the global policeman rears its head; capitalizing on virality
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
It’s another terrifying week in America and on planet earth. I couldn’t find the wherewithal to write something coherent, but fortunately lots of other people did.
Work from home for justice pointed me towards this excellent piece by Ruth Conniff: Raising a red flag on Memorial Day. She takes the opportunity of Memorial Day to look at some relevant American trends.
“Gun rights activists wrapped themselves in the flag, repeating the words “liberty” and “freedom” ad nauseum, until they were drained of all meaning. The people who defend unfettered access to automatic rifles with no background checks, who oppose even the most modest measures to protect against yet another mass shooting, claim to represent America’s highest ideals. There have been more firearms deaths in the U.S. since 1968 than U.S. soldiers killed in every conflict since the Revolutionary War. Our country is not just divided, it’s broken.
Gun worship is a terrible sickness.
Conniff makes the connection I’ve alluded to in past weeks: how ‘freedom’ kind of loses all of its heft when mindlessly expanded to justify horrible behavior.
I’ve also been reading about how focusing on guns, and gun violence as the problem often fails to acknowledge the fact that our society relies on violence, mostly against non-white, non-wealthy people, to function. Politicizing violence is crucial, and so is seeing the big picture/long legacy/slow violence baked into America.
I also appreciated this article from 2020, which identifies the role of the US as the
“global policeman, a term that usually refers to the US propensity to deploy its naval armadas, spy satellites, infantry battalions, and supersonic jets to regulate distant disputes.”
A couple more tidbits:
“It is through security assistance that the United States puts the police in global policeman — a project that the country uses to manipulate others into achieving its own geopolitical goals.”
Your tax dollars hard at work: getting fed into the military industrial complex to crank out arms and dispatch them to…maintain democracy, or freedom, or whatever they’re calling it these days.
“If US security assistance is turning soldiers around the globe into cops, it is also sending US police experts around the globe to work with uniformed police in dozens of countries.”
There is so much in this article, but I pulled out these ideas because they succinctly reminded me of all the ways that ideals like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are deployed to prop up and proliferate anti-liberty regimes run by the few. Once again, words often mean not just what the dictionary says, but what those in power decide they mean.
Take care of each other, friends.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
cw: This piece relates to domestic and sexual violence as well as victim blaming. It does not include graphic descriptions.
I’ve written here before about how terrible my YouTube recommendations are. It's a point of pride how little the algorithm seems to know about me. But things have gotten much worse in my feed, namely all the Kitchen Nightmares clips and Doctor Mike reaction videos have been replaced with nonstop coverage of how terrible and ridiculous Amber Heard is and Johnny Depp’s saintly affable behavior in putting up with her silly defamation attempt. I don’t actually think Heard is ridiculous nor do I find Depp affable, in fact I find his attempt to recharacterize Heard’s domestic abuse claims as “defamation” disgusting. But from looking at my YouTube recs you’d think I was mad as a hatter for the man, an absolute Edward ScissorStan. And according to several news sites, the “court of public opinion” agrees.
This term “court of public opinion” is strange to me. First of all, the source for most of these articles are “PR Experts” who, in a few cases, are speaking on the condition of anonymity which just makes me think they’re trying to conceal connections. But the bigger reason is that the data they’re using to poll this supposed court are hashtags and views of the same videos that are flooding my feed. In an instance where algorithms are serving trial content to victim-sympathetic folks like myself whose only social media interaction with Depp was 2006’s Jar of Dirt remix, are social media interactions an accurate gauge of public opinion?
Before I go on, get your scrolling finger ready because I want to show y’all the extent of content I’ve been served. These video recommendations are all from one visit to my YouTube homepage. I haven’t included the titles but the screengrabs speak for themselves:
Not only are they all very “Amber Heard bad woman Johnny Depp cool chill dude” but the occasional appropriative edits (see: acrylics & wig) are embarrassing.
The real question here is BOTS?! and the answer is yes-probz. The only folks that seem to have attempted a bot-calculation is a 3 person Israeli firm called Cyabra which found around 11% of total trial social media posts about the trial to be from bots. This represents 10% of pro-Heard activity, coming from “uninterested third parties looking to promote a product,” and 5% of pro-Depp activity which seems to be anything but uninterested given that 93% of all accounts analyzed were pro-Depp.
Taking Cyabra’s data at face value, 95% of the activity is from human people. This large proportion could indicate a genuine upwelling of support for Depp, but I don’t think that’s how viral internet content actually works. In fact, 5% of the 6.8 billion views that the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag has gotten on TikTok is still 340 million views, certainly enough to send a few videos on their way to pick up tons of human impressions. Cnet did some reporting on just how impactful this virality has been, interviewing two creators who pivoted their entire YouTube channels to capitalize on the virality of Depp content, one of whom has garnered so many views that he’s hoping to buy a home with the ad money. With a team of bots jump-starting your content to viral fame, it's no wonder so many folks have flung themselves into the anti-Heard herd.
Social media algorithms have been in the hot seat several times over the past few years, with the 2016 election, Q-Anon, and several other disinformation campaigns and conspiracies. But beyond all those, this banal celebrity defamation trial shows just how easy it is to game the algorithm and how powerful it can be. I witnessed this firsthand the other day when I brought up my YouTube recs at the pub and it triggered an exhaustive anti-Amber Heard tirade from someone who could not have had less skin in the game. This trial is not important or even interesting. Depp is no OJ and celebrity defamation suits are a dime a dozen. And it's not like there aren’t morepressingissues to be discussed and fought over. If the so-called court of public opinion is so easily swayed over such a trivial, settled matter, what happens when we’re brought into session for something that matters?