How social media is enabling fascist propaganda

Social Media Hate Speech

YouTube has latched on to TikTok’s winning formula of feeding users’ brains the cheap sugar that it needs to continue swiping up for newer videos, maximizing their time on screen and converting people into screen-addicted goldmines for advertisers. I have previously written on this site about how major social media platforms are allowing openly hateful discourse to proliferate, particularly when it comes to misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic content. In a nutshell, all major social media platforms, irrespective of whether they are properties of Meta, Alphabet, or Elon Musk (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, or ‘X’) are platforming hate speech and antisocial activities against minorities and the marginalized.

Moreover, it is becoming harder than ever to find voices and viewpoints that counter the pugnacious talking points of the Right. As a long-time social media user who spent a lot of time on Facebook before weaning myself away, I have come to realize that the online world that I had built up for myself over years of joining closed groups and communities that shared the same values as me is extremely limited and constantly under attack by the larger universe outside of it which is completely dominated by racism, sexism, xenophobia, casteism, anti-minority hate along with self-aggrandizement of patriarchy and masculinity. Major platforms like YouTube, Twitter (now ‘X’) and Instagram are turning a blind eye to hate speech and the effects of this on everyday lives and people are unmissable. Hate speech and derogatory sentiments are not limited to outright expressions of anger against certain groups or incitement (though there is plenty of that going around as well) but take on many subtle forms and disguises, as does all propaganda of the powerful. Combine this with the addictiveness of these platforms and you get a toxic mix that is seriously harmful to mental and social health.

The not-so-liberal Western cyberspace

Twitter and YouTube are filled with content glorifying ethnic and caste supremacy. In the context of the American-European anglosphere, tweets that are anti-Black, openly racist, and Islamophobic are common. With the ongoing Israeli genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, obscene kinds of disinformation, hostile messaging, and propaganda are being allowed to circulate openly while critics and opponents of Israel are being censored and punished. Indian Twitter users are notorious for their extreme toxicity on this platform as well, with a survey finding the country the “disinformation capital of the world” in the context of Israeli aggression. Extremist Hindutva ethno-nationalists love to play little brother to Zionist Israel based on a mutual hatred and dehumanization of Muslims.  

The Western right has moved past a stage of ‘resurgence’ and is now the unquestioned mainstream discourse of these platforms. Supporters of white supremacist and patriarchal worldviews have found new rationalizations and justifications for their racism, misogyny, and queerphobia by blaming ‘wokeness’ or feminism for emboldening women, immigrants and sexual minorities beyond the limits that are tolerable to white society. They are actively engaged in stifling public discussions on prevalent social injustices by mocking the idea of social justice itself and dismissing it as a useless or dangerous idea to begin with. The rampant and unchecked otherization of sexual minorities and the target of paedophilia being painted on trans and homosexual identity itself is part of a drive to eliminate the ‘undesirables’ and ‘degenerates’ of society.

White supremacist anxieties are being coded as the ‘fall of Western civilization’ while fascist aesthetics and outright pro-Nazi positions are common. They have successfully muddied the waters on what racism and genocide are to the point that they have mass followings based around beliefs that it is white people who are being subjected to ‘replacement’ or being rendered invisible in the media. As an Indian, I can see where the strategies of the desi right-wing are being copied from. While the notions of racial superiority and colonialist perspectives never really went away, they are now out in the open and reaching ever more people through the internet and social media.   

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The toxic Indian cyberspace

Coming to the Indian side of social media, an added layer of the problem is that the right wing’s complete dominance of Indian cyberspace is helped by the far-right Hindutva regime in power which is actively engaged in censoring counter views through the immense powers given to the government to control online content and restrict internet access itself. While upper-caste Hindus can go around saying anything as long as it upholds the Brahmanical agenda of glorifying Hinduism, beating down Muslims, and cheering the Indian security state, other groups in the country have to constantly watch their backs online for fear of account takedowns or police action. What the BJP’s IT Cell and its many clones do on the regular is nothing short of extreme cyberbullying. Verbal abuse and sexual harassment against women, particularly those who are outspoken against the ruling agenda, is tiringly normal. The right has recruited token representatives from marginalized identities: a Dalit here, a woman there, a Tamilian, a Muslim, a Kashmiri, etc., and makes them sock-puppets to justify the actions directed against these very groups. These are sophisticated psyops (psychological operations) and mass manipulation techniques that are all too easily recognizable to anyone who has systematically studied culture, history, and societies, provided they are not themselves invested in their success.

A Digital rebirth of the ghosts of the past

There are various grades of such discriminatory content online, and not all of it is as easily identifiable or apparently fascist. For example, Instagram reels repeatedly insinuate tired old tropes around female greed, ‘looseness’, fickleness, emotional instability, and lesser intelligence in newer formats such as staged skits, podcast snippets, and out-of-context videos from real life. We have an entire generation of youth growing up with these platforms as their primary sources of information and connections and the unchecked spread of these ideas takes us back several decades in terms of the hard-fought rights that have been won by previous generations. Social media is hugely responsible for reversing the trend of youth seeking more freedoms and social change since it has ensconced them in their echo chambers of hate. A popular survey doing the rounds has found that young men tend to be far more conservative than young women today, and sometimes even more than their parents or grandparents.

While it is inaccurate to blame social media alone for this kind of fascist backlash without accounting for the inevitable devolution of capitalism and the effects of predatory neoliberalism among a host of other phenomena, it is undeniable that the ghosts of the past are far from buried. The kind of extreme mass hatred on religious lines that solidified into the pogroms of the Partition, the rabid ethno-nationalism that characterized the Second World War, the disparaging racism and anti-communism that justified the imperialist projects not only as direct foreign rule but also American-led interventions in Southeast Asia and Latin America are all getting legitimized after a few decades of lip-service to the ideas of cultural diversity and regret over colonialism. Of course, all these issues existed since much before the internet or social media. But it is also true that social media is providing new vehicles to bolster regressive tendencies and is helping to script an alternative reality of revised histories and echo chambers of hate. The question is, will we allow these instruments of mass propaganda to succeed?

Arjun Banerjee is a political commentator

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