from society for the protection of others?

And when writers like Kevin Williamson are hounded out of their jobs by baying Twitter mobs before they even get their feet under the desk, and not once contacted by any of the major news outlets who extensively covered the story in order to seek his comment and version of events, how is Williamson the snarling ideological hegemon with his jackboot on the neck of the innocent masses?

This all points to a contradiction at the heart of the debate over social justice and identity politics which is often overlooked in the glib media debate: those traditionally considered vulnerable and marginalised minorities often do continue to experience an unequal playing field and have just cause for complaint, even while the most extreme elements of progressivism (fully unrestricted abortion, open borders, the imposition of radical new gender theory) are now established orthodoxy nearly everywhere that it matters. Or to deploy a military analogy, while many foot soldiers and protectorates of their movement continue to be pinned down by sporadic enemy resistance on the ground, they are also secure in the knowledge that their side enjoys total air superiority and that ultimate victory is all but assured.

One then has to ask whether it is right that the progressive air campaign is allowed to dominate in such a fashion. Many would glibly answer “yes”, and perhaps suggest (not unreasonably) that the right of a minority individual to be physically safe and undiscriminated against in the affairs of life far outweighs the rights of the newspaper columnist or blogger to express their dissenting opinion on social issues. As a rhetorical device this argument is quite effective, but it is also a deceptive false dichotomy. While social justice advocates may claim that dissenting speech is the equivalent of physical or mental harm, this is nothing but cynical, censorious manoeuvring on their part. Kevin Williamson writing for The Atlantic no more made anybody unsafe than James Damore’s respectfully-worded memo. To the extent that harm of any kind is suffered, it is entirely through the self-imposed mental fragility of the identity politics movement, which often takes grown people and renders them screechy, adult-sized babies.

As Rod Dreher notes elsewhere:

It’s like everybody just wants to be offended, and so offended that they become emotionally disabled, because that’s how they know who they are. I am offended, therefore I am. Not too long ago, to admit to being undone by the least little thing would have been seen as a sign of weakness, of feeble character. The man or woman who was able to endure all kinds of insults and threats to their lives — think James Meredith and Ruby Bridges — without desisting from their path were real heroes.

Now? The therapeutic mindset has triumphed so thoroughly that the faintest flap of a butterfly’s wing will cause an emotional hurricane within anyone who feels the air quiver. It’s the way to achieve power.

Ultimately, we need to be able to acknowledge that while discrimination against minorities continues and is appalling, that the victim status does not extend to those fighting on their behalf. A woke Hollywood A-lister with the power to direct his legions of social media followers to hound and destroy the livelihood of a working class citizen who expresses less than politically correct views or attempts to live out traditional values in their own life is no brave underdog – he is a bully. A corporate CEO who cuts short a vacation and flies home to summarily fire a diligent employee for making a thoughtful contribution is not a good corporate citizen – she is a mini tyrant, seeking to control her worker’s thoughts and actions with the same impersonal intensity as the industrial revolution mill-owner of old.

Victimhood is not transferable from those who genuinely suffer disadvantage to those who ostentatiously advocate (or posture) on their behalf. The sympathy or compensatory advantages due to somebody who suffers the barbs of ongoing racism or discrimination must not be appropriated by those who make a profitable cottage industry of fighting for “equality”. Yet this is precisely what currently happens, even though these two wrongs in no way make a right.

Censoring or otherwise persecuting those who dissent from the slightest aspect of progressive orthodoxy is not a just punishment for past discrimination against minorities, particularly when those doling out the punishment are among the most successful and privileged people in society. Destroying innocent careers or purging heterodox or dissenting viewpoints from the public square must not become seen as a valid reparation for society’s past sins.

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The Left Will Not Achieve Gun Reform By Using Divisive Culture War Tactics

Gun violence protests - NRA blood on your hands

Going on a moralistic crusade against the NRA and gun rights supporters may be cathartic for the Left, but folding the gun control debate into the ongoing toxic culture war only guarantees bitter polarisation and more deadly inaction

A worrying (but perhaps predictable) new development following the horrific Parkland school shooting has been a concerted effort by many on the anti-gun Left to fold the issue of gun rights and restrictions into the broader, toxic ongoing culture war, in which Americans hunker down within their respective ideological bunkers and instinctively assume the worst of those who disagree.

This trend reached depressing new heights last night during CNN’s town hall on gun control, held in Broward County, Florida, where the shooting took place. This was less a serious debate conducted in the spirit of seeking compromise than it was an inquisition, designed not to foster understanding or brainstorm solutions but rather to provide a cathartic opportunity for gun-control advocates to scream at gun rights supporters and accuse them of complicity in the mass murder of innocent schoolchildren.

