#PizzaGate and Digital Click Farms: the enfolding of time, space, and agents

On December 5, 2016, Edgar Welsh walked in to pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong armed with an assault rifle to self investigate the fake news story of Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta’s alleged child sex ring operation, known as #Pizzagate.  The power of fake news on social media has become widely recognized after the 2016 US Presidential elections with some shocking revelations. Major new sources’ investigation into fake news encounters an intricate network of alt-right social media activities aimed at discrediting Clinton and mobilizing Trump supporters, and a deep financial investment in the production and circulation of fake news. In response to whether fake news contributed to the result of the election, Mark Zukerberg, CEO of Facebook, expresses the very thought as “a pretty crazy idea”.  Zuckerberg may be correct in his assertions and disagreement that “fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of content, influenced the election in any way” if the problem of fake news on Facebook is strictly about content, or about content at all.

In Zuckerberg’s terms, Facebook is about offering people the opportunities to make meaningful engagements, the making of the ‘social’ of social media. Thus, Zukerberg is confident that “we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but [he believes] we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves”, presuming Facebook’s inherent neutrality as a platform. Presenting the character of fake news and social media in these terms position social media platforms as neutral apparatuses giving the community agential capacities to act and make meaningful connections, where instances of fake news are relegated to the realms of bad content.  Zukerberg presents Facebook as a homogenous entity which in actor-network-theory’s term, has been ‘black-boxed’, where we are unable to see the new ways associations has been made, the dynamic assembling of material forces. #PizzaGate demonstrates the power of fake news in rupturing previously well defined territories, revealing a swarm of entities necessary for its sustenance, making what is there all along visible.  To delve into the the conspiracy theory of #PizzaGate is to encounter an intricate network of operations involving WikiLeaks’ release of Podesta’s hacked emails, alt-right social media users on 4chan and Reddit decoding words and satanic symbols, the meme #PizzaGate indicating the underground child pornography operation based in Comet Ping Pong, and aggregations of fake news stories of this crime ring populating Facebook and Twitter.

Influence of fake news on political discourse incites the transmission model of communication in looking at communication as persuasion and behaviour modification. As Facebook becomes a premium news source, the problem of fake news is concerned with the dissemination of false information over greater distance, reaching a mass audience, and the effects it has on those audiences, including the possibilities of normalizing and stabilizing attitudes, and as some would argue, influencing voting behaviour. Viewing the phenomenon of fake news in the transmission model of communication is problematic in simply attributing power and agency in the dissemination and circulation of content. The problem of fake news is beyond the validity of its content and the spreadability of information, but also about the distribution of power across a whole network of material assemblage and enunciations.

Taking a political economy framework attunes to the invisible digital labour involved in territorializing the assemblage of social media networks. But we should be careful not to reduce the enfolding of click farm labour markets in Third World countries as simply a problem of Facebook algorithms and big data. To understanding digital labour is also a mapping of globalized labor markets of click farms . The infiltration of likes from click farms disrupts the functions of Facebook algorithms that on one hand in Zukerberg’s words are used to build meaningful relationship, and on the hand used to build effective advertising. The demand of digital labour by Western countries in Facebook’s revenue structure create a deep financial incentive for digital capitalists and the exploitation of labour reserve in Third World countries. #PizzaGate is then not only about the engagement with fake news articles on Facebook, or the building of a conspiracy, but also about a globalized labour markets of click farms and the Macedonia content producers. The ritual mode of communication seems to align with Zukerberg’s statement in abiding his trust in the community and its ability to make meaningful engagements, but he belies the neutrality of the platform itself as if Facebook is simply an intermediary. Social media platforms are produced by as assemblage of everyday digital practices that sustains its temporal nature and also maps out its registers of materiality in network digital archives and labour markets. Facebook’s mediality determines the situation in articulating certain kind affordances and being conductive to certain set of practices, associations, and organizations.

Zukerberg’s facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10103253901916271


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