Successful Influencers and Other Abominations
Along with many other unexpected mutations, over the past few years we have witnessed the rise of the Social Media Influencer – a person paid to distribute news from a variety of news aggregators on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Initially perceived as benign, though a bit annoying in their unrelenting posting, their content grew increasingly more political and partisan. They have proven incredibly successful in shaping public opinion and, strangely, seemed to form organic alliances with like-minded peers, converging into totalising narratives that aligned perfectly and mimicked the leftward drift of the mainstream media.
AGAINST CONSPIRACY THEORIES
I am not here to peddle some conservative conspiracy theory; folk superstitions are clearly out of control and commoners are understandably seeking explanations for the craziness of today’s Clownworld. The attraction of these theories has become irresistible now that you can buy the Antifa manifesto or Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ from the biggest library in Reykjavik and read them for yourself; or simply become immersed in some grievance studies degree, where googly eyed academics will declare their hatred for Western civilisation, ‘whiteness’, ‘cisheteronormativity’ and the desire to see it all burn. The refusal to admit the existence of deliberate far left plotting against conservatives is nothing more than nerdy pedantry.
Despite all that, I think an appeal to conspiracy theory is the wrong way of attempting to explain anything. Such theories start from two axioms: intelligent design (ID) and demonic intention.
You can regard Antonio Gramsci as a ‘genius of evil’, but this leaves you blind to the factors that influenced his decisions. If he were pure intelligence (like the God of ID) imposing his will deliberately and methodically over his unsuspecting subjects, you can explain away any gaps in your theory by invoking the craftiness of his intellect. And since humans are not gods, their minds never function in a vacuum, free from ideological or cultural influences and manipulation. The second aspect of conspiracy theories is the appeal to demonic evil – that is, the strong conviction that Gramsci’s discontent was not caused by any external injustice, ideological misconception or psychological issues; if you can explain evil, it becomes merely a malfunction, and conspiracy theories can’t have that. This refusal further taints their attempt at understanding anything, leading them inevitably into circular arguments where Evil Demiurge Mastermind did x because he willed it, and by willing he achieved it. Gramsci may well have been a malefic intelligence, but you can’t start from these qualities as axioms in your research.
YARVIN’S THEORY OF PERVASIVE ERROR
Influencers are obviously not evil. In most cases they are nice, warm-hearted socialites with mild manners and good Joe Rogan spirit of observation. They are also not the sharpest tools in the shed, varying from former marketing agents to IT professionals or failed academics. Average intelligence coupled with normie views, loyalty to their publisher and the desire to make a positive impact in the world. How can we then explain their gradual drift to the far-left, their increasingly partisan reporting and the unreliability of their content without invoking nefarious intentions?
Curtis Yarvin offers an elegant hypothesis in his article on the American Mind: ‘The Clear Pill, Part 2 of 5: A Theory of Pervasive Error’.
THE MARKET OF IDEAS
First, Yarvin makes it clear that we are not talking about the errors of crackpots, anti-vaxxers and superstitious commoners. ‘Pervasive error is any systematic and significant distortion of thought that impacts the whole discourse of a civilization. Folk superstitions do not qualify. Fashion flows downward from social elites. Genuine pervasiveness must compromise the elites’ (idem).
Since liberal democracies have no dictator or central coordinator, we will be looking for a mechanism that could cause pervasive error through bad incentives. In our century, elite consensus driving public policy is set by a market for ideas. In our case, Social Media represents the new market for ideas, circumventing the older mechanisms of consensus making (press, academia, NGOs, entertainment industry etc). In this new medium ideas are selected based on multiple factors; certain users gradually become nodes of information; we are hoping that the criteria allowing the emergence of consensus are also rejecting error and discovering truth. Yarvin’s idea is that a marketplace of ideas is a Darwinian system. The thing it selects for is the collective taste of its audience. We are attracted to beautiful narratives; beauty = truth + white noise; if we could somehow isolate that noise and let the audiences cancel it out, it would allow us to see the truth.
