Fascism and The Historical Irony of Facebook’s “Fake News” Problem
Fred Turner is a Stanford-based historian of 20th century media, who chronicled the emergence of what became the Internet from the ideals of 1960s Bay Area countercultural movements in his book “From Counterculture to Cyberculture.”
He also happened to write a book called, “The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties,” about how American media artists and theorists were disturbed by the tendency of radio and film to foment fascist movements in Europe in the 1930s and tried to create a new, more democratic approach to media in the U.S. in response.
Before the election, Turner and I did an event on Silicon Valley’s effect on American democracy at the San Francisco’s Mechanics Institute, which was founded by the city’s artisans, craftsmen and inventors in 1854 to address the educational needs of the rapidly growing Gold Rush city.
I wanted to catch up and get his reflections on the election and Facebook and Twitter’s impact on American politics. Much of the discussion in the press feels ahistorical and there is this irony in that the ideas behind networked and peer-to-peer media are rooted in a resistance to fascism and emerged from the lessons of World War II.
Q: So can you explain the core argument of your book?
Turner: In the late 1930s, when Germany turned fascist, Americans were mystified. Our intellectual leaders had long thought that Germany was the most culturally sophisticated nation in Europe. They were all asking how this had happened.
How did the country that brought us Goethe and Beethoven bring us Hitler?
Many Americans blamed the mass media. They had two different ways of thinking about it. First, some believed that Hitler and his clique were clinically insane. Somehow they had transferred their madness over the radio waves and through newsreel movie screens to ordinary Germans. Second, many believed that one-to-many media forced audiences into an authoritarian kind of passivity. When everyone turned their eyes and ears in the same direction, they appeared to be acting out the obedience expected of fascist citizens.
When World War II started, the Roosevelt administration wanted to create propaganda to make Americans fight fascism abroad. But the problem was — what media were they going to use? If they used mass media, they risked turning Americans into authoritarians. But if they didn’t, they wondered, how would they achieve the national unity they needed to fight fascism?
There was one school of thought that said, “We’ll just copy [Joseph] Goebbels. We’ll de-program Americans later [if they turn totalitarian].”
But there were about 60 American intellectuals who were part of something called the Committee for National Morale who had another idea. These were people like anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, psychologist Gordon Allport, and the curator Arthur Upham Pope.
They believed that we needed to create a kind of media that would promote democratic personalities. And if we did that, we could prevent racist nationalism. They dreamed of media that would surround you, that would require you to make your own choices and use your individual perception to define the images that mattered most to you. It was meant to be a kind of media environment within which you could make your own decisions, and so become more individually unique. At the same time, it put you in the company of others doing the same thing. The environment was designed to help forge both individual identity and collective unity simultaneously.
The Committee for National Morale didn’t end up making media. But a group of Bauhaus artists, who were escaping Hitler’s Germany, took up their ideas and began creating immersive, multi-image environments. Their first big work was a propaganda exhibition called “The Road To Victory” at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1942. Herbert Bayer and Edward Steichen surrounded visitors with images of all different sizes so that people could choose to be citizens in the company of others. It’s a form that surrounds you, which is why I called the book “The Democratic Surround.”
Over the next 50 years, through a series of twists and turns, the democratic media dreams of the Committee for National Morale actually set the stage for Facebook, Twitter and other kinds of peer-to-peer media.
The irony is that with Donald Trump, we are seeing a medium and a set of tactics designed to confront fascism being used to produce a new authoritarianism.
Q: What is fascism and how would you define it?
Turner: Fascism, and authoritarianism more generally, is about particular political movements in the early 20th century. They generally feature a leader with dictatorial powers, a single party and the ability to enforce the will of party through military means. You can think of Mussolini’s Italy, Hideki Tojo’s Japan and Nazi Germany.
Some key elements of fascism include the following:
- A reversionary desire to return to an imagined state of greatness from the past.
- A celebration of heterosexual masculinity. You could think of Vladimir Putin’s need to take off his shirt or Donald Trump’s obsession with the size of his hands.
- A charismatic leadership style.
- An absolute disregard for facts and a celebration of myth.
- An integration of the corporation and the state, which is what Mussolini wanted to do and feels reminiscent of what Trump wants to do today.
- A deep, structural racism. There is always someone on the outs. In Japan, it was particular minority groups. In Germany, it was obviously the Jews, but it was also gypsies, queers and communists, among others. And you can see that kind of racism, that kind of in-group and out-group dynamic here, with Trump.
