Outrage Drives Clicks, Rage Sells Stories: The Brutal Economy of the Culture War
by Sam Harrison
31 July 2020
It’s all too easy to dismiss the current ‘culture wars’ as frivolous and tedious diversions from the real issues at hand. But behind the Twitter fights and think pieces lies a brutal economic logic with very real – and harmful – consequences.
Simply put, culture war is – or perceives itself to be – a struggle over values. Where in the USA, that struggle has mostly been centred around moral issues, here in the UK its main focus has been the preservation of ‘liberal’ (or ‘Enlightenment’) values, most notably free speech.
Just as literal war generates profits for arms companies and the war on drugs fills the coffers of private security firms, culture war functions in a similar way, allowing media companies to capitalise on the sale of information and personal data.
The result is what I am calling the ‘culture-industrial complex’, an informal network of media companies profiting off of online controversy, whilst shielding themselves from the fallout.
Controversy drives profit.
The culture-industrial complex generates profits largely from two sources. The first is data harvesting. Social media sites collect personal data directly: the more you’re on a site like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, the more links you click on and the more posts you like, the more information the site has on you that it can then sell to advertisers.
Other media sites, like news outlets, are less subtle: their purpose is to attract users to their websites so they load adverts which then generate revenue for the media company. In both cases, the aim is to keep you on the sites and clicking for as long as possible.
One particularly effective way of achieving both these ends is to produce a constant stream of controversy: outrage drives clicks, rage sells stories.
The second is through the aestheticisation of political identities, which sees complex political ideologies reduced to a set of simple reproducible symbols. Merchandise emblazoned with political imagery, podcasts espousing a particular political ideology, and memes that repeat the simplest talking points of each political position, all reproduce political commitment as a purely aesthetic, and thus thoroughly marketable personal identity.
Thus to ‘be political’ becomes a matter of speaking a particular language that has been wrung of its nuances. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook reinforce these identities by enabling the formation of communities based upon these shared languages, which results in the unquestioning amplification and reinforcement of a given ideological standpoint.
This is why the right to free speech is the central battleground in the culture war: at its heart is the question of which of these aesthetic identities are allowed to thrive in particular spaces, with the right claiming to be marginalised in the media because they feel their language is not given enough room.
In reality, the culture-industrial complex isn’t biased towards or against any particular political ideology. Its sole interest is in producing controversial material that will cause people to stay on media sites for as long as possible.
But the constant incentive to produce controversy poses a problem for 21st-century capitalism. One of the defining features of this capitalism is that the viability of an institution – be it public or private – depends upon its capacity to cultivate a positive image. In Mark Fisher’s words, “everything solid melts into PR”; Public Relations becomes an end in itself.
Under the logic of PR, creating a positive image is more important than making anyone believe in it. It’s a matter of complete indifference to Pepsi or McDonald’s that anyone should actually believe that they are committed to, say, Black Lives Matter. These companies perform their support and, somehow, society as a whole accepts it, even if we as individuals think that it is nothing more than tasteless opportunism.
Despite this, the slightest whiff of controversy is still enough to send any company into crisis mode. The standard response is to slough off the contaminant, by disassociating itself from and publicly denouncing whoever is responsible for the controversy.
It’s at this point that people start losing jobs and platforms for saying controversial things: not because of the criticism they are inevitably receiving, and not because of a new climate of authoritarianism, but because companies are terrified of bad PR. This is the basic mechanism of ‘cancel culture’.
The cycle is complete when rightwing free-speech fundamentalists start tweeting furiously in favour of the latest victim of cancel culture, thereby offering them a new platform, which will reliably produce even more hate-clicks.
In this way, the culture-industrial complex sustains itself on the constant panic of private companies and other PR-driven organisations. Insofar as their response to controversy, whichever way they choose to deal with it, will reliably produce outrage, the damage to their reputations, and profits, is itself a source of profit for media companies. As ever, capitalism gnaws at its own foundations.
This dynamic played out recently when British grime artist Wiley posted a series of disturbing antisemitic rants on Twitter and Instagram. The post remained visible for over 24 hours, understandably causing fury among the Jewish community and prompting a 48-hour walkout from the social media site.
Despite being in clear violation of Twitter’s guidelines for hate speech, it is hardly surprising that the posts remained up for as long they did, generating an explosion of activity in the process.
It was only after five days of continuous criticism – and the 48 hour boycott – that Twitter gave Wiley a permanent suspension from the site. At this point, the damage that their inaction was doing to their reputation had become the greater threat to their profits – although a cynic might point out that by then they had already benefited from five days of engagements with his posts.
