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The Truth About Neo-Fascism on Social Media

Despite the world’s best efforts, neo-fascism is on the rise. It’s since evolved in the age of the internet and major social media platforms have been more than happy to oblige them for the right price.
By
man

A man holds in his hands an open box from which comes flame, destruction, murder. Metaphor of Pandora’s box, world evil, war, genocide, terrorism. © Pandagolik1 / shutterstock.com

December 20, 2023 03:25 EDT
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Researchers Aleksander Deejay and Tamas Wells highlighted a growing concern: major platforms like Meta (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp), Alphabet (Google, YouTube) and Twitter are actively eroding fundamental democratic values and harming the social and cultural fabric. Despite Big Tech’s claims to the contrary, these dominant players occupy a central role in today’s information ecosystem. Alarmingly, their shared commercial philosophy fundamentally supports anti-civic and anti-democratic cultures.

These approaches actively empower hate and neo-fascist political actors, facilitating the unchecked spread of propaganda and conspiracy theories. These platforms profit substantially from the high engagement generated by troubling and emotive content, boosting their advertising revenue. Moreover, corporations directly receive large payments from populist neo-fascists and other malevolent actors globally. To compound matters, they provide these individuals access to their algorithms and customers’ private information, a practice I find particularly unethical and anti-democratic.

neo-fascism erodes democracy, sanctions racism and bigotry, and rejects essential liberties and rights. Its proponents question the impartiality and universality of legal, scientific and educational systems. They promote a nationalist agenda and relativize or even reinstate fascist principles, laws and practices from the interwar years. This global phenomenon sparks extensive and varied debates.

A rising tide

In 1977, the defeat of Nazi fascism in World War II and the overthrow of the final fascist dictatorships in Europe (Portugal, Spain and Greece) dealt a blow to right-wing extremism. The prevailing belief in Europe and the United States was that nationalist, anti-liberal, and anti-democratic ideologies were history. The collapse of the communist bloc led many to assume that liberal democracy would dominate. However, understanding the factors that fueled the neo-fascist movement is crucial. These factors created an environment where it could impact governance and gain substantial electoral influence in Europe and the Americas.

A new political culture is rising, marked by the growth and promotion of prejudice. This shift is fueled by the impact of neo-liberal policies and the sensationalization of the media. The media’s focus on sensational stories has heightened public worry, paving the way for the acceptance of authoritarian measures. This phenomenon is termed surveillance capitalism and has called into question the roles and responsibilities of a welfare state.

Critical scholars, examining social media’s impact on politics and society, have long recognized its detrimental effects on democracy. A stark conflict exists between the public good and the interests of platforms like Facebook. Whistleblower Frances Haugen, part of Facebook’s civic misinformation team, exposed the company’s consistent prioritization of its financial gains over public welfare in October 2021. “Facebook over and over again chose to optimize for its interests like making more money,” he revealed. Facebook is “tearing our societies apart and fuelling ethnic violence all over the world.” However, this insightful criticism applies to all significant social media sites, not just Facebook. 

A powerful tool

In 2022, Vlaams Belang, a populist neo-fascist party in Belgium’s Dutch-speaking north, allocated €1.17 million for online advertising, primarily on Facebook, Google and YouTube promotion. Their spending spree didn’t halt, as from January to May 2023, they’ve already invested €709,924. If this trend persists, they’re poised to become the second-highest spender on EU online political advertising. This strategic spending enables them to target anti-democratic propaganda, anti-LGBTQI+ views, racist dog whistles and misinformation. Current polls indicate they’re now the largest party in northern Belgium.

Similar patterns emerge across Europe, exemplified by the pivotal role of social media in the ascent of neo-fascists in Italy. Italy’s extreme right, led by Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, shelled out €209,385 to Facebook from August 2022 to the September 2022 general elections—less than their Belgian counterparts but still the highest among Italian political parties.

Tom Van Grieken, leader of the Vlaams Belang, holds the top spot for social media ad spending among politicians in Europe.  He argues that this social media spending is necessary because he and his fascist party do not receive a fair hearing in the “biased” mainstream media. However, evidence contradicts this, as mainstream media covers his party and its views. Despite this coverage, a democratic backlash rightfully ensues against their reprehensible rhetoric. Van Grieken is accurate in asserting that social media enables disintermediation. It also facilitates micro-targeting, allowing these parties to tailor their propaganda to specific audiences, avoiding scrutiny from journalists asking pertinent democratic questions.

Populist neo-fascism is a destructive force in both the Global North and South, leveraging social media extensively for its harmful propaganda. These platforms play a pivotal role in fascist attempts to fuel ethnic violence and spread deceitful narratives. In 2021, the territory’s health ministry implicated Facebook in a systematic repression of Palestinian voices on Facebook and Instagram. This repression escalated during Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, resulting in 219 deaths in Gaza, including 63 children. In Israel, 12 people, including two children, lost their lives. Meanwhile, in Brazil, a government operation dubbed the Office of Hate served as the conduit for former President Jair Bolsonaro and his propaganda machine to disseminate hateful content and lies, utilizing WhatsApp and various social media channels for this purpose.

A way forward

Politicians enjoy unrestricted access to social media backdoors and algorithmic power through the tech oligopolies that control social media. Despite claims of moderation and regulations by these platforms, they prove ineffective in curbing hate speech, myths, disinformation and conspiracy theories. Populist neo-fascists benefit greatly from these shortcomings. Recently, Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, essentially demolished its moderating capacity, leading to a sharp rise in hate speech that circulated on the site and the money generated from it.

Political theorist Jan-Werner Müller advocates for a clear separation between democratic and anti-democratic groups on social media platforms. In the post-World War II era, social responsibility theory offered a framework and goal in the post-World War II era that positioned journalism as an essential democratic actor. This theory insisted on better representation for marginalized communities and minorities. It called for social media platforms to facilitate democratic discourse, hold the powerful accountable and responsibly exercise their access power. Social media firms need to acknowledge their social and democratic responsibilities, cease profiting from hate and misinformation and take action. To begin, they must reject funding from neo-fascists and prevent their access to platforms’ algorithms and users’ political and personal information.

[Beaudry Young edited this piece]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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