THYMOS – THE DESIRE TO MATTER
The first aesthetic emotion that can make truth markets malfunction is ‘thymos’ – a Greek term that can be translated as ‘ambition, honor, vanity’.
‘Thymos is the natural human desire to be important[…]. Thymos is ubiquitous today. We see it in everyone who wants to “change the world” or “make an impact”, or simply to matter. Thymos is meaning. The desire for meaning is ambition, a universal human instinct’ (idem).
In Yarvin’s view, thymos is best expressed through anthems – stories that you find beautiful because they make you feel important. He lists four anthemic themes: victory, punishment, rebellion and largesse.
‘Victory is the theme of taking power. […] If winning isn’t important, it isn’t winning. If it is, it leaves you more powerful than before. Punishment is the theme of enforcing power. An anthem of punishment is an excuse for cruelty. What could be sweeter? Any punitive act, even symbolic, builds strength and confidence in the punisher, while humiliating and weakening the victim. There is little a chimpanzee enjoys more than forcing another chimp to suffer. Our cousins may share a sense of right and wrong. Surely, as they bite off some rival’s balls, they feel they are imposing justice. They certainly feel important. Rebellion is the theme of disrupting power. To destroy another’s power is inherently a demonstration of power; to use or show power is to gain it. The disruptor need not hope to gain, nor even be a subject of the power. Rebelling from the inside is insanely dangerous. Helping other folks rebel is almost as exciting, and a lot safer. Largesse is the theme of building power. Power is made of social obligations. The way to build social obligations is to help out other folks for free—in cash or in kind. Suppose you transfer some value to another person. If the transfer fulfills or creates a legal obligation, you are doing business. If not, you are a patron.
Anthems often combine multiple themes. For instance, here is a thought: let us rob Peter to pay Paul, but take no cut. With no cut there is no direct gain, so this is not an anthem of victory. But we are still punishing Peter—not by robbing him, which would be wrong, but by imposing a fine that he owes for some misdeed. We are still bestowing largesse on Paul—not as an undeserved windfall, but a repayment of some debt he is rightfully owed. We cannot literally say, or even think, that we are getting our rocks off by hurting Peter, and feeling big by patronizing Paul. But if we find a history that narrates Paul’s injustice and Peter’s crime, we will find it beautiful. This is history that matters!’ – Idem.
Such anthemic themes can contaminate reason and select for pretty lies in our truth market. Our Influencers can sense a rush of visceral emotions when sharing certain content; they can even contribute to chimp-like outrage mobs, but they will never think that the goal of the act is to gain power over Peter and Paul. They will confuse their power seeking drives with pure agape (charity, empathy).
PISTOS: THE DESIRE TO FOLLOW POWER
Another aesthetic emotion that can cloud the influencer’s judgment is pistos – a term that can be translated as loyalty, fidelity or servility. This is closely related to thymos and most real exploits rely on both.
Loyalty is emotional, not rational. Obeying the authorities in order to avoid punishment is a rational decision. Obeying the authorities because they are advancing a good cause is a manifestation of loyalty, which makes for a good political formula (Gaetano Mosca’s concept).
‘The scientists funded by Exxon are loyal to Exxon. This is not a business transaction; it is an emotional attachment. Largesse is not a loan. Loyalty is not a debt. Even if these scientists are as capable and honest as any saint, their aesthetic judgment is tilted. It is inevitable that they will perceive data which supports their patrons’ interests as clear and representative, and data which opposes these interests as noisy and misleading’ – idem.
Anthemic formulas are, thus, a clear sign of power interests, hidden loyalties and emotional interference. Those can be places where beauty corrupts truth.
