Revolutionary and Reformatory Action: The Fall of Democratic Twitter to Capitalism
Author’s note: As I am revisiting this 2020 piece for publication in 2022, it is interesting to note that Elon Musk, one of the wealthiest man on earth, just bought Twitter.
In this imaginary Twitter exchange, philosophers Angela Davis and Adam Smith engage in dialogue surrounding the role of capitalism on social media platforms. The inspiration for this project was Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma, which delineates the existence of social media in our everyday lives. The documentary warns against social media’s ability to influence our thoughts and desires, and paints a grim picture of America’s democratic future. The Social Dilemma interviews former team members of prominent social media platform companies, who all assert that these websites’s initial goals were far from their current purposes. For instance, when Twitter first launched, it marketed itself as pure democracy; however, as it gained popularity, capitalist interests began to seep into the platform. These roots took form in advertisement revenue, algorithms, and human futures.
This shift is of no surprise as Angela Davis, who consistently reiterates that as a result of its unique history democracy and capitalism in the United States are inextricably linked together, asserting that any tool created in a capitalist society will eventually hold characteristics that mirror the structure of the society itself. Reflecting on the intertwinement of social media and Capitalism, in this piece I question Twitter’s ability to bring about social change – reform or revolution.
Adam Smith, the ‘Father of Capitalism,’ argued that the economic and the human conditions are interlinked. He believed that the regardless of the circumstances, economic factors would always be prevalent in a consumer’s personal lives. Accepting this fact, he defended the economic prosperity and domination of a small group composed of extremely wealthy actors. This group would be responsible for watching the needs of the poor and ensuring their wants were met. Critics of Smith argued that the wealthy would not seek out philanthropy for the impoverished; however, Smith asserted that it is in the vanity of the top 1% to help the poor, not out of care for their health or wellbeing, but rather bound by the care of how other members of their society would perceive them. These self-interested or “rational” tendencies of the rich would ensure that they took care of minority groups and the economy as a whole would prosper.
When the Arab Spring first occurred, there were no private actors on Twitter to halt the protests . The sole intent of the movement was to destroy the systems that were in place and to rebuild them based on the will of the people, making it revolutionary. However, as more social movements attempt to utilize Twitter to organize change, corporate interests took over revolutionary action. These private actors did not care about the movements themselves, but rather, wished to carry out their own will and interests. When the Black Lives Matter movement amassed on Twitter, corporations were quick to advocate on behalf of the Black community. One of the most prominent examples of these endorsements was Nike’s collaboration with Colin Kaepernick. The issue with corporate-backed movements, however, is that affluent agents do not care about the movements they sponsor, but rather want to receive positive publicity from the general population, paralleling Smith’s argument about the wealthy people doing charitable acts out of self-interest. In the spotlight, these corporations are helping the communities, but still profiting from the oppressive structures in place.
This is when revolutionary movements turn merely reformatory; revolution has the power to breakdown the system and rebuild it, whereas reformatory movements try and achieve equality within the system, like Capitalism. If organizations such as Nike truly cared about the plight of the Black community, they have enough revenue to dedicate to eradication of such systems of oppression. However, they only do the bare minimum to gain public attention and good will.
No campaign can be deemed revolutionary if corporate actors are backing the movement. Until corporations stop benefiting from the oppressive structures of the society, they will not go against their best interests to re-build or even re-imagine the system in which they are inherently the winners. winning. Evidence of this manipulation reached its pinnacle, as corporations became vested agents in the 2020 U.S. General Elections cycle. Corporate actors abused the power of social media platforms to leverage misinformation to sway citizens to vote for candidates that would benefit their agendas. By paying for advertisements and sponsored posts, corporations took to Twitter to ensure their ideologies were ranked above all other content.