Racial Paranoia and the Allure of MS-13 Iconography

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Last week, the Trump administration moved to revoke the Temporary Protected Status of some 200,000 Salvadorans currently living in the United States. Officially, the TPS designation has permitted non-resident Salvadorans to live in the United States legally ever since the 2001 Salvadoran earthquake. In practice, however, TPS has acted as a de facto asylum program for Salvadorans who fled their country’s brutal civil war (worsened in large part by U.S. dollars and training) in the 1980s. There are currently hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans known to be living in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia region—many of them subject to the TPS designation. The revocation of their protected status will tear apart families, some of whom have lived in the United States for decades, and now generations. It will damage the economy of the D.C. Metropolitan area for years to come, and likely place a terrific burden on the economy of El Salvador if deportations proceed.

Of course, there’s the usual naked racism and paranoid xenophobia that we’ve come to expect from Donald Trump lurking behind the revocation of Salvadoran TPS. But I believe the administration’s prejudiced gaze has turned to the Salvadoran population in particular due to a peculiar confluence of the president’s gluttonous television consumption, and the arresting visual style of El Salvador’s most notorious criminal gang, MS-13.

With their facial tattoos, Satanic iconography, and willingness to be photographed, MS-13 cultivate a graphic sensibility that is both lurid and terrifying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s also a television producer’s dream come true. The sheer abundance of MS-13 nightmare fuel, in the form of photos and videos, means that it is always easy to whack together a sensationalistic 3-minute segment sure to lure in viewers.

Fox News has taken this strategy to the bank. Statistics measuring airtime devoted to gang coverage are not available. But a domain-specific Google search lists approximately 6,000 returns for “MS-13” at FoxNews.com, and a whopping 14,900 at Breitbart.com, compared to 1,580 at msnbc.com and 2,260 at Salon.com. Granted, that’s a thumbnail comparison—larger and older sites will yield higher search results due to sheer volume of content. And centrist and liberal sources like CNN.com and HuffingtonPost also have to answer for their sensational coverage of the gang, especially now that this coverage is impacting the lives of innocent Salvadorans here in the U.S.

Caveats aside, it’s clear that conservative media devotes an inordinate amount of coverage to a gang that poses effectively zero threat to its elderly, white audience. And given that the president watches upwards of eight hours of TV per day, it’s impossible he has not been influenced by these images.

I have sympathy for the photographers who produce this imagery as an aestheticized depiction of gang life. There’s no denying the allure of the outlaw and the demonic—or the human need to confront those qualities artistically. But it’s clear that this art is being exploited toward the goal of stoking fear and racial paranoia, and that our president is happy to play along.

 

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The Durability of Ironic Extremism

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Mideast and North Africa scholar Michael Degerald recently posted a piece on the phenomenon of “ISIS trap music.”

View story at Medium.com

Degerald describes this new genre, which blends the musical tropes of trap music with the visual and rhetorical tropes of IS/Daesh. “IS trap” songs have been appearing on Youtube and Soundcloud for years now, and no one seems completely sure who is putting them there, or just how serious they are about jihadism (or, for that matter, trap music).

Read the whole thing. It’s a fascinating dive into a weird cultural excrescence—to the extent that anything still counts as weird in 2017. It’s also (no kidding) a pretty good primer to trap music in general.

I make a brief appearance at the end of the piece, talking about the durability of ironic extremism:

Media scholar Brian Hughes pointed out to me that including jihadi themes and bomb sound effects through irony allows the perpetuation of the symbols of ISIS. While they may insult and joke about Daesh, the images nonetheless proliferate. He saw similar patterns in how Nazi themes maintained themselves on the edges of popular culture, often put forth in gest. He articulated clearly what I had been seeing in these media but struggled to put my finger on: “ISIS Trap” is the perpetuation of jihadi symbols through irony and sarcasm.

Or, put another way:

This is a point I want to write about in future blog posts. It’s a strange quality of the internet, how speech can retroactively take on radically different meaning to its initial intent. On one hand, our posts live on indefinitely, even after we die. On the other hand, readers consume those old statements in an environment of hyper-immediacy. A statement from 1994 is as immediate to the reader as one made last night. So an ironic post can become sincere if its author develops sincere feelings at any point after it was written. Irony is the warm, dark, wet place where extremist tropes can proliferate and evolve. Or maybe it’s better thought of as a memetic time bomb. A critical memetic mass can be built up under cover of irony and sarcasm, then ignited with just a few sparks of extremist sincerity. That’s a profound affordance for anyone playing the propaganda long game.

