American Consequences - April 2021

commentator with talk-radio-style bravado and now leads what Bloomberg calls “an army of day traders.”) There’s a generational divide here, in that “young people want the action, whereas the older generation listening to talk radio might be more comfortable sitting around complaining.” The populism we associate with talk radio at its best, and the sense of belonging you get from rooting for your team, is alive in these traders’ experiences as well. You’re making the trades the gurus advise in the trenches winning and losing with a band of like- minded rebels: Redditors post their losses as well as their wins. It’s almost as though the losses, and not the wins, are what bind them together. The compulsion only grows stronger when you’re in it together with a crew, propelled by that fraternal loyalty and ancient associations with war. “Young people want to feel the risk physiologically,” Peterson says, “because they’re used to that immersive video-game experience. But also because entertainment is more engaging with more shock, more screen frames, shifts faster.” On lockdown, one’s sources for stimulation are more limited than usual. And it’s not just lockdowns, the bull market is also largely to blame. Peterson predicts that once people start losing money, really losing, WallStreetBets will be a lot less fun as a venue: “People have taken risks and been rewarded, but when things start to shift, when you get to a nice, big sell-off, you may see less enthusiasm.” If the wins dying down doesn’t deter the rebel spirit, a growing paranoia about double agents in their ranks might start to sow discord.

There are those hedge funds who shorted GameStop when it was high and did well, and there are others who withstood losses on GameStop only to gain assets. The biggest winners, inevitably, aren’t the little guys. And the game is by no means one-sided. Now that forums like WallStreetBets are such robustly confirmed venues for manipulation, Peterson predicts, “There’s going to be hedge funds that are getting involved, rallying the herd under the guise of just some regular people.” Can a largely anonymous community held together by solidarity and shared sensibility, on a platform infamous for its promotion of paranoid conspiratorial thinking, possibly withstand actual – or imagined – infiltration by the enemy? “There will be trolls and double agents in these communities,” Peterson says. In all likelihood, there already are... FAKE NEWS Of everyone I interviewed for this story, Robert Johnson, a finance professor at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business, was most dismissive of the David- and-Goliath reading of the GameStop saga. This all-too-popular spin on the story plays on the vulnerable and pandemic-bored public’s appetite for uplifting narratives – especially ones that celebrate behaviors we feel guilty about, like chasing cheap thrills and sensation-seeking. “The prevailing narrative is that it’s the little guys against the big guys. And when you get down to it, that’s really not what’s going on,” he says. For one thing, “A lot of the people

American Consequences


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