How the far right became pop­u­lar

Flawed ideas about national bor­ders and fake news float­ing around social media must both be checked.

Patri­o­tism is the cause of all wars. There is a cer­tain self­ish­ness that drives people to fight for their per­ceived sense of own­er­ship. There is the idea that this is my coun­try’ and that is not; the idea that this is my kind’ and that is not; the idea that this rep­re­sents me and that does not, whether it is racial, gender-based or what­ever else; the idea that some­thing I believe in is cor­rect’ and what some­one else believes in is not, etc. This is turn­ing out to be a dis­ease of mag­nif­i­cent pro­por­tions, but it is, thank­fully, not yet incur­able.

We cre­ated bor­ders, and we cre­ated nation states, which means it is up to us to return to them the mean­ing they seem to have lost. Our pur­pose in draw­ing bor­ders to seg­re­gate geo­graph­i­cal land­masses and the peo­ples within them was driven by the poten­tial ease of gov­er­nance. There is no doubt that gov­ern­ing a small hamlet is much easier than gov­ern­ing a large met­ro­pol­i­tan area, for exam­ple. But this rea­son­ing is lost on people who have now begun to look at it as a state­ment of own­er­ship. It is true that the people in an area must be ben­e­fit­ted by it in var­i­ous ways, but not such that it takes prece­dence over human­ity; it should not trans­late into a right to treat others badly on any basis what­so­ever. A border must remain an issue of gov­er­nance, not of absolute right. And, fur­ther, it should not be syn­ony­mous with own­er­ship. The earth belongs to every­one.

Ide­al­is­tic as these state­ments may seem, the twist­ing of their def­i­n­i­tions requires that cer­tain things about them be made clear. The world is seeing a surge in extreme right-wing ide­olo­gies, the kind of setup that, over the past couple of decades, has made Russ­ian voices mute. And that, unfor­tu­nately, promises to seep into Amer­ica and Europe and result in the same, pos­si­bly ten years from now. It is hard to point out with cer­tainty when it began, or even when it bub­bled to the sur­face of seri­ous news, but there is no doubt that it is man­i­fest­ing itself in var­i­ous forms around the world. Until recently, Russia’s pres­i­dent, Vladimir Putin, was its poster boy; now, the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent-elect, Donald Trump, has joined him. Soon, the French far-right pres­i­den­tial hope­ful, Marine Le Pen, who agrees with these two men with trou­bling ease on nearly all issues, hopes to com­plete the sordid tri­an­gle. She said as much her­self: There is a world­wide move­ment. A world­wide move­ment which rejects unchecked glob­al­i­sa­tion, destruc­tive ultra-lib­er­al­ism … the elim­i­na­tion of nation states, the dis­ap­pear­ance of bor­ders’.

It is of no con­se­quence pon­der­ing now whether this state­ment was meant to help Mrs Le Pen ride on the same wave of pop­ulism that cat­a­pulted Brexit and Pres­i­dent Trump into real­ity. What is clear, though, is that the elim­i­na­tion of nation states and the dis­ap­pear­ance of bor­ders for all pur­poses besides gov­er­nance is exactly what we need today. And her poten­tial elec­tion to pres­i­dency, while doing little for world peace (and quite a lot against it), will have no imme­di­ate ill-effect on France.

This is all not unlike the Brexit vote, which had no imme­di­ate effect on Britain, or Mr Trump’s win in the Amer­i­can elec­tion, which had no imme­di­ate impact on much of the coun­try. And therein lies the prob­lem. The way in which the coming pop­ulist, far-right dom­i­nance will affect civilised soci­ety, firstly, will be so grad­ual that nobody notices, and, sec­ondly, will clev­erly work by nor­mal­is­ing extremes. The decades the world has worked, for exam­ple, to make racism a black mark on soci­ety rather than a part of it, will be undone. Being straight will become the norm and any­thing else will be socially blas­phe­mous. Being like the major­ity will become the norm and trying to be an indi­vid­ual will become pun­ish­able. This should worry us. Look­ing at things as us and them’ will become the norm and take away our most cher­ished trea­sure: human­ity. There should never be an us and them’, rather just us’.

All of this will be accel­er­ated by the social web. Face­book has, beyond all doubt, influ­enced the out­come of the Amer­i­can elec­tion. Its founder, Mark Zucker­berg, claimed that fake news was being spread around by sup­port­ers of both pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates even in the face of over­whelm­ing proof against it: right-lean­ing Face­book pages spewed out false con­tent twice as often as left-lean­ing ones. But, like pop­ulism itself, fake news sells; it brings more view­ers onto the site and increases engage­ment, which, in turn, drives money towards Face­book. None of this is giving Mr Zucker­berg and his com­pany enough incen­tive to fight the fake news infes­ta­tion on Face­book, as Ben Collins writes in a great rebut­tal of Mr Zuckerburg’s state­ments in sup­port of his multi-bil­lion dollar com­pany.

The social network’s CEO also recently said it was a pretty crazy idea’ to think that fake news on Face­book influ­enced the elec­tion. It is, he claimed, a very small amount of con­tent’, and that people do not vote based on some fake news they see. Except, most people do not realise the news is fake at all; like an echo cham­ber, they see what is in com­plete agree­ment with their views and share it and more people share that and the fake story grows expo­nen­tially in pop­u­lar­ity until every­one has read it and found hollow sup­port for their own views rather than being prop­erly informed about cur­rent events. Some of these fake news sources have hun­dreds of thou­sands of fol­low­ers more than estab­lished, fact-checked news houses like The Wash­ing­ton Post or The New York Times, and some of these are being run by kids in Mace­do­nia whose only inter­est is rev­enues from visits that juicy click­bait can win them. Some, like the one called Amer­i­can News, have mil­lions of fol­low­ers and a ver­i­fied’ badge given by a Face­book employee. The Daily Beast has an excel­lent run­down of all of this, with facts and fig­ures to sup­port, that more than show how much of an impact fake news on Face­book (and likely else­where on the web) may have had in any pop­ulist elec­tion.

This is a vicious circle. People hear about a pop­ulist move that fur­ther com­presses their narrow-mind­ed­ness and they then share it, prompt­ing algo­rithms to pulling up more such sto­ries, fake or fact-checked. Between engage­ment-seek­ing social net­works, polish-seek­ing indi­vid­ual egos, atten­tion-seek­ing author­i­tar­i­ans and power-seek­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates mas­querad­ing as one of the people’ despite being bil­lion­aires them­selves, the biggest blow falls on soci­ety as a whole and on human­ity in the long run. We can put up fences and lock our­selves into suf­fer­ing or we can open our bor­ders and better manage our­selves know­ing that the only fuel that has helped us sur­vive so long is our will to stand up for open­ness and com­pas­sion every time. Of course terror needs to be checked and crim­i­nals must be held account­able for their mis­deeds, but there are far less savage ways to accom­plish this than those which far-right lead­ers the world over have been adver­tis­ing. And, so long as there exists a com­bi­na­tion of the flawed idea of nation states and national bor­ders, a mis­placed sense of patri­o­tism, and fake news float­ing around in echo cham­bers, the far-right will keep rising and soci­ety will keep slip­ping into the abyss.

The assault on science

Pop­ulist poli­cies have begun to affect sci­ence adversely. The trou­ble is, they are hap­pen­ing slowly enough that nobody seems to notice.

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Weekend mailbag

Random thoughts col­lected over the week, on lifestyle, obso­lete­ness, quotes, plu­g­ins and other inter­est­ing­ness.

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