There’s been an inevitable backlash against social media in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. Mainstream news organisations have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of blaming Twitter, Facebook and sections of the more obscure ‘dark web’ for the radicalisation of young men into the political orbit of white nationalists. However, I don’t think we should blame social media for the rise of Nazi shooters.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrrison is among those calling for a “crackdown” on social media supposedly to prevent further terror incidents. However, this is putting the cart before the horse and then flogging the cart even though the horse is, itself, almost dead.
And of course, The Australian is out there whipping away hysterically.
Yes, a strained metaphor, but I think an apt one.
Let me explain.
It’s easy to blame the machines
The idea that social media is somehow responsible for capturing the minds of susceptible people and turning them into homicidal racist monsters is easy to grasp and it’s comfortable; but it is wrong. It plays to a generalised anxiety about the potentially harmful effects of too much technology and it seems to offer an easy solution, but it really means more surveillance for all of us.
If the technology itself is a corrupting force, then why don’t we just ban it or at least impose some proper controls mandated by a responsible authority – the government, for example.
The simplicity of this idea is its major appeal, but there is a secondary appeal in this argument, one that is very useful for politicians, mainstream media and journalists seeking to deflect any blame that might attach to them.
I am not questioning the idea that social media channels and platforms can play a role in ‘radicalising’ some people, particularly teenagers. In fact, there are some forms of online radicalisation I’m in favour of. A good example is the recent global student strike around the lack of serious political action to stop climate change. The fact that hundreds of thousands of school and university students can see their peers take action and feel inspired about joining in is a good thing. However, the real political movement coheres on the street, or as we increasingly feel it necessary to emphasise, in the ‘real’ world as opposed to the ‘cyber’ world.
The climate striking students gain an initial sense of solidarity from being able to connect online via Facebook groups, WhatsApp and other chat forums, but they really only see the real power they have when they come together and march, rally, paint placards, chant and, in some cases, defy their parents and headmasters to cut school for the day.
It is instructive to note that when politicians wanted to attack the climate marches and berate the students into staying in class, it wasn’t social media that they chose to blame it was mysterious ‘adult’ activists pulling the strings and manipulating pliable and suggestible young minds.
Blaming social media means not taking responsibility
The purpose of the blame game was the same in the climate strike scenario as it is in the blaming social media for white nationalist terrorism; it serves to absolve the authorities themselves of any responsibility.
In the case of the student strike, blaming older adult activists, left-wing teachers and groups like Get Up was a necessary device to deflect attention from the fact that the students were able to identify the source of the problem as being the adults in charge. Government figures like Scott Morrison and Education Minister Simon Birmingham were keen to distract us from their own culpability by belittling the students as easily mislead by nefarious activists.
Was social media to blame for Christchurch attacks?
It seems that a similar tactic is in play regarding the Christchurch massacre. There is no doubt that the perpetrator had online connections to white supremacist groups. He makes such claims in his own ‘manifesto’. However, his narrative does not support the emerging line that social media platforms were to blame for his descent into murderous fascist hatred. By his own account, extensive travel across Eastern Europe, France, Turkey and other parts of the world were important factors in shaping is world view
Similarly, the same ‘real world’ factors are involved in shaping the nascent white nationalist and openly Nazi hate groups that are forming in Australia and other parts of the world. Sure, these organisations have online forums and secret chat groups, but that is not enough to sustain them. Nor are they sufficient conditions for them to grow and hold new recruits.
Nazis need to build on the streets not just on Gab
If these small fascist groups don’t go onto the streets and take action to expose their membership to brawling and political violence, they will never be able to expand their numbers or grow their influence. This is why events like Charlottesville were important for the American ‘alt right’. It was only the murder of Heather Heyer, and the public backlash it created, that stopped the rise of the US Nazi movement. It is likely that if Ms Heyer had not been murdered there would have been more marches like Charlottesville and they would have been bigger.
Fascist movements need to mobilise the keyboard warriors and train them in the martial discipline of cracking leftist skulls. This is why the various neo-Nazi grouplets in Australia hold their periodic rallies like they did in St Kilda in January and it is why they have congregated around Senator Fraser Anning and provide him with a ‘security’ detail.
As we witnessed when Anning came to Melbourne in March to address his new acolytes, the gang mentality of his followers kicks in and they clearly enjoyed an opportunity to stomp a 17-year-old who cracked an egg on their fuhrer’s head. For them it was an opportunity to demonstrate their value to a sponsor like Anning, but more importantly it helps the leadership to show younger members and new recruits that they are serious in following up their angry rhetoric with violent actions.
These events are necessary because the fascist political project is violence in the service of their ruling class masters. Fascists are only useful to the powerful when they can be controlled and directed at targets like left wing organisations, trade unions and those elements of civil society which continue to oppose the austerity measures necessary to keep capital and capitalism afloat.
Conservative politicians and mainstream media normalise hate speech
Conservative politicians hate having to openly condemn fascists (fine people on both sides) because they know that there is value is using them during moments of crisis. At the same time, the news media is, by-and-large, incapable of making or understanding a sophisticated political argument about the rise of fascist ideologies and the causes. Editors and journalists are also reluctant to accept any responsibility themselves for repeating and amplifying the conservatives’ dog whistle political messaging that normalises hatred of foreigners (particularly Muslims and dark-skinned people).
We have seen this very clearly in the week since the March 15 attacks in Christchurch. Morrison’s ‘even-handed’ speeches and comments regarding unity and ‘tribalism’ have been favourably reported. It is these comments that garner front page attention while commentary exposing his earlier divisive comments about Muslim immigration is downplayed. Pauline Hanson has been quickly rehabilitated too, even though Fraser Anning was a member of her party when he was bumped into the Senate. Hanson has been welcomed back on to mainstream news media and given space to use the Christchurch events to re-up her anti-Muslim, anti-immigration position.
