Upworthy’s unworthy politics

What happens when liberalism becomes a lifestyle choice?

June 9, 2014 12:30AM ET

“You won’t believe what happens next,” the headlines scream.

Except we all know what happens next. We will click, we will watch, we will share, and then we will watch the page views skyrocket. With 47 million unique visits in April, down from a staggering 88 million in November 2013, Upworthy has the Internet wrapped around its pinkie finger. And who’d have the heart to complain? “Upworthy,” after all, began as an adjective, not a noun; the site’s original goal was to find things that are “upworthy” and pass them along. The style of Upworthy’s famous headlines — earnest, leading, promising an emotional payoff, using the so-called curiosity gap — is something that competing websites mimic shamelessly, and that critics mock with aplomb. But however we crunch the site’s click-through rate and readership numbers, there’s one question they can never answer: What does Upworthy believe?

To the extent that Upworthy has stated goals, they basically run along the lines of “We want to help you share things that are meaningful,” and “We want viral content to be a tool for social good.” (Upworthy also has actual goals, which involve making money for itself and its investors.) The site leans left; its 30-something founders both worked at MoveOn.org during the 2008 presidential campaign. But the ideology of the site and others like it isn’t a recitation of the Democratic Party platform. It’s not really a cohesive liberal worldview of any sort. Upworthy liberalism is liberal politics stripped of any awareness of systemic barriers or perverted incentive structures. It’s what happens when liberalism is treated as merely a set of lifestyle preferences.

Right ideas, wrong reasons

Upworthy doesn’t have a statement of principles, but by reading the site and other viral media websites like it — such as Viral Nova, Good and PolicyMic — a number of ideas emerge very clearly. (Full disclosure: I worked for PolicyMic for most of last year.) What’s notable about all of these beliefs isn’t the substance of the beliefs themselves, but rather the reasoning behind them. If everybody adopted these beliefs, the logic goes, everything would basically be peachy. For example:

·      Gay couples should be allowed to adopt children (and get married, obviously) because only mean people could be opposed to love and children.

Edward Snowden is a hero because he gave us a lot of information, and who could be opposed to having more information?

We should raise the minimum wage because why would you possibly be against giving people more money unless you’re mean? I mean, look at this video of a poor person!

• Marijuana should be legalized because it’s not nice to ban things and weed is actually kind of good for you anyway!

• Drone warfare is bad because it’s really, really bad to kill innocent civilians.

The point is not that Upworthy liberalism’s positions are incorrect — I happen to share all the above opinions myself. It’s that the reasoning behind them is so elementary that it leaves no room for the most fundamental truth about politics and social change: Politics is hard work, and social change happens excruciatingly slowly.

Upworthy liberalism cannot process problems whose solutions are more difficult than ‘Convince people that they need to do the right thing.’

When people support drone warfare, a low (or no) minimum wage or racial profiling, they often do so for reasons rather than by virtue of just being mean. Sometimes they are just echoing the status quo — because it’s easier and more comfortable to change nothing. Other times, such support comes from those who make money off a high-drone, low-wage, police-state status quo and would very much like to keep it that way. Although this is the perspective of a minority, it has outsize influence on policy debate, thanks to that minority’s wealth and power. Such rent-seeking and perverse incentive structures haunt almost every facet of our political culture. But this isn’t a phenomenon that Upworthy notices.

In their shoes

There’s a video that’s very touching for people who accept that giving more money to poor people is a good idea: It’s called “Walk a Mile in This Man’s Shoes, and Then Tell Me Why We Can’t Raise the Minimum Wage,” and it’s brought to you by Americans United for Change. But ideology and money are funny things. Three-quarters of Americans support raising the minimum wage, but many of the one-quarter who don’t have managed to do things like become multimillionaires who run self-funded campaigns for the Senate or get a gig as chief economics writer for the largest financial newspaper in the country. The uncomfortable truth is that “not enough people support a higher minimum wage” is not the real reason low-wage workers can’t get a raise.

The way that these sorts of websites deal with marijuana legalization is another instructive example. This PolicyMic article correctly notes that an increasing number of Americans support legalizing weed and that doing so would pump cash into the economy. But the real obstacle to legalization is the apparatus of the drug war, which encourages prosecutors to seek harsh sentences as personal trophies and helps state governments fulfill their legal obligations to private, for-profit prisons. Beyond summoning a sense of outrage, Upworthy liberalism is not equipped to deal with this type of situation, because it cannot process problems whose solutions are more difficult than “Convince people that they need to do the right thing.”

Gay best friends

The one arena where Upworthy’s house style has been useful is the fight for LGBT rights.

The argument for gay rights is based mostly on a persuasive case that gay and straight couples deserve the same legal rights; there’s also an argument, evoked by more right-leaning advocates, that discriminating against gays is bad for business. But the marriage-equality movement also employs a more conservative appeal to traditional family structures, assuming that once straight Americans realize that some of their friends, relatives and neighbors are gay, they’ll decide that gay people really are just like everybody else.

There’s ample evidence that proves Upworthy’s instincts correct on this point. Americans are less likely to harbor bigotry toward gay people (or atheists, or members of any other out group) if they realize that people they know are LGBT. So an ideology whose main request is “Share this awesome video” is an ideal match for a movement that derives so much of its strength from the dictum “Share who you are and do it proudly.”

But what of those social and political movements that haven’t yet managed to make their goal into a self-evident good? These are problems that can’t be solved by Upworthy’s vaunted method of drafting 40 headlines for each article, click-testing each one for a sample audience and tweaking the words to achieve maximum emotional impact. As muckraker Upton Sinclair could have said, it is difficult to share a viral video with a man to make him understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

If you think this sort of stunted political worldview is unique to Upworthy and its fellow viral travelers, think again. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently proposed the evergreen solution of tasking “small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms.” This is about as useful a prescription as “Use common sense to find real solutions.” The actual story of social and economic progress in the U.S. is much less sanguine. It’s not that Upworthy liberalism would ever think of disparaging people like Nat Turner or Eugene Debs. It just would prefer to keep them at screen’s length, assuring viewers that they’ll never have to go down that route themselves.

In a revealing profile of Upworthy published in March, New York magazine’s Nitsuh Abebe noticed that what bothered the website’s founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, more than anything else was the insinuation that they were cynics. Abebe wrote that when he brought up the topic, “Pariser looks sort of thoughtfully wounded; Koechley looks indignant and asks: ‘Have you met anyone cynical here?’”

This is a skillful evasion of the question. No one particularly cares whether Pariser and Koechley are cynics. What’s cynical is the strategy of finding “meaningful” content about social or political issues, and adding an emotionally manipulative headline, monetizing the results, all the while claiming earnestly that your goal is to make the world a better place. So it is that two liberals may end up playing an outsize role in shrinking the horizons of liberalism.

Seem impossible? I thought so too. But then this one website showed me just how naive I was.

Jordan Fraade is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His writing on urban policy issues has been featured by Next City, Gothamist, The Baffler and CityLab.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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