Even if there were a shred of truth in these monstrous accusations – and there isn’t – it would remain absolutely terrible politics. Constantly fuming that the other side is selfish and evil only encourages alienation and division, a fact which was true when some Republicans implied that President Obama didn’t “love America” and which applies equally now when some Democrats imply that conservatives don’t care about murdered kids. And it really should be a cause of deep shame for CNN that President Trump of all people was able to moderate a calmer, more respectful and productive listening session on gun control at the White House than Jake Tapper, with all his experience, managed on live television.

(Of course, the US media being the uncritically self-regarding entity that it is, Tapper is receiving praise from all corners for permitting what was effectively open season on Republican senator Marco Rubio and NRA representative Dana Loesch while letting the political activist local sheriff whose department failed to take action against the killer before he struck completely off the hook).

The irony to all of this is that there have actually been some genuinely hopeful signs of movement from gun rights proponents after this latest shooting. Whether it is increased fatigue from even hardened gun-rights activists at witnessing the funerals of more young children or (perhaps more likely) the loud and insistent activism of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students themselves, concessions are now being mooted and offered on areas from bump stocks (though no such device was used in this particular shooting) to increased criminal background and mental health checks.

This much, however, was foreseeable. What seems to be new this time is that efforts are now underway to make gun rights supporters pariahs in the wider American culture and society. We see this most notably with swarms of activists on social media browbeating corporations into disassociating themselves with the National Rifle Association – and gunowners in general, by extension:

 

This, of course, is precisely the same tactic used by the illiberal leftist British organisation Stop Funding Hate, which channels the efforts of a few thousand shrill voices on Twitter to intimidate companies into pulling their advertisements from certain publications or certain publications from their places of business.

Stop Funding Hate has had great success in surgically removing the spines of various corporations in Britain and then bending them to conform to whatever happens to be their moral outrage of the week, nearly always involving the Daily Mail. One does not have to approve of the Daily Mail’s editorial positions or reporting standards to be concerned that leftist efforts to make the personal political are creating dozens of new wedge issues to divide British people from one another rather than uniting us around common values, and co-opting big business in their efforts to do so.

In America, it seems to corporate capitulations are going to be every bit as swift as they have been here in the United Kingdom, with car hire giant Enterprise Rent-A-Car swiftly terminating a deal with the NRA in which offered rental discounts to their members:

 

Note the specific language used here, too. The business relationship was between Enterprise and the NRA, so the spineless amoebas who run the company’s social media accounts could simply have said that they terminated their relationship with the NRA. But they went one step further and specifically pointed out that they were withdrawing their discount for “NRA members”, as though innocent NRA members (none of whom have ever committed one of these mass shootings) are themselves deserving of opprobrium and social sanction.

An intersectional social justice warrior might say that this has the effect of “othering” the large minority of Americans who own guns, but of course such terms are only conferred on designated victim groups, a label which conservative gun-owners will never attract. Those of us who do not wallow 24/7 in victimhood culture might simply point out that appearing to repudiate law-abiding NRA members

Are firms like Enterprise free to advertise or offer affinity partnerships with whatever organisations they please? Of course. Is it necessarily good business to allow a handful of Twitter activists to effectively dictate corporate strategy? It’s arguable, but I have very strong doubts. But is it good for the country for corporations to so clearly take sides on divisive social issues, coming perilously close to suggesting that those who hold more conservative views are effectively personae non gratae? I think it is unambiguously bad and counterproductive to do so.

We have already been through this dismal dance with the media. The mainstream, prestige media’s often soft but near-universal leftward bias on all issues did not have the desired effect of “reprogramming” conservatives into adopting progressive positions; rather, it simply forced conservative news consumers into the arms of right wing talk radio, Fox News and a slew of independent right-wing websites whose journalistic standards and commitment to objectivity are often questionable at best. And freed from the need to cater to that side of the market, the remaining prestige media has had every social and commercial incentive to pander to progressive dogma and groupthink to the extent that many journalists genuinely believe themselves to be objective while displaying degrees of selection bias and epistemic closure which beggar belief.

Has this division been good for American society? Who can argue that it has been anything other than a monumental failure? More than anything, this is what gave the country President Trump. When the legacy news outlets which generally still come closest to reporting objective truth make it plainly clearly that conservative ideas are unwelcome and will be treated with more scepticism than progressive ideas, the very idea of objectivity is poisoned.

Do we really want to replicate this polarisation across all aspects of American life? Do we want to live in a society where the car rental company you use, the airline you fly, the grocery store you shop at or the high-tech goods you buy become an expression of your stance on every hot-button social issue, a flag planted to declare your allegiance in the culture wars?

Nothing good can come of this. Nothing. Have conservatives historically shown far too little sense of urgency in proposing and implementing policy changes in an attempt to reduce the frequency and deadliness of mass shootings, or at least been content to see efforts stall so long as their rights were not threatened? Absolutely. But now they are actually coming to the table, the Left’s response cannot be to paint every gun-owning American as a pariah and refuse to frequent the same places of business.

