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Fascism Is Back. The Internet Is to Blame

Fascism Is Back. The Internet Is to Blame

Monday, 28 May, 2018 - 06:30
Timothy Snyder
Professor of history at Yale University

Some Americans ask: What is wrong with the internet? Others ask: Can fascism return? These questions are the same question.

Despite all the happy talk about connecting people, the internet has not spread liberty around the globe. On the contrary, the world is less free, in part because of the Web. In 2005, when less than one-quarter of the global population was online, common sense held that more connectivity would mean more freedom. But while Mark Zuckerberg was calling connectivity a basic human right, the more traditional rights were in decline as the internet advanced.

According to Freedom House, every year since 2005 has seen a retreat in democracy and an advance of authoritarianism. The year 2017, when the internet reached more than half the world’s population, was marked by Freedom House as particularly disastrous. Young people who came of age with the internet care less about democracy and are more sympathetic to authoritarianism than any other generation.

It’s telling that the internet has become a weapon of choice for those who wish to spread authoritarianism. In 2016, Russian Twitter bots spread divisive messages designed to discourage some Americans from voting and encourage others to vote for Russia’s preferred presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union that same year was substantially influenced by bots from beyond its borders.

Democracy arose as a method of government in a three-dimensional world, where interlocutors could be physically identified and the world could be discussed and verified. Modern democracy relies upon the notion of a “public space” where, even if we can no longer see all our fellow citizens and verify facts together, we have institutions such as science and journalism that can provide reference points for discussion and policy.

The internet breaks the line between the public and the private by encouraging us to confuse our private desires with the actual state of affairs. This is a constant human tendency. But in assuming that the internet would make us more rather than less rational, we have missed the obvious danger: that we can now allow our browsers to lead us into a world where everything we would like to believe is true.

We think of computers as “ours” and imagine that we are the rational ones, using computers as tools. For many of us, much of the time, this may be a disastrously self-flattering perspective. When we perform a search or read a feed, we are encountering instead an entity that runs algorithms about our preferences and presents a version of reality that suits us. Yes, people can also humor us, but not with the same heartless determination, and not with the same flawless and cumulative memory of our weaknesses. Traditionally we have thought of artificial intelligence as a kind of rival to our own intelligence, emerging in parallel. What is actually happening is not parallel development but interaction, in which entities that are not themselves intelligent can nevertheless make us stupid.

Rather than testing the reason of computers, we concede our own at the outset if we are made to feel good about ourselves. We believe that computers are trustworthy when they seem to care how we feel. We follow sites that amplify our emotions, outraging us or elating us, not asking ourselves whether they are designed to keep us online so that we see targeted ads — or, for that matter, whether they are used as weapons by foreigners to harm us.

Democracy depends upon a certain idea of truth: not the babel of our impulses but an independent reality visible to all citizens. This must be a goal; it can never fully be achieved. Authoritarianism arises when this goal is openly abandoned and people conflate the truth with what they want to hear. Then begins a politics of spectacle, where the best liars with the biggest megaphones win. Trump understands this well. As a businessman he failed, but as a politician he succeeded because he understood how to beckon desire. By deliberately spreading unreality with modern technology, the daily tweet, he outrages some and elates others, eroding the very notion of a common world of facts.

In fascism, feeling is first. Fascists of the 1920s and 1930s wanted to undo the Enlightenment and appeal to people as members of a tribe, race or species. What mattered was a story of “us and them” that could begin a politics of conflict and combat. Fascists proposed that the world was run by conspirators whose mysterious hold must be broken by violence. This could be achieved by a leader (Führer, Duce) who spoke directly to and for the people, without laws or institutions.

The internet has revived fascist habits of mind. Smartphones and news feeds structure attention so that we cannot think straight. Their programmers deliberately appeal to psychological tactics such as intermittent reinforcement to keep us online rather than thinking.

That’s a lesson we can learn — but not from machines. We can fix the internet only by taking an honest look at ourselves.

The Washington Post

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