Of Alpha Males and Algorithms

I realize this is off-topic even for a blog that has dwindled down to one or two posts a month for the past year, but recent events have posed too much of a distraction to avoid commenting on them at least briefly. Nevertheless, feel free to skip this—it has nothing to do with architecture or design.

I: “we are the alpha males”

There was an article in the Washington Post last week about a man—the son of a Maryland police chief—who allegedly took part in this month’s siege of the U.S. Capitol building. In case you missed it, there was a violent attempt to overturn the most recent American presidential election, performed by a mob of misinformed people from all over the country who had been encouraged and openly lied to every step of the way by their own elected officials, from the president himself to representatives from Missouri, Texas, Arizona, and other states.

Allegedly amongst that mob was this son of a Maryland police chief. The Washington Post mentions, in passing, a text message exchange in which the man appears to think that, if the big coup really arrived, the military would have stood behind the president—our twice-impeached now-former commander-in-chief publicly known, even many decades prior to his stint in the White House, for dishonesty, nepotism, corruption, and bankruptcy. Cops, those text messages claim, would also have backed the president—after all, one message says, “we are the alpha males.”

What’s interesting to me about this comment is that self-described “alpha males” have come to overlap almost perfectly with the most gullible people on the internet. From Jade Helm and Birtherism to “spirit cooking” and Pizzagate—and, now, QAnon—it is, again and again, the men quickest to oil themselves with a sheen of masculinity who fall for the dumbest, most obviously false stories they can find. I do not mean men, in general, or that masculinity somehow lends itself to being hoaxed, but that there is a kind of security vulnerability inherent to self-professed alpha males: beings so tough, they don’t need to ask questions. This makes them easy marks.

One such alpha-influencer, allegedly a real man’s man, has dubbed this approach to life the “gorilla mindset”—inadvertently giving the game away in terms of its intended intellectual acuity. This same guy, back in 2016, heavily pushed Pizzagate, with its secret Egyptoid pyramid symbols (slices of pizza are triangles, dude!) and Beavis and Butt-Head levels of coded-message interpretation, as well as the inane “spirit cooking” conspiracy, in which an internationally known performance artist was believed to be secretly, actually, really performing Satanic rituals with prominent celebrities.

This alpha-unwillingness to parse information became all the more obvious when the stupidest storylines imaginable began coming out about the 2020 election: it was all rigged, you see, by secret Venezuelan algorithms somehow programmed by a dictator who has been dead since 2013, or, no, it was a CIA-connected German server farm that, incredibly, had been tallying the real results on election night, or, no, it was actually advanced equations “broken” by an unexpected Trump landslide so numerically extreme that math itself could not keep up, or, no, it was an apartment in Rome somehow tied to the Vatican—this is an actual theory!—from which overseas operatives had uploaded encrypted malware to U.S. voting systems by satellite link, or, no, it was an elaborate Chinese information warfare campaign that somehow combined all of the above into one devastating super-attack. Stop the steal!

Time and again, it was the self-professed alpha males—the online persuaders and the Crossfit gurus and the retired cops and a 6’6″ Olympian and a disgraced former general who admitted lying to the FBI and even a Zoolander-adjacent pillow salesman advocating martial law—who fell for every single word of it. Every single stupid theory, swallowed and swallowed again by gullible alpha males—men with apparently no ability to protect themselves, their friends, or their own children from obvious hoaxes and stupidity.

Surely the least masculine thing you can do is fall for everything you see, swooning and fainting in front of every titillating Reddit thread—and I’m not saying this in an attempt to outflank these guys, to say I am the true alpha male, which, for anyone who has ever met me, would be a statement verging on surreality.

Throughout all this, I have found myself thinking about a catchphrase associated with an author and podcaster whose primary skill is speaking very quickly and who has infamously claimed that “facts don’t care about your feelings.” This is intended as a devastatingly rational, hyper-masculine jab at what he perceives to be an ascendent cultural femininity: after all, only the spineless and the beta, only women, would prioritize their feelings over alpha male facts.

It was thus utterly laughable to watch elected U.S. representatives, trying to wash their hands of an attempted coup that they had publicly supported mere days earlier, say that, well, sure, the election may have been legitimate—who really knows?—but what the nation needs to accept, those same representatives quickly added, is that millions of Americans feel as if the election was rigged, they feel as if their votes didn’t count, they feel as if Biden simply could not have won. They feel as if secret Venezuelan algorithms uploaded by Vatican insiders had somehow been deployed by Chinese cyberwarfare teams—don’t you get it? Their feelings don’t care about your facts.

