This essay is Part 1 of the second part in Devyn’s Patreon series exploring digital trends, themes, and analyses; the first, “on TikTok, can be found here.
We were trying to find the movie “All Dogs Go To Heaven” for his niece, a giggling smile with a couple of missing baby teeth and enough energy to power a small village. Released in 1989, All Dogs Go To Heaven was one of the animated films that captivated us both as children, and I had faith that it would do the same for her.
He says he coulda swore that it was on this one streaming app, and I really thought it was on another. We sift through autoplay trailers for a solid quarter hour, feeling the pressure of a rusty babysitter, and I ultimately decided to just go with the 1987 classic, The Brave Little Toaster, that I didn’t like quite as much but grew up with nonetheless because my brothers were enamored by it. The musical was a smash hit in our living room – you could tell because of the peaceful quiet.
It’s incredible how we debate and discuss effortlessly which capitalist corporate media conglomerate owns which piece of “intellectual property”, all disguised in the language of “streaming services” and “content.” Is this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race on VH1, do I have to borrow a Paramount+ login, do I have to start another WowPresents+ free trial, or do I have to use my mom’s Xfinity login to watch it online? Which empire am I robbing or compromising with to watch this damn thing? All the while I’m compromising with the ultimate empire, RuPaul herself, fracking at the end of the world with an army of beautiful rainbow capitalist product sellers behind her. The Landlord-In-Chief whose shows have more and more amerikan/UK/western/colonial/homonationalist propaganda in them with every season, who don’t do her own makeup but got damn she looks good.
On one side we have fascist, imperialist Disney, and fascist, imperialist Amazon. On the other side are the equally wild propaganda offerings of HBOMax (which is actually Warner Bros), Netflix, and Hulu (which is also Disney). My mom gets PeacockTV for free because she has Xfinity cable, so let me try that one too. I miss VHS.
When you step back for a second, it’s a bit bizarre how much the insistence of capitalism is normalized in our practices. We’ve long reached dystopic levels of financialization, marketing, and capitalist monopolies, from the inception of the apocalypse of chattel slavery, however now it’s infected us beyond comprehension. Sometimes, especially when I’m stressed and just want to zone out for a bit, my obsessive-compulsive brain convinces itself that Tik Tok is somehow “better” – morally, politically, I’m not sure, but just better – than watching the multimillion-dollar studio production budget and green screens on the TV screen. The logic is faulty and illogical, I know, just like many things related to OCD – you get used to it.
The first thing I see when I open TikTok is radio personality Angela Yee, co-host of the morning show “The Breakfast Club” along with radio personality Charlamagne Tha God. The description of the video reads, “A new episode of Assets Over Liabilities airs tonight on Revolt TV at 9 pm est. This episode’s guest is the one and only Angela Yee.” You couldn’t pay me to watch a show called “Assets Over Liabilities” on a TV network (Revolt TV) owned by notoriously exploitative near-billionaire, Diddy. Remember that whatever “financial advice” or “entrepreneurship” talk the Black capitalist class offers comes at the expense of remembering one’s own material conditions, which may very likely be in direct friction with theirs.
Large words in the video’s thumbnail read: “Angela Yee Talking Huge Profits with Detroit Real Estate 🏠,” and with a casual, almost smug tone about herself, the millionaire personality describes how she bought several houses in Detroit, including some for ‘cheap’ from a local land trust, and “flipped” them for big profits. Essentially, she’s describing gentrification, or in this case, how capitalists exploit the idea of land trusts to use housing as a commodity and build petit bourgeois capital in the midst of a record-breaking housing crisis. A quick online search easily shows that the capital-owning class openly boasts about how to “flip properties to all cash investors using a land trust.”
The profile that posted the video is named “Earn Your Leisure,” an on-the-nose red flag; sounds like something an abusive parent, or a cult leader, would tell someone. According to their bio, TikTok’s content is “Financial Literacy in the coolest form,” with an impressive 108,000 followers. I click the link to earnyourleisure.com and the first thing I see is the face of two men with their hands in their pockets, scowling in “Assets Over Liabilities” hoodies. It all feels a bit circular, and the OCD-related intrusive thoughts want me to take a deep dive into the spiral, but I convince myself to not go down that rabbit hole tonight and to just go back and keep scrolling.
The very next video I see is equally jarring and seems even more out of place on my ‘For You Page’: a white man holding a reporter’s mic to the passionately speaking mouf of another white man, him standing in front of u.s. and trump flags waving in the wind. The man is dressed particularly clandestine, with a seemingly full backpack hanging from his shoulders, the bright red trump hat atop dry, brittle hair being the only thing giving his overall ugliness away. “And I will die standing in my boots as a patriot for this country,” the man proclaims on the verge of tears, not realizing of course he’s in a “Borat-like” street interview that white people like to do with neonazis for laughs and retweets, and it must have been filmed just hours before the January 6 fascist u.s. capital attacks.
