Incidents of abuse on social media are disturbingly frequent. Picture: 123RF/RUDALL30
Incidents of abuse on social media are disturbingly frequent. Picture: 123RF/RUDALL30

Trolls took to Twitter and Instagram earlier in September to hurl racist abuse at Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba. Teammates rallied to his defence, criticising social media companies who trotted out their usual excuses: they are monitoring the situation; banning those who participated in the abuse; investing in new tools to tackle such situations.

Such incidents are disturbingly frequent, as Richard Seymour catalogues in his new book, The Twittering Machine, which he declares to be a “horror story”.

The title comes from the 1922 painting of the same name by Paul Klee, the Swiss surrealist and expressionist. Klee’s work depicts birds entwined in a machine luring victims to a red diabolical pit. Seymour, whose previous books include Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics and Against Austerity, offers the picture as a metaphor for our toxic relationship with social media.

This bleak book is a bracing tour through the social and political context and impact of Twitter and Facebook, exploring Gamergate to Isis to Donald Trump’s Twitter presidency. He recounts horrifying miseries — suicides on YouTube, rapes on Periscope, streamed shootings on Facebook — created by people radicalised, or tormented by online peers, craving celebrity — all pushed to extremes by algorithms and monetised by tech companies.

The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour.
The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour.
Image: Supplied

In this dense, layered book, social media is characterised as a grim, mesmerising time-suck. In Seymour’s telling there are no casual users dipping into Facebook to comment on the cuteness of a friend’s puppy. Instead, social media in his view is dark and compelling, akin to the “ticker trance” of early stock markets, whereby speculators would become fixated by the ticker tape updating financial news.

This lure to compulsion is no accident. Sean Parker, inventor of music-sharing site Napster, early investor in Facebook, and now a self-described “conscientious objector”, has described the likes, favourites and retweets as exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology

Together the “social media giants”, Seymour writes, have “created addiction machines, as a logical means to return value to their venture capital investors”.

Such addiction narratives have been well told already. More interesting is the writer’s questioning of techno-determinism — the belief that it is machines that are driving extreme behaviour, as if we were all helpless patsies incapable of switching off. “We tend to ascribe magical powers to technologies: the smartphone is our golden ticket, the tablet our mystic writing pad,” Seymour writes.

Trolls didn’t come from nowhere, after all. People have always been able to dissociate from the hurt they inflict. As Seymour notes, Donald Rumsfeld shrugged off the devastation in Iraq with almost “sociopathic cheer”. “Stuff happens,” the former secretary of defence once said. In the pre-social media era, journalists shamed citizens and reality TV ridiculed the vulnerable.

The writer explores the economic context of social media’s rise in the wake of the financial crisis. “As opportunities declined and wages stagnated, smartphone ownership, giving users ready access to whole online worlds, may have offered some compensation.”

Social media users toil at the virtual coalface, seeking identity and a home for creativity. Twitter and Instagram accounts require constant tending, giving our labour for free, which is both “exhausting and time-consuming”.

People like fake news, he says, because they “want networks of conspiracy to do the work of shorthand political sociology, explaining how their lives got so bad and how official politics became so remote and oppressive”.

What saves this book from replacing techno-deterministic views with economic determinism is that the writer invites us to look at the psychological reasons. “If this is a horror story, the horror must partly lie in the user,” he argues.

After so much darkness, the book offers no manifesto for happiness. Seymour’s best remedy is not for the state, business or through collective action but advice for the individual, suggesting we take time out, explore nature and substitute our smartphones “with nothing but a notepad and nice pen”.

©  The Financial Times 2019