Don’t look now, but we’re being ‘Facebooked’ into fascism

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As political bloggers it’s our job to stay up to date on what is going on in the national ‘conversation,’ however ridiculous that conversation often becomes.  Occasionally it’s necessary, though, to step back a bit from reacting to the political outrage du jour to more fully assess the broader picture of where we are –and what we’ve become — as a nation and, probably more importantly, as individuals. In 2016 it was almost a cliche to say “this is not normal,” but that staggering absence of normality (for those of us old enough to appreciate it) has over the ensuing five years grown more skewed and surreal, culminating in starkly visual and shocking terms by what we all witnessed happening on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in January.

The larger picture, as much as it gets lost in the weeds of the daily headlines, is this: We are now living in a country where the entire agenda of one of our two major political parties revolves around largely fictitious grievances stoked by right-wing media for profit and political gain. While the existence of that right-wing media is hardly a new development (Fox News, for example, has been around since the late 1990’s), as it has become intertwined and entrenched with the sustaining platform of what we call “social media,” something different and more sobering has emerged,  in the form of a dull, senseless and wholly impervious disregard for reality as it actually is. 

We were assured in 2016 that there must be very good reasons that archetypal “angry white males” were so incredibly angry. We were told about “economic displacement” and class envy. We were regaled with righteous, indignant horror stories about immigrants supposedly stealing their rightful jobs and poaching off of our schools and health care. We were told about the dwindling opportunities for those white males to get ahead, make a living, to fulfill what was characterized as the “American Dream.” And some of that seemed plausible enough: that’s how Donald Trump managed to slither into the White House, by catering to those grievances and promising white America that they wouldn’t be ignored by the so-called “liberal elites” (of course he did nothing for them except give their bosses a huge tax cut).  But in truth, none of this seemed so bizarre and untoward that it couldn’t be attributed to classic right wing race-baiting, a time-honored characteristic of the Republican Party since the 1960’s, the reactionary consequence of Blacks agitating for equal voting and civil rights, yet another ugly vestige of a Civil War that had never really ended.

Even after it became clear that the Russian Federation sought to influence that 2016 election through social media, even when it was revealed that some enterprising firms such as Cambridge Analytica had mined reams of voter data which the Trump campaign used to target specific demographics with propaganda amplifying those same racist themes, it hadn’t yet really dawned on most of us just how pernicious and powerful these technologies had become, and how much they actually influenced human behavior. It wasn’t really until the COVID-19 pandemic hit that we saw how drastically social media could distort the minds of Americans, to the point where reality itself became a fungible item, to be manipulated at will according to the whims of whoever happened to be wielding the propaganda.

It was at the very outset of the pandemic that the overwhelming and insidious power of social media really came to the fore, when people began making grievously foolish decisions about their own life and death based solely on politically-motivated misinformation they’d been fed on social media, mostly Facebook.  And as a result of a cynical leader and his political followers who gleefully stoked and amplified such propaganda for their own private ends, whatever sense of unity of purpose this nation ever possessed quickly and (probably) irrevocably vanished.  In its place, for nearly half the nation that calls itself Republican, a fictional alternate world has now emerged, filled with violent, macabre fantasies and ginned-up hatreds, most of them completely untethered from reality.    

The teaching of “Critical Race Theory,” for example, now the sole focus of Republican campaigns in multiple states, is simply not a real thing, not an “issue” at all (unless you happen to be enrolled in a graduate level college Black studies program). Likewise, the threat of some predatory transgender person lurking in a girls’ bathroom is also a scary but almost entirely fictional construct (conservatives are now howling about a teen allegedly involved in an assault in a Loudoun County, Virginia criminal case, without acknowledging that young children have more to fear in bathrooms from Republican politicians than they do transgender persons). The fact that these “issues” are almost entirely the product of race and fear-based insecurities and ignorance doesn’t make them any less “real” to Republicans, in most part thanks to the overweening presence and ubiquity of tribe-based “information bubbles” created by social media.

Nor are there teeming hordes of migrants spreading disease among our population. The fixation on so-called immigration issues with little if any actual real-world personal relevance to tens of millions of Republican voters is simply another hot-button outrage generator from the right’s ready arsenal. Most Republicans have probably never spoken to an undocumented immigrant (unless they’ve employed them), let alone had their actual job supplanted by one. Their real-life experience of them is most often peripheral if at all, limited to having their lawns manicured or being handed a bag full of burgers at a fast food franchise by such folks. Yet the fear and resentment generated by constant repetition of these memes on social media has created an alternate universe where, much like the Red Scare in the 1950’s, Republicans literally fear immigrants spreading crime to their towns, while reality suggests that such fears are wholly unjustified.

Nor are throngs of roving Black Lives Matters activists out and about, threatening their children who venture into urban areas. Republicans who believe these things apparently literally now live in a permanent defensive crouch, in constant fear and dread of what are largely social media-spun myths, amplified by Fox News. In a country with 340 million people and tens of thousands of murders in any given year, one example (or even ten examples, for that matter) of an undocumented  person committing a crime is not a trend. It is not even a tiny blip on the real-world radar of actual crime in this country. You want to know why violent crime went up in 2020? Because we’re in a fucking pandemic, forcing people out of work or into small spaces together for long and unbelievably stressful time periods. Of course there’s going to be an uptick in violent crime and aggressive, stupid and reckless behavior. Anyone who’s driven on the roads for the past two years knows this.

