Truth or Consequences

How the potential for social media documentation has fueled a fetish for damning evidence

Last year, Kanye West’s “Famous,” from The Life of Pablo, caused immediate controversy for its lines, I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous, a reference to his interruption of Swift at the VMAs in 2009. At the 2016 Grammys, Swift seemed to respond obliquely when she clutched her Album of the Year award and said: “I want to say to all the young women out there — there are going to be people along the way who are going to try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.”

Back-and-forth followed between both celebrities’ camps about whether or not Swift consented to the lyrics. Then, around 8 p.m. on July 17th, 2016, Kim Kardashian picked up her iPhone and broadcasted the “receipts” on America’s pop princess, Snapchatting behind-the-scenes footage from the recording of her husband’s album. Taylor Swift is heard on speakerphone with West, seemingly agreeing to the lines and acting like she is in on the joke. The message, edited and spliced together with Kardashian’s iPhone, was that Swift had deceived the public into believing she was a victim of West’s wrath. West comes off as charming, Swift seems manipulative and two-faced. Kardashian was lauded for “having the receipts.”

Like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, “receipts culture” directs our critical capabilities, making the process of public narrative-building feel interactive

The term “receipts” comes from an infamous 2002 Whitney Houston interview with Diane Sawyer. Asked about the hundreds of thousands of dollars she allegedly spent on crack cocaine, Houston defiantly proclaimed, “I want to see the receipts from the drug dealer I bought $730,000 worth of drugs from. I want to see the receipts!” Over the years, as Katy Waldman has written in Slate, the expression has been detached from its grim roots, becoming a meme signifying a desire for evidence, and spilling from celebrity gossip blogging platforms LiveJournal and Tumblr to political discourse on Twitter. “Receipts” has become shorthand for a broader desire for hard, objective documentation, which is increasingly blurred, buried, and devalued by public relations battles waged across multiple platforms, relentless “fake news,” and accusations thereof.

Receipts come in the form of text messages, photos, footage, voicemails, and emails — the harder and more indisputable the proof, the better. Once evidence is unveiled, social media users are invited to investigate a situation for themselves, and then rejoice in “the truth” — an ostensibly democratic and decentralized practice that says less about the nature of truth than the fetish for objectivity.

Kardashian’s truth was curated — a selection from an ongoing, sprawling documentary that West has been making about his life. The clip shows the candidness of daily life: Producer Rick Rubin dozes in the background while West and Swift discuss her changing her cellphone number, and talk about being famous like it’s a full-time job. Swift nervously remarks, “I am this close to overexposure.” Though the subtextual melodrama is cinematic, the footage finds its power in the mundane.

The scene might have been filmed by Julian Klincewicz, then 20 years old, whom West had hired to document his life — from a family trip to Cuba to his fashion show in Madison Square Garden — using a vintage VHS camera. On an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, there’s a comically meta scene where West tells Klincewicz to use wider angles to film his family dinner. “I think VHS speaks to this sense of something a little bit better than real life,” Klincewicz told Oyster Magazine, “but still totally attainable. The texture to me, the colors … are in the interest of trying to find and convey a moment of real human emotion and connection.” Kardashian’s snaps accomplished just that. The analog romanticist creates something enticingly authentic.

The spectacle of evidence gives users the illusion that they too can guide “disparate audiences.” We believe that if we had the receipts, we could also lead the collective toward a groundbreaking event

In his 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle, French theorist Guy Debord used Karl Marx’s concepts of commodity fetishism and alienation to unpack mass-media culture, referring to the media as “the spectacle” and the masses as “spectators.” Widely circulated images, advertisements, celebrities, and pop culture are part of “the spectacle.” The masses of consumers, on the other hand, are “spectators” who are tranquilized by mass-media imagery. Debord stressed that rather than merely being a “collection of images” the spectacle is “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

Debord differentiated between two types of spectacles, the “concentrated” spectacle and the “diffuse” spectacle. While the “concentrated” spectacle manifests itself in authoritarian personality cults, “diffuse” spectacles are found in Western democracies — taking the form of advertisements and pieces of entertainment that market competing commodities as solutions for a consumer’s woes. Since the “diffuse” spectacle is filled with competing messages, ideas, and commodities, it entices the masses through presenting choice as empowering. Consumers are lead to believe that if they prefer one product to another — Lyft over Uber — they are making a conscious, meaningful decision when they are really taking part in the greater game of capitalism.

