Technofascism and the three percent

Everywhere I look, I see the magic number: 3%. On the right, a whole quasi-militia movement is named that. On the left, activists report “it takes 3.5% of a population engaged in sustained nonviolent resistance to topple brutal dictatorships.” Nassim Taleb argues that once an intransigent minority reaches “3 or 4%” of the total population, the latter will “have to submit to their preferences.”

But it seems like everyone is intransigent now — and I believe technology has a lot to do with that.

The causality is pretty straightforward. Social media acts as a massive collective Sorting Hat, silently assigning most of us to filter bubbles wherein our beliefs and biases are rarely challenged. News (or “news”) sources rise up to cater to those filter bubbles, powered by tech’s ability to provide cheap global distribution to many millions to anyone with a blog and a knack for clickbait headlines.

Then, slowly, these isolated groups do what isolated groups do: bit by bit, degree by degree, they — and, especially, their attitudes towards other groups — become more extreme. Increasing extremity in one group provokes a backlash of counter-extremity in other groups, and the vicious downward spiral continues. Thanks, social media!

Obviously this doesn’t happen to everyone. But remember those links above: you only need 3% of a population to be intransigent activists to have a massive effect on society, on the scale of overthrowing entire governments. But the assumption there is that there’s only one hard-core 3% movement, versus a bland majority and a small oppressive cabal. What happens when we have two hardcore intransigent 3% movements? Or three? Or more?

What happens if and when one of them is fascist?

This seems like a good time to point out that both the right and the left claim they’re fighting fascism. Right-wingers in America and Europe claim the West is at war with fascist radical Islam in the form of ISIS/Daesh and other extremists — “Salafascists” to use Taleb’s term. (I am not suggesting that Taleb, who I consider one of our era’s great minds, can be categorized as either “left” or “right.”)

In their defense, Daesh does exist, and is unspeakably horrible, and does want to bury Western civilization. On the other hand, radical Islam is a laughably tiny minority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and is arguably fuelled mostly by oppressive Middle Eastern governments, many of which have, awkwardly, historically been supported by the West; Daesh is a weak faraway quasi-state on the verge of collapse; and despite a few awful successes, extremist Islamic terrorists have shown no ability to mount any kind of actual sustained assault on the values and institutions of the enormously wealthier and more powerful West, unless you count triggering massive overreactions.

But in a right-wing filter bubble, it’s apparently easy to be convinced that there are “no-go” Muslim-controlled regions throughout Europe, that a creeping takeover of Western institutions by Sharia law is already underway, that your local shopping mall may very well be under surveillance right now by planners of the next catastrophic terror attack, etc., even though none of these statements bears even the slightest tangential connection to reality. Thanks, social media!

That’s why the American left wing says they’re fighting fascists; they believe that this ridiculous, irrational fear is being deliberately stoked and used as a stalking horse for actual, outright, white-supremacy fascism of the National Socialist variety. And, I mean, it’s hard to look at Steve Bannon’s history of on-the-record statements and not find that a whole lot more convincing than the batshit “We must defend ourselves against Muslim refugees because many are ISIS agents planning to impose Sharia law on the West!” mindset.

(For context, my homeland Canada gladly took in 39,000 Syrian refugees last year, which is the rough equivalent of the USA bringing in 400,000. You may be surprised to learn that our Parliament has not yet been overthrown in favor of a caliphate.)

Regardless, both wings of the body politic are approaching their self-proclaimed battles against fascism in the same way: by trying to “no-platform” the enemy, i.e. prevent their views from being promulgated. That’s why west-coast left-wingers are shutting down the talks of professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos. That’s why Twitter is being sued by ISIS victims. The idea, in both cases, is that if fascism is given a platform, it will — or at least can — grow, and so, uniquely among ideologies, it must be shut down rather than outcompeted.

Taleb again:

people are disputing whether the freedom of the enlightened West can be undermined by the intrusive policies that would be needed to fight Salafi fundamentalists … can democracy –by definition the majority — tolerate enemies? The question is as follows: “Would you agree to deny the freedom of speech to every political party that has in its charter the banning the freedom of speech?” Let’s go one step further, “Should a society that has elected to be tolerant be intolerant about intolerance?”

We can answer these points using the minority rule. Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, as we saw, it will eventually destroy our world. So, we need to be more than intolerant with some intolerant minorities. It is not permissible to use “American values” or “Western principles” in treating intolerant Salafism (which denies other peoples’ right to have their own religion).

But no-platforming is a very twentieth-century strategy that simply doesn’t work any more. It was effective when platforms were hard to come by, before anyone with a compelling voice could turn a personal blog into a publication with tens of millions of readers (as Michael Arrington did with this very site, not long ago.) But you can’t no-platform your foes in a world where platform construction kits are given out free with every computer.

Breitbart is vastly more important to Yiannopoulos than a talk at Berkeley; indeed, the latter is just fodder for the former, courtesy of the Streisand Effect. ISIS/Daesh aren’t just canny enough to give a guided tour of their state to Vice; they’re hyperactive on social media and have their very own glossy, artfully designed propaganda magazines.

So what is to be done, in this brave new political world of multiple intransigent subgroups, multiple staunchly believed claims of fascism, and the ignoble failure of the anti-fascist tactics of the past? …I don’t pretend to know, but I suspect that, as is so often the case, technology can provide the solution to the problem it provoked. Regardless, it’s important to recognize that such is the world in which we now live.