Theses for the Social Media Age: Why Platform Neofascism Will Bring About the Techno-Apocalypse

Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim: “The Great Hack” (2019). Image license: The Othrs
Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim: “The Great Hack” (2019). Image license: The Othrs

Significantly, the boom in social media has coincided with an unprecedented rise in far-right movements and governments around the world. While their agendas are far from uniform, what they all have in common is that they purport to prevent the demise of “our” civilization while pursuing apocalyptic politics that distract us – the users of social media – from the catastrophic effects of those very politics, as Bruna Della Torre argues.

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In 1959, Günther Anders gave a speech at the Freie Universität Berlin that was later published as “Theses for the Atomic Age,” in which he analyzed the apocalyptic impact of the atomic bomb on politics. I want to follow his lead and rethink some of the consequences of the rise of social media platforms since 2008 for politics. The aim is not to compare platform media to the atomic bomb in a literal sense, but to analyze their profound and so far irreversible impact on politics.

These theses, although theoretical, come from a very empirical and factual reality. I have been conducting research on right-wing propaganda in social media since 2021. When Jair Bolsonaro won the 2018 elections in Brazil with a very successful social media campaign, and the Cambridge Analytica scandals came to light (see, for example, the documentary “The Great Hack”), this became a global case of extremist politics, a laboratory for what I call platform neofascism, a tendency embroidered in new digital technologies and fueled by our everyday practices. This has led to a new form of technological apocalypse that is not a bomb but can still cause mass killings, as happened in Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Myanmar in 2017, and in India under the Narendra Modi government.

Platform neofascism – a global condition

The crisis of 2007/2008 definitively reshaped our (digital) world, giving rise to a new age of monopoly capitalism. Intellectuals such as Yanis Varoufakis, Cédric Durand, and Jodi Dean go so far as to point to a change in the mode of production (that is, a change in social and economic organization) from capitalism to “techno-feudalism.” Digitalization and platformization are not just a new ‘business model,’ as Silicon Valley and its followers preach, but rather a new enclosure of markets (even the labor market). The new privatization of these markets thus destroys the principle of competition inherent in them. But it is not only markets that are enclosed, but also our primary forms of sociality, culture, education, the press, entertainment and, most importantly, politics.

For many political actors, the new digital infrastructure has become an important tool for political organization. This is especially true for the right. Parallel to the social media boom, right-wing governments have blossomed around the world on an unprecedented scale. This apparatus has not only united what were then fringe groups, but is the basis of a neo-fascist globalized international. Even if in most countries they advocate nationalism, they constitute the most important social movement (in the electoral sense) without borders of our time. Highly organized by the local versions of a new digital mass party that operates through a pervasive and ostensive propaganda machine, this movement benefits enormously from the algorithmic logic that constitutes social media.

As Cathy O’Neil argues, algorithms have become the new weapons of math [and mass] destruction. Just as Hiroshima’s destruction was a potential fact for any place in the world, platform neofascism is a world condition; the political neofascism of Brazil, the United States, and India becomes a very likely possibility for other democracies in the world after the rise of social media.

Politics doesn’t just ‘happen’ on social media

Social media is not simply a tool, it is a monopoly. Just as the atomic bomb is not a possibility of peace, but its impossibility, social media is not a possibility of democracy, but its main destructive factor. Its supposedly progressive effects in politics are far outweighed by its erosion. Social media is not ‘pure technology.’ It is a technology embedded in a platform logic that dictates the form of our current sociality, even as we are led to believe that we are in the driver’s seat as we produce its content. Although it sounds perfectly plausible, it is misleading to say that social media exist in our political situation. This statement must be turned on its head in order to be true: our political situation exists in social media.

Since the political situation today is highly determined and defined by the existence of social media – which encompasses the public sphere and political debate, our forms of interaction and subjectivation, the way we inform ourselves (especially the younger generations, as we see now with the successful AfD campaign on Tik Tok), and the way we do politics – one has to recognize that political actions and developments take place in the social media platform situation and not the other way around. The problem is not Twitter or Elon Musk alone, but the political-economic conditions as such.

