A Black Lives Matter protest in Brussels. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

We’re all Americans now

Why does Twitter even have multilingual options?

There are nearly eight billion human beings on the planet. A fraction of these people are Americans. But that’s in the real world. In the digital realm, the realm from which so much of our political discourse emanates, we’re all Americans. Real American citizenship is a privilege very few of us enjoy. But digital American citizenship is nearly universal in the online realm. You don’t need a passport. You don’t get to vote. You won’t get called up for jury duty. You don’t have to live in, and perhaps have never even set foot in America. But you’re an online American citizen. You care more strongly and know more about American politics than you do of the place where you actually live, and because this is the only framework through which you can understand politics, you often try to fit local politics into this framework, producing politics outside of America that have a surreal unreality to them.

We have witnessed this on a global scale the past week. While the death of George Floyd was a horrific and all too familiar American injustice, it has been a truly global event, one that has escaped the digital realm and entered the real world. Protests broke out not just in America, but in London, Toronto, Amsterdam, Auckland, Paris, Dublin, and elsewhere. These protests were not just about Floyd. They have been about police brutality and racism more broadly, and often tied to racism in these countries. The large demonstration in Toronto, for example, was also about demanding justice for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old black women who fell to her death off her high-rise apartment balcony while multiple police officers were in the apartment. The large protest in Paris was also about Adama Traoré, a Malian-French man who died in custody after being restrained and apprehended by French police in 2016.

But what is impossible to ignore about these global protests demanding justice for victims of police brutality, is that they were triggered by an event that took place in America. For all the constant predictions about America’s collapse and the end of American hegemony, the digital realm has extended American cultural hegemony, and while it often manifests itself as anti-Americanism, the peripheral regions of America’s cultural empire orbit around what happens in the core. America’s hard power may face challenges and new rivals, but its soft power has only been expanded in the digital age. Social media especially expands the imperium of American hegemony by turning citizens in peripheral nations into not just observants, but participants in American political discourse.

While these global protests are the most current and potent example of this, it’s not a new phenomena. It’s not uncommon to see signs at protests and rallies in cities outside America that say things like “abolish ICE” or “fu*k Trump.” While America is the target of so much opposition and criticism from across the globe, what is most remarkable about this form of politics is that domestic American politics is simultaneously global politics. The surrealness of this often manifests itself in bizarre ways that epitomise the hegemonic power that America holds over political discourse outside of America. Protestors in London yelled “don’t shoot” at British police officers, most of whom don’t even carry firearms. The official Twitter account of Ayatollah Khamenei condemned the killing, as did numerous other world leaders and figures.

This is not an entirely new phenomena, much of the world has revolved around America for quite some time. Nor is it a new thing for non-Americans to have strong opinions and passions about America’s domestic politics and presidents. Recall the mass demonstrations against the Iraq War and President Bush in the early 2000s. Recall the global outpouring of support and global rockstar status that President Obama enjoyed after his election. Donald Trump is probably the closest person on the planet to having universal name recognition right now, and no matter where you go people will have strong feelings about the president. But the extent to which non-Americans have strong opinions, and often seem to know more about the goings on of American politics than they do about the politics of their own countries has been intensified by social media and digital politics.

 

“What’s happening?” asks your blank tweet

This confusion by foreigners about what they are has many complex reasons, but saturation in American media and cultural products is undoubtedly an important part of American hegemony. Around the world people are doused in music, culture, movies, and also the news and politics of America. This gives the rest of the world a unique access to America that creates a familiarity and understanding that people don’t normally have of other countries. America might be foreign to most of us, but it is not altogether unknown or unfamiliar. Even to those of us who are not Americans, this saturation means we have a picture, often a somewhat imaginary, sometimes idealised and other times dystopian one, of what America is actually like.

This familiarity manifests itself in all sorts of ways that help entrench omniAmerica abroad, but foreign domestic politics is where it takes on the strangest and most surreal forms. People around the world don’t simply care about America’s international activities and the role that it plays on the global stage, they care and pay close attention to the domestic affairs of American political life, and as the global George Floyd protests show so clearly, domestic events in America can and often do become global events. Not triggers for domestic events overseas, but points at issue in them.

While this isn’t entirely new, something that has changed rapidly in the last two decades or so is the medium through which so many of us now consume and interpret America and American politics. Television helped to make the world smaller. Through a screen you could see and watch what was happening on the other side of the world, often in real time. But television keeps you largely as an observer. The gatekeepers get things in as much as they kept them out. You can watch, and you can yell at a screen, but you are still just observing what goes on. Perhaps you could call into a radio show, write a letter to an editor, or talk about it with your friends, family and neighbours. But it’s all a kind of second hand participation after the fact, which allowed you to keep your distance from it and remember in some fundamental way that the place you live is not the place that you are watching on TV. No one tweeted about OJ.

