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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Humanity Is Vibe-Checking Itself to Death

On Saturday, April 9, Saorise Gowan was riding the Washington DC Metro’s Green Line to visit friends when a man began to film and verbally abuse her—accusing her of “grooming” children for sexual abuse. She was targeted simply because she was a transgender woman; her attacker’s profanity-laced tirade was a perfect echo of rhetoric used by Republican politicians and, most especially, cadres of internet users who’ve seized on incendiary language like “grooming” to describe the mere existence of trans and queer people in public spaces. Such bigotry isn’t new; even the strategy of linking queer people to pedophilia isn’t particularly new. But what is new is the efficiency with which men like Gowan’s harasser are mobilized.

That efficiency is born of the same internet that gives us chill lo-fi beats, mood boards, and aesthetic Toks: the vague fuzziness of a feeling, a vibe settling around you like a blanket of serotonin. It’s the way the internet manages to speak to millions while somehow appearing to know you specifically. You’re given an aesthetic Rorschach inkblot to associate with, to develop an emotional attachment to.

But that same affordance of vibe-generation has a darker side. It can reduce all matters of substance to vibes—to theatrical emotion and performances of feeling. This has become key to the “culture war” targeting everyone from trans people to Black people to anyone in need of an abortion.

Vibes can inspire action, in part by refracting vague individual feelings into focused behaviors targeting other individuals. But this culture of out-of-control-vibes, this politics of pure feeling largely comprising demands to perform a particular emotional state online, supercharges the far-right, whose extremist vigilantism is capable of doing real harm to relatively powerless minorities, and sees the left, whose targets tend to be highly organized bastions of power, spinning its wheels. The contrast between the right’s multinational assault on trans rights and the center-left’s discourse about Covid-19 is illustrative here—one is achieving results; the other is circling a screaming drain.

Information technology has made it breathtakingly easy to organize otherwise disparate minorities of angry people, inspiring them to abuse the targets of politicians’ speeches and the laws they pass. Such laws are often deliberately vague—Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, of which transgender people are key targets, is a prime example of the phenomenon; it fails to define a number of key terms that would guide the law’s enforcement. Instead, one is meant to go by instinct, or vibes. You know a “groomer tranny” when you see one, apparently.

But summoning state power with a nebulous mandate is only part of the point. The wider goal is using such legislation, and the debates around it, as a signal that rallies and unifies people like Gowan’s assailant into a privatized, distributed secret police force whose writ far exceeds the letter of any law. Such people can get into the cracks of society where outcasts normally thrive, depriving them of peace and even their very existence.

Social media’s role here should not be understated. “What I've found is that outrage performs extremely well on social media,” said Mika Fernandez, a civil rights attorney at Lawyers for Good Government, “[and conservatives] are recognizing a flaw in the system and exploiting it to further their goals.”

What’s happening is not merely the platforming of bigotry (though that is an enormous problem in its own right). Social media has created a fertile plain for extremists to develop entire alternate realities built around cultivated emotional states. This is a collision of several accidents of design. Rage, as Fernandez noted, amps up “engagement.” Thus, content that inspires rage—even if it’s false or ambiguous or unconfirmed—is of immense value. This pushes raw emotion to the center of all political activity online: generating, responding to, and perpetuating outrage. As a result, posture became much more important. Responding to the mood of your audience by saying the right thing and amplifying and reinforcing their emotional state has become the ticket to viral success.

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Alejandra Caraballo, an instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic who’s followed the right’s growing obsession with trans politics, says that the right “basically optimizes their entire media ecosystem around [rage],” building on the way Twitter and Facebook algorithms privilege outrage-generating content. A “positive feedback loop” quickly emerged between right-wing media and social media; their anti-trans stories drove engagement, and thus they leaned ever more into them.

Just as Instagram can cultivate aesthetic vibes that facilitate emotional attachment to an influencer or associate certain styles with certain communities, social media fosters emotional attachments for extremists: creating a vague sensibility about out-groups worth targeting with vitriol, using a definition as evanescent and expansive as a bio-weapon. What you feel is paramount, and it is armor against any argument to the contrary. The vibe is the policy. “In the new biopolitical regime, ‘belief,’ ‘perspective,’ or ‘vibe’ function in place of norms to guide behavior,” as philosopher Robin James put it recently. This is why facts don’t seem to matter and why earnestness and sincerity have a hard time breaking through on social media.

To argue about whether Republicans really believe trans and queer people are “groomers” rather misses the point. Many are using the word in bad faith and don’t care; others believe that they believe it, and that’s good enough. What matters is that they’ve seized on a powerful, emotionally charged allegation that summons and sustains a posture of rage—one that enables them to justify an exterminationist policy toward transgender people, and queer people more widely. But it’s also why Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and even Mitt Romney have been deemed “pro-pedophile” by some Republican politicians: There is no room for any emotional affect but this one. Only comprehensive hatred of trans and queer people is permissible, sustained by the most heinous of allegations.

