Updated: Nov 7, 2021
A further appraisal of web 2.0, the left, and online fascism
Some time ago I took the decision to leave twitter. I did this for individual reasons (I saw one violent anti-trans meme too many), but also reflecting on what I wished to accomplish online as a socialist. Having seen the development of web 2.0 from my teenage years and throughout my twenties (from MySpace to YouTube and Loowa to Facebook and then Twitter) I have come to the conclusion that for the majority of people and most of the time, it is simply unhealthy. And I have not regretted my choice to largely leave it behind (excluding an occasional picture uploaded to Instagram, for now).
During my time, social media was the origin of the politics of the alt right. It solidified the manosphere and its various misogynistic sub-movements (from murderous incels to the rape apologist PUAs) and saw the revival of a once diminishing, transphobic hate movement within feminism. From tragic middle-aged women on MumsNet to their equally tragic Gamer Gate sons on 4Chan to their unutterably tragic Thin Blue Line husbands on FB QAnon groups, this side of the internet has created an entire family of archetypal reactionaries. Sometimes these reactionaries have overlapped with the left.
In an essay titled A Fascist Internet? addressing this subject, I looked extensively at Richard Seymour’s book The Twittering Machine. He wrote, ‘We should begin to take seriously the possibility that something about the social industry is either incipiently fascistic, or particularly conducive to incipient fascism.’ I believe that this is the most important insight from that book, one which shows how the attention economy in these spaces favour sensational and shallow content and therefore a sensational and shallow politics. I developed my thinking a bit later in System Crash (co-written by myself, Neil Faulkner, Phil Hearse, Nina Fortune, and Simon Hannah).
The internet has its own temporality too, which is both fast-moving (giddyingly frictionless) and, counterintuitively, a perfect time capsule (preserving all it touches). The strangeness of such a fast fixity adds to an impression that ‘virtual’ cyberspace is immaterial, less real than the world. Everything is throwaway, but online-time’s detritus proves timelessly recoverable.
And writing an article on the murderous Incel movement, I went still further in how this operates:
Because the internet is experienced as both fast and timeless, it creates the impression for users that they are operating in a different reality. This experience of unreality compounds pre-existing atomisation (the alienation we experience from each other) when we interact with others online. The fastness creates a sense of a world without consequences (minimising empathy), while the fixity returns to haunt us with our online past selves (making us all victims of ourselves). The internet is a place of constant anxiety, where the stakes are lowered to bring out our worst selves, then raised again when we are attacked, condemned and ostracised by others with whom we have only the most tenuous relationships. The mix of despair and self-pity obvious in the incel movement is the form of consciousness that emerges organically from being online.
How can any of this be changed? The socialist left desperately needs to further theorise the internet as a site of intense ideological struggle with the capacity to spill into acts of violence. The internet was a cornerstone for the political strategies of Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, but of these only the outright reactionaries were able to deploy online tools with any success. Johnson and Trump most closely followed the strategies of one-time libertarian presidential hopeful Ron Paul, who pioneered the politicisation of the internet and helped coalesce many of the subcultures that would become the base of the manosphere and alt-right. Trump and Johnson did not aim to further cultivate these online spheres, but their reactionary interventions both served to embolden such groups.
None of this should suggest the social media will have the same effect on everybody. The forms of online addiction might well target certain types of people, either experiencing certain traumas, life conditions and influenced by particular neurodiverse conditions. As someone with ASD, I recognise myself as especially prone to the kinds of addictions the internet can encourage. Online fascism, like fascism more broadly, especially appeals to petit bourgeois social layers whose position excludes them from the status quo politics emanating from above and the emancipatory politics erupting from below. And so on.
Equally, we can easily imagine the kind of person better guarded from the more align aspects of social media. People with robust social support, who are not prone to addictive styles of behaviour, who have strong attachments to class-based groupings grounded in solidarity. These people would have no reason to turn to the internet to meet otherwise unmet needs, and less reason to be suckered into its worst spheres were they even to satiate some morbid curiosity about it.
