Webs of Hate: Influencers and Bigotry in the Digital Sphere

There is an emerging set of digital landscapes with certain idiosyncrasies that might at first seem trivial and wonky but could well provide key insights about the state of contemporary culture. Namely, the manner in which minor celebrities of the internet conduct themselves in said landscapes can tell us a lot about the dominant ideologies of our time. Let’s take, for instance, a recent incident involving Claudia Oshry. Oshry has managed to make a name for herself on Instagram. She goes by the pseudonym Girl With No Job. Oshry currently has 2.8 million followers on the platform. Ostensibly, she started the account with the aim of avoiding a typical office job. It would appear that—for the time being, at least—she’s accomplished that goal. Oshry makes a living operating her Instagram and several other social media accounts. Her sisters have gotten in on the social media game as well. Jackie Oshry runs a twitter account called JackieOProblems. Margo Oshry runs @hungoverandhungry, an Instagram account dedicated to sharing photos of delectable food items. And Olivia Oshry once managed the Facebook and YouTube accounts for the Morning Breath, an internet show starring Claudia and Jackie. She no longer operates in that capacity for reasons that will soon be made clear.

Taylor Lorenz, a technology reporter for The Daily Beast, recently came out with an exposé on the Oshry clan. Lorenz revealed that notable anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller is, in fact, the mother of the Claudia, Jackie, Margo, and Olivia.  A lot people have family members with contemptible views; the right way to deal with that depends entirely on the context. But this situation is particularly troublesome for a host of reasons. Primarily, it’s because Geller has made a career out of hating Muslims. She’s one of the far-right personalities who emerged in the wake of 9/11. She has crafted a business model out of scapegoating billions of Muslims for the actions of a relatively small number of extremists. 

Throughout her work, Geller has propagated a number of hateful ideas about Muslims. And there often is a distinct racializing element to her rhetoric. For instance, Geller continually perpetuates a false narrative about Sharia law creeping its way into the United States. Geller is perhaps best known for her sponsorship of the "Draw the Prophet" contest, in which contestants were prompted to draw pictures of Muhammad, the central prophet in Islamic doctrine. Visual depictions of Muhammad are generally prohibited in the Islamic religion. This publicity stunt culminated in an attack; two gunmen were shot and killed by a security guard as a result.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "...Geller was one of the first anti-Muslim activists to harness the internet to reach a wide audience, and still has a large following due to her adept use of social media." This is true. Geller currently has nearly 1.4 million followers on Facebook alone. In hindsight, it is something of a disturbing possibility that the Oshry sisters seem to have picked up a bit of internet savviness from their mother. It just so happens that their respective demographics engage more with banal memes and food porn than anti-Muslim demagoguery. 

By all indications, the Oshrys knew their mother to be a serious liability for their respective brands. It would appear that the Oshrys went to considerable lengths to conceal their relationship. For instance, Lorenz notes that Geller is conspicuously absent from family photos shared on their accounts.

In addition, Lorenz and others called attention to a number of past remarks from Claudia Oshry on Twitter. Here’s a sample:

“I can’t help but feel like I’m funding terrorism when I take a cab.”

“happy memorial day bitches!! now, who do I talk to about reinstating don’t ask dont tell?”

“Homeless people smell like so bad. Like get a job.”

“#3 GEORGE #ZIMMERMAN IS INNOCENT!!!!! #racial profiler my tuchus”

“I like can't hang out with the gays or the retards. Someone always ends up insulted.”

Not to be outdone, Jackie has a notable tweet of her own. In response to a report about the potential for President Obama to visit Israel in his second term, Jackie said, “No thanks! There are enough unwanted Muslims there already.”

Shortly after the story broke, Claudia issued an apology in a video posted to her Instagram. She said, “Some news broke this morning about who my mom is and then some really disgusting, vile, stupid tweets of mine resurfaced. I need to just come right out and say how sorry I am.” Oshry noted that she was sixteen at the she made these comments.

Jackie issued an apology as well: “I want to express my utmost, sincere apologies for the indefensible comments that I’ve said in the past. That is not a reflection of who I am as a person today and I am truly sorry to everyone I’ve offended and let down. All I can do now is reflect and learn from this experience by showing everyone the good that is in my heart.” The sisters attempted to further distance themselves from their mother in a subsequent statement.

In the wake of this revelation, Claudia lost a considerable number of followers on Instagram. Her management, Brillstein Entertainment Partners, severed their working relationship in response to the situation. In addition, Creative Artists Agency promptly dropped her as a client. The Oshrys have faced repercussions on other fronts as well. The Twitter accounts of both Claudia and Jackie have either been suspended or deleted. And the tech platform Oath has canceled The Morning Breath. 

It’s ironic that the entire premise of Claudia Oshry’s Instagram is her not having a typical office job. It’s worth pointing out that the very people she—at least, at one point in time—seemed to view as inferior are the very same people who have been discriminated against in the job market and the workplace. Claudia eschewed opportunities that others have been historically prevented from even pursuing. Though, in hindsight, Claudia and Jackie’s hateful remarks shouldn't be particularly surprising. How has being raised by a person like Pamela Geller shaped their respective minds? It’s certainly worth noting that racist views tend to be learned from parents. In fact, one study indicates that children exposed to racism can internalize it as young as three years of age. However, plenty of people with racist parents eventually come to reject such views. And they do not have to come to that realization through intense public scrutiny or the threat of significant fiscal losses. What such an epiphany does require, however, is a certain capacity for critical reflection (and perhaps a bit of humility).