POORLY BUILT SOCIAL MEDIA. WRONG INCENTIVES
Many psychologists have written about the ways in which social media can lead to poor choices, addiction and dumbing down through its inherent mechanisms. Twitter rewards shouting at the top of one’s lungs, owning your opponent through quick and cruel remarks. It naturally leads to the emergence of outrage mobs and public shamings. This triggers retaliation; the wrongdoers need to be punished, and since the platform lets them get away with virtual lynching, another mob will have to set things right. We can clearly see how the platform can help escalate tensions and polarise people into partisan groups. Facebook and other similar platforms become addictive through the use of ‘Like’, ‘Share’ and swipe down, thus favouring quantity over quality.
These and many other factors have contributed to the toxicity we see today on Social Media; beauty itself has been massively diminished in favour of negative thymotic or pistoic emotions that have proved more powerful in keeping people scrolling through their feeds.
We could ask ourselves what kind of character continues to thrive on such superficial, procrastination-inducing platforms; where every distinction (public-private, political-apolitical, professional-entertainment, specialist-amateur, stranger-friend) has been melted into a promiscuous blob of gossip, instant gratification, spiteful reporting and virtue signalling. Thriving as an Influencer in such an environment will involve serious character flaws; intelligence, prudence, responsibility and accountability would not only become obstacles to his efficiency; they would make him feel miserable and force him to look for a different job.
POWER LEAKAGE IN A TOTAL STATE
The worst thing that can happen in an already muddy online environment is for the states to start leaking power. According to Yarvin, this is precisely what we are witnessing.
‘In a total state, everyone and everything is infused with power. Everyone matters. Everything is important. Everyone has to care. Everyone wants to change the world. Everyone must be engaged. Everyone is pushing power forward, or pushing back against it. Everyone is either a collaborator or a dissident. Power has turned the whole country into a political cult. […] Always and everywhere, power defines and is defined by what you should think, do and say if you wish to flourish. This is the only sure way to know whether you are a dissident or a collaborator’ (Gray Mirror – 1: a general theory of collaboration).
Our societies have so far allowed some ideological wiggle room by letting people choose between two competing narratives about the regime’s legitimacy; in the USA you could choose between the civil rights narrative and the constitutionalism of the founding fathers; each side was considered respectable and together they formed the so-called ‘Overton window’, the range of politically acceptable views within society. The recent collapse of the constitutional view has left the civil rights narrative – ossified and not devoid of inner inconsistencies – as the sole story our states tell about their legitimacy. This explains the unrest in Minneapolis and the tearing down of statues throughout the West. History needs to be re-interpreted through the single-story lens we have left.
Every crack in the official narratives is a sign of weakness; every conflict of interest between supposed allies, every tension between #StayAtHome and #BLM, between pacifism and incitement to violence – have to either be ignored or reconciled through doublethink as proof of love and obedience. Curtis Yarvin asks himself:
‘Why must [the state] pester us so, for the mere trinket of love? Because it feels insecure. Power always feels insecure. Everyone wants power—so it should feel insecure. And the worse its performance, the more insecure power feels, because the more insecure it is; so the more homage it must demand. […] This is why we should and do distrust Orwellian total states. It’s not because big lies are so bad in and of themselves—the problem is whatever makes the lies necessary. Systematic mendacity and poor governance are common comorbidities. The closer a regime feels itself to death, the worse its behavior must become […] An aging regime has a face like a boot—a face only a mother could love. Power still needs everyone to love it—at least, everyone in the ruling class. Since no one will openly kiss a boot, power needs its Jedi mind tricks’ – idem.
The way in which our current aging regimes are keeping things together is through systematic power leakage.
‘Everything is political because everything in the the government leaks power. A power leak confers sovereign power on an individual or institution not formally entrusted with it. This is like leaking nutrients into a lake—its ecosystem becomes specialized for disgusting, nutrient-loving algae. Blame the leak, not the lake.
At the organizational level, power leakage grants many institutions outside the formal government substantial effective sovereignty over public policy, or over the government itself. At the individual level, it lets everyone feel important […] even outside their legal political rights. ‘ – Idem.
