Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro
For almost two decades, the New England indie band SeepeopleS has been as free with its speech on social and political issues as it is with its approach to genre. This was never a problem until the age of social media, which, as scandal is rocking its giants, is curtailing the open marketplace of ideas it was supposed to unleash.
Around the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, SeepeopleS singer Will Bradford wrote a punk song called “New American Dream,” with lyrics like, “I want to be the president and kill everyone / I want to be the president and play with nuclear bombs.” It wasn’t released at the time, but during Trump’s presidential campaign, Bradford realized the childlike ego and bloodlust he and many others saw in George W. Bush was far from out of date.
Bradford was friendly with Pete List, an animator who worked on MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch and Marilyn Manson’s “Astonishing Panorama of the Endtimes” video. List created a video for “New American Dream,” which is included on the band’s 2017 Hate EP. Though Trump inspired its release, he gets no more air time than the other global leaders whose atrocities are surveyed in cartoon form, including Obama.
Like most working bands, SeepeopleS heavily relies on a sponsored Facebook account to promote its releases and shows and, in 2017, “New American Dream” went up on its Facebook page. As with anything critical of Trump, it elicited complaints and death threats from the MAGA crowd but no pushback from Facebook. But then, in the spring of 2018, it was revealed that British political-consulting firm Cambridge-Analytica had lifted personal data from millions of Facebook profiles without authorization for use in American political campaigns, including that of Ted Cruz. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to testify before Congress, and everything changed.
Within a week of the congressional hearing, SeepeopleS’ Facebook account was placed under review. By summer, the video had been removed (from Instagram, too, which Facebook owns), even though the band went through the authorization process to post political ads, something their video clearly is not. Even worse, the band’s entire ad account was essentially disabled: Anything they tried to post, no matter how innocuous, was dubbed political and denied.
They were in Facebook jail for something they didn’t do. They still don’t know how to get out.
In theory, Facebook’s policy is aimed at eliminating political ads with hazy origins or deceptive content, but in practice, it may be a way for users to weaponize the site’s content-curation tools. While the people who complained about “New American Dream” may have been motivated by politics, Facebook’s motivation is perhaps scarier: cold, hard math. You could always make something disappear from your own timeline, but now, with enough blocks and reports, you can make it disappear from everyone else’s, too. Facebook created the conditions for this to occur, but users on both sides of the political aisle have instrumentalized it. The site is the labyrinth, but the monster loose in it is us.
As SeepeopleS heads to the Cat’s Cradle Back Room for a late show on April 20 (local band Tracksuit opens), we spoke with Bradford about what it’s like to inadvertently become a uniquely modern paradox—a band that lives in the past and the future, at once promoting like it’s 1990 and testing the waters of an unthinkable, inevitable world after Facebook.
INDY: How much did “New American Dream” have to do with Trump?
WILL BRADFORD: We started planning the video before the election. The whole year Trump was campaigning, we were on tour, so we bumped into his rallies at least fifteen times. I was curious and certainly went to a few, and I might have gotten removed. [Laughs] It was about the cult of personality. Especially in Trump’s case, it was just power, watching all these people who were infatuated with this TV character, this big boss man. The song is really just an examination of people who lust after power, and the perspective that those people might be a little sick in the head. At the rallies, you realized power was the real sell. His followers certainly respond.
It’s interesting that the video was treated as a political ad, which usually has a specific target or agenda, when it actually seems like a pretty panoramic portrait of political violence. Were you surprised that it caused controversy?
I knew it would ruffle some feathers. We made a point of—I mean, Obama is in the video. We did put a few olive branches in there. The band has received death threats. That surprised me a little bit. One was from your neck of the woods, a guy from Raleigh. He sent the most extreme one. He went and bought all the CDs—which was nice, I appreciated that—and then sent me a video of gunning them down in his backyard. He said, “I can’t wait for your show in Raleigh.”
That one, we actually had to call the authorities and make them aware of it. But I wasn’t too surprised, because the hate is palpable, and I’ve certainly felt it since Trump hit the scene. He set a precedent for bringing those people out of the shame corner. I was a little taken aback by how vicious it was, considering that the video is not reinventing any wheels. It’s just energy for the kids, nothing that hasn’t been said before.
What happened when the video dropped?