He continues, ”if [the election] goes wrong, it’s not gonna be good,” and then one realizes, even if just for the moment, that he was deeply impassioned to tears, and had a backpack full of who-knows-whats, and that this was clearly an organized event with prior incitement and planning. But before one can really get into that rabbit hole, it abruptly changes from the interview clip back to the “comedy news” show hosts sitting, laughing, palling around with obnoxious white liberal actor turned podcaster, Michael Rapaport. They make a joke about the man in the video being dead (he’s not), and whatever you just watched is lost in the cheap laughs of an ugly white man that needs a chin check for that racist “blaccent.”
I click the profile and see the show is called The Good Liars, and the comedy duo has over 1.5 million TikTok followers, having built an entire brand around basically “making the right look stupid” in interviews. The merch, feature film, and Patreon must just be bonuses for platforming fascists, clearly.
I know why I don’t make this kinda content, and I know it doesn’t always have to be said. Even if you’re trying to make these individuals seem “ignorant”, or more commonly if they make themselves look and sound ignorant, one is still speaking with them on a platform of millions of followers, and the hundreds of millions of people the algorithm will likely suggest the videos to, and a digital afterlife unforeseeable. This content isn’t just their most viral content, it’s the entirety of their fucking content; and the numbers on their other platforms (Instagram, youtube) don’t even compare to their TikTok.
Another gray-haired cracker in a red trump hat appears in the next video, a bookbag strapped across his chest like the last guy, and he gives an equally impassioned diatribe while holding a trump flag:
“I swear with everything I have as an amerikan to protect the constitution, bill of rights, and declaration of independence, from all foreign and domestic enemies, so help me god.” The white interviewer nods along to the militantly fascist declarations, as the man swears his allegiance in blood and religion to defending fundamentally fascist doctrines. He says all this while staring directly into the camera just before the words “THREE HOURS LATER” abruptly flash on the screen, and we see footage of crowds of trump supporters rushing into the capitol building.
In another TikTok video from the same account, I assume taken outside a different trump rally, we see someone carrying a large, wooden cross into the event. Clarity and context around dates, times, and locations are vital for journalism for obvious reasons, and TikTok intentionally lacks the most in this department. In another video, an old white man in a terribly tattered trump bucket hat, with a tiny, likely foreign-made u.s. flag in one hand, the other waving around as he rambles his incoherent conspiracy theory about why trump had all the failed boat parades and Biden didn’t. A frail old cracker woman holds up a sign outside of another trump rally that reads “Here to Hear Trump say Bullshit in Person[sic]”, and she eagerly flips it over to show the other side, which reads, “WE have a Problem Houston means that… I’m only one day closer to you[sic].”
The jokes write themselves, clearly.
Not only does the account have over a million followers (and about a dozen ways they’re monetizing those followers), its individual video views range between 300,000 views on the low end, and up to 12 million on the higher side, with equally impressive likes and comments. To understand the reach of these numbers, consider that TikTok’s interests-based algorithm uses continuously aggregated interaction data, like how long into the video you watched before you keep scrolling, to endlessly suggest political and social co-interests, potentially racial biases, comedic preferences, and other metrics. This also informs how TikTok suggests videos to your mutual friends; if i follow you and you are commenting and liking a lot of videos, the algorithm will suggest some of your content to me, and vice versa.
People work tirelessly to “hack” the algorithm and try to get their content across to as many eyes as possible; companies, nonprofits, organizations, businesses, and individuals all hire social media managers to generate profits and sell products by doing this. When you go to The Good Liars TikTok page, you see bright red lettered thumbnails jumping out at you, never with more than 2-3 words in them, with clickbait titles like “RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA WORKING”, “Breaking: JFK Alive”, “Ted Cruz Exorcism Prank”, and “Biden Is Not Biden.”
Having worked as a “social media manager” a few times in the past, this is basically a clickbait strategy to maximize views and reach. You craft short, salacious, and always decontextualized titles for your thumbnail; at the same time, you keep the content itself relatively short (for TikTok or Instagram, 5-25 seconds max depending on the context), so even if the clickbait headline doesn’t meet viewers expectations, the algorithm will still detect that they watched the entire video. This will boost and promote the content to more people’s pages, and boost your reach. In the case of The Good Liars, they’re able to take this strategy one step further by tapping into the “political” guilt and liberal sensibilities, whereby liberals feel like they’re doing something by watching and sharing these videos. Same weak, capitalist-grandstanding logic of liberal (fascist) SNL too. The democratic party (and AOC especially) use this same tactic.
In TikTok’s own words, “[Recommendation systems] are all around us. They power many of the services we use and love every day,” like the recommendation system that showed me The Brave Little Toaster when I searched for All Dogs Go To Heaven. “From shopping to streaming to search engines, recommendation systems are designed to help people have a more personalized experience.”
“In general, these systems suggest content after taking into account user preferences as expressed through interactions with the app, like posting a comment or following an account. These signals help the recommendation system gauge the content you like as well as the content you’d prefer to skip.”
Notice they don’t like to say the word “algorithm” themselves too often. So my question is, why the fuck is the algorithm showing me this random ass trump-adjacent, cracker content? And also, who’s paying for these white kids to go around “interviewing” redneck neonazis and fascists, and for what purpose? Does this type of content achieve anything politically?