INFLUENCER – STRUCTURAL POWER LEAKS, AMBITION, SERVILITY, POOR ALGORITHM
We’re now starting to understand the way in which all these factors combined result in the toxicity of today’s Social Media Influencer. The news aggregator service that employs him is itself busy exploiting power leaks, converting them into stories that matter, through the tools provided by Social Media. The Influencer will be corrupted by a combination of all these unholy incentives – his own sense of vanity and significance (thymos), validated by the quick reactions he triggers by sharing links and formulating headlines; his obedience and loyalty to the master publisher who throws him a bone now and then, nurturing his feeling of significance. His solidarity with other fellow Influencers and the lifestyle they all share. Through posting quicker, more incendiary content, generating more views, more reactions of all kind – negative, if possible, he feels like he is climbing up the ladder of power leakage. At any time his twitter can become verified, his tweets retweeted by some famous news anchor or replied to by the arch-enemy Trump, dragging him up to the tip of the media elite. In Yarvin’s view, this phenomenon is one of the most serious problems of our times.
‘This seems completely normal to everyone. It is not; it is evil. Mere power leaks—just an engineering problem in the structure of our governments, if a quite unfixable one— cause most of the evil in the world today. Most evil is done by unaccountable power. Most of most modern governments is already mostly unaccountable, but a state outside the state is profoundly, inherently, existentially and utterly unaccountable. Its job security makes Louis XIV look like a part-time dogcatcher.
A failure to suppress such extralegal action is itself a power leak. Only collaborators [of the regime] can operate this way—dissident forces in this vein are quickly crushed and punished severely. The force is once again operating as an arm of power—quite unconsciously. Its dependence on power can be concealed even from its own members, who feel they are cool rebels as they operate as the irregular auxiliaries of the imperial guard’ – idem.
This is why we should be more worried about the pervasive errors coming from the elites rather than folk superstitions and conspiracy theories. The latter are fuelled by distrust in the truth market provided by the regime. If that ecosystem is broken, conspiracy theories will proliferate endlessly, leading to all sorts of unfortunate occurrences.
The Social Media Influencer always has an eye for the lowest of the low hanging fruit when dealing with conspiracy theories; his disdain for commoners is constantly fuelled by power leakage; his prestige and legitimacy in the eyes of the public is consolidated when debunking folk superstitions like the craziness of flat earthers, creationism, anti-vaxing, ingesting industrial hydroxychloroquine and so on. The eye of Sauron is cast upon the gammon commoners with their reactionary views, coarse manners, lack of privilege awareness and ignorance of globohomo lingo. ‘If only we could educate or decimate these deplorables, our situation would be perfect.’ As a commoner, you can choose between remaining a passive subject of the total state or letting power leakage corrupt you too; there is always the option of becoming an Influencer. Moving to London, New York or Portland; enjoying a life of moderate luxury and social status, with the constant possibility of being elevated to the top tier.
All these factors combined explain why our Social Media influencer can do the tightrope dance of the constantly shifting media narratives, sacrifice integrity, dodge facts, use reason when suitable, alternate with blinding emotions – without becoming a cynical Machiavellian, aware of his own dishonesty and partisanship. Endless obedience can be regarded as a virtue and the vicious combination of Thymos and Pistos can be read as the purest, selfless form of Agape and devotion.
In reality, Yarvin notices, the influencer has almost no power, in the sense of affecting government policy. But since anyone could be important, anyone can feel important.
‘When we all eat donuts all the time, we all get fat. When we all feel important all the time, our government becomes dysfunctional and often actively vicious. And socially and even professionally, we all start behaving like Robespierre’s teenage girlfriend. Is it the purpose of life and history to gratify our atavistic instincts? The long-term consequences of such gratifications are usually bad. Maybe they are bad here too?’ – idem.