We Need to Talk About Fascism

This is not a post that I want to be writing. But we have to face the fact that fascism, the genocidal 20th century ideology that preaches the elimination of “undesirables”, the destruction of civil liberties, and the annihilation of the individual, is not only still present but globally resurgent. It’s not hyperbole to call this a dire threat to human civilization. And so it behooves each and every one of us to think about how to react and resist that, as individuals and as communities, in the many roles we play throughout our lives.

This means, for me, that as someone who works on nurturing online communities, there are things that I must consider.

First, we have to acknowledge the breadth of fascism as it exists now. Trumpism is fascism, predicated as it is on erecting ethno-religious barriers to freedom of movement, citizenship, and survival. Fascist, too, are the various “nationalist” political movements cropping up elsewhere in the world: Jobbik, Ukip, the Front National, Kelly Leitch’s wing of the Canadian conservatives, and so on. Outside of party politics, we’ve seen the rise of “neoreaction” and the “alt-right”, two distinct wings of a broader movement of internet fascism; one, monarchist and elitist; the other perhaps the most dedicated participants in the fascist practice of disrupting and attacking discourse.

It’s a difficult and grey question to ask how widespread the rot is within right-wing political groupings in general, but it’s impossible to deny now the ongoing mainstreaming of fascist ideas and discourses. And this creates a severe concern for people who maintain online communities, one that is distinct from other forms of hate and extremism.

Fascism isn’t merely a bad idea, that can be argued away, or which is self-evidently abhorrent. Fascism is a political praxis based on the disruption of discourse; fascists remove the possibility for debate and understanding in hopes of creating an environment of fear and mob mentality, into which their appeals to base racial fearmongering can be thrown. Nowhere is this more evident than on the internet, where the conditions of discourse already facilitate it. People have enough trouble having good faith discussions online when all people involved are actually acting in good faith.

But the key thing is, fascists are not acting in good faith. Bad faith is core to their ideology. Lying, dissembling, and abusing the facts are a reflexive tactic. And the reality is that modern internet fascism has its own system for backing false claims. The fascists have a whole news site (Breitbart) that cultivates a deranged view of reality. “Fake news” isn’t just spread by people on Facebook who don’t know better; fascists are happy to use any source, no matter how ridiculous, that will back their ideas. Fascists don’t participate in discourses to learn, or to teach, or even to convince others. Fascists participate in discourse to sabotage it, to destroy the possibility of discourse, because they win when everyone is operating in their world of base feelings. They accomplish this by confusing the fence-sitters and exhausting, or intimidating, their opponents.

Fascists lie constantly, almost as a reflex. Milo Yannopoulos’ reaction to having his talk cancelled at UC Davis is a pretty trivial example: He immediately took to twitter to claim that there had been people with hammers and broken windows, and that campus security at Davis couldn’t guarantee people’s safety. Said campus police was on twitter that same night to say that no, there was nobody with a hammer and no windows were broken at the protest. Fascists pepper their statements with small trivial lies because general confusion and distrust is their aim.

And, frankly, it works. Most people don’t expect someone to be lying near-constantly; it’s exhausting keeping up with the nonstop fabrications, and things slip through the cracks. We assume that trivial details (which invariably further the worldview the fascist is promoting) are true. If one tries to argue against the barrage of lies, one is then quickly caught in the net of having to argue every minutia of the fascist’s argument. On the internet, those arguments are often backed by articles in propaganda sites that masquerade as real news outlets. This is by design: Any argument with fascists will end in debating the validity of news.whitegenocide.info as a news source. Fascists want you to fact-check them. They want you to spew a long list of why they’re wrong, to add to the disorienting barrage of conflicting information out there. They know that only people who already trust you more than the fascist will take your fact-checking on face value; they know that people are not conditioned to assume someone is a complete liar. And, most of all, they know that creating an environment of doubt only helps them in the long run.

Fascism aims to monopolize certainty; to make the world so uncertain, constantly variable, and impossible to comprehend, that shocked bystanders will gravitate to their singular and dogmatic supply of ready-made and easily digestible truths. They prey on people’s preexisting prejudices, hoping to nurture and amplify them. Those who would oppose fascists, they attack in hopes of driving away or intimidating.

For online spaces, this creates a dire problem. Because online spaces are often primarily spaces for discourse, fascism presents a sometimes-organized threat against the very function of those spaces, on top of the threat presented by any hate or bigotry. And I do think we have an ethical obligation not to normalize or provide a platform to hateful or bigoted speech. Most people doing community leadership stuff (at least, most people worth talking to) will agree with that basic premise. Delete the bigoted comments, ban the perpetrators, move on.

Except, it gets murkier with fascists. Because fascists will not always go out and say “I’m a bigot, ban me.” They’ll often participate in what seems to be good faith. But, given what they believe, one can never actually be sure that it is good faith; and part of the job here is realizing we all have blind spots and can’t necessarily judge that all the time, or see everything that goes on. As such: Any fascist should be regarded as potentially unsafe, for the space and its users.

“But my community isn’t political.” That won’t save you. If anything, it makes the problem worse. The neoreaction movement recruited heavily from online tech communities, particularly in open-source; the “alt-right” has deep ties to gaming — most of us heard of Breitbart originally through their involvement with gamergate. 4chan’s /pol/ isn’t populated with news junkies who read DC blogs; it’s populated with the denizens of its nerdy-interest boards such as /a/ and /vg/. Reddit did, at one point, get invaded with white supremacists; but the “homegrown” movement of reddit fascists is now much, much bigger.

The end result of this is that communities which aren’t about politics end up acting as recruiting grounds for fascist groups. By gleefully taking the side of abusers and attackers during gamergate, Breitbart was able to position itself, to people who were invested in that whole mess, as a source of truth.

“But the free discourse!” I think a lot of people have concerns about limiting or clamping down on speech in communities they moderate or lead. But the reality with fascist discourse is that it aims to disrupt and drive off opposing discourses. It does that by sheer exhaustion, by arguing in bad faith, by harassment and attacks, by making people feel unwelcome. We have to consider the ability of those most vulnerable in this environment to participate in discourse themselves; it’s their freedom, too, at risk. And allowing fascism to dominate spaces, as it wants to do, will not help anyone who isn’t a fascist.

So… what do we do about this? I don’t have a complete prescription. Not a general solution for every community, anyway. Me? I’m likely going to be summarily banning people that I know for sure support fascist groups. I highly doubt their ability to contribute anything, and it’s my view at this point that nothing will be gained by “dialogue” with them. But it’s important to stop and confront this, and note that just because fascists have obtained a measure of power and a veneer of respectability, we don’t have to normalize them. Part of this is ass-covering, too — saying this now makes this stance clear and transparent going forward.

What is clear to me is that we need to understand and attack fascism using a different framework than the ones we’ve been using. Fascists are not low-intensity bad users that can be ignored, they’re not trolls that we can feed enough rope until they justify their own bans, and they’re not just harassers and abusers (though they are often both of those things). They’re something different which demands the evolution of new responses to safeguard spaces that are vulnerable to their tactics. And I believe taking explicit, forthright anti-fascist stances — with the clarity that this includes modern fascists such as Trumpists — is a necessary first step.