Busting the Meme of Dissensus

Eastman Presser

        YouTuber Joey Salads has 1.4 million subscribers. On October 17th 2016, Salads uploaded Trump Car DESTROYED in Black Neighborhood (social experiment). The video features Joey Salads (real name Joseph Saladino) looking into the camera and saying, “You may have seen that a lot of black people don’t like Trump. And they don’t even like his supporters in some cases” (h3h3productions – How Pranksters are Ruining Society…, 2016). Saladino then shows that he has taken a car decorated with Trump apparel and stickers into a black neighborhood (his words) and left it unattended. After a black screen with white text that reads “30 minutes later”, we see one black man begin to open the car door and start harming the vehicle. After another “15 minutes later”, four other black men, who come armed with rocks, bricks, and a large metal pipe, join this man. The five of them begin to break the windows of the car and dent the exterior. The video then cuts to Saladino looking into the camera and saying, “As you can see, the black community is very violent towards Trump and his supporters” (ibid.). Within one day the video had amassed over one million views. Following Salads’s upload, Twitter user @txorres tweeted to his 957 followers footage shot on a smart phone of Saladino filming the aforementioned video. This footage shows Saladino standing in front of a cameraman talking, while the same black men featured in the video wait patiently behind the cameraman, one holding a large metal pipe. The video was accompanied by the text “@h3h3productions when you catch @JoeySalads with his fake vids I got more hmp[1]” (@txorres 2016). On October 18th, h3h3productions, a YouTube channel made by Ethan and Hila Klein (currently with 3.1 million subscribers), uploaded How Pranksters are Ruining Society… featuring excerpts from Joey Salads’s video, comments posted by other YouTube users on Salads’s video, the footage from @txorres’s tweet, as well as their own commentary and footage. That video currently has 2.8 million views. Later that day, Joey Salads set the original “Trump Car” video to private[2]. The story (Salads’s original video, @txorres’s tweet, occasionally h3h3productions’s video, and Salads’s effective deletion of the video) was covered by several major news outlets, including the BBC, the Daily Mail, Washington Post, Drudge Report, and Realclearpolitics.com (BBC Trending 2016; Hains 2016; Ohlheiser 2016; Rosenblatt 2016; Slattery 2016).

        The incident described above, as I will show, is a clear example of what Henry Jenkins termed participatory culture in action. Participatory culture is a model that “sees the public not as simply consumers of preconstructed messages but as people who are shaping, sharing, reframing, and remixing media content in ways which might not have been previously imagined” (Jenkins, Ford, and Green, 2013: 2). In this essay I will examine what effects participatory culture has, if any, on the political aspect of this incident (hereafter referred to as “Trumpcar”). This will be done exclusively through the lenses of theories surrounding participatory culture and Jacques Ranciére’s ideas of politics, police, and dissensus. Obviously, Trumpcar begs for a much wider reaching political analysis, but this essay will restrict its goal to assessing whether or not participatory culture enhances or enables more political action as defined by Ranciére. When discussing Ranciére, a brief definition of terms is needed. In Ten Theses on Politics, Ranciére defines politics as a repudiation of the strata that decide who is governing over whom, as well as the creation of a space for those who are not given a voice in society. “Politics exists as a deviation from [the] normal order of things” (Ranciére 2010:35). Police, as defined by Ranciére, functions to “divide the sensible” (ibid. 36), in that it governs what can be said and heard, and what cannot be said and cannot be heard. Politics is in direct opposition to this arrangement of the sensible created by the police in that “politics, above all else, is an intervention in the visible and the sayable” (ibid. 37).  Dissensus is this opposition put into action; it is “the demonstration (manifestation) of a gap in the sensible itself” (ibid. 38). Unless otherwise noted, I will be sticking to these definitions in this paper.