The Left have a history of achieving social changes – often welcome, sometimes less so – and responding to these victories not with magnanimity toward the conservatives they routed but rather with an unbecoming, snarling vengefulness. It would be a real catastrophe if they now repeat this destructive behaviour as they fight for greater gun control.

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Journalists Buying Fake Twitter Followers, Another Symptom Of Institutional Decay

Journalists buying fake Twitter followers - fraud

Some journalists and political pundits choose to buy artificial Twitter followers because being good at their job matters (and is incentivised) less than appearing like the Next Hot Thing.

I’ll admit it – in earlier years, in my weaker moments as a struggling political writer, I have idly thought about purchasing Twitter followers. But I have not and never will do so, and deplore those in journalism and politics who choose to sell out in this way.

The New York Times recently reported that a company called Devumi was offering dummy Twitter followers (either fabricated individuals or the fruits of identity theft) to those seeking to boost their social media stature for mere cents per follower. A whole swathe of celebrities were implicated (most of whom promptly rolled over and blamed their managers or PR people) but so too were a number of journalists at supposedly respectable outlets of the legacy media.

From the New York Times:

Genuine fame often translates into genuine social media influence, as fans follow and like their favorite movie stars, celebrity chefs and models. But shortcuts are also available: On sites like Social Envy and DIYLikes.com, it takes little more than a credit-card number to buy a huge following on almost any social media platform. Most of these sites offer what they describe as “active” or “organic” followers, never quite stating whether real people are behind them. Once purchased, the followers can be a powerful tool.

“You see a higher follower count, or a higher retweet count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received,” said Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, a company that makes search engine optimization software. “As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person.”

Twitter and Facebook can be similarly influenced. “Social platforms are trying to recommend stuff — and they say, ‘Is the stuff we are recommending popular?’” said Julian Tempelsman, the co-founder of Smyte, a security firm that helps companies combat online abuse, bots and fraud. “Follower counts are one of the factors social media platforms use.”

In some ways, this temptation is just one of many ways that using social media can warp our behaviours and motivations, as Jacob Brogan writes for Slate:

Twitter is a machine designed to generate ugly feelings. Here everything is subject to quantification: the number of people who like the things you tweet, the number who share your words with their own followers, and, perhaps most of all, the number who follow you. If you spend too much time on the platform, those numbers quickly become an index of your own self-worth, and no matter how high they get, they will always be too small.

Purchasing fake followers is thus rather grubby and slightly pathetic, but perhaps still fair game if you are a TV star looking to make a bit more money sending promotional tweets for haemorrhoid cream. But what if the person deceiving the public is somebody whose job it is to inform, educate and tell the truth? Surely then it becomes quite unambiguously wrong?

Well, lots of political journalists clearly don’t think so, according to NBC News:

Big media outlets have embraced Twitter as a distribution platform but still struggle with how reporters and editors use the social media service, particularly when they appear to be breaching journalism ethics.

This sizable gray area came into clearer focus this week, after a New York Times exposé revealed that more than a dozen news media figures had paid to artificially pump up the number of followers they have on Twitter.

Journalists and commentators, who presumably joined the platform to enhance their stature, instead found themselves grasping to explain why they had paid for counterfeit supporters. When contacted by NBC News, the journalists identified by The Times as having bought Twitter followers had a range of responses: Many ducked requests for comment, others blamed associates, while just one sounded chastened.

This practice doesn’t bother me so much when it takes place in other fields; if you’re a mediocre provincial stand-up comedian who wants to pretend you have an audience of half a million eager people hanging on your every word, so be it. Good luck to you. Same if you’re a B-list actress, a celebrity chef, an unremarkable footballer or a giver of lousy TED-style talks about personal development. I expect no realism from such people, and personalities from these fields who choose to over-inflate their popularity do no real harm.

Not so with journalists and political commentators, both those who parade around beneath the banner of the blue-tick Twitter verified logo and those scrambling for the Ultimate Recognition. Political Twitter is a nasty swamp of obnoxiousness at the best of times, but those of us who choose to lurk within it do so in the vague hope of coming across useful information or commentary once in awhile. And since nobody has time to vet every account that crosses one’s timeline to determine whether they deserve a follow or a clickthrough, a quick glance to see whether they have a decent (or at least a baseline) level of followers is a useful first line of due diligence.

Is this person for real? Well, their profile picture is the default egg icon and they have eleven followers. Hmm, probably not going to click that link or believe their sensational “report” about Theresa and Philip May using a ouija board in the Downing Street basement to seek inspiration and advice from Britain’s failed prime ministers of the past (plausible though that one actually sounds).

