Crush Your Racist “Friends”. Ideology Critique, Facebook, and the Crisis

Sami Torssonen

Facebook is a mighty weapon in the ideologist’s arsenal. We log on daily – nay, hourly – restlessly seeking shareable punchlines. Unfortunately, con artists and lackeys of all kinds know this. Climate sceptics, anti-vaccine activists, and racist demagogues now reach vast audiences in Facebook’s environment of nonexistent source criticism.

Facebook’s ideological strengths are, however, also its weaknesses. Quick clicks can be used for critique as well as ideological tricks. I would like to share with you a personal experience that I think illustrates this nicely, showcasing a simple mode of ideology critique that most people have access to.

The story begins with an old university acquaintance, say, Jim, with whom I have no contact outside Facebook. For a few years now, Jim’s quality control has been slowly failing. He has started posting increasingly hawkish and nationalist, often poorly researched material on topics such as geopolitics and the follies of European integration. I left him alone at first, but noticed that he had a fairly large and like-minded audience.

Jim and I were both spurred to action in the aftermath of a Facebook post by Olli Immonen, Chairman of the Finnish right-wing extremist organization Suomen Sisu and a member of the Parliament. Immonen incited his numerous Facebook followers to “defeat multiculturalism” in words that many Finns, myself included, interpreted as an obvious throwback to fascism. Condemnations and demonstrations across Finland followed.

Jim had previously shared Immonen’s texts, and was keen to defend him. As a first attempt, he shared a blog post by a self-proclaimed supporter of Immonen’s party. The author implied that the ongoing peaceful demonstrations were hindering cool-headed discussion about the merit of Immonen’s arguments. The blogger’s suggestion was to replace demonstrations with ”political discussion that does not seek enemies and label opponents”. He felt that debate should be “honest, fact-based, and detached from the opponent’s persona or commitments”. We should not “seek victory, but compromise”.

In my view, the blogger whose text Jim shared brought to bear all the tired tropes of liberal ideology in defense of fascist demagogy. Having some practice in arguing against similar pretentions, I decided that a familiar tack might serve here. I linked an article about a recent racist stabbing by a member of a neo-Nazi organization Suomen Vastarintaliike that Immonen has collaborated with. I also noted that Immonen frequently cites an Internet site that promotes “genetic self-preservation”. I complemented these annotations with a simple question: Does Jim agree that we should disregard such “commitments” and focus only on argument?

Jim replied in a high-minded register. This was about “communication culture”, democracy, and unjustly marginalizing political opponents. I retorted with a screen capture that shows Immonen blocking a journalist of the Finnish public broadcaster Yle from his Facebook page. In the image, Immonen proudly proclaims his newly purged webpage a zone free of “leftist radicalism” and “Yle brainwashing”. The journalist’s error had been to ask why Immonen shares material that calls neo-Nazis “dissenters”.

Jim never responded to clarify what he thought about Immonen’s communication culture. However, because Facebook displays recent comments directly under posts, my screen capture remained visible to all of Jim’s audience. The image immediately contradicted in practice what the text above it proclaimed in principle: Immonen himself did not follow the standard of detached, compromise-oriented discussion that his defenders expected of his critics. It seemed to me that Jim’s Facebook friends liked this post far less than similar earlier ones.

Jim tried once more the following night: a comparable text, different author. Again, I pointed out the ludicrous contrast between Immonen’s practice and the ideological parlance that was being marshalled in his defense. This time, though, the result was different. Jim deleted his post and wrote me a private message. He said that he found my critique “partially pertinent”, and that he did not wish to support a cause that he might find unacceptable. He has since stopped sharing Immonen’s work, although we remain worlds apart politically.

I think we can learn two things from my story. The first is that Facebook is a peculiar arena of ideology and its critique, because it is basically an audience of broadcasters. As Immonen found out the hard way, it is difficult for a poster to control how her message is framed as it jumps from node to node. This can become a problem for ideology[i], which works by projecting a sphere of commonality across the people it summons together. We are all God’s children, we are all Finns, we are all rational, noncommittal communicators. Not quite true though, and it is easy to prove as much. It is, however, harder to expose and reframe such noble wisdom when it is preached from an altar, podium, or newsroom than if it is shared on Facebook.

The simplest way to practice ideology critique is, then, to learn about the subject at hand and reframe the ideological message in its real context. Does this honest, fact-based argument of yours involve purging journalists for asking simple questions? Such interventions break the unity that ideology proposes by emphasizing the real differences that it seeks to surpass. The critique must be careful and anti-ideological, however, or the situation will quickly degenerate into pointless value discussion, ironic flaunting, or violent trolling.

In my mind, the second thing we learn from my story is more important than the first. It is that ideology critique will never undo racism-cum-fascism by itself. People like Jim are not open to racist ideology because they are stupid. Rather, they are looking for solutions to real problems. I think Jim, for example, had realized that geopolitical tensions are heating up, with Ukraine, Western Asia, and South China Sea presenting only some high-profile examples. World-scale violent conflict is brewing. This correct observation opened Jim up to Immonen’s race theories, which are carefully couched in shallow rhetoric about the inevitable global struggle between “cultures”.

Similar processes of persuasion are now going on across crisis-ridden societies everywhere. Environmental catastrophe, dysfunctional politics, economic instability, war, and humanitarian disaster mix an ominous cocktail. A grand crisis of the capitalist mode of production is unfolding in multiple social spheres, leaving traces in everyone’s daily lives. What surprise is it, then, that ideologists of all stripes feast on those traces? Such is the recurring pattern of the history of capitalism, from crisis to crisis. Competing ideological stories about why things go wrong proliferate, each more bizarre than the next. Contemporaries often experience this as society “going mad”. Consider, for example, how Montesquieu characterized the rupture of a government-backed debt bubble in his 1721 Persian letters:

I have seen a nation, noble by nature, perverted in the flashing of an eye, from the lowliest of subjects right up to the greatest – – I have seen a whole nation in which magnanimity, candor and good faith have from all time been regarded as inborn virtues, become the basest of nations. And I have watched the disease spread, even to its healthiest members. – – They called forth odious laws as guarantee of the most cowardly action and gave to injustice and perfidy the name of necessity.

Montesquieu offered solutions in later works that became classics of liberal political theory. This apparently didn’t quite manage to fix things for good. In our own time, members of European political elites, many of whom have read Montesquieu, still deem it necessary to let children drown in the Mediterranean rather than letting them travel safely and facing down racists.

Many attempts at limiting ideological proliferation are currently underway: Google is hoping to rank hits based on factual accuracy, several newspapers have closed comments sections on their websites and are looking for ways to improve them, and so on. Notwithstanding the dangers of centralized truth-policing, such solutions are by themselves not solutions at all, for they do not weed the problem at its root. The crisis tendencies of the capitalist mode of production are not limited to the sphere of ideology, which is why responses to ideological interpretations of the causes of crises cannot remain in this sphere, either. We must tackle the economic causes of the crisis complex together with its ideological consequences

PhD candidate Sami Torssonen, Political Science, University of Turku

[i]My approach to ideology is an interpretation of what is sometimes called the Projekt Ideologietheorie (PIT) approach to the ideological. See Rehmann, Jan. Theories of Ideology: The Powers of Alienation and Subjection. Brill, 2013: 241–271. A PIT definition of the ideological could be summarized as social forms that generate pragmatically workable inversions of objects that pose as shared truth. This position is only one of many, and a subject of heated debate.