Mutually Assured Engagement
Why Social Media Conflicts Are Disguised Collaborations
Greta Thunberg and Andrew Tate, together in electronic dreams. (Image via the Daily Record).
“A man’s detractors work for him tirelessly and for free.”
If Andrew Tate has hitherto failed to trouble your consciousness, I can only apologise for introducing you to him now. Tate is a former professional kickboxer who transformed himself into a social media influencer, his profile having been boosted by a spot on Channel 4’s Big Brother. He has amassed millions of followers, too many of whom pay for his online courses in how to get filthy rich and trick multiple women into bed.
Every big social trend creates a counter-reaction, which opens up territory for contrarian cultural entrepreneurs to make money from. Amidst an increasingly feminised public discourse, Tate offers a garishly exaggerated version of masculinity - yachts and cars and motorbikes, sculpted pecs, blatant misogyny. It is what Judith Butler might describe as a performance of manhood, indeed a grotesque parody of it. Louise Perry points out that his rise is part of a wider preoccupation with gender norms, shared by trans activists (Tate has been neatly described as a male-to-male transsexual).
Tate has been booted off the main social media platforms but was recently unbanned from Twitter under Elon Musk’s general amnesty. He returned shortly before Christmas and promptly set about trolling Greta Thunberg, addressing her in a tweet about his “33 cars”. He asked for her email, “so I can send a complete list of my car collection and their respective enormous emissions”.
Thunberg, who has nearly six million followers on Twitter, chose to reply. Above a quote of Tate’s tweet, she wrote “yes, please do enlighten me. email me at email@example.com”. It was pretty funny. Twitter went into ecstasy. Everyone agreed Greta had done the “greatest tweet of all time”, as Kellyanne Conway’s husband George put it (ah, the mysteries of the human heart).
Tate responded with a video, in which he said - well who cares what he said, really. Who cares what anyone said? The point of the exchange was not to make arguments or to proselytise, but to accumulate the most valuable currency of the age; a currency which, unlike crypto, shows no sign of crashing: online engagement. When he attacked Thunberg, Tate was like a dog barking for the ball. He wanted to her to play, knowing that if she played, he’d win shares, likes and views. Thunberg joined his game. She granted him his engagement dividend (and in doing so, got her own).
Right after Tate published his video, the real world irrupted into the story, in a way that made an already legendary exchange virtually mythic, for at least as long as anyone remembers it. Tate, who spends a lot of time in Romania, was arrested by Romanian police for trafficking women. Prominent tweeters, including journalists, jumped to the conclusion that his video response to Greta had triggered the arrest. Tate had filmed himself speaking in front of a branded pizza box, which supposedly alerted the police to his presence in the country.
Now, you might have thought that the video of himself he posted a few days before, entitled “Romania”, would have done that. Not to mention the many other ways that Romanian police, who had been tracking Tate for months, might have been aware that he was in their country. But Twitter just knew that the Thunberg exchange had led to his arrest - indeed that Greta herself had knowingly caused his arrest. Wait, how could she possibly - oh never mind that. Good had smited evil! It was a Christmas miracle.
I’m glad that Tate has been arrested and I hope he goes to jail. But I am going to put that part of the story to one side now. Tate’s demise wasn’t the result of a cunning plan hatched in Stockholm, and I’m more interested in why Greta chose to engage with him in the first place. Her tweet was not aimed at any real world impact. Dunking on Andrew Tate does little to solve the climate crisis, as far as I can see. What it definitely does is to amplify Tate. This was a non-zero-sum game in which both parties gained from the transaction. When I made this point, in brief, on Twitter, many people were quite upset by it. Greta is one of those angel-or-demon figures, like Elon Musk, about whom it is not permissible to have an opinion that isn’t one-dimensional. Depending on your team, they are either flawless and omniscient, or evil and stupid; no mix of criticism and admiration is acceptable. I have my doubts about Greta’s methods and about the value of Very Online Activism. But to be clear, I don’t mean to pose a moral equivalence between Tate and Thunberg. Tate is a repellent individual. Thunberg is decent, brave, and likeable. Her tweet was a good if rather politically incorrect joke. I just don’t think she should have posted it.
Many of the people in my replies truly believed that Greta had masterminded Tate’s arrest. Others made slightly more reasonable defences of her tweet. One was that, as my daughter says after being dragged apart from her younger brother, he started it. That is, Tate tweeted at Greta first. Well, yes - he tweeted at her because he wanted a response! And she chose to swing the klieg light of global online attention his way. She gave him exactly what he wanted, and in fact, by being so witty, she gave him more than that.
In the real world, if you make a verbal attack and the other person comes back with a devastating riposte, you lose. You are humiliated and slink off home. But that’s not how social media works, at least not for figures like Tate. The fact that Greta’s putdown was so funny was not a bad thing from Tate’s point of view. It was great! It made the beef an even bigger story. Had he not been hauled away by Romanian cops at that point, I’m sure he would still be spinning out videos from it. A second, related defence, was that Greta was doing something politically necessary by “calling out” Tate’s misogyny and climate neanderthalism. But there is nothing to be gained by calling out Andrew Tate. The people attracted to him revel in being disapproved of by people like Thunberg.
We still find it hard to digest the implications of Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying, “the medium is the message”. McLuhan wasn’t just arguing that cultural content (‘message’) is shaped by the media which contain it, but that content is subordinate to media. The content serves the medium, not the other way around. Cinema, television, now social media: these all have particular effects on our nervous systems and on society, and we should always be attending to those effects, rather than focusing on the content with which those media present us.
McLuhan compared content to “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” Of course, we must attend to both content and medium. But, returning to our example, to focus only on Greta’s joke, or Tate’s provocation, is to be blind to the system of which they are a part.