This becomes propulsive all on its own, and while this rocket fuel may burn out quickly, it will leave quite a blaze in its wake. “OK Groomer” took off as a Twitter trend when hundreds of conservative accounts decided that it would be hilarious to respond to anyone standing up for trans children with the phrase; the practice has leaked out into the physical world. The incendiary allegation of abusing or otherwise being “inappropriate” to children is bound to get people hurt in the short term and is already driving queer people out of their jobs. It’s what led to Saoirse Gowan being accosted on the DC Metro, it led to a queer family being harassed on Amtrak, and it will lead to more harm besides.

The only way to easily neutralize the harms of such slanderous language is to rob the word of meaning. If this “groomer” discourse continues, you should expect the allegation to be lobbed right back at Republicans; indeed, it already has been.

Over the long term, the word “groomer” will undergo the journey of so many others, like “triggered” or “gaslighting,” robbing survivors and their advocates of a useful word with a specific definition and turning it into just another dollop of social media jargon. This ‘I’m rubber, you’re glue’ approach that social media specializes in will dissolve some of the stigma of “groomer” and cause members of the wider public to tune out whenever they hear the word, which will now be irrevocably associated with political mudslinging. Social media consumes language like an inexhaustible resource; it cannot offer liberation, but it can steal away the words we may need to achieve some measure of it. 

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Can the political left or liberals pull off the same trick? Part of the problem is that social media is simply better designed to achieve these kinds of hostile right-wing aims than anything more salubrious. Literally, in fact. One of the biggest fights about vibes propagated by many across the left is the battle to get people “to take Covid seriously.” As there is growing evidence that the BA.2 subvariant is causing a spike in cases across the US, it feels urgent once again amidst the Groundhog Day of Covid wave-riding.

But looking at much of the discourse on platforms like Twitter, and the way it leaks out into publications like The Atlantic, what’s striking is how much of the debate is less about policy than emotion. What emotional state is shame-worthy? Is it failing to treat the pandemic seriously? Is it being “too paranoid” about the pandemic? This merry-go-round generates countless hours of content, viral posts on all sides, and plenty of rage to fuel it all, with everyone shouting at everyone else for feeling the wrong way about the virus’s continued rampage.

The debate is not about what to do, but how to feel. And the terms are vague. “Taking Covid seriously” or “not being paranoid” mean vastly different things to different people. It’s inkblots all the way down.

Policy then becomes less prominent in these online discussions. Large-scale practical reforms—from improving health care access and capacity to providing medicine at low to no cost to improving vaccination drives to the massive infrastructural reforms needed to improve ventilation and air purification in buildings—cannot be achieved through repeated vibe-chasing along the lines of “Mild(™)” or “WEAR A FUCKING MASK!” or “Don’t you know there’s still a pandemic!?”

If Twitter were a truly Habermasian public sphere, it might approach the ability to let us hash these issues out and build real power for some big policy platform; as it is, it has utterly failed amidst the pandemic because its path of least resistance favors those who desperately need catharsis—and who doesn’t right now? Thus unbridled rage is the order of the day.

But rage is always best directed at individuals rather than systems, and so, for different groups of progressives, bogeymen emerge in the form of “the paranoid friend” or “the guy whose nose is hanging out of his mask.” Ire is directed at various flavors of Karen who are either “too cautious” or not cautious enough in each mythological retelling. Rage is also directed at politicians and elites—like those who attended the recent Gridiron dinner that’s since become a superspreading event—but serious policy recommendations, much less the activism necessary to achieve them, languish.

It is far easier, far more viral, to scream at others that they’re feeling the wrong way.

If the goal is to create a climate in which trans people feel less safe going outside, this economy of vibes is a perfect engine. If the goal is to build a collective response to a pandemic, it becomes impotently gestural. Put another way, social media is good at inducing individuals to attack other individuals in the physical world. But while mobilizing angry conservatives to harass and brutalize transgender women achieves a key conservative policy goal, mobilizing a few people to pick fights with maskless Costco shoppers achieves next to nothing for controlling Covid. The narrow horizons of possibility offered by social media activism are often a better fit for the “cruelty is the point” goals of right-wing extremists.

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Still, government connections are key. There is a real feedback loop between online right-wing politics and the politics of local and federal governments that simply has no real equivalent on the left. This is why recent attempts at drawing such equivalences feel churlish at best and like intellectual malpractice at worst.

With the right able to prosecute its culture war in both the legislative and social media arena, its ability to crowdsource bigotry is formidable. For the left’s attempt to mobilize a pandemic response, it’s the nature of its emotional ask combined with a lack of legislative will that has left it bereft.

When I asked her about this, Caraballo agreed, returning to the idea that rage was a better fit for the social media landscape. The far-right’s anti-trans agitation trades on rage, while progressive discourse on Covid trades on rage and empathy but needs the latter to really execute its goals. “Empathy,” she told me despondently, “can be a finite resource.”

It is easier to crowdsource outrage at a despised minority group than it is to crowdsource a moral education for individuals and hope it somehow adds up to structural change. Social media is extremely good at the former, but the political left has few ways to put it to any kind of redemptive use.

For the far right, it’s a chilling hand-in-glove fit with the kind of world they want to create.


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