The video dropped in 2017, and every second of it was part of a Facebook ad. We had no issues. I mean, the death threats, and we definitely got reported a bunch, but it wasn’t until about a week after the Zuckerberg congressional hearing when things really changed. All of a sudden, we started getting notices that our account was under review. One morning, probably a month and a half later, the band and everyone who works with us woke up to, basically, “All your accounts will be deleted if you don’t take this off.” We were threatened with our private accounts being deleted, too. We had to go through this huge process to keep the accounts going, and then, it started to get weird.
We tour a lot, and we started getting all our ads denied that had featured stuff from the video. We realized we couldn’t do anything with it and started to sponsor ads that had nothing to do with the video, nothing remotely political. And we would still get notices that we couldn’t post political content. That was the eye-opener, like, “Wait a second, we resolved the issue under Facebook’s terms.” I had to send pictures of my passport, my license; I had to wait for codes in the mail. The regular mail. We went through this whole process where you must be authorized to post political content. Even after we resolved it, it didn’t change anything. If I took a picture of you and me hanging out and tried to sponsor that post, I would get the same notice, “Not Authorized for Ads with Political Content.” It became very apparent that we were in Facebook jail, a term that didn’t exist at the time, but which now is sort of a thing.
What do you know about the rule that you were supposedly violating?
It all comes down to this community-standards thing. If you read it closely, technically—and I don’t know if this was the case before the Zuckerberg hearings, but it certainly was after—you have to be authorized to post any picture of a candidate or political leader. Which is hilarious, because you go on Facebook and it’s just nonstop inundation with exactly that, and I’m sure most of those people are not authorized. We did some research with our lawyer and came to the understanding that, in actuality, it didn’t have anything to do with the content. It really had to do with getting blocked and reported by users, which basically put our account into “poor health,” Facebook’s term.
I thought, “There’s going to be some little punk at Facebook that I can hate,” but the reality, I think, is more horrifying. It’s really algorithm-and-math-based. It’s this perfect instrument of self-censorship. Whatever people don’t like, they can just make disappear. For anyone that needs social media to promote, you’re literally putting your livelihood on it, and it’s completely changed the way that we promote. The last two tours we did, we would ask the venue to host the ad, which worked for a few months. But now, the venues can’t even host the ads. They can get away with it in certain things if they don’t tag the band. We just had a venue in Atlanta that was determined to make it happen. I was like, “Look, man, I’ll send you more posters, just pretend it’s the nineties.” They were like, “No, we’ll figure out how to do it.” They couldn’t get an ad up, and they were pretty bewildered. I was like, “Yeah, that’s how it is, man, I’m sorry.”
Are you going to have to change the name of the band?
I don’t think so, nineteen years in. Honestly, other than the annoyance and everything, it certainly helped the band in some respects. We’ve been outspoken since the very beginning and unafraid of the consequences behind that. Part of me is sort of waiting for Facebook to collapse, for some other social media that will wipe them out. We felt like we were getting singled out, but when we started to make noise about it, people came to us from all over the spectrum saying it had happened to them, too, including a super-conservative band from Kansas City. Liberals, I guess, blocked and reported their stuff and made them disappear. I talked to a guy who had a landscaping business who said, “I made the mistake of ranting about Trump on my business account,” and they deleted his account.
All this started happening after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but that seemed like it was about user privacy, not political speech. What’s the connection?
I think that is the most infuriating part—that connection is a huge grey area that may not even exist. I don’t think they really had a clue how to fix it and get out of the public eye. I think they made a concerted policy that’s sort of, “We’ve got to keep Facebook milquetoast,” try not to ruffle anybody’s feathers. The connection is direct in that all this stuff happened immediately after, but I don’t think there’s any rational line to follow.
What else are you doing to get around this in your promotion, and how have your fans responded to this situation?
We get a lot more punk kids showing up at the shows. It’s definitely been noticeable that it resonated with a younger audience, which was the intention. The video was partly a history lesson for young kids to just see a profound image and be curious, like, “Who was that guy? Who did that?” Then, maybe, go look for themselves.
It’s like you’re a test case for the future. How does a band promote without Facebook? You’re finding out now, but all bands will have to find out if Facebook finally succumbs to scandals and public hatred.
Oh, I know. It’s interesting when you think about even just the last hundred years of provocative art, anything that pushed the norms. If those artists were here today, I don’t think they’d have a chance. For us, it’s basically meant a lot more work. We really are back to the nineties, with the art of street team—tracking down some dude in college who will hopefully put up posters in his dorm.