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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Digital Fascism: Challenges for the Open Society in Times of Social Media

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This paper takes up the assumption that social media offers a beneficial terrain for the far right to undermine open societies. Identifying perceptions of imperilment as the central impetus for the far right to justify illiberal politics, it analyzes how such perceptions are boosted under the digital condition. This contextualization is essential for our understanding of digital fascism: a highly fluid and ambivalent variant of fascism that lacks a clear organizational center as the digitally networked masses are the engine of their own manipulation. To substantiate this concept, we relate structures of social media to far-right agency in social media. Concretely, we show how the techniques of dramatic storytelling, gaslighting and metric manipulation correspond with the functioning of social media that catalyzes the amplification of fears, the diffusion of post-truth and the logic of numbers. Based on this, we argue that a new perspective on fascism is needed, since digital fascism draws its dynamics mainly from digital (hate) cultures and less from formal and regimented party structures. In consequence, it has to be analyzed and countered as a social phenomenon that emerges both organically and strategically in the ecosystems of social media. This presents open societies with a dilemma: The dynamics of digital fascism develop out of structures that warrant freedom of expression – and to break these dynamics, restrictions that harm its liberal principles appear necessary.

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