My point here, to be clear, is not that cops or their sons are, by definition, easily duped—or that men, conservatives, or former Olympians are, by definition, easily duped—or even that having “feelings” or being accused of femininity are somehow actual insults. They’re not.

Rather, if social media has been good at one thing, it has been at revealing the unnerving extent to which considering yourself an alpha male appears to mean being duped by everything you see. The hypocrisy at the heart of “alpha maleness”—men oversensitive to their own “feelings” about politics, falling for theories so absurd they sound like adventure stories written by 10-year-olds—is both frustrating and obvious.

Strong silent types, growing their coup beards and wearing Oakleys, their biceps ripped, bellies roiling with porterhouse, dreaming of custom lug nuts, muttering with an air of conspiratorial authority about secret adrenochrome farms, covert Vatican uplink teams, and the imminent return of JFK Jr. “This is a man’s war, son,” he says, driving off to combat an obviously fake threat that exists only on his aunt’s Facebook page. “We are the alpha males.”

II: Submission

Having said that, I should state the next most obvious thing: it is not only men wrongly measuring themselves as alphas who have fallen willy nilly for these online conspiracy theories. One need only look as far as a certain recently elected representative from Georgia; a young Pennsylvanian woman arrested by the FBI for allegedly stealing “Nancy Polesis” [sic] laptop; a Manhattanite who apparently thinks that Trump has “secretly dethroned” the Queen of England; or any number of bikini-clad New Age influencers who have progressed without pause from unattributed Bob Marley quotations to peddling theories about chemtrails and Chinese 5G.

But rather than erroneously pin the blame on some illusory haze of alpha-masculinity or toxic femininity—in fact, rather than assign gender characteristics to gullibility at all—what instead sets the stage for being duped by con after con after con is a misapplication of faith. If you truly believe that celebrities have been invisibly arrested in a massive government crackdown, if you instinctually feel that Chrissy Teigen must be wearing a tracking anklet because she is part of an international cabal of child traffickers, if you know in your heart that global elites have been eating kids, or if you just trust that this secret plan you read about on the internet is real, then the idea of pausing even for a moment to assess some new piece of information before going all-in with your entire identity is not an option. You do not wait or ask questions—because you have faith.

Some insane new variation of your primary conspiracy theory arrives—it was the Vatican, not Venezuela, it was a coded message, not a concession speech—but no problem: this is just another piece of the puzzle you’ve been assembling and to question the truth of its final form would be to reveal you’re unworthy of solving it.

While the hypocrisy of the internet-addicted alpha male, chasing rumors in a cloud of political feelings, is infuriating, the near-instantaneity with which faith—trust, instinct, intuition, just knowing—can be hijacked and attached to nefarious, obviously wrong things is arguably more concerning. Worse, these two things often overlap: to be alpha is to trust one’s raw battlefield instincts, uncorrupted by the yammering of feminine experts, and to have faith is to know through intuition, without question or nuance, that the path you’re walking is a righteous one. In many situations, these can be exactly the same thing.

What’s particularly sad here is that masculinity obviously does not mean that you can’t ask questions or seek expert guidance, any more than being a person of faith means that you must deny any doubt or hesitation. In fact—to put this in explicitly theological terms—this is a total misunderstanding of what faith demands of us, which is not that we abandon ourselves and rescind all agency to a hidden superpower, but that we learn to live and work critically with forces larger than ourselves.

Alas, in today’s cultural climate, real men act rather than dwell on things, and people of faith simply trust the plan rather than questioning that mysterious voice they hear, apparently never realizing it might be hoaxing them.

III: Algorithmic Pygmalion, or “a sharp rise in engagement”

But there is at least one more reason why so many elaborate and inane theories have taken off lately, and it has nothing to do with gender stereotypes or blind faith.

Engagement algorithms on social media have thrown people’s ideological and cultural orientations completely out of whack—or, seen another way, people have willfully distorted their own personalities in order to boost their metrics on corporate social media. (I have no illusions I am somehow immune to this.)

As an article in the New York Times explored last week, people with seemingly no real political passions, let alone partisan loyalties, saw their online engagement levels spike as soon as they began posting about QAnon or #StopTheSteal—so they posted more about QAnon and #StopTheSteal.

“Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many people into sharing more extreme views on the platform—rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric,” we read. (Of course, this article is explicitly limited to “far right” internet causes, but it would be just as interesting to read how, for example, a loner with virtually no interest in politics found themselves suddenly wearing all black and participating in a multi-month left-wing siege of the federal courthouse in Portland.)

