How the far right became popular

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

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Cover: Rob Halhead–Baker
world / politics

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.