Birth of a Meme: The Right Attacks People Living with HIV/AIDS

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Last week, I was quoted in a piece for TheBody.com, a website, blog, and resource for people affected by or interested in HIV/AIDS. The article, by Jennifer Johnson Avril (follow her on Twitter), describes Georgia State Representative Betty Price’s call to quarantine people living with HIV or AIDS. Price’s proposal, Johnson Avril writes, is particularly grim in light of prior neoreactionary calls for just this policy.

I offered my opinion on the way that a new hostility to people living with HIV/AIDS has crept from alt-right discourses into the rhetoric and even proposed policies of the mainstream American Right:

“If a talking point resonates in one of these marginal outlets, it then gets adopted by semi-mainstream and “alt-lite” sympathizers. From there, a really good meme is refined and sanitized, to the point where it can appear in a mainstream source like Breitbart.com or Tucker Carlson.”

Read the whole piece here. Johnson Avril goes into much greater depth on the rhetorical specifics and political ramifications of this trend. It’s well worth the read.

UPDATE (10/31): Sure enough, the far right project to restigmatize those living with HIV and AIDS is still going strong. Earlier today, perpetually-owned alt-right clown Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet tweeted this attack on a Toronto restaurant staffed by people living with HIV/AIDS:

This represents the kind of science denialism we’ve come to expect from the American right. Fact: You cannot contract HIV from food even if it contains HIV+ human blood.

This is precisely the process that Johnson Avril writes about, wherein the alt-right trots out bigoted, discredited tropes in the interest of renewed scapegoating of a vulnerable population. All too often, individuals in the mainstream right are willing to play along.

I doubt this is an organized strategy. It’s more likely an emergent group opinion, as I discuss in the Body article. That’s cold comfort for all those who might be affected by these renewed attacks. Kudos and solidarity to all the people who are going to be fighting against this for (likely) years to come.

 

The Database Culture of “Google Guy” James Damore

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By now, you’ve no doubt read about (and probably formed an opinion on) the ten-page manifesto that Google employee James Damore posted to the company’s internal message forum. The essay, entitled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber, objected to the corporation’s diversity initiatives and made claims that men were better disposed to careers in tech than women. Damore has subsequently been fired in the wake of the memo going public.

As a longtime observer of fringe and extremist cultures, reading Damore’s essay I immediately recognized the familiar arrangement of talking points and rhetorical constructions which can be found in almost every online exposition on innate differences in sexual or racial ability. Damore’s was a collage of opinions clipped from an online subculture fixated on racialist and anti-feminist interpretation of pop genetic science. There are many facets and factions of the subculture reflected in Damore’s essay, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll call it “Human Biodiversity” (HBD) subculture.

A solid overview of the HBD subculture may be found here.

Ideological collages like Damore’s manifesto are often the product of what Japanese critic Hiroki Azuma has termed “database cultures”—online groups based around the collection and organization of a class of data points according to an informally agreed-upon grand narrative. Azuma explains, the internet comprises a vast reservoir of data, but each data point is quite meaningless absent its selection and juxtaposition relative to other data points. Azuma calls this process of selecting, juxtaposing, and giving meaning to the data of the internet the act of “reading up.” When groups of people collaborate online or imitate one another in the “reading up” of data, a database culture is born.

The HBD database culture is effectively a phylum of the alt-right, which means that its pet data points typically pertain to IQ distributions, crime statistics, and employment numbers. These are subsequently arranged by HBD bloggers and forum-posters according to a narrative structure that asserts male analytic superiority, female irrationality, African-American criminality, a contempt for non-STEM fields, and an adolescent, Randian economic ideology.

Damore’s essay did not address the racial angles common to the HBD subculture. Perhaps he knew that was a bridge too far, or perhaps he dislikes that aspect of the HBD discourse. Otherwise, however, Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber is a rather orthodox “reading up” of the HBD data pool, in accordance with the grand narrative of the still-emergent post-millennial right. The data presented was nothing if not rote, as the HBD database culture draws from a single, rather small, pool of data to support its intended conclusions.

Damore claims that his memo grew organically out of a critical appraisal of a workplace diversity seminar. However, his memo’s obvious rhetorical kinship to the HBD database culture severely undermines that claim from the outset. Damore’s subsequent appearance on longtime HBD advocate Stefan Molyneux’s Freedomain Radio podcast, and his rapid incorporation into the ecosystem of alt-right personalities, further confirm that the memo was anything but the innocent musings of a neutral, ideologically naive observer.

