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How Digital Fascism Works


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Most people have some idea about what fascism is. Fascism’s Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, the original fascism, was invented in Italy in the 1920s. One-hundred years on, however, Italy has changed and so has fascism. Mussolini’s classical version of fascism has become digital fascism. Perhaps one of the world’s foremost experts on fascism, Italian Jewish chemist, partisan, Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi. Primo Levi not only had first-hand experience of Italian Fascism and German Nazism, but also saw how fascism works from the inside: he described the process with great precision. Above all, Primo Levi was able to examine fascism’s theory and practice from the perspective of something it hates more than anything else: humanity. 

One of the enduring things Primo Levi told us is that every age has its own Fascism. Just as Italy in the 1920s and 1930s and Germany in the 1930s and 1940s had its version of fascism, one-hundred years on, the age of the Internet has its own fascism. Even though putting migrant children into cages does not make a Kinder KZ and other acts of cruelty and selfishness does not make fascism, elements of the ideology of classical fascism are still with us. Modern or digital fascism still follows the ideology’s classical nine key ideals:

1. a strong disdain for human rights, humanity, human dignity, and human life; 

2. rampant anti-intellectualism, anti-cosmopolitanism, and anti-universalism;

3. populism’s and right-wing’s celebration of white nationalism linking nationality to race;

4. a cult of white male leadership and male chauvinism linked to staunch anti-feminism;

5. protecting corporate power as fascism has always supported capitalism;

6. the elevation of pejorative emotion over critical insight;

7. rampant cronyism, favouritism, and nepotism;

8. a disdain for criticism, dissent and intellectuals, and 

9. an explicit endorsement of violence and brutality against political enemies.

While ideologically retaining elements of classical fascism, digital fascism is also distinctively different. Firstly, it relies on the Internet, without which there could not be digital fascism. Secondly, once on the Internet digital fascism works largely through three key allied elements:

  1. An immense array of populist, xenophobic, conspiracy fantasy peddling, right-wing and outright neo-fascist websites;
  2. Online commercial trading websites offering semi-right-wing products, music merchandise, clothing, memorabilia, militaristic artefacts, etc.; and
  3. Online discussion boards.

Some of these online locations provide an early entry to the orbit of right-wing sites and discussion groups. Through these sites, digital fascism bombards its victims with a barrage of alarmist and fake news, half-truths, conspiracy fantasies, sensational but also emotional stories and alternative facts. Digital fascism mixes entertainment with right-wing apocalyptic “end of the world” fantasies designed to create excitement and anxiety. 

Step by step it separates those who are classified as persuadables (a marketing term) from those deemed unconvertible to right-wing ideologies. These are really what can be called the deplorables who are angry without realizing they are the victims of their own lack of good sense. 

Digital fascism engineers much of this to make its victims believe that a crisis is happening, disaster immanent, and catastrophe coming. These infantilizing fantasies seeks to seduce and reduce people further and further into the right-wing orbit so that they, because of the instantaneous ruin we all think we face due to pandemics, climate change, runaway immigration and outsourcing of jobs, accept tough measures proposed by right-wing demagogues. Only the Beloved Leader can save us. Once securely locked inside right-wing echo-chambers, the victims no longer realise that nothing of the supposed immediate end of their white race is actually happening and, despite the panic:

  • there is no population exchange or replacement;
  • there is no Islamic state taking over or influx of Mexican cartels; and 
  • there is no pizza shop from which to free children from a non-existent child pornography ring. It did not even have a basement – Pizzagate.

Undeterred by reality, digital fascism constructs the all-important enemy within against which only right-wing extremists can defend you. This ideology, as important as it was for classical fascism, can now be communicated daily (24/7) based on digital platforms accessible around the clock. The new fascism no longer needs to wait until the next right-wing newspaper comes out, until the next time their Führer speaks on radio, or until the next right-wing militia rally is organised. Tweets come out in their hundreds, messages come a mile a minute and you are friended by a  gargantuan number of people you never heard of eager to share their buzz words with you.

Digital fascism is always there. It advances all the time and everywhere and ready to fight its invented enemies constantly. In the world of digital fascism, there is only black and white – no colour, not even forty shades of grey. It always us-vs.-them, the white race against the coloured others. Experts on computational propaganda and right-wing online propagandists call this redpilling. Just like in the movie Matrix, you have a choice between a blue and a red pill. The blue capsule makes you continue in a faked world, while the red makes you see the truth – or, at least, the alternative truth as digital fascism frames it. 

This is the alternative truth that represents the mythical will of the people as seen on the 6th January 2021 at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. This collective or mass rage is claimed by digital fascism as representing the great mass of people, despite knowing that most Americans do not approve of storming the Capitol, do not support right-wing extremism, and, in an 81-to-74 split in the Senate on the constitutionality of a trial of the impeached president, showed they do not unanimously support a right-wing agenda. The  delusion of a silent majority does not exist and, if it were to exist, it would not favour their crazy cause.

As a consequence of this false perception of themselves, digital fascism operate within echo-chambers and merely confirm the bias that allows its followers to temporarily eliminate information that do not fit the Weltanschauung (worldview) of the radical right and digital fascism. Most beneficially for digital fascism has been the shift from work to leisure time and a consumerism in which identity is less and less shaped in the workplace – through trade unions, social clubs, team-sports – but through consumerism and commercial media. 

