Outer Limits

Conservative movements thrive when social media connect the suburbs

Building to Code is a monthly column about how we live among cities and each other. It regards cities as what they’ve always been: not systems of capitalist resource management, but the stages that society plays out on.

Recently on the Current Affairs podcast, Nathan J. Robinson asked Contrapoints creator Natalie Wynne: “What the hell is going on that YouTube is so saturated with reactionaries?” Her answer begins with a comparison to ’90s AM radio, because both mediums lacked “a lot of traditional gatekeeping.” This dearth of regulation can have good and bad consequences: “For instance trans people — no one wants to give us a platform — but we can make our own on YouTube and we can find each other and build a community. The downside is that racists can do the exact same thing and they have.” Robinson asks a follow-up question: “Why have the racists been winning?” Wynne surmises that there is “something about the cultural moment that lends itself to that sort of thing.”

AM radio and YouTube may be dominated by conservatives because of a lack of gatekeeping, but that doesn’t explain why conservatives were the ones to take the most advantage of these technologies. Part of the answer is the sheer amount of money funneled to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Candice Owens, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Ben Shapiro by billionaires who appreciate the ideological cover they provide. But then we also have to account for the other side of the equation: Why did wealthy patrons see YouTube and AM Radio as outlets worth sponsoring? The answer here, beyond a lack of gatekeepers, is who these platforms reach: everybody, and especially people not in big cities.

YouTube, and talk radio before it, let anti-social conservatives connect online and later in person for marches, rallies, and meetings

While cities have always done a good job of helping numerical minorities achieve a density sufficiently big to sustain a business (for example, a gay bar) or even a movement (think organized labor in major industrial cities), politically conservative suburbs and rural places have always faced a paradox: the built environment is made to support the individual family structure and is deeply isolating by design, which makes it harder to organize socially or politically. But social media is a good-enough stand-in for urban density, providing a means to form the early connections necessary for starting longer-term relationships. Platforms like YouTube, and talk radio before it, let anti-social conservatives who don’t want to live next to other people connect online and later in person for marches, rallies, and meetings.

The algorithmic logic of the internet has begun to extend to the suburbs and rural areas the kinds of organizing capabilities that used to only be possible through the city’s density. What this means depends on the makeup of those suburbs, and the decisions of those who own the networks.

In his best known work, 1938’s Urbanism as a Way of Life, the Chicago School sociologist Louis Wirth wrote that “being reduced to a state of virtual impotence as an individual, urbanites are bound to exert themselves by joining with others of similar interests into organized groups to obtain their ends.” Wirth was responding to the rapid growth of industrial cities in America and the working classes that were organizing in both political directions. To him, these groups, far from being emancipatory, were “subject to manipulation by symbols and stereotypes managed by individuals working from afar or operating invisibly behind the scenes through their control of the instruments of communication.” His cynicism makes sense given the times: the American Bund was gearing up for a 4,000-person strong Nazi rally in Merrimac Park in 1939. But Chicago had also hosted many of the anarchists, socialists, and communists who had successfully agitated for an eight-hour work day in 1886.

Cities, and the cutting-edge communication technologies that they host (whether that’s penny presses, public address systems, or Twitter), have long been agents of mass upheaval from across the political spectrum. From Stonewall in New York to the uprisings in Baltimore after the exoneration of the cops that killed Freddie Gray, cities have been prime venues for what Lewis Mumford called “purposive associations” and Durkheim called “organic solidarity.” Rather than family relationships or ties to the land defining who you are, city life requires that your identity be derived through internalizing the role you play in civil society: how you make a living, the organizations you join, and the interests you hold.

In The Urban Revolution, French theorist Henri Lefebvre called the city street, “A place where speech becomes writing.” He was being quite literal: through graffiti, billboards, and protest signs, the street is a social medium, not just a transportation corridor. The city might demand that you work on the factory floor or the office bullpen, making you feel small and replaceable, but at least you’re physically close enough to others that your plights can be shared together out in the street. There, you can demand to be treated better, and others will see you. You are alienated but not alone in your alienation.

In the more rural and suburban parts of the urbanized society, however, the social medium of the street is replaced by utilitarian transportation corridors. Beginning in the mid-20th century, the modern suburb was designed as a comfortable hideout for white America: a low-density environment with many of the conveniences of city life, but none of the friction of heterogeneity or shared space. Roads for cars replace public transit, “lifestyle” affiliations are established through consumer choices, and outsiders are barred, if not through explicitly racist rental policies then through policing. Today, one of the best predictors of one’s political orientation is the density of the neighborhood they live in; people who live in the suburbs are also more likely to get their news from broadcast and local television. Taken together, this means suburbanites see fewer strangers in their everyday lives, and fill that void with sensationalized accounts of ever-present, creeping danger.

This creates fertile ground for reactionary, conservative political movements. While most suburbanites still get a majority of their news from these older media sources, more of them are getting it from apps like Facebook and Nextdoor, where the ideas broadcast through outlets like Fox can fester person-to-person. In this way the suburbs get the social functions of the city street, but with suburban-style tools of control and segregation.

In 2012, the Marxist geographer Manuel Castells wrote Networks of Outrage and Hope, a book that was optimistic about organizing online the way only a pre-2016 book could be. His central thesis was that individuals join social movements (mainly urban ones) so that they can “overcome the powerlessness of their solitary despair by networking their desire.” Castells argues that in the presence of digital networks, the “prolongation of communal resistance” replaces roles as the main ingredient in identity formation: Instead of seeing yourself as a steel worker or a nurse, you are a feminist, a socialist, or a red-pilled men’s rights activist — who you see yourself as comes from the constant articulation of your positions and ideas, not what you do for money. Digital networks, predicated on the idea that you should play with and express your identity, give rise to new means of meeting based on purposive associations — instead of meeting in the street, Castells argues, people form “super counter powers” over digital networks.

