How social media has fed the right

Submitted by AWL on 2 February, 2021 - 5:26 Author: Matt Cooper
Social media

The first part of this article (Solidarity 579) looked at the recent rash of internet censorship. Much of this has been directed at the right, as we saw with Trump’s removal from Twitter and Facebook, though there have been some attacks on the left.

This second part will examine why social media platforms have become seedbeds for the right.

Because social media relies on user-generated and third-party content, it has become not only a forum for discussion but the medium through which other media, including the news, is now seen. In the UK 75% of people get some of their news via television, 65% from social media, and only 35% from newspapers.

The social media platforms are media in a radically different sense to traditional media. Social media are machines for constantly gaining your attention. Their business model is to use that attention to gather data on you and sell targeted advertising based on that data. In order to gain your attention social media will put content in front of you which, on the basis of your past behaviour, is likely to hold your attention.

At the same time the social media platforms gather data on which content attracts attention from “likes” and clicks. That content is then prioritised to users similar to those whose attention has already been captured. There are millions of pieces of content thrown at social media every hour, and social media is a device for finding and promoting the popular ones.

So the social media platform show people content they might like? Fair enough? No. Consider the following.

First, a 2018 study of news items on Twitter found that untrue stories spread six times faster than real news. It is not difficult to see why. Consider a story that was popular on leftists’ social media feeds at the time of the Capitol invasion: a right-winger had concealed a taser in his underpants, and he suffered a fatal heart attack by it accidentally delivering repeated electric shocks to his testicles. An unfit Trump supporter did die of a coronary, but otherwise the story is entirely untrue. It spread because it met social media users’ needs.

Second, the populist and far right are far less rooted in the truth than the left. Consider Trump: for every two hours he was President he made a public statement (more often than not via social media) that was a lie.

Third, more generally, the far right seeks mobilising myths to build their movements. More recently fascists have looked to conspiracy theories to accelerate the collapse of the social order to their advantage.

The right has always lied. But social media platforms are the Wuhan wet markets of right-wing virality. Not only do they bring a variety of right-wing memes to a wider audience, they select the most contagious (i.e. those that receive attention) and promote them to the individuals most likely to catch and spread the disease. It is a supercharged evolutionary process aiding the memes’ human authors. Thus QAnon.

That is not the finding of some left-wing academic. It is what Facebook themselves concluded in an internal study in 2016. They chose not to act, since the only way of acting would be to curb the efficiency of their attention machine.

This analysis suggests that the left cannot simply fall back on free speech. Another tool that the left has used for dealing with this issue is “no platform”. In its best form no platform is only applied to fascists since they represent a physical violent threat to socialists and minorities, and by looking to working class and community mass action to win it. Other iterations of no platform, often found on the broader and liberal-left, look to bureaucratic or state bans, often extending then to more generic “hate speech”.

The action taken against the populist and far right by social media platforms in the US is more like the second form of no platform. Facebook explicitly states that it is targeting the promotion of real-world violence including “violence-mobilising conspiracy theories”. There is a tendency for wider hate speech to be taken as an indicator of those. These are bureaucratic bans, and in Germany an extension of existing state regulation of free speech onto the internet.

There are very limited examples of workers’ action attempting to pressure the social media platforms. The most notable was at the peak of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided not to delete a post from Trump suggesting that those involved in street disorder around BLM would be shot. Staff across Facebook downed their digital tools in protest. It would be optimistic to think that was a generalisable engine of change across the sector.

Analysing the problem is the easy part. Seeing a clear way out of it is more difficult.

Certainly, we cannot favour a popular front in cyberspace: the left should not rely on the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley as a progressive form of capitalism against the right. And relying on the state to stabilise the situation for capital-as-a-whole is not a solution, either.

In the short term socialists should at least point out how the social media platforms’ drive for profit has created a problem. We should defend Enlightenment truth and rationality, which at the moment are more under threat than free speech.

Politics still happens in movements primarily off-line (pandemics allowing).

It is easy to say that only ideologically and organisationally revived socialist and working class movements will undercut the social basis of the populist and far right and clean out the Augean stable of the internet. But it is true. Only on the basis of that real struggle will the horse shit be cleared out.

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