We live in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, buffeted by the convulsions of a crisis-ridden global capitalist system, and at a time when the institutions, relations, and routines that defined the post–World War II liberal democratic world order have been dramatically called into question. Thirty years ago, the Zapatista uprising sparked a transnationally networked, radically democratic, and resolutely anticapitalist “movement of movements” for an alternative globalization. Today, the challenge to neoliberal technocracy has found its most potent form in a rising populist wave driven by the radical Right. The abundant failures of neoliberal technocracy, a complacent and ineffective ruling class, resentment born of decades of austerity, and the alienation and anxiety of life under late capitalism have provided fertile ground for far-right organizing. Tapping into a deep well of legitimate grievances against the status quo, far-right actors have weaponized these sentiments against some of society's most marginalized and vulnerable. This is a heterogeneous far Right espousing a wide range of goals and strategies, but one notable feature is its recognition of the importance of “metapolitics,” the necessity of fighting and winning in the realm of culture and ideas as a critical step to social change (Sedgwick 2019). The digital ecology of the Internet, and particularly the social web and its corporate media platforms, has proven to be a powerful tool and terrain in this metapolitical struggle.
It is difficult now to look back on the early days of the Internet and recall the sense of excitement and optimism that accompanied its emergence. The explosion of user-generated content and social media online over the last two decades has had profound and far-reaching effects, many of them deeply concerning. Heralded by its Silicon Valley proponents as a righteous and overdue disruption of the legacy media paradigm and its gatekeepers and entitlements, the social web and the corporations that came to dominate it succeeded in disruption and profiteering without helping build a better alternative (Marantz 2019). Even as corporately owned social networks became “the most powerful information-spreading instruments in world history,” their owners disavowed responsibility for their vast and expanding influence and effects (Marantz 2019: 3).
This corporate, monetized, and profit-driven digital architecture has been experimented with by a variety of actors and interests, with effects that similarly vary. The tactical use of social media by social movements is the aspect of this phenomenon that this issue of South Atlantic Quarterly is primarily concerned with. While echo chambers, mis- and disinformation, and filter and epistemic bubbles have all been usefully explored (Nguyen 2020; Diaz Ruiz and Nilsson 2023), the question we have invited contributors to grapple with here is how different social movements are utilizing social media as a tactical tool in the context of their specific struggle for social change. The displacement of the legacy media paradigm by a corporately owned, for-profit, data-mining, user-driven social media paradigm has had tremendous consequences socially, politically, economically, and technologically. While these consequences are a far cry from the techno-utopian dreams that many of the Silicon Valley bros professed, they are not just a slippery slope toward social annihilation. Our contributors to this issue cast their keen analytical eyes toward this complex and uneven terrain, empirically exploring the way movements of different kinds are experimenting with social media tools in their social change struggles.
Media play a critical role in limiting, shaping, and redirecting public discourse and debate, what communication theorists call “steering mechanisms” (Crary 2022: 12). As scholars have noted, different forms of media have played critical roles in projects of nation building, globalization, and modernity itself (Appadurai 1996; Anderson 2006; Taylor 2004). In this regard, the globe-spanning scale of the Internet and its associated technologies have become “the most infinitely nuanced and powerful of such steering mechanisms in the history of mass media” (Crary 2022: 12). As Gavan Titley has shrewdly observed, in a media ecology characterized by proliferating speech and unending debate driven by the compulsion to capture attention, “the sheer cluttering of personal experiences and social environments by incessant ‘speech’ suggests that political control is potentially exercised not just through suppression but also through proliferation, through the splintering of collectively oriented thought, the crowding out of shared reflection and the diminishment of relations of listening and hearing” (Titley 2020: 136). The Internet and Web 2.0 technologies were heralded as tools for democratizing expression and dramatically expanding the (virtual) town square as a place for grassroots connection and collaboration. Of course, such techno-utopian fantasies seemed possible only if one ignored the fact that everything about the privatized architecture of the social web was meant to compel user engagement and generate mountains of data in the quest for endless profit taking. There are real questions here about not just how but if these platforms and the social web ecology they constitute are even worthy of reclamation, repurposing, and redirection.
A common story about the relationship between the Internet and social movements involves the Zapatista uprising in 1994 and the alter-globalization “movement of movements” it played a key role in sparking. Central to this story is the role of the emerging Internet as a crucial digital fabric of coordination and communication both in garnering international solidarity for the Zapatistas and for the rise of the alter-globalization movement. Popular and academic accounts of the Zapatistas and the alter-globalization movement have consistently overstated the importance of digital tools and international attention to the Zapatistas’ endurance and victories. Similarly, popular and academic accounts of the alter-globalization movement overstated the significance of spontaneity, spectacle, digital tools, and symbolic action in analyzing this prolonged wave of social movement activity globally. To some extent, these accounts simply reflected the context and biases of knowledge economy workers, academics and journalists alike, who were predisposed to valorize tools, relations, and institutions they too were invested in. But there is also a more basic problem here, and it has to do with how we locate origins and the significance we attribute to them.
