Intellectual vaccination: Can the social movements defend ourselves from the brain plagues?

Image via Shutterstock.

By Daphne Lawless and Byron Clark.

Written for the Pandemic issue of Fightback magazine. Subscribe here.

In 2018, Fightback published an article (https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/) on the increasing penetration by the global activist Left by fascist-like ideas and ways of thinking – including apologetics for repressive nationalism, transphobia and racism, and sheer denial of genocides and other war crimes. We used the metaphor of a “zombie plague”, where such noxious, deadly ideas became not only accepted but promoted within Left-wing circles.These ideas are presented  as “anti-Western” or “anti-neoliberal”, even though they are not only hateful or victim blaming, but in many cases sheer conspiracy theory as wild as anything which comes out of the “QAnon” cult. Believing these ideas often meant not only contradicting the very basis of socialist or communist politics (universal solidarity with the oppressed and exploited), but abandoning one’s critical faculties altogether, in favor of believing convenient-sounding or exciting lies.

One example from the recent US presidential election will show that this is still a problem. After Joe Biden appeared to have clinched the necessary electoral victory, Left-wing Twitter was alive with retweets of unsourced claims that Republican figures such as Mitt Romney or even Iraq War criminal Dick Cheney were going to be in the Biden cabinet. This is the kind of thing which appeals to the left-wing imagination, as proof that the US Democrats are depraved warmongers, not much different from the fash-curious Republican Party. The fact that it was utterly unfounded didn’t matter. What mattered is how much it confirmed what people wanted to believe anyway – what comedian Steven Colbert calls “truthiness”.

More than two years later, the metaphor of a “plague” has come to life. The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has been promoted, exacerbated and made more deadly by the simultaneous spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation. People have literally died due to the spread of ideas that the pandemic is not real, not serious, or that the basic health measures which have kept countries like Vietnam or Aotearoa/New Zealand relatively safe are ineffective, or a tool of the Global Conspiracy of “woke elites” (usually Jewish) which is the hobgoblin of the modern reactionary mind.

The struggle against COVID-19 disinformation is in fact the same as the struggle against the new wave of conspiracy theory-based reactionary and fascist movements – these ideas inhabit the same “conspiracy theory universe” and make the same assumptions about the world and how it works. Anti-democratic or even pro-fascist ideas, disguised as “anti-establishment” or “anti-status quo”, have expanded and spread within the social justice movements. The activist Left must come to terms with how, over the last 10 or 15 years, we have allowed ourselves to become a dumpster for disinformation spread by authoritarian states who happen to oppose the US, or in some cases by actual fascists. It’s not just the QAnon followers or the fans of Billy Te Kahika Jr who happily spread memes which have nothing to do with reality because they confirm what we wanted to believe anyway.

Laundering fascist ideas through Leftist mouths

We have to understand how successful these (numerically tiny) forces have been at “laundering” reactionary ideas in mainstream or Left-wing circles. This is a concept which is also dear to the heart of Steve Bannon, the fascist operative who was very close to the Donald Trump campaign in 2016. In the 2020 campaign, Bannon resurfaced with a wild tale about certain incriminating emails and photographs (the story never seemed to get straight about how they were incriminating) supposedly found on a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter. Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post:

Bannon’s basic insight has long been that for such smears and disinformation to work, they must somehow get vaulted out of the conservative media bubble and into mainstream news coverage. …Back when Bannon was first trying to get the general bundle of right wing Biden-Ukraine smears taken seriously, journalist Joshua Green explained how all this works. He reported that Bannon was frustrated that these stories were “stuck in the conservative ecosystem.” …The Bannon playbook dictates that such efforts must “enter the public consciousness” as something other than “conservative attacks,” Green explained. It was only through getting “coverage in the mainstream press” that they might get “weaponized” or “legitimized.”” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/15/trumps-fake-new-biden-scandal-has-deeper-purpose-bannon-revealed-it/)

In other words: disinformation will be just plain rejected if its real source is apparent, but it becomes “weaponized” when a trusted source (for most people, the mainstream media) gives it credibility. Of course, Left-wing activist circles don’t trust the mainstream media. Therefore, to get these ideas circulating in Left circles, they must come from a source which the Left takes seriously. If you can convince a leader or prominent writer in the movements of a toxic idea – or create your own sources for disinformation which “blend in” with the existing ecosystem of Left media – such a source may act as a “superspreader”, massively increasing the reach of such ideas. 