The reality is that the majority of whites in this country have it relatively good.  If they happen to be smart enough, most of them can attend some type of college or trade school. If they’re not, they’re still doing a hell of a lot better than most people of color. None of the lily-white insurrectionists who terrorized the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 looked like they missed many meals. Most of them had the money to spare to transport themselves across the country with little trouble, whether it was in their $50,000 pickup trucks or by jet airplane. Most of them had nice warm camo or hunting gear to keep their themselves cozy before they assaulted Congress. And all of them, apparently, had smartphones and comprehensive Internet and cable plans. But because of the impermeable bubble created by social media, they still consider themselves aggrieved “victims.” Of something.

People say that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 “changed everything.” Well, Jan. 6 changed everything too. For the first time we all got to see in living color on our TV screens just exactly how heinous a world has been spun out of whole cloth by the combination of Fox News and Facebook.  We saw Americans literally hunting down other Americans, attacking cops, smashing up our national symbols, literally pissing and shitting on our sacred institutions, all spouting the same delusional nonsense they’d internalized from Facebook groups, Fox, and right-wing social media websites. And stoking this “Big Lie,” squatting over them all was Donald Trump, urging them on. Even after the insurrection failed, Republicans continue to glamorize or airbrush this sordid event as if it were something good or decent, many parroting their delusions as irrefutable truths. 

Yes, that “changed everything”  for a lot of us. We finally saw the consequences of a poisonous social media-saturated culture wedded to a right-wing political philosophy. It’s called fascism, and there’s nothing “American” about it. It’s the same creeping authoritarian mindset that’s infected various countries in Europe over the past twenty years, and it’s the same mindless violence that tore the 20th Century in half and just about destroyed the free world back in the 1930’s.

It is absolutely clear that Facebook knew exactly what they were doing when they created this ecosystem of polarized hate. As reported by Jessica Guynn and Kevin McCoy for USAToday, (here via Yahoo news for those barred by the paywall) documents recently revealed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen  leave no doubt of the company’s knowledge about the potential monster they were birthing. The initial inquiry into the pernicious aspects of Facebook’s techniques occurred after the 2016 election, when “critics charged that the company’s apps exploited human psychology to hook people on social media, hijacking their time and undermining their well-being.” The manner in which Facebook “hooks” people has been well established: each “like” is comparable to administering an endorphin dose. But the relationship between the way its News Feed algorithm was structured for users practically begged for extreme content.

As Guynn and McCoy report:

[T]he focus on posts with high numbers of comments and likes rewarded outrage and resulted in the spread of more misinformation and divisive content, according to internal documents reviewed by USA TODAY. The more negative or incendiary the post, the further and faster it spread.

The symbiosis of “negative or incendiary” posts and overtly political content was more than obvious (the company’s internal documents, highlighted by Guynn and McCoy, acknowledged that ‘outrage and misinformation [were] more likely to be viral’), but just for good measure, Facebook even ran simulations based on fictional political users they’d created, in order to see what content each type of user would gravitate to, and—  just as importantly –what would be directed towards them.

The internal Facebook documents show how swiftly the platform’s recommendation algorithms can amplify polarization by sending users to content full of misinformation and extremism.

Facebook’s “simulations” involved a hypothetical conservative and hypothetical liberal Facebook user. Within five days, the “conservative” user was bombarded with radical right-wing content, while the liberal user was hit just as swiftly with excoriating, anti-Trump content. As Guynn and McCoy point out, particularly noxious, outlying  content was provided to users by Facebook’s “reshare” feature in which posts not involving “friends” were shared to the user, based on assumptions about their interests.

The long and short of this social media paradigm is that people become radicalized by an insular system designed to reward and thereby encourage the spread of divisive content, to increase user engagement. Whether that is Facebook’s fault or the fault of human nature is frankly irrelevant: the point is that (at least in this country) it had indisputable effects, as particularly evidenced by the degree of polarization and now blind adherence to blatant misinformation by Republicans, the consequences of which have fractured our Republic along political lines in ways we have not seen the likes of since 1861.

Haugen has stated:

“I saw Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently resolves these conflicts in favor of its own profits,” Haugen alleged during a Senate hearing this month. “The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat.”

The worst aspect of all this is none of it should be happening. Of course, Americans have the right to expect that one of its political parties will actually set forth policies about what they can do for the country rather than stoke imaginary grievances and violence to maintain its power, whether on Facebook or otherwise. But more importantly, we all have a right not to suffer the consequences of someone else’s mindless manipulation, whether that person is of the left or right political persuasion. Especially if that manipulation leads to violence and acting out, the way it has for Republicans now wedded to the Big Lie.

Facebook has taken that right away. Without Facebook, yes, many of these folks would still exist. They’d still be out there, But they wouldn’t be getting together, marching in this delusional groupthink, the way they are today. Whether it was through Facebook’s negligence, greed, or something worse, we’re only now beginning to find out; Haugen says the company’s decisions are “disastrous for our children, our privacy, and our democracy.”  She doesn’t seem to be exaggerating based on what we’ve seen thus far.

Jessica J. Gonzalez  co-founded the anti-hate speech group, Change the Terms. In an interview by the Guardian earlier this year, she stated:

“Facebook has let white supremacists organize and conspiracy theorists organize all over its platform and has failed to contain that problem,” González said. “In fact it has significantly contributed to the spread of that problem through its recommendation system.”

But regardless of whether Facebook is to blame, we’re now — all of us –forced to deal with a formidable and potentially deadly tool of political influence and social manipulation, one in its essence wholly artificial, almost completely unregulated, and one specifically designed to result in large swaths of our population absolutely convinced that they are in the possession of the truth, even when what they have absorbed is purely lies.

If that doesn’t spell danger to you, I don’t know what else possibly could.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.



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