September 7, 2017
On September 3, as our phones buzzed with news alerts that North Korea had detonated a sixth nuclear bomb, many of us braced ourselves for the assault of incoming tweets from Donald Trump. Chances were good that he would ratchet up the tensions and continue to propel us ever closer toward an apocalyptic standoff with the rogue nation. Thankfully his output wasn’t as outrageous as his August 8 performance, when he screeched to TV reporters: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”—instead he turned his saber-rattling to excoriating South Korea where, keep in mind, there is still no U.S. ambassador.
Trump’s outbursts may reflect his gonzo belief that nuclear weapons can be used to solve regional conflicts—not unlike his mortal enemy, Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea. Equally likely, Trump’s outrageously threatening tweets may be yet another puffed-up effort to deflect attention from his plummeting political support. Whether they are authentic, spontaneous, or a ruse, in the time of “fake news” this sort of sounding off on the internet, particularly when done by someone with as much power as a U.S. president, can produce volumes of attention and fear, along with real-world results. “Whether that message was mainly a bluff or an authentic expression of intent,” wrote Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun in The New York Times concerning Trump’s nuclear bluster, “it instantly scrambled the diplomatic equation in one of the world’s most perilous regions.”
How can a few words from an insecure man incite such a substantial reaction? A particular and dangerous pairing—between the president and social media—allows us to witness the worst ways that rules of sexism, networked technologies, deceit, and state violence can perfectly align.
I’ve coined a phrase for this potent mix of internet-fueled falsity, masculine grandiosity, and the resulting bellicosity: “Virality is virility.” Trump’s nuclear threats enact a macho posturing central to his political persona and operations—virility—rooted in sanctioned, if often despicable, forms of male aggression. Meanwhile, his word choices are inspired by another familiar logic, that of the internet and social media—virality—and its blind faith in the power built from attention that grows through networked technologies. The logics of both virility and virality rely on building stature as the primary project of contemporary authority. And both have found natural homes in social media and its most prominent user, the U.S. president.
The age of social media inspires popularity contests. As entertainment, these systems can work well to pick top models, chefs, bachelors, performers. And as a reality-TV star, Trump is well-versed in the power of this type of popularity. But do we want up-or-down votes to determine everything in our culture? Games of this sort are easily rigged. When we vote quickly with little to guide us but superficial traits, dominant systems of value override other qualities, perpetuating familiar beliefs. Quick votes silence other points of view. Contrary contributions, necessary for the robust conversations we need to address the world’s real problems, remain off-screen and delegitimized, like millions upon millions of pussy hats.
Because of their need for speed and simple organization, popularity contests must be rooted in optics. How something or someone looks is easy to manipulate, and can be a false indication of what that thing or person is, believes, does, or will do. Consider our Facebook and Twitter feeds: Through carefully curated images and words, we vie for winnable versions of ourselves to be evaluated by thumbs up, hearts, shares, and retweets. If we hit the social media jackpot, our images, value, and confidence spreads. But that which is most easily sharable and most likely to build our Internet stature need not be smart, insightful, or even true.
Like a much-liked picture of your child on graduation day, certain internet data fosters virality: the tendency of an image, video, or words to circulate rapidly from one user to another. Virality is the unquestioned coin of the internet realm. Bigger is better; more is merrier. Trump has mastered this power, social media’s reliance on transmitting ideas, answers, winners, insults and even wars, through feelings shared in bite-sized morsels that sell even more than the words they say. Viral videos and tweets can be understood as slogans: pithy, rousing calls to action or consumption, or action as consumption. Slogans, like images, bypass contemplation and rationality and get to us through emotion; those celebrated as internet “successes” are those that spread fastest. But anything driven primarily by growth—even if, or because, it emotionally resonates—is by definition single-minded, totalizing, and ruthless.
Why ruthless? Isn’t attention of this sort supportive? Not one of us is above the yummy buzz felt from liking a friend’s good news, or receiving ourselves a batch of metaphoric thumbs up. We feel momentarily generous, seen and liked, even if we anticipate the inevitable fast fall from digital attention and a desire to search for more. However, virality’s primary function is something else entirely: the always-growing production, circulation, and attention to internet content monetized via eyeballs, clicks, and cookies.
Our easy, routinized pastimes—posting pictures, sharing tweets, writing blog posts—are pasted over with the thinnest veneer of entertainment and mock democracy, itself a form of fakeness hiding the ruthless structures underneath. All our images and verbiage (like my own, here) deliver eyeballs to the corporations, organizations, or governments for which we unintentionally or intentionally shill. And as of today—despite our best efforts through decades of work, unrest, and decent feminist living—the forces that gain most remain patriarchal.
I want to be clear: When I discuss the patriarchal or male I am not referring to specific humans (men or those like them) or their personal choices about gender, sexuality, or sex. Many individual men undermine patriarchy; many women prop it up. One key to understanding patriarchal behavior is the notion of the phallic: a symbolic totem of male power, an icon that can be momentarily claimed, held, and used by any person or institution following a cruel logic of supremacy buttressed by size or muscle. This unearned dominance is volatile because it is rooted in binary difference (male/female, white/black, straight/gay) and maintained through fear and sometimes violence. Ancient in their traditions, adaptive, refined and backed by privilege, behaviors of patriarchal phallic conquest are also, not in the least coincidently, sexualized and gendered. But masculinity buttressed by artifice is always under threat. It needs to be continually, repetitively re-expressed, actualized in social structures and institutions, and operationalized in language and behavior: “I grab [women] by the pussy.”
Still, no one man, president though he may be, can maintain the myth of patriarchal virility on his own. He needs sanctions and structures, clubs and schools, images and tweets, plus money, to bolster his undeserved might. And even so, his virility remains open to challenge, as it should be, given that it is based on nothing more than unthinking biology (parts and hormones with no rationale other than to replicate a species). Virality—all the likes, the associated ad revenues, the billions earned or stolen—is insufficient. To ensure his fragile might, inevitably and tragically always next will come calls for a weapon. A bomb is needed, or a car turned into one. The results of internet virility fueled by virality do not stay online but become material in the form of state-sanctioned violence.
We saw this just 87 days into the Trump administration, when the president began the day with preening tweets about unleashing “the mother of all bombs” on Syria, as if it were simply the latest move in his private popularity contest. We saw this as Trump contributed yet more egregious social-media-abetted words that led to savagery and sanctioned murder in Charlottesville. We will likely see such violence again, if not in North Korea then certainly here at home.
But nothing so important, so brutal, should or can ever be explained in a tweet or a pat phrase (including my own!). We need time and new forums and formats to react, respond, and redress the particular form of weaponized power mongering that starts with male inadequacy, spreads via popularity and technology, and results in governmental operations. Trailing right behind the many deployments of internet-based power, in the form of tweets, Instagram feeds, or fake news and its representational mayhem, real world consequences are being felt daily by immigrants, the environment, women, and journalists, to name but a few.
Those who seek peace, those who have known war and rape and bullying, understand the grotesque logic of vicious force hiding in plain sight. We must speak our truths about patriarchal violence and those who use it to feed their greed and egos and dominance. We must speak our truths about human goodness, which continues to manifest in the face of war and its bombastic prologues, willing cheerleaders, corporate beneficiaries, and technologies of expression and destruction. We must seek and speak truths based on values more decent than virality or virility.