Buying Twitter followers makes a mockery of what the rest of us are trying to do, and undermines one of the few metrics left for gauging success (financial reward having long since ceased to be either a possibility or a useful indicator). I have a mere 2,500 followers on Twitter. However, unlike the cheaters, I earned my entire following by providing consistently useful or entertaining (intentionally or otherwise) content to my audience. Whether it is links to my blog, links to bloggers in my circle, flagging news articles of interest, engaging in feuds with trolls or writing in-depth threads on a particular topic, around two thousand people care enough about what I have to say to stay tuned on an ongoing basis (I imagine that many of the remaining 500 are either businesses or largely dormant accounts).

A study from 2016 suggested that of those people who had tweeted once within a six month period, their average number of followers was 707. This figure seems a little high to me, as I routinely interact with people whose following/follower figures are only in the double figures – but this may be a function of swimming almost exclusively in the political niche rather than venturing out into the deeper oceans of celebrity Twitter. Anyhow, the study would suggest that anything over 707 is then a pretty good sign, and in lieu of an affirmative action-gifted writing gig for The Spectator I am proud of my 2,500 followers as a sign that my hours in front of the keyboard are not entirely wasted.

Ultimately, all this predictable scandal tells us is what a fraud so much of journalism and political commentary has become. Portentously spewing words into the void of Twitter knowing that most of your audience is actually imaginary can’t bring positive feelings of journalistic pride, since one would be aware of the fraud. All that those followers can do is burnish one’s reputation and make one seem like an important person to get drinks with or be seen talking to at one of the many insufferable events that take place every day in Westminster or Washington, D.C.

And the problem is that for those journalists who buy Twitter followers, that’s just fine. They don’t want to organically build an engaged audience of followers who find what they say to be genuinely insightful. They may not object were it to happen, but actual professional accomplishment is clearly no longer the prize to these people. What they want is the aura of success, to be seen as uniquely knowledgeable, titillating or controversial without putting in the labour to do it themselves.

We see the same thing with many of our politicians. Twenty months on from the EU referendum and the number of MPs who have even a basic grasp of the technical issues relating to trade arising from Brexit can probably be counted on two hands. An even smaller number have paid much thought to the constitutional ramifications and the opportunities and threats to our future governance, if any at all. The most significant political development to happen in Britain in decades, and only a handful of our parliamentarians have bothered to stop spouting slogans from the referendum campaign to actually master the issues at hand.

Why is this? Because sitting down with books and consulting advisers in a spirit of humility and willingness to learn is boring and unsexy. The personal payoff just isn’t there, particularly when one can do so much more for one’s career by bleating an angsty speech about the Evil Tor-ees in the Commons chamber or going viral on social media with a well-timed quip on Question Time. And the only reason that our star journalists – the ones who pull in the big bucks and now get terribly worked up at the thought that their celebrity pay packets might not be “equal” – have not rumbled the politicians and revealed the extent of their ignorance is because much of the legacy media is in an equally benighted state.

The whole reason our politics are currently so dysfunctional is that being good at your actual job is no longer adequately incentivised. Looking good and frantically maintaining all the appropriate outward signs of success and positive momentum are what matters most, not solid work diligently performed in the spirit of self-improvement. That’s why people cut corners and do things like participate in Twitter follower-purchasing frauds – because they believe, often correctly, that the rewards which flow from mastering an issue or having an original idea are far less than those which flow from being on some insufferable “Westminster’s 100 people to watch in 2018” list.

You can write for months or years before establishment journalists (as I did) that the Tories were going on an ideology-free jaunt into political oblivion, or that Jeremy Corbyn ought to be taken seriously because the public responds to conviction and consistency, but it doesn’t matter. You won’t get the slightest credit, because nothing has officially been thought or written until it has come from certain approved sources within the Westminster Bubble. And even within the bubble exists a hierarchy, with all of the attendant temptations to level-up by artificially boosting one’s standing.

And that’s why I never have and never will buy Twitter followers. It represents everything that is rotten, sleazy and stupid about modern politics, and the alarming frequency with which people who shouldn’t be within ten promotions from the top of their respective fields end up prancing around at the pinnacle, lording it over the rest of us (be that the prime minister, whole swathes of Parliament, the editors of several newspapers, numerous television news personalities and various assorted celebrity columnists).

We will never live in a perfect meritocracy, and it is stupid to set unrealistic goals which ignore human nature. But one thing you ought to be able to trust in this day and age is that the Very Serious Journalist with the blue “verified” tick next to their Twitter account name is not perpetrating a fundamental fraud every time they broadcast their news, analysis and opinions.

I earned my Twitter audience, and my follower count rises and falls according to the value I deliver. Anything short of this basic standard of behaviour is akin to selling a used car having first tampered with the odometer. And while social media juicing may not be illegal, we should look upon those who engage in it with the same scorn and distrust one might reserve for a convicted fraudster.

 

Twitter for journalists

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