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The Internet is real life

There is no firm divide between the mainstream and the online

“It’s fucked up how tolerant the racist community is,” wrote Twitter user “Orcbrand” a couple of years ago, “They don’t even care what race you are as long as you’re being racist.” That essentially explains how Kanye West, who once slammed President George W. Bush for not caring about black people, finds himself palling around n-word dropping, Charlottesville marching “America First” activist Nicholas J. Fuentes. Both of them have a bone to pick with the Jews.

What might be more surreal than the ideological clash, though, is the clash between their apparent places in society. Kanye West is not just one of the most famous musical artists in the world — he is one of the most famous men in the world full stop. The rapper, producer and stylist has sold more than 150 million records. He has received 22 Grammy Awards. His “Yeezy” trainers brand was worth billions of dollars. Nicholas Fuentes, on the other hand, livestreams from his bedroom. I do not say that with contempt — I’m an opinion columnist for God’s sake, how could I be snobby about anyone’s social status? — but how on Earth are these fellows friends?

The literal answer probably lies somewhere between West’s links to Conservative media through his relationship with “Blexit” founder and Daily Wire contributor Candace Owens and Fuentes’ friendship with former Breitbart editor and self-proclaimed “ex-gay” Milo Yiannopoulos. No doubt West being ditched by the various brands he worked with, as a result of his going “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE”, also made him look more favourably on those, like Fuentes, who have been deplatformed as a result of their statements.

But I think there is a broader trend here. Boundaries between “traditional” culture — that of mainstream television networks, magazines, newspaper et cetera — and online culture have been breaking down. How could they not! Television audiences have shrunk. Newspaper circulations are in terminal decline. Meanwhile, people have been hooked to Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and all manner of alternative platforms on the Internet. Older institutions have carved out digital space for themselves, of course, but there is more competition from upstarts.

This sounds like a truism (people are addicted to their phones, Ben, whatever you will tell us next…). But I think that its disruptive impact on popular culture has been overlooked. Small and large points are everything — seeming more surreal for not being understood within a broader context. Boxing has been dominated by Jake Paul — a YouTuber who has somehow become one of the most recognisable faces in the sport as he has overcome a rather sad and limp parade of online personalities and retired MMA fighters. Andrew Tate, a kickboxer, motivational speaker and online pornography impresario, became as famous as most film stars almost overnight with his smart exploitation of social media algorithms. Elon Musk, the wealthiest person in the world, has bought Twitter and can be found cheerily posting Pepe memes. “The Internet is not real life” is true in some senses. But it is far from the iron law that it might have once been.

This explains the hysterical edge to mainstream commentary. West’s anti-Jewish statements have provoked a lot more outrage and alarm than a richly documented trend of physical attacks against Jewish people in the United States. What concerns the talking heads is not just his speech but the outdatedness of means by which it could be suppressed. Take his branding deals and kick him off TV, after all, and he will pop up on YouTube.

This also explains the hysterical edge to commentary about Mr Musk. Mainstream institutions have made frantic efforts to direct the flow of culture on the Internet. People held to be exceptionally dangerous, like Alex Jones and Stefan Molyneux, have been exiled through concerted cross-Internet bannings. Personalities considered politically and culturally wholesome have been elevated — such as when President Biden has made a big show of inviting TikTok stars and Twitter notables to the White House. Musk’s general aversion to restricting speech on social media — evident in a recent “amnesty” to suspended accounts — threatens such attempts to shape who and what succeeds online.

Clearly, a more open Internet enables bad actors: the hateful and the opportunistic, as well as the unhinged. But I would caution people against excessive alarm. Firstly, what makes bad actors succeed online is often what makes their success short-lived. Temerity, shamelessness and exhibitionism all help people to win attention — and to go down in flames. Does anyone think that Kanye West’s Milo-managed 2024 presidential bid will be a great success? A man with a long history of erratic decisions teaming up with a man with a long history of letting down his business partners does not seem like a winning formula. 

There are plentiful bad actors in mainstream institutions

Secondly, the fact that there are plentiful bad actors in online spheres should not blind us to the fact that there are plentiful bad actors in mainstream institutions. One corporation that dropped Kanye West this year was the luxury fashion brand Balenciaga. Balenciaga found themselves in trouble last week when they released adverts that featured a stomach-turning combination of startled kids, teddy bears in bondage gear and, bizarrely, documents related to online child abuse. It was not newspapers and magazines that kicked up a stink about the gross symbolism here — it was random people on the Internet. 

Our dominant tastemakers, intelligent observers should have grasped, have very little taste, just as journalistic and political figures who fret the most about “disinformation” have heads full of lies. This is not to excuse boors, charlatans, maniacs and hate merchants who pose as the only cultural and political alternative. It is to say that charting a course between them is a broad civic responsibility. That is not an encouraging idea, I accept — but it can be an inspiring one. Besides, we have no other choice.

Anyway, what could be next? Madonna and DarksydePhil? I can’t wait to find out.

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