The celebration of the Zapatistas as postmodern Internet warrior-poets serves as something of a parable for the promise of the Internet as a digital fabric of connection, expression, democratization, and emancipation, potentially for all of humanity. If a ragtag group of Indigenous peasants in some remote corner of Mexico had, with daring and (digital) media savvy, turned the tables on the powerful and kickstarted a global movement for social justice, what couldn't a digitally networked humanity achieve? But what if this isn't the paradigmatic example of the relationship between the Internet and social movements?
More than a decade before the Zapatistas would explode onto the world stage, white power activists in the United States were developing a new vision of networked insurrectionary action and made use of the incipient Internet to advance it. In 1983 Ku Klux Klansman and white power guru Louis Beam penned his essay “Leaderless Resistance” in the Inter-Klan Newsletter. In it, Beam sketched out a new vision for white power militancy composed of clandestine, autonomous cells of dedicated cadres committed entirely to the white power struggle and willing to “utterly destroy the movement's enemies” (Zeskind 2009: 93). Responding to the state's effective attacks on centralized, formal, above-ground movement organizations on both the left and right, Beam was among the vanguardist wing of the white power movement in the United States that advocated for this vision of “leaderless resistance” and “lone wolf” insurgency. Beam's call would ultimately help usher in an age of white power terrorism in the United States and Canada that has accounted for three-quarters of domestic terror killings over the last decade and spawned such infamous white power terror groups as The Order.
Louis Beam would also innovate the use of the gestating Internet in the early 1980s in support of white power activism. Tom Metzger with “White Aryan Resistance” (1984/85) and Louis Beam with “Aryan Liberty Net” (1984) used computer bulletin board systems (BBSs) several years before the Internet became a social phenomenon. Stormfront was the first real North American movement website, established in 1994 by Don Black, a former Ku Klux Klan leader (Zeskind 2009). While it is commonly the Zapatista uprising that gets linked with the birth of a new electronic fabric of communication and resistance, white power activists were mobilizing the same infrastructure for their own purposes a decade earlier. If we locate the origins of the Internet and modern radical activism in the 1980s with insurrectionary white power activists, the morbid state of life online today seems more predictable.
We have come a long way since the early days of the Internet when, in the early 1980s, neo-Nazis and white supremacists used the first computer BBSs to network with one another. The development of a globe-spanning digital communication infrastructure, and particularly social media platforms, has been capitalized on by a new generation of far-right actors committed to metapolitics and to fighting and winning the culture war. Metapolitics and culture war fighting need to be understood not as ends in themselves for neofascists, the far Right, and white power activists but as a necessary threshold for the establishment of the white ethnostate. Leaning heavily on Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony, far-right proponents of metapolitics concentrate on intellectual and cultural production to overcome the spiritual, material, and racial degradation they attribute to this version of modernity (Griffin 2018: 116). Speaking a confounding and well-camouflaged language of diversity through separation, this much more erudite white power rhetoric advances a vision of “ethnopluralism” that nevertheless is steeped in a hatred of the other. In the words of Roger Griffin, “It insists on the ‘human right’ to belong to a distinctive, historically rooted culture (mythically conceived as ideally homogenous and ‘pure’), one which is uncontaminated by the mass migration and globalization encouraged by the liberal democratic commitment to pluralism—democracy is portrayed as ‘a new totalitarianism’ which promotes ‘cultural genocide’” (Griffin 2018: 117). This strategy has proven particularly effective and prolific in the thoroughly capitalized and profit-directed social media ecology.
Journalist Robert Evans has examined the role of “shitposting” in the circulation of white supremacist and fascist ideas online. Evans describes shitposting as “the act of throwing out huge amounts of content, most of it ironic, low-quality trolling, for the purpose of provoking an emotional reaction in less Internet-savvy viewers” with the ultimate goal of derailing meaningful discussion and distracting readers (Evans 2019a). Evans explores the Christchurch mosque killer's radicalization in a highly anonymous, atomized, and Internet-mediated way, as well as his attempt to inspire more acts of white power terror by live-streaming his massacre on Facebook and posting his manifesto to Twitter (Evans 2019a). Evans has also examined what he terms the “gamification” of white power terrorism, a trend manifesting on image boards like 8chan where posters express the desire to “beat the high score” of other mass murderers and adopt other aesthetic elements borrowed from gamer culture, including the live streaming of massacres by white power killers in the style of first-person shooters (Evans 2019b). In many ways, these trends represent a dramatic and disturbing acceleration of the dynamics of radicalization and extremist activity on the far Right and have set the stage for resurgent fascism. The communicative logics of the thoroughly capitalized space of the Internet have only added fuel to this fire. Against a backdrop of capitalist exploitation, alienation, and atomization, “the internet complex quickly became an integral part of neoliberal austerity in its ongoing erosion of civil society and its replacement by monetized, online simulations of social relations” (Crary 2022: 7). The thoroughly capitalist ecology of the social web has also proven to be far less hospitable to some actors than to others.