        Trumpcar easily fits within Jenkins’s definition of participatory culture. YouTube as a platform has several aspects of participatory culture inherent within itself: channels receive recognition and promotion based on how many views, comments, and subscribers they have, all values created by the viewers themselves, many of whom are average citizens. While both Joey Salads and h3h3productions receive income from ad revenue on their YouTube videos, everything is self-shot and self-produced. @txorres is certainly a member of “the public” as Jenkins puts it, in that he has no official ties to any media outlets and (by today’s standards) hardly any twitter followers. Yet, with the help of h3h3productions, a single tweet of his reframed the entire Trumpcar story, and resulted in the original video being labeled as fake and effectively removed from YouTube. This kind of leveling of the media playing field is part of what makes Trumpcar a clear example of participatory culture at work. All of this (@txorres witnessing Salads filming from his apartment window, filming him on a smart phone and tweeting the footage out specifically to h3h3productions the same day that Salads uploads his video, which itself gets one million views; h3h3productions uploading a response video the next day, Salads setting the video to private) occurred within 48 hours. The same new media that enabled this story to spread through twitter and YouTube also enabled the labeling of the original as ‘fake’ to spread throughout major news sites and reach countless individuals. The media through which this story spread (YouTube, Twitter, online news articles) are ones that encourage participation, whether through user comments on articles and YouTube videos or replies/retweets on Twitter. The participatory culture that is at work in Trumpcar enabled a tweet from a member of the public with very few followers to swiftly and broadly alter the stories associated with content being created by another member of the public with millions of followers, and all of this was covered by major news sources within a matter of hours. However, a close analysis of the participation surrounding Trumpcar using Ranciéres theories of politics reveals that hardly any political action has taken place.

        The original Trumpcar video is not a political action by Ranciére’s definition. If politics is necessarily giving voice to the voiceless and making a space for those who are rendered silent by the police, Joey Salads’s video not only fails to be political, but also admits this at the outset. The fact that Saladino opens with “you may have seen that a lot of black people don’t like Trump. And they don’t even like his supporters in some cases” (h3h3productions – How Pranksters are Ruining Society…, 2016) makes it clear that the narrative his video is going to support already exists. If this were not enough, Drudge Report (among others) ran an article on the video without any skepticism (Slattery 2016). While Drudge Report has since removed this article, The Daily Mail still has an article on Salads’s video that claims simply, “some have questioned the authenticity of the clip” (Rosenblatt, 2016). They have not posted any update since. The fact that these news outlets reported what happened in Salads’s video as fact and (in one case) have failed to edit this after new information has come to light proves that the original Trumpcar video is not political, nor is it being policed. If the original Trumpcar video were something that the police had deemed ‘unsayable’, news outlets that reported it as fact would not have covered the video. Ranciére writes that the “slogan [of the police] is ‘Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’ “ (Ranciére 2010:37). The cry of major news outlets covering this video is ‘Click here! There’s something to see here!’ Furthermore, if a so-called ‘fake’ video can still be written about on a major news outlet with the only caveat being “some have questioned the authenticity of the clip” (Rosenblatt, 2016), it is clear that ‘fake’ videos are not being policed either. The major news outlets’ response to Salads’s original video, whether they deemed it ‘fake’ or ‘real’, is not an example of policing. One might claim that Salads removing the video from the public eye on YouTube is a form of policing, but one simply adds “reupload” to their search for “trump car” on YouTube, and the video comes up, which now has half a million views (Muffenboy – Trump Car DESTROYED in Black Neighborhood Social Experiment (reupload in 4k), 2016). Likewise, Joey Salads’s YouTube subscriber count has only increased since Trumpcar (Socialblade 2017). He uploaded a video entitled Exposing Voter Fraud – Election 2016 three weeks after the original Trumpcar video. This video has around 300k views, which is more in line with what Salads’s ‘social experiment’ videos usually amass. Clearly the original Trumpcar video has not been deemed unviewable; it has not given voice to the voiceless, nor has it been policed. Therefore it is not political.

        The videos that have been made ‘proving’ Salads’s video to be ‘fake’ are not policing or political either. Aside from h3h3productions’s video, a number of YouTubers made videos in response to the original Trumpcar video. Of the major news outlets that covered this story in its entirety and claimed that the original was faked, many chose to embed the video made by self-proclaimed “media analyst” Mark Dice. This video has around 270k views. Mark Dice uses @txorres’s tweet as evidence to show that Joey Salads’s video was fake. Where he differs from h3h3productions and several other YouTubers is that he also includes the following:

People who regularly watch my videos will know that I certainly don’t deny that there is a major violence problem amongst segments of the ghetto communities, especially with their hatred of Donald Trump. But to put a video out like this and claim it was some kind of a social experiment is ethically morally (sic) wrong. (Mark Dice – Trump Car Destroyed in Black Neighborhood – Video is FAKE – Joey Salads Hoax Exposed, 2016)

        While Mark Dice says this, the image shown on screen is of his YouTube channel feed, featuring a thumbnail image of a black man, face partially covered by a bandana, pointing a pistol at the camera. Titles of the videos shown include “Man Threatens to Kill Donald Trump, His Daughter, and His Wife”, “12-Year-Old Boy Stabs and Shoots Donald Trump Doll”, and “Kill Donald Trump T-Shirts are Being Sold Online Now!” (ibid.). This is all in the video that was embedded by several news sources. What is clear from Mark Dice’s video is that he is calling Joey Salads morally reprehensible for faking a video, and yet he takes the opportunity to espouse the same narrative that the video supports. Clearly, even when Joey Salads is being labeled as ‘fake’, the message he is supporting is not being policed, and is therefore not an act of dissensus. If dissensus is evidenced by a “gap in the sensible” (Ranciére 2010:38), a gap between what is sayable and what is not as decreed by the police, there is no such gap here. If a fake video is still being reported as true by major news sources, if the same narrative in said video can be espoused while proving that video to be fake, there was nothing deemed unsayable in the first place. Further, if “the essense of politics is dissensus” (ibid.), there is no politic being enacted.

        Even h3h3productions’s video is not political in the Ranciérian sense. In it, Ethan Klein calls Joey Salads a fake and uses the same evidence provided by @txorres. But this is not new, not giving voice to the voiceless, not a gap in the sensible. H3h3productions uploaded two prior reaction videos focusing on Joey Salads and explicitly posited that his videos were faked, even though they did not have any evidence (h3h3productions, Joey Salads h3h3 reaction video and Salad Lives Matter ft. Joey Salads, both 2016). The idea that Joey Salads is faking videos to espouse an agenda is not new, and is not political. Klein also reads a number of comments made on the original video, and this nethnography[3] goes a long way towards proving that the original Trumpcar video was not unviewable, and that there is no politics at play in Trumpcar. Comments include “No surprise here… niggers just have to nig (sic)” [361 likes[4]], “Black people are animals” [48 likes], and “just monkeys, nothing more” [124 likes] (h3h3productions – How Pranksters are Ruining Society…, 2016). These are not comments made by people who are seeing something unexpected or something that is changing their mind. These are viewers for whom this message is not new. Clearly there is a group of people for whom showing this kind of thing on the Internet is not being policed, and this therefore cannot be deemed a gap in the sensible. These are, as Klein anticipates, viewers for whom the validity of the video is not even important. Klein says, “Nah though, I’m waiting for the comments that are like, ‘yeah, it’s fake, but the message is real’ “ (ibid.). If there is a community that supports the views espoused in a video even though they know it is faked (as in the case of Mark Dice’s video), clearly there cannot be dissensus. As Klein puts it in his interview with Saladino two days after the original Trumpcar video was uploaded, “the outcome of your videos is, clearly, you’ve provided a safe haven and a community for all these racists to come together and be like, ‘I knew it’ “ (h3h3productions – Interview with Joey Salads, 2016). If racists are being provided with a safe haven and community in the comments section of Joey Salads videos, while commenters of h3h3productions’s videos are able to lampoon these individuals, cast Joey Salads aside as ‘fake’, ‘racist’, and ‘garbage’ and call for equality and peace (h3h3productions – How Pranksters are Ruining Society…, 2016), there can be no politics, there can be no dissensus, as there is nothing that is unsayable, nothing unviewable. Far from augmenting political potential, the participatory culture found within Trumpcar effectively removes dissensus and therefore politics from the climate.