Many people have called Donald Trump a populist. I don’t think that’s quite right. His anti-elitist rhetoric is certainly in that vein, but his racism, his sexism, and his emphasis on a return to a formerly great America, belong to the fascist line.
To me, the constellation of forces that he’s put into play look like early Mussolini. The key difference is that Mussolini and Hitler came to power by essentially building parties first. Trump has use the media to take over an existing state apparatus. Whether he’s able to do what he wants or not, whether he’s competent or not, and whether institutions will resist him, that’s an open question. I don’t think he’s Andrew Jackson though.
Q: Let’s go back to media now. You’re talking about media exhibitions in the 1940s. How does the work that these thinkers and artists were doing translate to how online media works today?
Turner: The multi-media images in “The Democratic Surround” provide a glimpse of the kind of perceptual world that media thinkers believed would make us less racist and more embracing of our differences. It’s a world in which we’re meant to practice looking at and identifying with others who are not like ourselves.
The surround aesthetics of the 1940s came to shape the 1950s, 60s and 70s by moving through two worlds. One, they became the basis of cold war propaganda exhibitions. Well into the 1960s, Americans built multi-image propaganda environments, with an eye toward democratizing populations in authoritarian countries. They built multi-image environments as part of trade fairs or exhibitions in the belief that they would give people the ability to practice the modes of perception that democracy depends upon.
In 1955, Edward Steichen built what remains the most influential of these environments, “The Family of Man.” It was an exhibition of 500 photographs of people around the world, hung in a surround format. The US government sent the exhibition around the world for a decade. It’s now on permanent display in Luxembourg. The show’s catalog has sold more than 8 million copies.
The second way the surround aesthetic has come down to us and helped drive the rise of social media is through the art world. Thanks to John Cage, it became the basis of Happenings in New York in the late 1950s. Cage believed that concerts and symphonies embodied the hierarchies of old Europe and were essentially exercises in domination by aural means. He knew the Bauhaus refugees well. And so he did with sound what they had done with pictures. He designed sonic surrounds that would open people up to listening to sounds around them and choosing the ones that were most valuable to them.
In the late 1950s he taught these techniques to the artists who made the first Happenings. Then the people who are hanging out in this art world, like Stewart Brand, saw this open surround form and took it with them to make things like the 1966 Trips Festival in San Francisco, which was a psychedelic surround.
Events like the Trips Festival helped drive a countercultural dream of escaping party-style politics through technology. If they just built the right geodesic domes, took the right LSD, and surrounded themselves with the right music and light shows, lots of folks believed they could establish a new and better society. This society would be based on a shared mindset, a shared consciousness that technology would help create.
This idea of shared consciousness became a conceptual foundation of the Internet as it emerged into public view. Stewart Brand and the people who were building communes in the 1960s reimagined computers as technologies of liberation. They turned the dreams of the commune movement — which by then had failed — into fantasies that the Internet could be an “electronic frontier.” The computer would now be a “personal” technology — that is, a tool like LSD for the transformation of consciousness. And the net would link these technology-enabled minds together in “virtual community.”
The counterculture’s utopian vision of technology still lingers in the air when, say, Ev Williams founds Twitter, or even when Mark Zuckerberg declares his desire to connect everyone on the planet through Facebook.
Q: But most people weren’t experiencing these exhibitions or psychedelic festivals. They were watching ABC, CBS and NBC.
Turner: By 1968, the psychedelic experiences I’m taking about were widespread. The rock concert was available. Thousands of Americans had gotten to experience it. They were quite universal by the 1970s and 1980s.
One questions we might have is why multi-media didn’t replace one-to-many media, the way the Committee for National Morale hoped it would. If multi-media was such a democratizing force, why is mass media still here?
One of the things we see with Trump and the Twitter-sphere is that when new technologies come on the scene, they don’t replace old technologies. They layer onto older technologies.
Twitter and its liberating potential is already mass mediated. It’s already commercial. When Donald tweets, he isn’t just tweeting to a general populace. He’s generating stories for CBS and NBC, and for that matter, Facebook. He’s generating stories that create an entire media sphere on their own. That is the source of his power. He is using the old fascist charisma, but he’s doing it in a media environment in which the social and the commercial, the individual and the mass, are already completely entwined.