As Joseph Vogl stated in “Kapital und Ressentiment” (2021), one of the main characteristics of digital capitalism is eliminating the mediating function of the state and state institutions in multiple spheres. The current platform apparatus has fulfilled the erotic dream of anarcho-capitalism. Cryptocurrencies eliminate the role of state financial regulation, work platforms circumvent labor laws, and social networks dispense with any democratic control over political debate. The so-called most advanced technology of our time is nothing but a digital Wild West, a Mahagonny story, where politics is made by the strongest, fastest and most powerful, and where the losers are once again the subalterns, the autochthonous people, the natural landscape.

Not instrument, but enemy: Friends and foes

While emphasizing that it transcends all boundaries, social media produces more social and political divisions than any previous technology, because it is not just a technology, but rather a digitally controlled monopoly of our forms of politics. In his “Theses for the Atomic Age,” Günther Anders noted that the atomic bomb somehow separated violence and hatred, making war an impersonal affair. According to him, “Since the targets of artificially manufactured hatred and the target of military attacks will be totally different, the war mentally will become actually schizophrenic.”

Social media has taken on the role of organizing hate (the incel communities, the neo-fascist digital movements, the pro-gun and pro-war organizations) and reconnecting the victims of hate with the military or paramilitary attack on them. Social media hate is the current face of the atomic age. Its algorithmic logic fits the fascist dynamics of “in-groups and out-groups” like a glove. It prevents society as a whole from realizing that with the atomic bomb and the climate crisis, “any distinction between near and far, neighbor and stranger, has become invalid,” and that we are bound, not only in this generation but in generations to come, to the threat of annihilation in which our very co-existence is framed.

Triggering, clicking, and engaging as substitutes for political action

The possibility of detonating a bomb and not seeing its effects, the separation in time and space of an action and its consequences, is the hyper-postmodern version of action disguised as work in fascism. Behind the idea of “following orders,” according to Anders, lies the worker’s exemption from responsibility for his own actions, of which “he simply cannot be made guilty.” Clicking is like triggering. If the virtual environment can indeed give the feeling of political participation to people who are otherwise excluded from politics, it also separates action and consequence in space and time. Pushing a button and pressing a key are similar activities, exacerbated by the fact that in the second case, the virtual nature of the action makes it seem as if its consequences are not true.

This is true for click farms used to spread fake news and elect far-right governments, and for the formation of ‘in-groups’ that target women, racialized people, LGBTQIA+ people, and foreigners, to the point of provoking femicides, queercides, and even genocides. What used to mean being politically critical and involved, that is, engaged, is now an expression that denotes our participation in an apparatus that is political to its core, but whose politics are covered by a technological veil. It thus replaces action with an engagement that precludes any real action, while at the same time producing a form of politics hidden between clicks and their ultimate consequences.

As Anders said of the atomic bomb: “This, then, is our absurd situation: in the very moment in which we have become capable of the most monstrous action, the destruction of the world, “actions” seem to have disappeared. Since the mere existence of our products already proves to be action, the trivial question of how we should use our products for action is an almost fraudulent one since the question obscures the fact that the products, by their mere existence, already have acted”. By 2024, half of all interactions on the Internet will be by and with bots. Should this be our future?

Scrolling time and anti-apocalypticism

While climate change reinforces the Endzeit (end times), making our present the last age in many ways, the scrolling of time imprisons us in the empty temporality of social media platforms, making us increasingly incapable of recognizing what we have produced as a society, of listening to what Anders called “the mute voice of our products.” The age of information is becoming the age of ignorance, and our situation as “inverted utopians” is combined with the loss of our capacity to be true utopians. To escape this situation, we must first ask ourselves, without fear of the answer, if there is any possibility of emancipation within this apparatus and this situation. To be an anti-apocalyptic is to be able to fear, to fear for the love of the next generations, as Anders says, the consequences of what we have done and continue to do.

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