Over the Christmas week UnHerd is republishing its favourite pieces from 2018
About twenty years ago the novelist Umberto Eco, noting like George Orwell how loose the word fascism had become, wrote that the ideology is like a virus that changes to reflect the contours of the society in which it exists. Mussolini’s version was quite different from Franco’s, for example. But wherever it went, claimed Eco, certain characteristics would usually be found. Hatred of the other, a cult of tradition, and racial purity always feature, of course. But, he argued, there was a fascist style of politics too: one which sanctifies action without thought, prizes tribal loyalty, and encourages a wild and anxious rage that The Great Leader can then direct and exploit.
Over the last couple of years, people have wondered whether social media facilitates the growth of fascist ideology. It’s a reasonable question, given the spread of racist tweets, shock-jock cranks and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. But that misses something bigger. Racists on Twitter will come and go: but social media is making all of us – even those who detest the ideology – adopt that fascist style of politics. If Eco were to design a communications system to encourage the fascist style, I suspect it wouldn’t look too dissimilar to some of our popular social media platforms.
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Take for example the idea of action. Fascists have always worshipped action for action’s sake, because to think is to emasculate oneself with doubt, critical analysis, and reasonableness. “Action being beautiful in itself,” explains Eco, “it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection”. It would be difficult to write a better definition of a mad rampaging Twitter mob than this. I suspect the majority of people who demanded Jamie Oliver apologise for his jerk rice, or indeed demanded that he not apologise, hadn’t really thought too much about the matter before confidently pronouncing on it. I’m not saying further thinking would have, or should have, changed their minds. It’s the mode of action that I’m interested in: absolute, instantaneous, and without reflection.
I’m not blaming Zuck or Dorsey by the way. It’s simply that certain technologies lend themselves to certain behaviours; which then become normal in all aspects of society. In a print-based society, for all its flaws, there is at least a cultural predisposition for an ordering and coherence of facts and ideas, something the linguist Walter Ong called “the analytic management of knowledge”. It lends itself to reflection.
Social media platforms however are built to a very different logic: an endless, rapid flow of dissonant ideas and arguments, one after the other, without obvious order or sense of progression. It’s designed for you to blast out thoughts or ripostes over breakfast, on the move, at the bus-stop. What’s on your mind, Jamie? Facebook asks. Usually an ill-thought through response to what some other idiot has just said, I reply. Instant response is the only reasonable behaviour in such a world. I’ve noticed people rush to get their denouncements and public displays of outrage in quick, lest anyone beats them to it. All the shares and retweets come to those who move fast.
This is related to another of Eco’s characteristics of fascism (there were 14 in all): that disagreement with the leader equates to treason. The leader is the voice of the people, a representation of all that is good in them. This is important, since ‘the people’ are mostly just a theatrical prop anyway. Isn’t it odd that, despite this apparently being an age without deference, there is a newly found hero-worship and total leader loyalty in certain quarters?
It is the return of tribalism, which is the natural state for social media. This is because in our hyper-connected, over-saturated yet under-informed world, we are encircled by enemies and protected by fellow travellers. Joining a tribe is the only way to survive. And online there is always a fact or a comment or a hot take to prove your side is right and the other side is utterly wrong. When was the last time you actually changed your mind after discussing something online? I’ll answer that for you: probably never, because who has time online for the long, careful, respectful discussion necessary to see the other side of it?
In this world, opponents can’t merely hold principled differences of opinion, they must have sinister motives. We’re all guilty of it. Brexiteers that denounce any criticism or concern as traitorous and treasonous is one example – but so too is Labour’s anti-Semitism / Munich row, where critics of Jeremy must be incoherent babblers, sinister Blairites, Trump supporting Zionists, and who knows what else. All tribes need tribal leaders, who in turn need loyalty. Followers of Corbyn and Trump will both detest the comparison, but note how both have the merch, the chants, the hagiography. They’re radically different, but both are products of the tribalism that social media has accidentally brought about.
Incidentally, the ongoing denigration of the hated mainstream media – the detested MSM – by both the Left and Right, can be understood in this light too. The now common complaint about the MSM is that it’s not reporting this or that story. It’s usually expressed as: ‘here’s what THEY don’t want you to know’. The mainstream media certainly deserves criticism and gets things wrong all the time. But the fascist style turns errors and misjudgements into sinister motives and dark establishment plots against ‘the people’.
This too is incentivised by the new media eco-system because when you’re constantly surrounded by personalised feeds, it’s easy to believe that the ‘real news’ (i.e. what you’re seeing) is being suppressed by the corrupt elites. Just because it’s not on your feed, doesn’t mean it’s not out there. A quick search usually finds these supposedly hidden stories were, in fact, there all along. Trump calls the press “the enemy of the people” and we all shake our heads, recognising the fascist trope. Yet some of the recent criticism I’ve seen of the BBC from apparently enlightened people isn’t all that far behind.
In her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt warned that if citizens float around like corks in a stormy sea, unsure of what to believe or trust, they will be susceptible to the charms of demagogues. This is where the fascist style finds fullest force. When you venture online, it sometimes feels like there’s an undirected anxious rage on all sides – frenetic, purposeless and habitual.
Scroll down your newsfeed or timeline. There are of course plenty of uplifting stories, but you’ll likely wind up angrier than when you started. You won’t be entirely sure why, or what to meaningfully do about it either: Police brutality! Austerity! Hypocrisy! Incompetent Ministers! A criminal who’s an immigrant! A stupid Trump tweet! A smug liberal! It’s hard to apportion the anger correctly: Jamie Oliver’s poorly named rice dish garnishes roughly the equivalent horror as the fact that the earth is on fire and life as we know it might end.
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The info-overload is overwhelming, contradictory and constant, rendering people simultaneously outraged and impotent. This is a very dangerous combination. When she wrote Origins in the 1950s, Arendt never imagined the digital world, but she would surely recognise a bewildered and furious mob demanding a tribal leader who could channel the rage, fix the world’s ills and bring order to chaos. Is it all that surprising therefore that social media is helping politicians that embrace this style? Or that surveys find growing taste for authoritarian leaders? Is it all that surprising that, in these conditions, truth – Munich wreath laying, saying ‘would’ rather than ‘wouldn’t’, sticking £350 million on a bus – appears less important than loyalty to the side you’re on?
To say one side is worse than the other isn’t helpful, and it’s not my point anyway. As the old communications theorists like Marshall McLuhan used to say: the medium of the platform itself – its design, incentives, structure – is more important than the conent of the messages it conveys. “The clearest way to see through a culture” wrote Neil Postman several years back in his brilliant anti-TV missive Amusing Ourselves to Death, “is to attend to its tools for communication”.
I don’t blame the tech companies who’ve made our new tools – they generally hope and believe their platforms can help fight fascism. There’s plenty of examples of where they have, too. But the medium they’ve built is – unintentionally – encouraging a certain fascistic style of politics that’s affecting us all, subtly changing our behaviours and expectations. Combined with actual fascist ideology it’s obviously catastrophic, but even on its own it won’t lead anywhere except the political extremities.