When I was first approaching this subject I found two Jacobin articles on the question. I argued that these were both exemplary of a one-sided approach. The first, ‘Log Off’, by Benjamin Y. Fong, argues, ‘The fantasy of social media as a magical tool of social connection contrasts starkly with its reality as a cesspool of vicious personal attacks and paranoid indignation.’ The second author Meagan Day, however, maintained that, whatever its deficiencies, ‘we can attempt to infuse [social media] with our own political perspective.’ Day’s ‘Unfortunately, We Can’t Log Off’ narrates how she came to the social democratic left through the internet and feels that such opportunities cannot be dismissed.
My viewpoint has now slightly altered. I no longer significantly disagree with Fong. Does that mean social media is one sided? Not at all; the internet has been important, for example, in creating social opportunities for those who live remotely, for many disabled people, and for unifying geographically diffuse groups of the oppressed. In particular, queer people, and especially the smallest segments of that community: trans, nonbinary, and ace people. The internet by its very nature connects people who would otherwise not even see themselves as belonging to the same category of oppression.
But even here, the good and bad aspects of online spaces do not exist in separate universes to each other, so that the good is poisoned by the bad. That happens because, as explained, what is bad is more foundational to the internet’s everyday operations. I have written ‘elsewhere’ about the tendency of social media, for example, for the exact structural reasons mentioned above, to encourage doomed separatist strategies amongst the oppressed, including the oppressed that find themselves unable to operate without such online tools. This represents a tragic conundrum, as any trans person knows who has found both profound solidarities, as well as the worst harassment and abuse, online.
Still, two-sidedness does not always apply. What most people like to cite as the chief good of social media as it pertains to the left is nothing of the kind. As a vehicle for recruitment to the left I have always believed that it is in fact a very limited tool. That is because, to exemplify my point, the kind of politics to which Day was recruited, the politics of Jacobin, has failed. And moreover has done so quite arguably because it is an online offshoot. That is the politics of a purely electoralist radicalism, of Sanders and Corbyn as sufficient unto themselves. After all, it was Centrist liberalism that defeated the politics of Trumpism (I suspect temporarily), not the online base behind Bernie Sanders. For all its enthusiasm, this base was rendered completely impotent.
Day’s politics has not made any serious headway. In the UK, likewise, the similar Corbyn movement (itself dependent on online recruitment and activism) was roundly defeated; in Greece Syriza (again, comparable) was unable to be a radical vehicle despite its limited victories; similar to Podemos in Spain. All of which is to say, the type of left politics that emerges from the internet seems remarkable only in its limitless capacity for defeat after defeat, followed by compromise and demoralisation. A mass of online activists for them, unlike for the right, translates into no serious position of power to either reform or revolutionise our political systems.
Just as bad, the internet has had a profoundly strange and deleterious impact on even the anti-electoralist far left. The old Trotskyist grouplets use it to extend the worst of their previous activities, waging endless, low stakes sectarian wars against one another, often fuelled by the same algorithms as encourage petty feuds between bourgeois celebrities as fascist YouTubers. In addition, the tendency of the internet to promote the obscure, the niche and the sensational has meant the return of bizarrely untimely contingents of the left, from teenage fans of Stalinism to forms of the utlra left that don’t even take the burgeoning threat of fascism seriously.
From anarchists operating in social democratic parties to highly educated comrades spending huge amounts of time ‘owning’ tween Marxist-Leninists on the contents of Capital, the internet has not produced a rich, revolutionary intellectual culture. In fact, quite the reverse. While it is great to benefit from the international links the online world can afford us, we have not yet been able to discover a substitute for meeting people face to face, for solitary reading and group discussions of theory, and for united political action offline. In short, the left (and socialists in particular) must stop imagining that we are immune to the processes that have created the alt-right and poisoned liberal society, that we exist beyond the reach of the harms of new technologies.
We cannot simply ignore the internet; it is a massively important force in the social world. And individuals will often have their own good reasons for being on social media. Still, what all of this does mean for the left as the left (or perhaps socialists as socialists) is that we need a coherent strategy for handling social media’s harms before we engage with it. A socialist org requires a certain baseline of online presence (a website, social media pages promoting it, a mailing list and messenger service), but beyond that, and without a strategy, such an org should not imagine that it can exist in these spaces without being reduced to just responding, to reacting. It certainly should not encourage its individual members to do so. And therefore as circumstances stand, for most of the left, it truly is time to log off and rethink. We need a strategy, and we currently seem unable to develop one.
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