The Red-Brown Zombie Plague gave many examples of how fascists and agents of the Russian state successfully established themselves in the Western anti-war and anti-imperialist movement (through emphasising the “Left-sounding” aspects of their beliefs). Not only did these sources become “superspreaders” themselves, but they successfully laundered their ideas through many genuine but incautious Leftists. One prominent example of this is journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose effective criticisms of the US security state in the past have gained him an audience for his more recent apologies for Trump (and Vladimir Putin), on the grounds that anyone who’s being opposed by the FBI and the CIA can’t be all bad. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard also got a supportive response on social media for her Left-sounding attacks on neoliberal Democrats – never mind that she is infamous for her Islamophobia, her support for the Hindu-nationalist Modi regime in India, and her apologies for the bloodthirsty tyranny of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. 

Similarly, in many countries including Aotearoa, anti-trans activists, often funded by American fundamentalist churches, have succeeded in laundering “TERF” ideas into mainstream or even radical circles by adopting a protective camouflage of “feminism” or “standing up for women and girls”. In the same way, one of the most disturbing aspects of the rise of Billy Te Kahika Jr and his “NZ Public Party” is how he successfully “weaponizes” conspiracy ideas, which often have close ties to white supremacist movements, to a disproportionately Māori and Pasefika audience.

Most of the conspiracies promoted by Te Kahika have their origins in the John Birch Society, a fringe conservative group founded in the United States by Robert Welch in 1958. Welch was known for  labeling political opponents as soft on communism, he described then President Dwight D. Eisenhower as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy. According to Welch, “both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a ‘one-world socialist government.’”

Te Kahika has parroted these lines to a new audience via his Facebook live streams. The John Birch society was one of the earliest progenitors of health-related conspiracy theories. In the 1950s, many “Birchers” became involved in protesting the use of fluoride in public water supplies, arguing fluoridation was a secret Communist conspiracy that would inflict a host of ills on an unsuspecting public (this was the inspiration for the character of Jack D. Ripper in the 1964 film Dr Strangelove). The opposition to UN Agenda 21, a favourite target of Te Kahika, also originates with the John Birch Society

Shortly before the election, Stuff Circuit produced a forty-five minute documentary on Te Kahika. It focused largely on his character and didn’t mention the origins of many of the conspiracy theories he pushes, though it did touch on the anti-semetic nature of some of them. Media for the most part avoided giving coverage to Te Kahika’s conspiracy theories, lest it give them some legitimacy. (See also ‘Conspiracy theorists big losers in NZ election’ in this issue).

In a similar vein, the lesson to take from the last weeks of the US presidential campaign is that the reason why “Hunter’s laptop” didn’t take off as a serious threat to the Biden campaign, while Hillary Clinton’s private email server more or less sunk her campaign in 2016, was that this time the mainstream media didn’t promote the story, apart from the notorious New York Post tabloid. Twitter and Facebook actively blocked its spread – according to speculation, because they were asked to by law enforcement. This provoked outraged cries of “censorship” not only from Trumpist politicians, but from writers who are known themselves to be “superspreaders” of the Russian state’s disinformation within Left-wing circles – in particular, Glenn Greenwald.

Quarantining the brain-plague

It seems that Fightback has not been alone in using the metaphor of fascistic ideas as a pandemic. New Zealand-based coder and tech and society expert Serena Chen has used this very metaphor in two essays in a recent book, Shouting Zeros and Ones: Digital Technology, Ethics and Policy in New Zealand

Chen told Newsroom editor Marc Daalder: 

“we can look at what makes people ‘susceptible’ and ‘immune’ for ideas on how to guard against extremism. We can recognise that these ideas do not live in a vacuum, and consider the spread of the idea in regards to the people and the environments in which it lives. We can recognise that this model is dynamic and constantly evolving.”      (https://www.newsroom.co.nz/can-we-fight-online-fascism-like-we-fought-covid-19)

Chen’s essays draw an essential analogy between fascists and internet trolling, which explains why such ideas spread so easily via social media:

Perhaps one of the most recognisable characteristics of a fascist movement is its lack of ideological cohesion… This self-contradictory ideology contributes to a manufactured nihilism, a crisis of epistemology. It creates lasting confusion around what is true, so that a) the populace become more susceptible to lies, and b) they must rely instead on a strong, authoritarian figure to tell them what is ‘true’.

The defining expressions of fascist movements are thus more aesthetic than ideological; no one knows what is true, how can anyone make political decisions, or vote? Symbols are another great way to fly under the radar of the mainstream, while giving a wink and a nod to those in the know… Irony in particular can be a safe way to explore radical or extremist ideas before committing to them in the public eye.

