An excerpt from a chewy Will Davies longread about WhatsApp at Teh Graun from a few weeks back:
WhatsApp is certainly an unbeatable conduit for circulating conspiracy theories, but we must also admit that it seems to be an excellent tool for facilitating genuinely conspiratorial behaviour. One of the great difficulties when considering conspiracy theories in today’s world is that, regardless of WhatsApp, some conspiracies turn out to be true: consider Libor-fixing, phone-hacking, or efforts by Labour party officials to thwart Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral prospects. These all happened, but one would have sounded like a conspiracy theorist to suggest them until they were later confirmed by evidence.
A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.
The full political potential of WhatsApp has not been witnessed in the UK. To date, it has not served as an effective political campaigning tool, partly because users seem reluctant to join large groups with people they don’t know. However, the influence – imagined or real – of WhatsApp groups within Westminster and the media undoubtedly contributes to the deepening sense that public life is a sham, behind which lurk invisible networks through which power is coordinated. WhatsApp has become a kind of “backstage” of public life, where it is assumed people articulate what they really think and believe in secret. This is a sensibility that has long fuelled conspiracy theories, especially antisemitic ones. Invisible WhatsApp groups now offer a modern update to the type of “explanation” that once revolved around Masonic lodges or the Rothschilds.
It’s taken me a while to get to this (because life), but it stuck in my mind strongly due its coming in on the same day as a blog post from yer man Ahmet Sabanci, himself riffing on some Jay Owens tweetage:
There’s also another problem with this approach to private groups. Thinking that people only go to private places because they want somewhere to spread their “dark” ideas is just dismissed the problems platforms causing. Just think about how algorithmic timelines, forced interactions, surveillance based ads and economic models, context collapse and doomscrolling affects people.
While all of these happening, it’s more than normal for people to look for a place which they can have more control over…
It’s clear that whatever is motivating people to be more private online is something much bigger than any scapegoating attempt we see. It’s also getting more and more clear that people want more control on their digital interactions and want private spaces to talk about things which they want to keep inside a smaller group.
To be fair, and to his credit, Davies does not climb on to the SHUT IT ALL DOWN bandwagon, and it’s nice to see someone else making the McLuhan connection to the affordances of social media. But there’s an extension to that argument, which Davies implies without following fully: WhatsApp is a village, with all the curtain-twitching conformism and suspicion of outsiders that anyone who grew up in a village (hi, hello, yes) will surely recognise. And it bears noting that, while it was parsed in simple technoutopian terms in the early days of the internet, the “global village” concept was meant by McLuhan to be a much more nuanced idea along those lines.
Much of the horror of Twitter, at least for me, is its application of the social dynamics of the village (or the schoolyard) to a population with no effective upper bound. WhatsApp is interesting because it has a Dunbar number that makes it much closer to an actual village, albeit one that may not be defined by spatial proximity. Which is to say that, in many (though not all) respects, WhatsApp is a pretty good model for a very old form of sociality rather than a new one.
This is where Sabanci’s point comes in: the insularity of the village was arguably a reaction to its infrastructural isolation. The village was the only thing that villagers had any control over; events elsewhere in the world would roll up as faits accompli, whether that be news that the king was dead (long live the king), or that the heathens were invading. The world beyond the village was chaotic at best and hostile at worst.
Plus ça change, non? Ah, but what has changed is the rapidity with which “breaking” news (i.e. events in the process of unfolding, rather than presented as complete and settled) can arrive at the village. To return to Davies’s examples: it’s one thing to receive word that the Masons have stitched up the appointment of some powerful figure, but it’s quite another to receive word that the same stitching up is ongoing, incomplete. All infrastructures, but particularly those of communication, fold geographical timespace: That London is no longer a distant source of laws or taxes or proclamations that arrive as facts, but rather a site where facts are always-already in the process of being assembled into truths, by means that are alarmingly reminiscent of the petty machinations around the vicarage fete, only played for far higher stakes.
Or, more simply: for the villager, That London is revealed to be a village, or a conglomeration of villages, about whose doings—which affect your own doings, without much chance of reciprocation—one can be informed while the doing of them is still ongoing.
Which is to say that Davies and Sabanci appear to making a similar argument, which I might restate along these lines: the retreat into small-group discourses dominated by a sense of persecuted isolation can be seen as a retreat to a sociality small enough to offer the respite of conformity and mutual trust (however illusory and riven by small-n power dynamics such may actually be); this is in part a reaction to a world where contextual changes are no more amenable to the villager’s influence than they ever were before, but where the sudden visibility of the processes of change, and their exposure as being a product of village-y group dynamics which you recognise as being similar to the ones in which you are immersed, make you feel increasingly powerless in proportion to your level of informedness.
Or, more simply: the appeal of the victimised village mindset is driven by the accumulation of evidence which suggests that your village is in fact being victimised by another village with far greater power and influence.
Per Sabanci, the banning of private group messaging systems—were such even realistically possible—would do nothing to address the problem; indeed, it would likely amplify the sense of persecution. Villages were insular because they quite justly felt themselves to be small islands in a sea of chaos; small wonder, then, that under the circumstances a similar sociality should prove popular and pervasive. If those in positions of institutional power have a genuine interest in reducing the prevalence of conspiracy theory and adjacent forms of thinking—which, to be quite clear, I suspect many of them are not—then the only likely way of achieving it is to stop behaving in a manner which is amenable to analysis through the conspiracy-theoretical lens. Which is not to say that they are conspiring in some Illuminati-like manner at present, but rather that the operations of networks of privilege, freshly exposed by the folding of timespace by communications infrastructures, look to outsiders sufficiently similar to conspiracy that they will jump to that conclusion with ease, particularly if prompted to do so by the carefully targetted messaging of an opposing network of privilege.
Or, more simply: if you want people to stop whispering in closed rooms that you’re plotting their demise, maybe do a better and more public job of working towards their thriving?