The modern suburb was designed as a comfortable hideout for white America

Castells’s thesis is all the more impressive given that he began writing it in the late ’90s, years before the search algorithms of YouTube, Facebook, and Google began determining the world’s media diets. There are big holes in his theory, however: First, he gives a bit too much credit to technologies while giving short shrift to the underlying political interests of the companies that run them; and, second, he gives no consideration to how these exact same properties play out in suburban environments with conservative movements. (Indeed, the word “suburb” does not show up once in Networks of Outrage and Hope.) While social media may be just as good at connecting left social movements as right ones, they may be more helpful to conservatives because without them they would be divided by their own preference for physical isolation.

The Tea Party, which began shortly after Barack Obama took office, has all the elements of a suburban networked society political movement. A Chicago-area talk radio producer was one of the first Tea Party organizers, and some of the first protests in Fort Meyers, Florida and Mesa, Arizona were advertised and arranged through local AM radio and Facebook. While social media does decentralize the means of media production, it also makes it easier to create media that appears to be decentralized. The Tea Party movement may have never gone beyond a few angry get-togethers if it weren’t for the astroturfing financed by the Koch brothers and organized through their Americans for Prosperity think tank, which took full advantage of Facebook’s groups, events, and advertising tools.

So much of the suburbs is standardized, and the work of maintaining society remains hidden — industry is zoned far away from homes, and single-family homes hide the work of social reproduction — leaving communal resistance to fill in the gaps. When you are alone in your house or your car, the radio or podcasts you listen to and the television you watch take up an outsized portion of how you think about and frame social problems. These are the moments in which individuals, alone in their cars with Ben Shapiro squealing through the speakers, form opinions and decide who to associate with. In what Castells calls “the network society,” the suburbs actually go from a pacifying force to a hotbed of political activity.

Rather than relying on amassing enough people in one place such that a community center or bar can host just them, suburban and rural populations organize through shared media collated by algorithm — algorithmic sorting takes on the role once left to urban scale and density. And while just about every city mayor has tried to control and alter the street to quell or gin up protests, digital networks afford rapid change that may only be visible to a few. It is as if huge swaths of the world live in cities where their public streets and squares disappear, rearrange, grow, and shrink at the whim of corporate owners and with no real ability by normal people to understand how much has changed at any given time.

Recent events seem to contradict the idea that conservative beliefs have the homefield advantage in the suburbs: Donald Trump spent his entire life in New York City and all of his major properties are in big cities. Black Lives Matter, the Yellow Vest Movement, and Bernie Sanders’ political career, meanwhile, all started in suburbs and small towns. Resolving that contradiction is as simple as understanding the changing class and race makeup of cities and suburbs and how the design of the city reinforces those distinctions. To the extent that our suburbs are white and conservative, the balance of organizing capacity will tilt in that direction. As suburbs become dormitories for commuting workers who cannot afford the city, however, social media may become a net positive to the left.

When you are alone in your house or your car, the radio or podcasts you listen to take up an outsized portion of how you frame social problems

The white flight to cities does not necessarily turn conservative rich people into lefties. Instead, conservatives bring the spatial control systems of the suburbs with them and transform the urban landscape into a sort of vertical suburb. Trump grew up in the Queens suburbs; once he moved into Manhattan and built Trump tower, he walled himself off from the rest of the city. He was encased, biographer Gwenda Blair told a Politico reporter, “within this bubble of serenity and privilege.” That was in the ’80s. Today we see this repeated ad infinitum: steel and glass high-rises with car elevators and “poor doors” for those living in the legally mandated affordable apartments.

Meanwhile the suburbs are getting more racially diverse, and poorer. In 2012 the private investment group Blackstone spent $9.6 billion on a new company called Invitation Homes. Invitation bought 50,000 foreclosed single-family homes and in just a few years became the biggest landlord in the country, marking a 50-year high in renting. Most of these rentals were in places built to be owned, one suburban ranch house at a time: most of Florida, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California. This is all part of what Alan Ehrenahlt calls “the great inversion” where the wealth of the suburbs flows into urban downtowns, and the subsequent rise in land prices forces immigrants and the working poor into the newly vacated suburbs.

Already, in Ferguson, Missouri or Seine-et-Marne, where the Yellow Vest movement started, Twitter and Facebook are extremely useful at helping organize across long distances where in-person meetings have to be coordinated beforehand. In 2014 the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook helped organize what became a nation-wide uprising against police brutality. When the 51-year-old Jacline Mouraud’s video asking French President Emanuel Macron, “What do you do with French people’s cash?” went viral it sparked a rural, anti-tax movement that snowballed into a country-wide movement representing a wide range of political views. In both cases these were suburbs outside of much bigger cities.

As the suburbs diversify, so too might the platforms that connect their residents. Lefebvre noted that “Whenever threatened, the first thing power restricts is the ability to linger or assemble in the street.” That maxim is easily extended to the digital networks that take on a similar role. Social media companies have only begrudgingly started hunting down and kicking out hard right-wing users and communities from their platforms, but there’s no reason to believe that they’ll be just as reticent when leftists are on the chopping block. And if it continues to be true that sex workers act as canaries in the coal mine for state surveillance and control, then the passage of SESTA/FOSTA has shown just how quickly and easily users can be booted from a service based on their behavior online or the kind of work they do. If the socially and politically marginal become geographically marginal as well, then we had best remember how fickle our digital streets can be.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.