While the significance of a few social media personalities getting taken down a peg or two is fairly minimal in the grand scheme of things, we can perhaps think of this incident as a useful sort of case study for what happens when the underlying political dynamics of a seemingly apolitical situation are made apparent. Any coverage of this story that treats it as a novelty is not sufficiently contextualizing it. It’s necessary, in this instance, to ask larger questions. We must look at the underlying way bigotry works in conjunction with the profit motive in the digital sphere, and that is an issue that raises a whole other set of questions about contemporary society. There is a complex web of activity to consider here, but one common thread is present.  The ethos of reactionary politics has something to do with it. Exploring the way in which this ethos manifests, and its effects in various corners of the internet might shed light on how to fight it—or, at least, how to coherently address it without reifying its inimical premises.

A troublesome line of thought tends to occur when big names are revealed to be racists, homophobes, and generally bigoted people. The loss of followers and severing of relationships between the Oshrys and various sponsors and businesses partners in light of these circumstances might prompt one to think that the so-called "free market" is taking care of the situation. Unfortunately, it is not quite that simple. While it is certainly a good thing that some businesses have the very basic ethical standard of not doing business with outright hatemongers, this is always, in a certain sense, a reflexive approach to dealing with the problem. Companies only respond to pressure from the public, and by that time, the damage has mostly been done. Hateful ideas have been propagated. Wealth has been transferred into the hands of unscrupulous people.

And, of course, it should be noted that the "free market" is precisely what enables these people in the first place. Let's take, for instance, Geller. She is a mediocre provocateur who’s made a name for herself by making blanket anti-Muslim statements. The attention generated from that endeavor has earned her a career and various lines of revenue. The same is essentially true of reactionary conservatives such as Ann Coulter and, more recently, Ben Shapiro. This is quite literally their business model. Shapiro once said, “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.”  This cannot be shrugged off as a youthful indiscretion or an act of ignorance. The semantic construction of this sentence serves one, singular purpose: dehumanization. And yet, in November of 2017, Shapiro was characterized as “the cool kid’s philosopher” by Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times.

These are the same conditions that have given rise to a man who once said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.” We live in a perplexing time when Donald Trump was continually chastised for saying things like this; yet, at the same, he was able to become president. There is a nontrivial likelihood that Trump’s electoral victory occurred not in spite of his tendency to spew such hateful rhetoric, but because of it. Both Trump and Geller were able to leverage their provocative statements to garner success. Now, there’s a considerable difference between the magnitude of these respective achievements, but the dynamic by which they occurred is nonetheless crucial to understanding how reactionary-minded people get into influential positions. What we’ve seen from the Claudia and Jackie Oshry on Twitter very well maps onto this dynamic. The only distinction is the respective demographics at play.

This dynamic puts any ardent proponent of capitalism in something of a conundrum. Of course, it is certainly a good thing that we as a society have developed sensibilities that at least on paper constitute a standard of anti-racism, anti-homophobia, etc. It is no mere coincidence that this standard exists; it’s due to the resistance, hard work, and sacrifice of an untold number of activists. In such a context, overtly racist statements are perceived as off limits in the mainstream discourse, and rightly so. However, this dynamic also tends to generate a significant amount of controversy when these kinds of statements are made. It turns into a totalizing sort of spectacle, in which such comments attract media attention. The spectacle is, in large part, a product of media attention.

Attention, be it positive or negative, is sustenance to rightwing provocateurs. It is this very spectacle that enables so-called provocateurs to pick up likeminded followers in the course of their horrific crusade. Others click on their videos or read their articles just to see what all the fuss is about.  And, in turn, the fuss actually becomes a sick kind of justification for the speaker’s ideas. Controversy generates attention, and as leftist YouTuber Peter Coffin so often points out, "attention is currency in the marketplace of ideas." So long as such figures are the subject of media attention, and so long as they are able to generate a certain amount of controversy, they are well poised to continually reaffirm the prejudices of their target audience. As such, rightwing provocateurs have the ability not only to carve out a place for themselves, but also to thrive under present conditions. As long as these maligned incentives exist, charlatans like Geller will fill the void.

It is something of an inevitability that Guy Debord’s 1967 philosophical work Society of the Spectacle would be called to mind here. The dynamic described above is indeed a very crude and particular instance of Debord’s “spectacle” playing out in real time. Echoing Marx’s opening statement about commodities in Capital, Volume I, Debord started his text with a similarly thundering declaration: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” In Marxist terms, the spectacle enables a kind of feedback loop between society’s economic base, i.e. the relationship between capitalists and workers, and society’s superstructure, those cultural elements that work to enforce the status quo and lull the public into a state of utter complacency, thus maintaining said relations. It logically follows that if the superstructure were in some way dissolved, the inequitable dynamics of the capitalist mode of production would be imminently clear to the public at large.

