Trending Topics Don't Matter
“Don’t be afraid to add to that conversation. Use your voice to do good. Be an advocate for those who maybe don’t have a voice.” Karen McAlister in Advocacy Through Social Media: Why Trending Topics Matter (2016)
Black Lives Matter is not a hashtag. A burning gothic cathedral doesn’t really matter. And watching Jason Momoa shaving his beard is hot, but it won’t clean up the oceans. We went through this phase where we thought social media could be the cradle of a revolution, but now that this idea had time to mature we can see it for the passing phase it is, can’t we?
Social media algorithms are the guise of censorship and media control. Trending topics, which are based on sharp spikes in the volume of mentions of a topic, can be easily manufactured and capitalised on. For a while we believed these sharp spikes could be used to raise awareness of important issues that are usually neglected by main stream media, acting as an editorial process of the people. But now it’s clear that these are extensions of the main stream media. Trending topics and hashtags are tools to up ratings, not to mobilize a revolution. It stirs a disoriented flock of people in a misleading direction, one that seems to be for a “Cause”, when it reality it’s more likely to be an elaborate marketing scheme for something we didn’t even know was a product (such as a “culture capital" tourist destination).
Marketing has changed as much as the concept of a product has, and as much as our gadgets have. With great new technology, comes a great new audience commodity. Capitalism has evolved into something much more sinister than what is described in political books from the 19th century. We aren’t simply dealing with factories, objects, prices, and sub-existence. We deal with cultural influence. Europe and the USA have influence, that’s why they don’t come in with troops as much anymore. They come in with secret phone calls, cross-continental political winks, and in extreme cases with drones.
The internet is surveilled, thus controlled, through a funnelling system, and in this day and age this is the ultimate influence tool. Sometimes the best way to resist is by not acting. Not engaging, not sharing and not hashtagging is a way to not feed this mechanism. Even by being critical, we feed it, and it’s certainly difficult to stop - we at G&R, for instance, haven’t yet. But when it comes to our personal online lives, it’s something to begin taking into consideration.
“[The trending topics list] is a curated list. […]”
“As much as programmers may think their algorithms will deliver objective results, those calculations may be just as biased as a real human being.” NPR in 2011.
When we engage with Trending Topics, we are helping a well oiled marketing scheme that promotes an invisible product: Western dominance (sustained through influence). This dominance is ensured through Money, Thought, and Institutions. Yes, to non-Western people, Western Money is coveted, and the demand for this product is meticulously crafted. One extreme exemple of this is how the USA introduced the concept of paper money to Saudi Arabia (alongside the concept of a State). Thought, which can be as broad as the idea of what it means to be human, and as specific as hair style, has also been forcefully introduced throughout the last couple hundred years, with the help of Money. Now, Institutions are the armored homes of these other two.
Academic Institutions have done an alarmingly effective job safeguarding Western dominance in Latin America. Universities hide their ambitions of influence behind Meritocracy, feeding the myth that if you’re smart and work hard things will work out for you (the same lie that convinces us War for “Democracy” brings Freedom). They sustain the myth that the solution to all the poverty and lack of resources is research and (technological) innovation, and that both are pioneered by Western Thought (when in fact they are the source of the problem rather than the solution). These are the people who come from Europe with an architecture degree, go to an impoverished community, and tell them that the solution to their infrastructure needs is a bamboo plantation that will start to be useful in 5 years.
Who is this actually helping? Not the people who live in a house with children, scarce water and electricity, and a collapsing roof. It helps the European Institution, by developing the brand identity of a Western country that says: “Superior” but “Charitable”. If you think about it, they do this because they have to innovate, since they can’t pull off the 16th century exploitation style anymore. The new fashion trend.
If they don’t have tall enough trees to rebuild a roof, I’d send back the same advice- wait some years until they are tall enough and good luck. Obviously, some hundred years of exploitation and a profitable rebranding scheme makes things more financially accessible. Nearly one billion euros and a nice tax break reveals how being “charitable” can measurably be exploitation in disguise.
Resistance isn’t a phase. We can experiment with strategies, innovate, brainstorm and etc. But getting stuck on a loop isn’t healthy. Remember Brazil’s National Museum? Remember #MeToo? None of that matters. Indigenous peoples and women are still here resisting, the rest may be volatile.
Writer, editor, political theorist, and teacher.