It is far more likely that Damore realized his manifesto would bear strong negative consequences, and he sent the piece hoping to prove a point, either internally at Google or, as turned out to be the case, in the larger public discourse. Indeed, the low-key yet self-satisfied tone of the piece, with its “just asking questions” pretense, is an integral feature of alt-right content intended for public consumption. This is the same pretense that frames fascistic provocation as an ideologically empty exercise in testing the limits of free speech. It is a contrivance and subterfuge, intended to shift attacks away from the substance of the message being put forth, and onto the question of free speech itself. And it works.

I believe the point Damore was trying to make was that Google is not a neutral business, concerned only with producing the best digital applications it can. Google is, frankly, a political force, and as such operates with an ideology. Of course, this is true. However, Damore, like all reactionaries, can only criticize capital if he does not criticize capitalism. Instead of understanding that Google’s egalitarian ideology serves as cover for economic authoritarianism, Damore and his ilk believe that egalitarian policies stand in the way of an economic authoritarianism of which they are the rightful beneficiaries. This is the bait and switch of the alt-right, Trump, and reactionary politics in general. It promises to solve the problems posed by capital through the purging or punishment of a scapegoat. But once that purge has been performed, the problems of capitalism inevitably remain. A few low and mid-level drones—the James Damores of the world—see benefits by seizing some of the economic space vacated by purged minorities. But fundamentally, the system, with its contradictions and cruelties, is unchanged.

Lone Wolf in the Hypertext : Radicalization Online

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I’m very proud to be included in this series of papers on ISIS media, organized by the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC) at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, and published by Global-e at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

A Lone Wolf in the Hypertext: Radicalization Online addresses the myths and misperceptions that tie self-radicalized lone wolf terrorists to Islam. Citing the case of Omar Mateen, and psychological profiles of spree and serial killers, it argues that men such as Mateen are not devoted religious traditionalists, but mere criminal narcissists. Their connections to Islam are tenuous at best, and reflect the illogical, even contradictory, biases of hypertextual media.

Case studies of lone wolf terrorists—particularly those who follow a pattern of self-radicalization—reveal that violent extremism grows not from the specific cultural or historical practices of Islam, but from a general affect of sadism, thrill-seeking, and personality disorder.  The lone wolf’s pathologies are only Islamically-inflected, often through an accretion of mediated encounters linking representations of violence, Islam, and the lone wolf himself. This points us to the conclusion that in the case of these violent extremists, pathology usually—perhaps always—precedes theology/ideology.

In a network of meaning wherein any data point is potentially juxtaposed to any other, all equivalence becomes false. We may reasonably speculate that the hypertextual path of radicalization is often experienced as a straying, arbitrary zigzag, where the rules of linear thought and logical conclusion are suspended, taking the lone wolf through illogical and even contradictory ideological watersheds. A capricious, dis-integrated multiplicity of personae emerge, figureheads fronting impossible chains of identity and belief whose links and pieces will never fit together.

Read the rest at Global-e

Chemical Weapons and Fractalnoia

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Last night, the Trump administration issued an announcement, saying that “the United States has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.” This claim arrives fewer than two days after a report by Seymour Hersh in the German newspaper Die Welt, which claimed to debunk reports of the April 4 Syrian chemical weapons incident that inaugurated a return of open hostilities between the U.S. and Assad regime.

I can’t be the only one to notice the highly coincidental timing of these contradictory reports. Some may interpret this coincidence to mean that pro-war forces within the Trump administration rushed to issue an announcement contradicting Hersh’s assertions. But I think it is actually more likely that Hersh’s own sources were motivated to speak by foreknowledge of the White House’s upcoming accusations against the Assad regime. After all, Hersh’s report made barely a ripple in the frothy murk of the American news discourse.

That’s not to say that this White House, or the defense establishment, are incapable of overreaction. Obviously, they are. But if we’re weighing likelihoods, it’s most probable that Hersh’s sources within the American defense establishment tried to do an end run around the anti-Assad factions who currently enjoy the ear of the president.

Of course, it’s also possible this really is nothing more than a coincidence. But I doubt it.

One thing is certain. There is a propaganda war raging in the apparatus of the global media, and it’s so vast and tangled that I doubt anyone, from Sy Hersh to the Pentagon, knows exactly what’s going on. There are likely more players in this game than anyone is aware of, on myriad, ever-shifting narrative battlefields that link Syria to Russo-American relations, to the perennial questions of Iran and Israel, energy policy, Islamophobia, gun violence, Pepe the frog…you name it. Everyone loves a neologism; let’s call it “World War P.”