Instead, a system of positive feedback and a quest for social validation together mean that we all risk actively remaking ourselves not into someone we ever wanted to become, but into something—an act, a minstrel show, a parlor game—that performs better for the dominant algorithms of our time. Do you even want to be doing this new thing, going to this particular tourist destination, or assuming this new identity, or have you been conned into choosing it by a system of gamified feedback? Next thing you know you’re storming the U.S. Capitol building, espousing conspiracy theories you don’t even really believe—but your social media metrics have gone through the roof.

It is neither a surprise nor a coincidence that many of the people arrested after this month’s Capitol raid were found through their social media, oftentimes clearly and deliberately identifying themselves on camera as those sweet engagement metrics kicked in. (It seems all too likely that we’ll see the first armed revolution in which half the participants are only doing it for the ’gram.)

Everything I’m saying here, of course, is obvious, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see how this has been so dramatically ratcheted up in the past few years. From something presumably harmless—like a friend of yours going out for lunch more often because his photos of well-plated food have attracted new followers on Instagram—social media has instead become an engine for totally remaking people’s personalities and politics, up to and including insurrection.

To put this another way, that suburban alpha male out there hand-blueing his own rifle barrel and eyeing the U.S. Capitol building, despite no personal history of political interest, is just a remake of Pygmalion: an ironic Eliza Doolittle letting himself be sculpted by flattering algorithms.

The more ominous take-away from this is that we can’t just blame alpha males, the Goop-to-QAnon pipeline, or people of faith for the most recent tide of conspiracy theories drowning public discourse in the United States. Instead, through the Althusserian magic of social media engagement, dark, conspiratorial versions of ourselves are being conjured into existence, post by post, algorithm by algorithm, like by like, until we are all but unrecognizable to ourselves (whatever those selves were in the first place). That this experience of being scrambled is then sold back to us as a quest for meaning and significance—a literal solving of puzzles and an interpreting of clues—seems almost willfully cruel.

No wonder our dads, brothers, and sons, our moms, aunts, and sisters, our bosses and colleagues—no wonder we, some of us, most of us, maybe you—are so depressed and atomized, espousing nonsensical beliefs we don’t even really have, tracking ideas and conspiracies that have led to nothing at all like delight or joy, even as our new selves appeal evermore to algorithms we neither control nor know how to challenge.

[Update: Going all-in on obvious cons and conspiracy theories is the new mid-life crisis for alpha males seeking meaning in their otherwise empty lives.]

4 thoughts on “Of Alpha Males and Algorithms”

  1. “Instead, a system of positive feedback and a quest for social validation together mean that we all risk actively remaking ourselves not into someone we ever wanted to become, but into something – an act, a minstrel show, a parlor game – that performs better for the dominant algorithms of our time.”

    Social media has aggravated this condition, but broadly speaking, it’s been typical of humanity for a long time, ever since the emergence of large societies featuring diverse (and often perverse) contexts for status competition. Even people who care little for social validation are apt to find the trap difficult to avoid. I speak from experience. Some years ago, I decided to leave academia, because it became clear to me that succeeding or maybe even just surviving there would require remaking myself into someone I never wanted to become – indeed, someone I would feel absurd being – that would perform better for the dominant algorithms of that hypercompetitive context. Perhaps not coincidentally, that someone might be described as an “alpha male”.

    As for the self-declared “alpha males” who figure in this post, I’m reminded of Sam Spade’s quip: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

    1. I agree that preening ourselves for approval—and thus becoming something or someone we never really wanted to be—is far, far older than social media. In fact, preening ourselves for disapproval is just as prevalent, pointlessly remaking ourselves in opposition to something—a family member, a cultural movement, etc.—that we could just have ignored. But the extent to which this has been massively ramped up and accelerated, with people going from zero political engagement to full-time hashtag warrior in seemingly the blink of an eye, is extraordinary.

  2. Very close, but not quite there. It’s not about the truth, it’s about being at the top of the dominance hierarchy. The alpha male is the one who decides, and all the sub-alphas and betas submit to his will. Being atop the dominance hierarchy means specifying what the truth is, and not submitting to other people’s ideas of what it is. Running into obvious natural truths is fatal to alphas who cannot be seen to submit to those truths. It’s what happned to Trump with Covid-19, and centuries earlier, to the myth of King Canute and the English tide.

    Social media engagement is just another measure of dominance, as are follower/following ratios. Wannabe alphas will do anything they can to obtain submission and maintain status. This is why they are so terrified of smart people and other elites who don’t participate in their hierarchies, and may even run more powerful secret hierarchies. In order to maintain status, alphas must show that they are secretly part of even the secret hierarchies, which they will forcibly explain to you.

  3. I would argue this works just as well for the news. I have not yet read “Hatred, Inc” but from interviews and the like it argues much the same for the punditry which constitutes what is considered news these days.

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