Work and off-work increasingly blend into one another and, as they receive a giant boost with the rise of the home-office during the Coronavirus pandemic, sense-making has moved ever more from office or factory towards the home, entertainment, social media, Hollywood-on-line, computer games and U-tube.

As the cost of home-based entertainment decreases and the availability echo-chambers increases, common experiences, like watching the evening news at the dinner table, vanishes. Social discourse moves into separate areas and common experiences fade away. This breakdown of social and domestic space offers valuable new avenues for digital fascism. Of course, all this also leads to an increase in polarization and what Seemann calls “digital tribalism.” This further tribalization of audiences distances some people from our common democratic institutions. The link between people, voting and democracy is further eroded, that in turn, favours digital fascism. 

When this happens, digital fascism is able to unleash its version of reality onto an unsuspecting population, ever more fake news and alternative facts. The narrowing of outlook and the loss of historical context also allows digital fascism and the radical right to present themselves as far bigger than they are. Furthermore, fringe groups use metrical manipulations to increase the noise they make. The use of social media serves as an ideal amplifier so that digital fascism starts to increase its own vicious circle of support to artificially high levels by artificially hi-jacking online interactions and contributions. 

Such a jacking up of numbers only can only increases when right-wing extremists heat up already super-charged debates by injecting ever more polarising and escalating messages. The online system of shares and links and re-tweets allows for the rapid distribution of hate messages, a fact, digital fascists use to their advantage. This is designed to make digital fascism appear more powerful than it actually is.

London’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue, for example, found that, 

Because of their co-ordination techniques, right-wing extremist fringe groups have a virtual monopoly of hate comments in the comment columns: 5% of all active accounts are responsible for 50% of the ‘likes’ for hate comments. Aligned to showing off their non-existing mass support, a German right-wing group recently announced it had 100,000 members. After investigative journalist took a closer look, the group was forced to admit that it only had 40 members.

Another way of disguising the actual small size of the fascists groups on line while also mass-distributing hate messages, is the use of social bots. These automated forms of communication usually found on social media, have as their task the influencing of the direction and content of discussions and opinions of readers, pushing them in the direction of the radical right. Social bots are related to chat bots that use rather simple interactions. Chat bot messages, like tweets, distribute either very simple or prefabricated messages.

Apart from automated messaging, right-wing users tend to operate with a variety of profiles which again pretend that the radical right is larger than it actually is, while simultaneously hiding the true identity of the sender. This not only multiplies their apparent number but encourages others to join in who then, in a next step, may become sympathisers and supporters. In the worst cases, they join in a competitive race to send the most obnoxious kind of hate messages.

This process creates a right-wing pack-mentality of what is called dogpiling. It is a form of online harassment where a large number of accounts suddenly fill the comment thread of right-wing posts with insults, often targeting a perceived enemy of the right. Such dogpiling seeks to generate panic, a sense of utter helplessness among its victims.

For this reason, digital fascism’s radical right sees online platforms as a battlefield where they operate under the slogan:  If you can select your battlefield, make sure it’s one you can win. One of the key goals of digital fascism is to occupy a leading position so that Google’s algorithm pushes its messages to the top. This done in the full knowledge that most Google users only look at the first page of Google results.

Once such a position od dominance is achieved, the radical right can successfully influence its targeted audience. This aids the ability to draw its victims deeper into the online network of digital fascism. At the beginning of the journey, these communications seem innocent enough and often the result of a poorly executed search on Google. What shows up on screen is an incessant array of ambiguous buzz words and doubtful information, then barely disguised conspiracy fantasies, and finally hard-core mis- and disinformation. 

Step by step, the innocent and naive searches entice the susceptible victims of digital fascism further into its orbit. What counts in this game is no longer the exchange of ideas and critical conversations, but whether or not the targeted victim is for or against the radical right’s ideologically shaped trajectory.

Perhaps one of the most stunning victories of digital fascism – and this is quite unlike classical fascism – lies in the fact that its sympathisers and supporters use online platforms to manipulate themselves by posting right-wing conspiracy fantasies and disinformation. Digital fascism is no longer a top-down organisation with a Führer on the top and serried ranks of followers on the bottom, but a flattened one-dimensional affair consisting of a patchwork of different right-wing ideologies.

Digital fascism no longer has any use for people like Joseph Goebbels and it certainly does not need a Ministry of Propaganda. There is no central organisation, no élite surrounding the Führer, no party machine, and no militia camp for war games. These are things of the past. Digital fascism has even rendered some of the traditional organisational forms of Neo-Nazism obsolete, replacing them by the power of the right-wing online debris which, of course, could ever exist without supporting intellectuals. 

Much of this also renders the enemies of democracy almost invisible. Undetected, the radical right brigade of digital fascism circumvents the legitimate institutions of an open society, such as online platforms, in order to destroy liberal society. This is exactly what Sacha Baron Cohen said recently: “We mistakenly think that freedom of speech means freedom of reach.” Both are used by digital fascism to destroy freedom from within.

 

Thomas Klikauer teaches at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University, Australia. He has over 600 publications including a book on the AfD.

Norman Simms is a retired professor of Humanities at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. He is the editor of the online journal Mentalités/Mentalities.

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