Despite the seeming democratization of spectacle, it’s still those with the most resources who can afford to curate the kind of spin that makes a social media blast feel candid and irrefutable. Part of the brilliance of Kardashian’s gambit was to present with minimal commentary — to leave the commentary to her public. When Swift responded with a comment, written in Notes on her phone, readers soon pointed to embedded details suggesting she might have written it before the clips came to light. In the spectacle of receipts, social media users collectively mediate truth through data, becoming investigative journalists, participants, and players in a game. Like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, “receipts culture” directs our critical capabilities, making the process of public narrative-building feel interactive.

In the essay “Vote for my Selfie,” Crystal Abidin analyzes Singaporean politician Baey Yam Keng’s use of selfies in his social media. She argues that Keng — proclaimed “selfie-king” by the Singaporean media — has managed to turn “the everyday and mundane” into a “spectacle and a site for naturalized vernacular campaigning.” Celebrity theater is nothing new; neither is the convergence of politics with entertainment culture, but the two reached a singularity in the U.S. presidential campaign last year. Platforms like Twitter have the benefit of being shared “public” space — we are not only proximate to the powerful, but using the same resources in ostensibly the same ways.

Jodi Dean has written extensively about the internet’s role in Western democracy. In her 2002 book Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy, she criticizes how Western citizens’ relationship to the media has transformed “political action into compliant practices of consumption” where “good citizens” had to own “magazines, televisions, internet access.” Additionally, she discusses how scandals and secrets are mediated through the media, often making democracy into a spectacle. “The secret sustains the fantasy that disparate audiences are a collectivity capable of being represented as a unitary actor or political site,” she writes in her introduction. “Such a fantasy, I argue, damages possibilities for democracy as it becomes materialized in practices of spectacle and suspicion.” 

As crimes are documented and distributed online to no real consequence, transparency becomes an attempt to self-immunize. If spectatorship feels a game, the prize is, more often than not, attention

The spectacle of evidence gives users the illusion that they too can be journalists who can guide “disparate audiences.” Since social media companies market themselves as providing democratized platforms, we believe that if we had the receipts, we could also lead the collective toward a groundbreaking, historically important event. In the Trump era, as social media users watch scandals develop with high profile testimonials, leaks, and the president’s inflammatory tweets, the political sphere has become an “interactive” experience. Though countless op-eds instructed American citizens to be patient as the Russian election hacking scandal unfolds, the stream of salacious footage, email exchanges, memos, and phone transcripts promised that at any moment we would finally see Trump board that helicopter and leave the White House forever. These tidbits, traded like fan theories after a TV cliffhanger, have a way of redirecting attention from immediate political and social realities, such as ICE raids, or rollbacks of environmental protections. The spectacle of possible impeachment offers quicker satisfaction than more meaningful political work.

All of this serves to grow the schism between the spectacle of politics and the impact thereof, between knowledge and corresponding action. As crimes are documented and distributed online to no real consequence, transparency too often becomes an attempt to self-immunize, and commentary stands in for action. If spectatorship feels a game, the prize is, more often than not, attention. 

When Donald Trump Jr. was informed by the New York Times that they planned to publish an email exchange between him and Rob Goldstone, in which they organized a meeting with a Russian lawyer to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton, Trump Jr. decided to create his own spectacle of receipts. Before the Times published the story, he tweeted out the email exchange along with an accompanying statement explaining that he wanted to be “totally transparent.”

Moments afterward, writer Jared Yates Sexton made a series of tweets indicating that he had been scooped: “I tracked down sources. Followed so many dead leads. Labored over this. And then, he just, you know, tweeted out the proof.” The tweets went viral, and although his credibility was questioned, Sexton succeeded in tying his name to an ongoing political drama. Meanwhile, Trump Jr.’s spectacle made a mockery of this notion that the unearthing of data necessarily serves a greater good.

Debord wrote that “the spectacle, though quintessentially dogmatic, can yet produce no solid dogma. Nothing is stable for it: This is its natural state.” Unlike Kardashian’s, Trump Jr.’s actions lack a cohesive, rational strategy. While her receipts were a shrewd PR move, Trump Jr’s were meant to confuse, capitalizing on the decentralized, diffuse medium of social media. He gave the spectators the drama they so desperately craved, without any catharsis.

Daniel Spielberger is a writer. He graduated from Reed College in 2015 and now lives in San Francisco.