After having a few conversations with my dissertation chair about my dissertation topic, it made me start thinking about my own CHI project trying to map out the celebrities of the far right and how they are ideologically connected. The idea of connective and collective action rests upon something simple, yet incredibly difficult to maintain: the idea of an “us” for there to be a motivation for a fight against a “them”. Indeed, Tajfel’s social identity theory introduced us to the idea of the in-group and out-group in the 1970s, but I think it goes far beyond reducing it to an in and an out. There also must exist connective tissue, for the muscles to adhere to the bones, and together they all move together. In political ideologies and movements, the connective tissue are the celebrities of the movement, the celebrities, the easily identifiable figures upon which a common identity is built.
These celebrities are instrumental in proselytizing the ideology and are easy to find on social networking services as well as other forms of social media like YouTube and others. With their status and platform visibility, they rally people around a common narrative that they then are constantly spreading across different groups that may otherwise be disconnected, except for the common ideological basis that brought them all to the same celebrity. As such, these celebrities are strategic in the content that they produce and the appearances they make – like other politicians, there is a method to their madness, and what is notable about the far right is their savviness in using digital technologies to form coalitions – although dispersed – that are not only built on the same political beliefs but also political figures that symbolize them.
Thus, it is not that people like Richard Spencer or Alex Jones themselves are the threats, but rather what they represent. They are merely poster children for a movement, an easily targeted rally point, and they are not necessarily “leaders” but merely the public faces of a larger political movement. Looking at the list of celebrities I’ve compiled so far, some are universally appealing to far-right groups whereas others are more divisive, thus demonstrating that not even the celebrities themselves are necessarily accepted across certain boundaries. Although the network I am building does not necessarily identify central figures and other measures of networks, it is still going to be an interesting visualization of how these movements are converging upon central figures within them. They are merely the human face to a larger subculture, and placing responsibility upon one person to be the “face” of an organization is not a new concept. The ways in which they are conducting this old practice of “representation” however is particularly compelling, and articles examining the prevalence of young conservatives (The Kids Are Far Right) point out the ease of which they achieve fame. This then begs the question – are there so many celebrities in this movement because they truly believe in it, or rather are they people who longed to be famous and decided to go the route of political extremist because of the attention they knew they’d receive?
Are they just exploiting a media landscape that privileges outrage?
In order to explore some of these larger questions, I’ve been going through and trying to give attribute values to my network nodes (the celebrities) by gender, age, and other dimensions to help better visualize differentiating aspects between far-right celebrities. Although I initially didn’t think that this project would connect to larger work that I am engaging in, it has really helped to illuminate the ideas of collective action around media figures – a creation of a “us” for a certain subset of people, and the celebrities then rally the “us” around a “them”.