It’s no wonder that conspiracy theories are now an (arguably) dominant part of the mainstream media discourse. Conspiracy theories are, after all, based on misapplications of pattern recognition. Simply calling the current bedlam “intersectional” doesn’t come close to doing justice to this tangle of thorns. It’s omnisectionalhypertextual.

This may be a permanent feature of our still-emerging database society. With an ever-expanding supply of data points (true and false), apophenia is inevitable. Any claim, true or false, may be juxtaposed with its corollary or contradiction, presented to the public online, and someone will be sure to take up its narrative cause.

Distributed Solidarities and Extremism

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I recently sat down with my friend and mentor Douglas Rushkoff to record an episode of his excellent Team Human podcast. We covered a lot of ground, from 20th Century Arab Nationalism to the alt-right, Zizek, magick, fake news, and poor, poor Pepe the frog. We also get into my theory of emerging styles of social solidarity and political action, which I hope to flesh out in subsequent work. Team Human is an amazing podcast, and deserves a spot in your rotation if you’re looking for rays of hope in our dark little timeline.

Listen to my episode, “Distributed Solidarities and Extremism” at teamhuman.fm

How to Fix the Fake News Problem

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This piece originally appeared at CNN.com.

Unfortunately, word count prevented a more in-depth description of the Digital Fairness Doctrine I’m proposing. Likewise, there are many nuances to defining “fake news” that have to go unaddressed in an OpEd this brief. I’ll elaborate on these points in a future post, when the semester is over and all the papers have been graded.

Can tall tales swing an election? That’s the question being asked today in conference rooms across the digital media industry.

After Donald Trump’s startling presidential victory, many are wondering if an abundance of misleading or simply made up news stories gave President-elect Trump the edge he needed to win. Critics are calling on media companies to regulate the spread of phony news reports. Already, platforms like Facebook and Google have announced plans to curtail fake news by revising their algorithms and user policies. But will such changes really improve the trustworthiness of online news?

First, some perspective…

Read the rest at CNN.com

Is Social Media Turning You Into a Zealot?

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This piece originally appeared at CNN.com

Have you heard? Hillary Clinton is dying of Parkinson’s disease. Also, Donald Trump thinks the United States shouldn’t have stopped the Bosnian genocide. Angry mobs of “Bernie bros” are hurling chairs at Democratic staffers. And President Obama, who smells like sulfur, is followed everywhere he goes by a swarm of flies.

These are fake statements, pulled from the bowels of the internet. Can you tell?

If you get your information from social media, the world is an almost supernaturally dark place these days. Our feeds and timelines are jammed with outrageous and incredible accounts that prove what we all already suspected: our political opponents are crazy. Maybe some of them are downright evil.

The good news is that much of what you read via social media isn’t true. The bad news is that more and more people believe it is…

Read the rest at CNN.com

#DNCleak and the Wait for Red October

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Back in June, when word first came of Guccifer 2.0’s hack of the Democratic National Committee, few understood just how big an impact it would have. The hack seemed to be little more than a bit of opposition research and some fundraising spreadsheets. Wikileaks’ Julian Assange pledged to release enough info later that week “to indict Hillary Clinton,” but when nothing materialized, people just sort of moved on.

(For the record, I did get how big a story this was. And to their credit, so did a few others, including Alexa O’Brien, from whose Twitter I first heard about it.)

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Even back in June, it was obvious that Russian intelligence was at least partly involved in the DNC hack. Writers like John Schindler—who oddly enough writes for the pro-Trump Observer—have been banging the drum to connect Wikileaks with Russian intelligence for some time now.

Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin must have no interest in dealing with Hillary Clinton for the next 8 years. Clinton, remember, has presided over what is essentially a de facto proxy war between the U.S. and Russia in Syria. Trump, on the other hand, wants to be Vladimir Putin’s best friend. Really, the Russians would be fools not to try helping Trump win the election.

And the Russians are not fools. Which means they absolutely did not shoot their wad this early in the season. Surely not to get Debbie Wasserman Schultz fired. There will be more leaks. Worse leaks. And these leaks will be thoughtfully timed to inflict maximum damage on the Clinton campaign.

The only way I can see this backfiring is if there are too many leaks. More than one or two more file dumps, and it becomes obvious even to the average American voter that Wikileaks and the Kremlin are out to manipulate U.S. politics. That, I believe, would generate sympathy for Clinton and hostility to the perceived meddlers. This is already the Clinton team’s damage control strategy. One more well-timed drop, however, could absolutely tank Hillary’s hopes and open a clear path for Trump to the White House. The Kremlin wants that, and I believe it has the resources to try to make it happen. I’m calling it here: expect an October surprise.