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Facebook’s Political Networks

I came across this article in the Times Magazine that really seemed to resonate with this week’s readings, in particular Galloway’s & Thacker’s work in a Theory of Networks. It’s a long article, but it explores in detail the role that Facebook (more specifically, the new types of political posts specifically crafted for Facebook’s newsfeed) has played in this particularly vicious and vitriolic election cycle. Here is the article: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/08/28/magazine/inside-facebooks-totally-insane-unintentionally-gigantic-hyperpartisan-political-media-machine.html?_r=0&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.slate.com%2Fblogs%2Ffuture_tense%2F2016%2F11%2F04%2Ffacebook_is_fueling_an_international_boom_in_pro_trump_propaganda.html

Here are  some important excerpts:

“Individually, these pages [such as OccupyDemocrats, or the Other 98%] have meaningful audiences, but cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media, whether corporate giants like CNN or The New York Times, or openly ideological web operations like Breitbart or Mic. And unlike traditional media organizations, which have spent years trying to figure out how to lure readers out of the Facebook ecosystem and onto their sites, these new publishers are happy to live inside the world that Facebook has created. Their pages are accommodated but not actively courted by the company and are not a major part of its public messaging about media. But they are, perhaps, the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm — a system that has already reshaped the web and has now inherited, for better or for worse, a great deal of America’s political discourse.”

Another:

“This year, political content has become more popular all across the platform: on homegrown Facebook pages, through media companies with a growing Facebook presence and through the sharing habits of users in general. But truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news: cherry-picking and reconstituting the most effective tactics and tropes from activism, advocacy and journalism into a potent new mixture. This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.”

I won’t quote the entire article, because I think these give you a good sense of where it’s going, and of the ways in which it parallels Galloway’s and Thacker’s argument – in essence, Facebook is a network governed by protocols; these protocols define a technology that regulates the flow of information and connects life forms. Facebook, furthermore, is not a single network, but a network of networks, wherein each individual network sees different things, and comes to radically different conclusions about the same events that often can’t be reconciled. No one theoretically controls these networks, but the networks are controlled regardless, so that, in the words of Galloway, “we are witnessing a sovereignty that is…based not on exceptional events but on exceptional topologies.” Within this “twofold dynamic of network control,” subjects act within distributed networks to materialize and create protocols through their exercise of local agency.

These native posts/pages are designed to function within Facebook’s rhetorical context, but they gain potency through the complex relationships between autonomous, interconnected agents. This, as Galloway explains, is the basis for protocol, and so it seems to me that Facebook, just by setting the initial parameters (posts, newsfeeds, the ability to like and share things),  exercises control over political discourse; we see this control emerge, as the Times article suggests, in a very specific style of political engagement that is grounded in what Galloway would call distinct levels of network individuation (that of the user nodes, who share posts and political memes to perform their politics, and the networks through which these posts/memes can spread, which define the larger political movements). The end result, however, is less a kind of public space, or town square, or commons, than a series of differently structured networks with their own unique and competing swarm doctrines. Control is a kind of coordination that emerges in response to Facebook’s protocol, to its user interface and network affordances, that has real consequences for the kinds of conversations that can happen.

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