Q: What could or should be done about fake news?
I think “fake news’ is a really important phenomenon. It’s rumor, and one of the things social media do best is accelerate rumors. Social media radically disable fact checking. They make it easy for people to make up stories that can travel at the speed of light. Social media also show that the original idea that the Internet could be a neutral dissemination medium for news was just a fantasy.
I’m not at all sure how firms should manage the new situation, let alone how the state should intervene. “Fake news” is only part of the problem. The real problem is actually more of a structural problem. Media firms in lots of different subsets need to make money on advertising. When you are dependent on advertising, controversy is good. Truth ceases to matter. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. What matters is that it gets a lot of attention.
The structural incentives for commercial firms are to leave lots of leeway around the truth of stories because they generate ads. And this means that in many ways, “fake” is becoming our new “real.”
I don’t know how we rehabilitate science and fact. Some large subset of our population believes that climate change is a hoax. For them, the fake is completely real.
When you look the mid-20th century, you see Germany leaving facts behind too. Citizens cease to debate the German economy, and instead put their faith in a charismatic leader. In the US now there is a large population that can’t understand what’s happening to them politically, economically or culturally. Today, people can’t understand why abortion is legal. They can’t understand why gay marriage is legal. They can’t understand where the factories have gone.
It’s the turn from fact that makes fascism possible. If they turn away from reasoning altogether, they can turn toward feeling like part of a body following a charismatic leader.
That said, we have as a country been in terrible places before. PBS has been broadcasting clips from the 1960s, showing riots, people screaming epithets, and bigots, who at the time, had radically misplaced beliefs that African Americans were somehow less than us. At some deep level, I believe what Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Q: What advice would you have to founders and people building products?
Turner: I don’t envy engineers or executives at tech firms. They’ve been put in the position of being legislators for our public debates. America’s architecture for such debates — Congress, the courts, the executive branch, and to some degree, the press — was built in the 18th century. But the conditions of public discourse have changed, and the speed at which those conditions are changing has accelerated too.
This makes engineers reluctant, but necessary, brokers of public discourse.
They should first exercise restraint, which they’ve done. They’ve allowed lots of ideas to come through.
But secondly, there’s a tough question in front of them right now: At what point do you stop exercising that restraint? Is there a time when something is so pernicious to the social good that it should be barred from being spoken on my platform? Germany outlaws anti-Semitic hate speech, for instance. Should Facebook?
So, if you start thinking down that line, if someone threatened murder, you’d probably take that off the platform. If someone threatened assault, you’d take that off.
But if a presidential candidate threatens to imprison an entire religious minority, if that candidate tells completely false stories that then circulates through these platform, should you remove them? And if so, how? I don’t know. But the German example would be good to look at.
In any case, we can’t pretend that engineers are not legislators of public discourse anymore.
Q: One thing that is interesting to me is how discourse around racism has been coded — on both the right and the left — for my entire life. On the right, you have the legacy of the Southern strategy developed by George Wallace, and then on the left, you have euphemisms for addressing the effects of institutional discrimination through talking about the value of diversity. This year, all of the norms and rules for discussing race have been blown apart and the discourse now is so explicit. What do you make of that and how social media has impacted that?
Turner: I was born in 1961. The explicit racism that you would hear about while I was growing up was about enforcing white domination. White power was widely assumed to be a normal thing in that period; the challenge for racists was to keep it that way.
One of the things I see now is that even with white racism bubbling up, there’s a new context. Today whiteness is just a race like any other. There’s a sense that whiteness is not the hegemonic norm. Rather, its dominance is something that has to be recovered. In that, we can catch a glimpse of a emerging American society that is genuinely multiracial.
Q: Any other thoughts?
Turner: If we want to make comparisons of today to 20th century fascism, I’d think about Mussolini and not Hitler.
The thing we forget about Mussolini is that he was a bumbling figure. A needy bumbler with the same need for showmanship that Trump has. Hitler, in contrast, was a full-on ideologue.
Trump is an opportunist, so it’s hard to know where he will go. Even if he were merely a kleptocrat, he might end up empowering others later who are ideologues through deeply undermining American law, norms and democracy.
If Donald Trump is a fascist, he’s a fascist for this time and this country, because the source of his power is his ability to manage and grab attention. He’s constantly seeking it. It’s a weird kind of charisma, and in that seeking, he draws us together, no matter how much we might disagree with his ideas.