Whatever one’s position might be on the exploitation of workers in capitalism, matters of representation have nonetheless become a critical point of discussion. In turn, there’s been an explicit effort on the part of certain media figures to extend a certain kind of market logic into the realm of political discourse. The “marketplace of ideas” metaphor leads to the idea that because a particular argument is superficially popular, therefore, it must be the best. Rather than “might makes right,” the mantra becomes, “The market makes right.” This is nothing more than a neoliberal reframing of the tired concept known as social Darwinism. The marketplace as we know it is distorted by preexisting institutions of power. It relies on scapegoats in order to persist.

In such an environment, there isn’t necessarily a connection between the popularity of an idea and its merits. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to fall into this market logic. For instance, there is a pernicious kind of rhetoric surrounding the public relations angle of this occurrence. As a part of her story, Lorenz interviewed Alex Taub, founder of a social media analytics company. Taub didn't think it was a problem that the Oshrys generally avoided politics. In an interview with Lorenz, he said, “If you weigh in on politics in general you’re going to alienate someone at this point...Most people on Instagram following meme accounts are progressive young people, so for those who do lean right, it could actually hurt them to disclose that.”

Perhaps Taub doesn’t realize the full scope of the situation here; nonetheless, there is a glaring sort of dissonance in above statement. While he rightfully (and perhaps unwittingly) takes it as a foregone conclusion that rightwing politics can be a comforting refuge for bigoted tools, it’s worth mentioning that the origins of public relations had a lot more to do with politics than many in the industry and related lines of work would likely be comfortable admitting.  In fact, public relations, as it was originally conceived, was just a sanitized term for propaganda. In The Century of the Self, documentarian Adam Curtis explores how psychological techniques have been used in public relations. Edward Bernays, a public relations pioneer and nephew to Sigmund Freud, worked for the US Government during World War I as a propagandist. Relaying his experience, Bernays said, “When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was to try and find some other words, so we found the word counselor of public relations.” Perhaps the most important project of our time is laying bare the sort of deleterious word games played by professional manipulators, including those in the PR industry.

In a colloquial sense, we in the US tend to use the word "politics" only in reference to topics related to government, politicians, and specific issues deemed sufficiently controversial, i.e. guns, taxes, abortion, etc. This is a highly loaded usage of the word. The tendency to separate this thing we call politics from everything else is a serious and consequential error. If we define politics as the subject of how power is disseminated, or rather, perhaps it would be better to say concentrated, in this context, than it is something of an obtuse notion to separate politics from the banal and seemingly innocuous elements of pop culture that one experiences on platforms such as Instagram. The continued basis of the spectacle hinges precisely on these elements.

So too is this tendency to separate politics out from everything else a necessary component of a certain pro-capitalist ideology shared by mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle. In its worst manifestations, it resembles a certain kind of psychopathology. This is abundantly obvious any time a pundit’s immediate reaction to stark instances of racism, sexism, or corruption in the political sphere entails the essential question, “How is this going to affect poll numbers?” Questions of ethics and morality are circumvented in lieu of a discussion about the sheer pragmatics of the scenario. By this logic, the only mistakes the Oshrys have committed are A. failing to properly conceal their genealogy and B. making the public aware of their hateful beliefs through various tweets. By this logic, it is not their hateful views that are perceived as transgressive, but rather their inability to play the marketing game in a manner conducive to profit. By this same logic, we are all compelled to be not moral agents, but rather the tireless brand managers of our very own lives. The folly of this market logic is only clear to those who see beyond it.

The purpose of so-called influencers in this system is to sell products. They manufacture spectacles for certain targeted demographics in order to drive consumer activity. This should not strike anyone as a controversial statement. There is no sense in which this is some kind of conspiracy, nor is it likely something that occurs at a conscious level of interaction at all times. It's just a descriptive fact about their role in society. So too do influencers operate on the basis of consumer culture, on the axiom that one's identity is tied inextricably to the sort of media one consumes and the sort of items one purchases. This is all the more pernicious because it is not generally recognized as wrong, in an a priori sense, in the same way that other forms of bigotry are. But this dynamic tends to culminate in bigotry nonetheless, if perhaps in less obvious ways. To say that it often reinforces certain pernicious biases about class, race, and gender would be an understatement. The way in which influencers use their power is manifestly political. Let's come to terms with that. Dispelling the illusion of market righteousness is the first integral step to dismantling the spectacle.

It is precisely because of this supposed divide between politics and other aspects of culture that bigoted and generally clueless Instagram stars can thrive while the most vulnerable people in our society continue to suffer. The answer cannot be to shy away from this thing we call politics, to refuse to dirty oneself with the term. This view should be recognized precisely for what it is, the height of cowardice and the epitome of instrumental logic at a time when ethical considerations are in particularly short order. The answer must be to formulate a kind of understanding that fosters empathy and rebukes the tendentious sort of scapegoating we all too often witness in digital spaces. And it is absolutely essential to recognize that political discourse is, at all times, an active force within these spaces.

David Stockdale