The myth of cancel culture.
Although it still shrouds itself in the discourse of individual rights, the free speech argument routinely deployed by the right is instead repackaged as a matter of collective moral responsibility: ‘we have a duty to listen to dissenting voices’. The problem here, of course, is that powerful media companies are the ones that get to decide which voices we hear.
Such companies have a vested interest in perpetuating the same toxic cycle: stoking controversy for profit by elevating the most provocative voices – who are mostly rightwing – and then dumping them when their toxic reputation threatens to tarnish the image of the organisations associated with them.
Similarly, leftwing voices are only amplified when they can be used to stoke further rage. This was evident when Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar, debating Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, proclaimed herself “literally a communist”.
This moment, which at the time of writing has amassed nearly 2m Youtube views, was a gold vein for the culture-industrial complex. No-one had any interest in pursuing a critical, nuanced dialogue on the topic. The two-second soundbite led only to a flurry of rightwing redbaiting and leftwing memes.
For the culture-industrial complex, it is absolutely vital that outrage should drown out dialogue. If leftwing thinkers like Sarkar were actually given the time and space to articulate their ideas, there is a very real risk that they would seem too reasonable and defuse the outrage, disrupting the dynamic of the complex and threatening profits as a result.
As such, it is usually easier for the media to avoid the risk by sidelining critical, nuanced leftwing voices altogether.
This was made glaringly obvious when, after the statue of slaver Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol, the media made no effort to talk to the people who removed it – viewers might have found them too reasonable. Instead, we were subjected to weeks of one-sided debate by rightwing talking heads, red-faced about how such statues ‘preserved British history’.
Locked within the system.
Evidently, the culture war is unwinnable. The logic of the culture-industrial complex dictates that it must go on forever. Yet the left has no choice but to fight it because the issues at stake have serious real-world consequences.
Important reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, which would make it easier for people to change their gender, have been delayed after fear-mongering by rightwing culture warriors. Meanwhile, some universities might not survive the government’s decision to make bailouts conditional on demonstrating their commitment to ‘free speech’.
The left’s need to fight these battles is what keeps us locked within the system. We are all being drafted: we have no choice but to fuel the culture machine.
Nonetheless, we must be careful about how we engage, recognising that the success of the culture-industrial complex depends partly upon seducing activists with the image of power.
To some degree, the left has been happy to buy into the idea that arguing on Twitter can bring about real change. But every searing reply you send to Darren Grimes or Toby Young on Twitter is still obeying the logic of the culture-industrial complex.
This is not to say that social media doesn’t have the potential to be used as a tool for meaningful leftwing resistance. From Instagram and Tiktok becoming vital sites of information sharing among activists during the recent BLM protests, to teenagers taking to Tiktok to coordinate an action that ensured low attendance at a recent Trump rally, there are many examples of how such sites can be used to achieve radical aims.
The uncomfortable reality is that social media can be used to facilitate meaningful political resistance, while at the same time being controlled by a powerful elite and used to engineer culture wars – the two are not mutually exclusive. However, so long as these sites operate within a capitalist framework, and thus under the culture-industrial complex, resistance can only take place in spite of the platform, not because of it.
The social media we deserve.
Ultimately, we can never win the culture war, except by ending it altogether – and for that to happen we must change the conversation entirely. People don’t get cancelled because of leftwing sensitivity or a growing intolerance towards other points of view. Nor is it productive for the left, in response to rightwing attacks, to point out that leftwing figures are victims of cancel culture too. The logic of the culture-industrial complex is indifferent to political ideology.
When people do lose their jobs or their platforms, this is because of an economic logic that dictates both that controversy should be constantly produced, for the sake of media companies’ profits, and that no organisation can afford to be associated with controversy. Controversial voices are amplified to stir up outrage, and then performatively discarded in the face of bad PR; a waste product of the culture-industrial complex.
No-one, however, is discarded for long: the culture-industrial complex is efficient with its resources, which is why cancelled personalities (including, now, Wiley) quickly find their way back on to platforms, to stir up still more rage. But rather than treating this as dishonesty or hypocrisy, we should recognise it as part of the same logic.
Just as anti-war socialists in 1914 argued that the conflict was being fought for profits, not principles, we must now make the case that if free speech really is ‘under threat’, that threat comes not from authoritarian leftists, but from the logic of modern capitalism itself.
Sam Harrison is an MPhil candidate at Cambridge University and a researcher at the Maghreb Economic Forum.