We’ve also been treated to the spectacle of newspapers like the Herald-Sun in Melbourne and Daily Telegraph in Sydney offering sympathetic front-page coverage of victims of the Christchurch shootings like this.
Perhaps the editors were hoping that we would forget the years of anti-Muslim rage that these Murdoch papers have carried on the front-page over the last 20 years, like this example.
Alex McKinnon’s thread on this issue is worth reading through. He documents very well the Daily Telegraph’s proud history of anti-Muslim front-pages.
There can be no doubt that the Murdoch press is too close to the white nationalist cause, and deliberately so. Murdoch hacks have chaired public meetings for leading ‘alt right’ figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and they would do so again if our anger hadn’t force Morrison to ban them from the country.
This is why we can be certain that the sympathetic coverage of Muslims won’t last, it is only temporary cover. Normal transmissions will resume shortly, as they did on Sky News. Less than 72 hours after Christchurch, former Norther Territory Chief Minister (and former Sky News host) Adam Giles was on the cable network calling for a clampdown on social media promoting hate speech. It’s almost as if the network chiefs have already forgotten that Giles lost his on-air role because of the backlash against his very soft interview with Australia’s leading Nazi, Blair Cottrell. Remember, Giles was back on air a couple of months after his suspension. We can expect a similar return to regular programming very soon this time too.
“You’ve shed a tear, now move on.
Look, over there a terrorist Muslim!”
There is ample evidence from the news media over recent days to believe that their support for the wave of public sympathy has crashed on the shore and is now receding. It is important to understand just why this repositioning is happening so quickly and why, at the same time, pro-Muslim sympathy is being so quickly squashed. On one hand, the horror of Christchurch cannot be ignored; public sentiment is such that politicians and the media must be seen to be doing something about it. Thus, we have 48 hours of sanctioned public mourning, but then, on Monday morning, it’s back to business as usual.
In this case, usual business is returning to the rhetoric of border security and community safety as quickly as possible and spinning the Christchurch attacks into the government’s re-election strategy. For example, by Tuesday morning following the attacks, Morrison had managed to twist his sympathy for the victims into signalling racist cuts in Australia’s immigration intake. ‘Keeping us safe,’ has become ‘keeping them out’ in a very short space of time.
The media plays along with this because that is the game they know well and are most comfortable with. But there’s also another reason that the news media plays along; journalists share the broad world view of the government and they support the State. The Fourth Estate is no longer holding power to account, it is presenting power’s account as the one true faith.
In the aftermath of an event like the Christchurch mosque attacks, when the public is demanding answers and action, politicians and media have a tendency to come together in common cause, and that is to deflect the blame away from themselves. This is why social media presents an easy target under such circumstances.
It is also now a common ‘go to’ by political and media elites. It builds on the technological determinism of the now discredited idea that young people learn to be violent because they play first-person-shooter video games and it gained widespread – though undeserved – popularity during and after the 2016 US Presidential election when sections of the media began to use the presence of heavily-shared anti-Clinton memes on social media for the Democratic Party’s unexpected (to them) loss to the populist outsider Donald Trump.
The whole experience of so-called ‘fake news’ has put technological control at the centre of mainstream political discourse. However, we can make similar arguments about the fallacy of this view too. There is no doubt that ‘fake news’ circulated during the American election campaign and it is clear that some of it originated on Russian servers or from sites where the involvement of Russian agents might reasonably be suspected. But sheeting home Trump’s victory to a Putin-inspired social media campaign of misinformation totally misses the actuality of what was happening at the time in American politics.
Donald Trump actually represented something; his populist rhetoric struck a chord with over 60 million American voters. Hillary Clinton’s ties into the American ruling class were also well known and her victory over Bernie Sanders in the Democrat primaries disillusioned many left-leaning party members. Trump campaigned hard and he had a lot of favourable coverage in the mainstream media, even when he was being ridiculed by some of the liberal (non-Fox) talk show hosts.
The bottom line is Trump was able to motivate and mobilise his base to go out and vote for him. If the trolls had simply stayed behind their keyboards, Clinton would most likely have won. However, there’s another salient point that’s relevant to my argument here: the mainstream media also aided Trump’s campaign by normalising him and building up the myth that he was some sort of business genius.
This idea undermines the mainstream narrative of blaming social media for Trump’s victory and we can apply a similar analysis to the radicalisation of white nationalists and the actions of those who take their ideology to the ‘real’ world with devastating consequences. Sections of the mainstream have been normalising white nationalism for several years now and its influence over public opinion is much stronger than that of social media.
If the Nazis and white supremacists were to stay comfortably ensconced behind their keyboards making racist memes they would be relatively easy to ignore. I know they’re on 4chan and 8chan and Gab, but I don’t have to go to those places and keep an eye on them. While ever they are only talking to themselves they are easy to ignore, but when they become sufficiently motivated that they will happily embark on a murderous rampage they present a real world problem.
Similarly, when the white nationalists want to take over the streets and have their goose-stepping marches we have to get out and mobilise against them. The real danger is that the nationalists and fascists become sufficiently strong that they can take the streets and begin attacking mosques or trade union offices en masse and in enough numbers that they can commit crimes with impunity.
Calling for a clampdown on social media is – to end on another tortured metaphor – is closing the stable door after the dead horse you’ve been flogging has pushed the cart out of the way and bolted for freedom. Clamping down on social media is exactly what the Surveillance State wants. It would be a cover to launch even more intrusive backdoor spyware to monitor all of us, not just incipient Nazi fan bois.
The real problem is not Nazi incels on social media, it is Nazi incels who are motivated to leave their houses and gather in numbers on a street near you.