        This analysis shows that participatory culture drastically alters the policing of the sensible. It is important to note that recent scholarship has pointed to the idea that “the distinction of real and…virtual community is not a useful one” (Wilson and Petersen, 2002:456-7). It is important not to discount the sense and function of community that online participants feel by claiming that it is not as ‘real’ as face-to-face community interactions. The participatory culture of today has in effect internalized the role of the police, and if the distinction between online communities and real communities is not important, it is paramount that we give this shift credence. The effect of this shift is summarized thus: If I want to believe that Joey Salads’s original video was real, I can log onto Drudge Report or the Daily Mail, and my beliefs are reinforced. If I want to believe that the video was faked but the narrative is real, I can watch Mark Dice’s videos. If I want to believe that Joey Salads is a racist and should not be making videos, I can watch h3h3productions’s videos.  If I want to believe that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chair run a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizzeria in Washington DC, I can find like-minded conspiracy theorists online in just a few clicks (Lopez 2016). If I want to believe that president-elect Donald Trump and his entire cabinet are unqualified buffoons, I simply log onto Facebook where I have curated my newsfeed to only be populated by my like-minded liberal friends and hide posts by my conservative family members. It is not a matter of what is real and what is fake, or even what is sensible and what is unsensible. It is a matter of what reinforces my beliefs and what does not, and clearly both are provided for me within the participatory culture landscape. In short, Ranciére’s idea of dissenssus is problematized by participatory culture. “The partition of the sensible… should be understood in the double sense of the word: on the one hand, as that which separates and excludes; on the other, as that which allows participation” (Ranciére 2010:36). As participatory culture has put increasing control over narratives in the public’s hands, the division of the sensible that Ranciére credits the police with is now something the individual participant is responsible for. As increasing numbers of people get their news from social media (Pew Research Center 2016), it is important to be vigilant about the effects these media have. This analysis of the (non)politics of Trumpcar shows that Ranciére’s theories of policing are perhaps not best suited for examining participatory culture, or at the very least they need to be modified given that a great deal of policing takes place internally. It also shows that what can appear to be a highly political situation may in fact lack political participation altogether. With the parallel and equally surprising populist uprisings occurring in the US and the UK seeming to create more divided populations than ever, it is important to not be fooled by the illusion of political participation that social media can give us.

 

Bibliography:

@txorres, 2016. @h3h3productions when you catch @joeysalads with his fake vids I got more hmp [Twitter] 17.10.2017. Available from: https://twitter.com/txorres/status/788130226052079616?lang=en-gb (Accessed 14.01.2017).

BBC Trending, ‘Black People Don’t Like Trump’ Video was Staged, 19.10.2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-37696205 (Accessed 14.01.2017)

h3h3productions – How Pranksters are Ruining Society… [user-generated content, online] (2016) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkvwKDTS3Bo (Accessed 14.01.2017)

h3h3productions – Salad Lives Matter ft. Joey Salads [user-generated content, online] (2016) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7AmS0rawTY&t=18s (Accessed 14.01.2017)

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h3h3productions – Interview with Joey Salads [user-generated content, online] (2016) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Q23t41UnZk&t=268s (Accessed 14.01.2017)

Hains, Tim ‘YouTuber Test: Car With Trump Stickers Looted, Destroyed By Black Youth’, realclearpolitics.com, 17.10.2016 http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2016/10/17/_youtuber_test_car_with_trump_stickers_looted_destroyed_by_black_youth.html (Accessed 14.01.2017)

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Jenkins, H., Ford, S. and Green, J. (2013) Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York: New York University Press.

Lopez, G. ‘Pizzagate, the totally false conspiracy theory that led a gunman to a DC pizzeria, explained’, Vox, 08.12.2016. http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/12/5/13842258/pizzagate-comet-ping-pong-fake-news (Accessed: 14.01.2017).

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[1] “hmp” is an acronym meaning “hit my phone”, another way of saying “contact me.”

[2] Setting a video to private on YouTube means that the video is not viewable by the public, and can only be viewed by the creator and users that they give access to.

[3] Nethnography is the study of online communities, particularly computer mediated interaction, done with an ethnographic approach (Igi Global).

[4] It is worth noting that YouTube’s “like” system is an upvote/downvote system. This differs from the system employed on Facebook. While on Facebook there is a single “thumbs-up” button, and the “like count” is simply the number of people that have clicked said button, an upvote/downvote system provides users with two buttons: a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down. This means that the value displayed is the overall value given to a comment rather than the number of people that have clicked it. It is not that 361 YouTube users clicked “like” on “…niggers just have to nig”, it is that 361 more people clicked thumbs-up on it than clicked thumbs-down.