Over time, a community that is accepting of edgy jokes is going to start accruing people who think these things earnestly. And by Poe’s Law, no one can truly distinguish who is being earnest and who is having a laugh. …Exposure to milder forms of an ideology without any counterpositions can prime people to accept more extreme forms…. Over-repetition and bots can force fringe ideas into the mainstream and normalise once unthinkable ideologies. 

Techniques such as spamming and bot usage necessarily degrade authenticity, trust and the ability to form genuine connections over the internet. The degradation of trust also makes us more susceptible to cynicism – which fascist movements prey upon. It does not make for a future we want to live in.

The performative and participatory nature of online social platforms incentivises individuals to cultivate followings, give ‘hot takes’ and accrue views and engagement metrics – not too different from the pressures felt by news outlets.

Trolls don’t necessarily believe in their own arguments; the goal is not to convince but to ensnare, enrage and entrap people with prepared gotchas. Trolling is something traditional media bodies and politicians have been ill-equipped to deal with. When reporting on bad-faith movements, we must recognise the ridiculousness of the message, while recognising the seriousness of its impact.

All this is to say that fascism, like trolling, actively degrades community trust and safety, the ability to discuss and debate ideas, and even the very idea of truth itself. It is for this reason that conspiracy theory, denialism, and all other ideas which rely on “unknowability” and encourage people to simply choose whatever reality appeals to them, are poison to the very possibility of democracy, and therefore of any socialist future.

Intellectual hygiene for leftists

We here offer a few suggestions for things that socialists and others active in the social movements can do to stop “intellectual pandemics” spreading in our own movements.

Interrogate sources. When passing on “hot memes” or “killer dunks” on social media, we have to be careful to look below the surface content and see exactly who is promoting it. As Fightback has repeatedly commented, fascism is capable of producing perfectly “Left-sounding” takes, thus building up “social capital” in Left-wing circles and helping it weaponise its more evil ideas later. Careless Leftists have ended up boosting conspiracy theorists or even fascists because they talked a good “anti-neoliberal” game.

Fight both anti-intellectualism and elitism. We might use the term “intellectual anti-vaxxery” to describe the idea that education and science are not necessary in working class and radical movements, or even that they are elitist. It goes along with the idea that the “instincts” (in class society, that usually means the prejudices) of working people are superior to any bourgeois education or expertise.

In contrast, more than a hundred years ago, German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg promoted the concept of bringing “workers and science together” – working people being the force which can change the world, and science being the understanding they need to change it. We have to reassert the radical Left’s belief, shared with the Christian tradition, that the truth will set us free. On the other hand, memes and myths which are popular but baseless might be popular and “fun”, but are in fact intellectual poison which softens our communities up for fascism. To this extent – while “upping our meme game” is no doubt useful – we should honour, promote, and prize those doing long-form research, analysis, commentary and arguments. (Including, we hope, the Fightback media project itself!)

Build stronger communities. In one sense this includes the traditional concept of the “safe space”, that we should provide a community where marginalised voices are protected and upheld and oppressive behaviour is not tolerated. But activist Left circles should also be safe spaces for rationality and evidence-based discussion, where baseless but “aesthetically pleasing” memes don’t get circulated. Serena Chen comments:

We must uplift and create more public figures who practice the kinds of speech that make it more likely for people to express compassion, empathy and kindness towards each other. Anger is a powerful emotion, but so can be pride in ourselves for doing the right thing, a camaraderie with people from different backgrounds coming together.

We must change the culture of our communities to one where we are free to talk about ideas without posturing or ego….When you see problematic behaviour crop up in your friend group, family, communities – you are the first line of defence….As for small-to-medium-sized communities and websites, they should be emboldened to actively moderate their communities, without fear of the ‘free speech’ concern troll.

To a large extent, the activist Left is the “canary in the coalmine” for new intellectual plagues. Because of our higher level of politicisation and our connections with the most oppressed in society, we often become aware of dangerous ideas long before wider society takes them seriously. It is therefore extremely serious when we find ourselves starting to promote those ideas ourselves. We must do better.

Comments

  1. “communist politics (universal solidarity with the oppressed and exploited)”

    Spare us the fiction. Communism is the most bloodthirsty movement in modern history with a hundred million dead bodies on its hands, all of them oppressed and exploited. They make Fascists look like a bunch of amateurs by comparison. However nice it claims to be on paper, Communism is just a sledge hammer in the face of the very people it claims to liberate.

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