When I say ‘system’ here, I don’t just mean the platform but also the circuit that their interaction sets up. The bi-directional and multi-player nature of social media makes it distinct from TV or film. Every conflict between two more people forms a micro-system which generates energy in the form of more tweets and more engagement, for the people who start it, from everyone who joins in. The social internet teems with these conflicts and to some extent is powered by them. Venkatesh Rao calls it the Internet of Beefs (which makes McLuhan’s image of the steak seem even more prescient). As soon as Thunberg responded to Tate, she was participating in a game from which both players would benefit, whether she realised it or not (I think she was being naive rather than credulous). Paradoxically, the better she played the game, the more her opponent benefited.
In the social media age, hostile conflicts are often mutually beneficial collaborations in disguise. The Greta-Tate interaction is played out virtually every day on Twitter, albeit not at such a scale. Online celebrities stage fights with each other in order to rally troops behind them - Rao talks about knights (celebrities) and mooks (the rest of us). It doesn’t always involve knight-on-knight action; there are multiple models. Person X, who might not even have a large following, tweets deliberately stupid thing. Thousands of people quote tweet it in anger and disgust or vociferous enthusiasm. Person X wins, along with whoever did the best version of the anti-Person X tweet.
A dumb conflict can also develop without any one person being responsible for it, as when the podcaster Lex Fridman posted his innocuous reading list this week, only to have people trash it. The trashers were then counter-trashed and a whole rocket of emergent stupidity was launched at the sun. I was on the side of those saying that the reading list was perfectly fine and why on earth are we criticising people who display enthusiasm for books. But I didn’t tweet about it, because no matter how hard I might have tried to say something smart or funny, to participate in a dumb argument would only have made me feel dumb. Worse, I would have been fuelling the rocket.
Sometimes the participants know they are engaged in a collaboration; often they do not. I’m sure Prince William wishes his brother was not strafing him via the media, but in the long run the Royal Family gains from the Meghan-and-Harry circus just as much if not more than Meghan and Harry do. The institution feels ‘hot’ in a way it hasn’t for years, its supporters energised. William suddenly seems vividly human, as does Charles (“Please, boys. Don’t make my final years a misery”). In this case, the principals aren’t tweeting or making TikTok videos, but princes don’t need to visit the battlefield.
“Culture wars” are conflict equilibriums in which the participants on both sides can gain status by scoring points off one another while tacitly agreeing on what is at stake and how to argue over it. Andrew Tate and trans activists are ostensibly at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both gain from an equilibrium in which gender identity is considered a matter of life and death. ‘Anti-racists’ and far-right racists both view race as the governing factor in human relations. (I don’t see these sides as morally equal, but neither believes that indifference to race is possible or desirable). They score points off each other online, but as with the Thunberg-Tate exchange, real world impact is not high on the agenda. In America between 2019 and 2021 there was a 51% rise in killings of black women and girls. If there has been too little attention paid to this moral atrocity, perhaps that’s because the problem is an awkward fit for the terms of the “racists vs anti-racists” social media game.
I may have refrained from joining the reading list discourse, but other times I’ve dived in, with unedifying results. It’s so hard to resist! It’s easy to persuade yourself you can add something of value to a particular Twitter row, even as you see others try and fail. These futile beefs are the equivalent of those ‘reply to all’ debacles that occasionally happen at work, when one member on a distribution list responds to an instigating message and successive individuals send emails to everyone on the list asking people to stop sending emails to everyone on the list. These are known as email storms. (In 2016 an IT contractor in Croydon accidentally sent an email to everyone in the NHS, and it generated 500 million email messages in 75 minutes.) Each individual thinks their message is helping, but each message makes the problem worse, because that’s how the medium works.
On social media, these storms are often fuelled by anger. If there’s anything that makes us focus myopically on the message rather than the medium, it’s moral rage. Scientists at New York University analysed over half a million tweets about controversial political issues and found that using moral and emotional words in a tweet increased its diffusion through the network, via retweets, by 20 per cent for each additional word. Users who post angry messages get the status boost of likes and retweets, and platforms gain the attention they sell to advertisers, which gives them an incentive to push forward the most extreme and triggering versions of every argument. Ironically, quite a few of these angry messages are directed at Twitter and Facebook. As Liv Boeree puts it, the problem with raging against the machine is that the machine has learned to feed off rage.
When I watch an idiotic debate unfold in my feed and successfully suppress my instinct to join in if only to point out how silly it is (but there is no more self-undermining message than “This discourse is silly!”) I sometimes experience an absurd twinge of indignation: Why can’t people see I’m not taking part? The bitter truth is that there are no incentives to abstain from the game. You don’t get any likes or retweets for the posts you don’t make. You receive no external validation for silence. I fantasise about a system in which people, under certain circumstances, are somehow rewarded with status points for not engaging. In lieu of that, we should try and remember that quite often, the best contribution we can make to a debate is to not say anything, even if nobody will notice us (not) doing so.
It all reminds me of a line from the 1983 science fiction thriller WarGames. Our young hero, David (Matthew Broderick) makes “Joshua”, the computer system in charge of American’s nuclear armoury, play tic-tac-toe against itself to make it understand the concept of mutually assured destruction. After running through all the possible nuclear war scenarios and finding that nobody can survive any of them, Joshua concludes (computer voice), “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
If you’re not a paying subscriber to the Ruffian yet, please sign up! That’s what makes this possible, and keeps me out of trouble online (mostly).
After the jump:
- Rewatching The Silence of the Lambs
- Picking the best pop song of the twenty-first century
- A juicy selection of links