The corporate colonization of the Internet and especially the social web has tilted this digital terrain against social justice activists and their movements. As many observers have noted, the technical architecture of social media has been purposefully built this way not primarily to stymie activists but to generate profit (Crary 2022; Kavada et al. 2023; Marantz 2019; Titley 2020). The corporate owners of social media platforms constantly tweak their algorithms to prevent content creators from reaching wider audiences organically, thus promoting these corporations’ own paid services to achieve it (Kavada et al. 2023). This pay-for-visibility dynamic generates profound asymmetries between those with deep pockets and those without, skewing these digital spaces and the interactions they generate even further. On top of this, corporations exploit all user data generated by activity on their platforms, including that of social justice movements, even those espousing political goals diametrically opposed to the status quo. To add insult to injury, “the more polarising the cause, the more profit it creates for the company as it fuels traffic and user activity” (Kavada et al. 2023: n.p.). Even if grassroots social movements achieve some degree of visibility on the social web, this cuts both ways as it also means movements and their participants are that much more visible to authorities and other agents of state repression (Kavada et al. 2023).
One obvious alternative to this sorry state of affairs would seem to be the creation of noncapitalist, community-oriented, and democratically controlled platforms. Efforts to do so have been “ephemeral, under-funded and unable to fully replace the services afforded by corporate social media” (Kavada et al. 2023: n.p.). Compounding this is the tendency of many alternative platforms to be used only by the converted, stymying one of the most important aspects of social networks whose utility expands as they acquire more members and rendering activists who do use such platforms invisible to those outside their existing circles (Kavada et al. 2023). Where network effects do seem to be materializing on the social web, they are being driven by “anti-democratic and far-right reactionary forces” who “have largely succeeded in connecting across party lines and intra-movement differences, building a sizable audience, and forming a coherent web of related channels and content which extend into a larger media ecology of alternative far-right media” (Kavada et al. 2023: n.p.).
What the Internet makes possible is a scale and intensity of engagement through media not possible in traditional formats. Just like leftists, the far Right has always made use of a variety of “social media” to spread ideas and forge connections, from bookfairs to conferences, broadsheets to zines, cultural production, and more. Nevertheless, Internet-based communication and especially social media platforms have facilitated a level of penetration into the fabric of daily life and a degree of intensity in terms of participation and affective engagement that far surpasses previous media paradigms. Gavan Titley assesses the state of play in our current moment presciently, noting:
The Internet and digital media are deeply ambivalent. . . . The partial reordering of media gatekeeping and the reduction of significant barriers to entry have certainly engendered somewhat more pluralized public cultures, and the network dynamics of speed and circulation have extended the capacities of anti-racist counter-publics to respond, critique and organize. And, through the incessant, industrial production of speech—news, opinion, commentary, images, memes—space for the circulation and amplification of racist repertoires is vastly increased. (Titley 2020: 54)
A densely populated digital media ecology inhabited by corporate entities driven exclusively by profit-making has furnished seemingly endless opportunities for the weaponization of “free speech” in the service of fascist and far-right agendas. Recent actions taken by YouTube and Facebook against QAnon and Holocaust denial aside, these platforms have for years served as what Robert Evans has called “Nazi-making machines,” leading, as they do, consumers of their media down ever more extreme rabbit holes to keep people watching. What is particularly striking about these dynamics is that what would previously have required a potential movement recruit to actually go out into the world, physically encounter other movement members, attend meetings, occupy public space with all its attendant risks, and expend time and energy has now been replaced by much lower investment costs, at least initially. Digital infrastructure makes dabbling in neo-Nazism, white supremacy, and fascism much more anonymous, casual, and low cost than it would have been previously.
Across the overdeveloped capitalist North, the sure sensibility that “mature democracies” were inoculated against fascism has evaporated in the face of overlapping crises and the inherent limits of bourgeois liberal democracy. This is a critical juncture that a rigorous, nimble, social justice–oriented social science practice can usefully intervene in. Understanding the tactical uses of a capitalized-to-its-core social web ecology is not just a scholarly concern, particularly in a moment of deepening alienation and crisis. This means fending off the temptation to view these digital tools in binary fashion as either inherently liberatory or oppressive and instead committing to evaluating the purposes to which different movements put them and the outcomes generated. Beyond cultural commentary, what can rigorous, grounded social research show us about the possibilities and pitfalls of social movements putting social media to work? This is the task the contributors to this issue of South Atlantic Quarterly take up.