The rise of digital politics changed all this. Most of us increasingly get our news and consume our politics online, whether through social media platforms or other media sites and publications. We increasingly view the world through a digital lens. The medium truly is the message, and what the digital medium enables is for us to not just observe, but participate in politics in a virtual way. On social media platforms you can comment, share, and find ways to get the constant dopamine rush that comes with being a digital commentator or activist. The barriers to this as minimal, you just need an account. You cease to be an observer, and become an active digital participant. You offer your opinion, you don’t just passively consume the opinions of others, selected for you to hear.

 

I tweet, you tweet, we all tweet

The rise of digital politics and activism has turned many of us into keyboard warriors, and as Ross Douthat observes in his new book on decadence, this might in a way paradoxically both polarize us and make politics more harmless by letting us fight out seemingly important and vast ideological battles in online platforms with little impact on the real world. The digital realm enables us to be cosplay revolutionaries of various ideological stripes from the comfort of our bedrooms, in the socially distanced queue for something or wherever our thumbs jab at our phones. The low cost of engagement online and the replacement of direct with virtual interactions also creates incentives and removes barriers to holding more extreme positions and engaging in nastier ways.

This undoubtedly applies to everyone, Americans and non-Americans. But the digital realm is uniquely suited to drawing non-Americans into American political discourse, theoretically on an equal footing to Americans. Digital citizenship doesn’t care where your IP address is located. It is not uncommon to find online Canadian twitter users for example, who will put #MAGA #MCGA or #resistance in their bios, and similar things can be observed in users elsewhere. These people can comment and use Twitter to immerse themselves almost entirely in American politics, or even more importantly, completely blend and blur the distinctions and boundaries between America and the politics of the country they actually live in. They might well be making domestic points to one another by the American symbols they co-opt, but as often as not, it’s not a proxy battle they’re fighting. Instead, they vicariously seek to participate in American controversies on American terms, and then seek to understand their own politics, if at all, with this frame of reference.

Besides global saturation and familiarity, American politics has some unique features, especially when compared to the often (though not always) rather tame politics of other developed countries, that lends itself to a form of political consumption as entertainment. America’s seemingly robust two-party system sets up binary struggles that multi-party democracies often lack. Political polarisation and a combative media climate help make the gulfs between the two Americas much deeper than elsewhere. America’s domestic political battles and ideological divides seem much more interesting and substantive, and the appearance of a wider divide makes the stakes seem higher.

Combine this with global saturation in American culture and the rise of digital politics, and you have the perfect recipe for non-Americans to fully immerse themselves in America’s domestic politics as a form of entertainment, not as observants but as participants. This is how the digital medium becomes the message, it shapes how we interpret and understand the world.

Any medium massages the muscles of perception, in the process altering the thing that is perceived. The digital medium is no exception, and its transformative effects, given that we are at only at the dawn of the digital age, could be as radical and world shattering as the printing press. In so many ways the internet, especially in the anglo world, is American. An Australian may know very little about Canadian politics, and vice versa, but they both probably know something about America, and thus can both participate in fights with each other online, as Americans and about America. In the process this alters how people perceive and understand politics, not just online and on social media platforms, but in a more fundamental way, and shapes the discursive terrain on which they think about their own immediate political world.

 

You’re lucky this is “English (UK)” spellcheck

While we like to think that online politics is remains confined to the virtual realm, and you’ll often hear people say things like “Twitter isn’t real life,” this isn’t true. Political discourse, and the people who drive it, do so online. While the views and worldviews of people who shape discourse online may themselves be extreme outliers, political discourse is still shaped by and driven by what happens in the online realm. This bleeds out into the real world. Outside of America one part of this is that politics elsewhere increasingly comes to take place in an American simulacrum, where citizens in other countries think about their politics using American language, and American issues, to frame and understand their own politics.

The global protests about racism and police brutality are just one example of this. What is most revealing about the global breakout of these protests is that they were triggered worldwide by what happened in Minnesota. There are plenty of incidents of racism and police brutality across the world. But these events, while they might ignite local anger, don’t ignite the kinds of global protests and reactions that we have seen in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Nor could they. Incidents outside America will often ignite reactions and protests within the countries that they take place, but they don’t create global reactions. Only American events can do that. America is the digital core, and the rest of the world zooms in from the periphery.

The soft, cultural hegemony that America has enjoyed for a long time is thus strengthened by digital politics. Even if this manifests itself, as it normally does, as anti-Americanism, it helps Americanize political discourse around the world, and helps ensure that domestic events in America often serve as the driver of what happens elsewhere. For all the predictions of America’s decline and fall, American cultural hegemony remains just as strong as ever. Even if American hard power weakens and its institutions continue to decay, it is unlikely the rest of us are going to stop caring anytime soon, and the world will continue to revolve around America for quite some time.

We should all hope that these protests do lead to serious reforms, not just in the United States but elsewhere as well. But whatever changes and reforms do happen elsewhere, it should not be forgotten what it was that led to these changes. They were driven by American images and American words off the back of American problems. But we’re not all Americans, are we?

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