Social media capitalism and its robber barons, influencers and content creators

The modern day could aptly be defined as the information age, its leading stars the social media sites. In this information age, the accumulation of wealth by individuals has been made that much easier and the spectre of 'inequality' that is assumed as a given by the many on the left as well as governments, dominates any economic discussion. I will attempt to analogize the complexity that makes up the modern economic structure and its problems using what I will call 'Social Media Capitalists.'

'Social media' refers to platforms on the internet where individuals are inherently just 'themselves,' for lack of a better phrase. The term 'social media' includes the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, etc. Social media is defined by individual interactions, to one degree or another. 

On Instagram, for instance, users have varying numbers of followers. Followers are people who choose to see whatever it is you upload to the site. I, as one author have a mere 100 odd followers, but there are individuals with millions of followers. All these people could easily follow me but will probably choose to an influencer or a celebrity. Said person then uses this following and 'influence' they have with other social media users, as reflected by their following, to act as a marketing platform for other businesses and entrepreneurs from the beauty industry to the music business. 

Now, since the social media space- in our context, Instagram - is the analogy we have chosen to illustrate economic fallacies that are taken as God's truth. Oxfam ought to release a report citing the inherent inequality of the amount of followers between the 1% or 10%, or whatever arbitrary percentage they pick, of Instagram influencers and the rest of us, the multitude, the masses with only 100s of followers.    

The operation of social media and how it distributes its lifeblood, its 'scarce' resources, namely, 'followers', can serve as instructive for how we view the concept of inequality more broadly. As an environment largely not defined by violent interactions, social media offers a window into the complexities that undergird real life commercial transactions which are sometimes the only nonviolent interactions in a space filled with violence or aggression of one sort or the other.

You could start an account tomorrow with 0 followers, and with artistic expression and work, that 0 could easily grow to thousands, without Instagram 'redistributing' any followers from anyone else to you. 'Scarce' social media resources, as an analogy of real-life resources, debunk the fallacy of fixed pie resources. Namely, the idea that the amount of resources that exist at any given time are fixed, and thus redistribution, rather than creation and growth, will solve whatever ‘problem’ many commentators and analysts think afflict society.

If the main concern with is equality for its own sake, we should be concerned about the disparity of followers between person A with 100, and person B with 2,000,000. You would say that is unjust instead of investigating whether B received preferential treatment from Instagram, for instance, or if a person can engage in said activity and attain so many followers. The inequality regarding followers between A and B is only a 'problem' if the underlying assumption is that the current 'distribution' of followers is immutable. That is far from truth. Wealth is infinite, dynamic in existence - just like the 'wealth' of the social media domain.

The voluntary interactions that underpin the social media economy we have just analogized are what largely underpin the real-world economy.

Amazingly, you find the major influencers of the social media space, with millions of followers and endorsement deals to follow, propagating for the end to the free market and free enterprise, decrying the evil of capitalism, the division of labour, and free trade. This highlights a big disconnect between the real and the ideal. The ideal, which is the absence of inequality, is simply unattainable without humanity losing what inherently makes it unique – individuality.

The social media influencer, with millions of followers would probably find it ethically questionable, and rightfully so, if their followers were transferred to this author. After all, to establish equality in the real world, it is argued that wealth, irrespective of how it was obtained, should be deemed the property of every Sipho, Mbali and Sibusiso, because they don’t have the same amount as the possessor of wealth. They could also work and attain wealth in the marketplace as you do, since most wealth is acquired this way - not discounting those who use aggression to do so. You do not need to get preferential treatment from the state in any way. Nor is there any direct causal link between your actions in attaining wealth (working) and the relative poverty of others. 

With a large government in charge, wealth created by individuals is siphoned off through things such as progressive taxation and the wealth tax, inheritance tax, capital gains tax, PAYE, corporate tax, the ironically named value added tax (VAT), and every other tax, and then redistributed to others either directly, or through various government programs. And this is called 'social justice', true, we may not know what social justice is substantively, but we know it is opposed to any substantive notion of justice. 

The analogy I used here between social media and the real-world economy was to show how an environment premised on voluntary interactions (economy/commerce) is antithetical to any form of top down interference through the use of aggression. The freedom I have to follow or unfollow someone, as an analogy of the freedom I have to open a business, invest in one, and grow one to unimaginable heights, needs to be understood. Freedom, the liberty to just simply 'be', is what Africa has been denied, and if the social media capitalists with their makeup endorsement deals and even original product lines for example are any indication, freedom truly does bring prosperity. 

Unparalleled freedom of economic activity will help this great country and continent reach the heights we all know it can; it just needs liberty. The liberty for individuals to just be themselves- for who is someone else, an individual just like them, to tell them otherwise.

This article was first published on City Press on 22 October 2020
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