-by Haydar Khan
In my previous essay, I introduced the concept of heresthetics, the art of shaping the world via the “strategy value of sentences” so that one can accomplish a goal. All of the examples cited in this essay had a common element: they involved the application of heresthetics in the analog (non-digital) world. Beyond William Riker’s heresthetical categories of agenda control, strategic voting, and manipulation of dimensions, I am convinced that a new heresthetical category has come into existence. This new category, which I call digital heresthetics, has emerged due to the rise of social media.
William Riker did not live to see social media, as he passed away in 1993, a year before the first social media platform (GeoCities) debuted. Since that time, social media has evolved from primitive GeoCities to sophisticated platforms like Facebook and Twitter. According to Pew Research, 72% of Americans now use social media and 53% of U.S. adults obtain news via social media. Politicians have also increasingly utilized social media for advertising purposes and messaging. Former President Donald Trump was notorious for using Twitter during his presidency, tweeting over 25,000 times while in office. Rising political star and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has used social media to great personal effect, with millions of followers across multiple social media platforms. The increase in social media usage for the multitude of purposes mentioned above has turned social media into the equivalent of a privatized town square governed by what some are calling “the 4th branch of government”. This is where digital heresthetics, the algorithmic manipulation of “the strategy value of sentences” in social media communication, comes into play.
Digital heresthetics comes in a variety of forms. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of these forms but merely some of the more prominent types of digital heresthetical techniques.
Down ranking involves reducing the frequency of appearance of social media posts such as those involving politics. Facebook recently announced that it was taking steps to reduce the appearance of political posts in its news feed and Twitter has announced its intent to do the same on its platform. Sock puppetry involves the use of fake social media accounts to generate support for a particular cause/argument (sybil attack) or put a particular cause in a bad light (strawpuppetry). Various political entities across the planet, such as Turkey , Thailand, the United States, and China have been accused of using sock puppets to boost support for various causes.
Another digital heresthetical technique is shadow banning or ghost banning is the practice of allowing social media users to post material but, unknown to the users who post material, their posts are rendered invisible to other members of the social media community. This technique, used in a variety of digital environments such as Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter, was originally developed to inhibit disruption of electronic communication but is now also used to affect political discourse on social media. In 2018, it was revealed that several members of U.S. Congress were being shadow banned on Twitter. In 2015, Twitter faced accusations of shadow banning users who posted materials related to an Intercept report on assassinations by drone attacks in the Middle East. Twitter has claimed that shadow banning is mostly due to technical glitches but research suggests otherwise. Ironically, prior to the writing of this article, my own Twitter account was placed under a short-term shadow ban, which I verified by going to this site. The reasons for this ban were never made clear.
The final digital heresthetical technique I will mention is that of a permanent banning/removal of one’s account on a social media platform. Removal/bans supposedly occur due to repeated violation of a social media platform’s rules of conduct or due to threats of violence. In the political realm, a demonstration of the power of social media cancellation was on full display after the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January of 2021. The then-President of the United States, Donald Trump, with over 80 million Twitter followers and a history of tens of thousands of Twitter posts, had his Twitter account permanently removed due to accusations of encouraging the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Following the Twitter ban, Trump was banned from a number of other social media platforms, effectively removing him from the 21st century town square. Even Bernie Sanders, staunch opponent of faux populist Trump, had this to say about the banning of Trump from Twitter: “But if you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the president, the then president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don’t feel comfortable about it. Now, I don’t know what the answer is. Do you want to hate speech and conspiracy theories traveling all over this country? No. Do you want the internet to be used for authoritarian purposes and insurrection, if you like? No, you don’t. So how do you balance that? I don’t know, but it is an issue that we have got to be thinking about. Because of anybody who thinks yesterday it was Donald Trump who was banned and tomorrow it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view.”
Just as the power of heresthetics was demonstrated by numerous examples in my previous essay, I hope that I have also shown the power of applied heresthetics in the digital realm to be potent. How can one evaluate the strategy value of a sentence when sentences aren’t even visible (shadow banning or down ranking)? The silencing of a U.S. president across a broad spectrum of social media, no matter how repugnant his online behavior, is remarkable. Could one envision the silencing of a U.S. president (for example, across all major television media outlets) in the pre-social media era? Perhaps the “fourth branch of government” needs to be put in its place. There are growing calls for government regulation of social media companies, if not outright conversion of these companies into public utilities. Will digital heresthetics be the straw that breaks social media’s back?