Comrades, I am really scared about the rise of fascism in the world generally and in the corner of it I inhabit, that being North America.
I read recently that adherents to extreme right ideologies in the US (the sort who would build pipe bombs and mail them to ex-presidents, actors) are numerically small. And yet they have an impact that far outstrips their numbers. They’re not necessarily hugely wealthy themselves and while they have sympathetic ears in corporate boardrooms and indeed the White House, their views are considered repugnant by the vast majority of people in the United States and Canada.
And yet in certain spheres they dominate. They build myths, repeat them, repeat the repetitions and cite themselves to build lies into facts and conspiracy theories into gospel.
There’s lots of ways they do this but there’s one way — use of social media — where we who would preserve a society that’s governed by democracy, where people seek to increase peace and fight bigotry and xenophobia can fight back.
But we’re going to need software.
There was a time when I tried to organize some friends and allies online into a network of comment-creators and online-response writers to go against the deluge of racism that would follow in the digital exhaust stream of news stories that was the comments section.
It seemed a reasonable proposition. I reckoned it was likely just a handful of zealots with multiple accounts and other manually-operated sneaky methods for appearing to be an army.
I didn’t get very far. My friends told me to ignore the comments — they don’t matter — or that they didn’t read them or they didn’t have time or energy. Others didn’t want to bring the negative attention down on themselves. Because the trolls had started going after progressive online voices — especially voices that presented as women and racialized people — in other fora and in real life. Doxxing had just become a thing.
Cardboard cutout news sources
Things are much worse now. They’re not riding on the coattails of established media. They’re inventing media, creating cardboard cut out news sources to front the myths and hate stories. Then they’re using bots and ad agencies and other ‘mechanical turk’ services where people in low-wage countries earn pennies per post to create bogus accounts to spread lies on the most current social media platforms.
They’re life-like and real enough to boil the bile you already have in your soul or to calm any urge you have to fight back if you don’t. They’re making us feel outnumbered even though all actual evidence shows we are not.
So if it was impossible to get progressives to organize to fight the trolls with their bare hands (and keyboards) back then, I have to imagine it would be laughable now. I give as thin evidence of this the fact that when I resigned my admin-ship of the troll-fighting Facebook group I created — called the Commentariat — ?no one took up the mantle.
We lefties are always saying this. And l’m pretty sure I’m not the only one tired of hearing this. But it’s more important to fight the trolls now than ever.
We need to do this because we cannot trust the corporations that run social media to do it. In the wake of the election that brought Trump to power, Facebook most famously admitted its role in spreading right-wing tropes and other fabrications and has slowly eased its way into at least offering viewer some insight into the source of the meme they’re viewing.
Which is not enough. Not by half.
We can’t rely on the corporations that own and operate social media
We need to do this because we cannot expect the government to do it. I think the first year of the Trump era is pretty clear evidence of that.
However we can’t kick it old school. The days of policing a bulletin board armed only with a querty keyboard and a lot of coffee are over. We need software.
“What kind of software,” you ask.
Think of a sort of anti-plagiarism or anti-spam software with machine-learning ability to sniff out rightwing bullshit and report it to the relevant authorities as either a violation of their terms of service, human rights law or both.
It’s deployed as a browser plugin or extension.
People using the internet can add to its corpus (its hall of shame if you will) at the click of a button and indicate their desire to file an official complaint over it. It can optionally mark or indicate known troll posts, or hide them altogether. There are versions that work on mobile devices too. Somehow.
It screen-scrapes the text and the image, compares it to the sorts of text and image patterns it has on file and then adds it to the shit list. Then it displays a ‘Report this’ button, while altering the design of the content to indicate that it’s a trope, trollbot or fake news.
It has a website people can visit to add their names to complaints against the sources and sites that spew right wing hate.
In an ideal world it offers the visitor a link to actual content debunking the trope, much like the New York Times did with the migrant caravan trope that is getting the jingoist vote all lathered up ahead of the US Congressional Midterms.
It would possibly be cheaper and more cost effective to hire our own Ukranian convict labour or pennies-per-post bot pilots to just fight fire with fire. Or fight fire with truth for that matter.
The internet can still be a force for good
But I still believe that the internet can be a force against bigotry and greed and in favour of enlightenment and expansion of human understanding. It won’t be if we’ve got bots fighting bots and paid trolls shouting over paid trolls making up 97 per cent of the traffic on the internet.
And I think it would be a worthwhile project to bring together union activists, anti-oppression activists, open media activists, open source software advocates and anyone who deplores the loss of sanity in our political discourse in an amalgam of online and in-real-life activism.
We can’t just ignore the comments. They are very much affecting real-life politics and real lives. I welcome comments on this from humans or robots, but if you’re the latter, know that I will be coming for you. Soon.