Lessons from online radicals
Obscure politics in the information age
When I first made a Facebook account at the age of thirteen, my friend and I set our political views as “feudalism” or “monarchism.” This was a joke because the thought of a 21st century feudalist or monarchist felt inconceivable to us. It represented no one in our lives. It was an idea lost in the past without any social meaning in a modern liberal democracy.
Almost twelve years later in 2022, if I find an account on Twitter that boasts of proud monarchism, I don’t flinch. Yes, they’re just be another reactionary account that I should probably block.
What happened within that decade? What took an ideology that represented nothing to me in 2010 and made it real?
And what do we make of this slurry of political chaos we find lurking in the weird, political corners of social media? What do we make of fourteen-year-olds who have already gone through a Nazi phase before seeing the light and turning to the immortal science of Marxism-Leninism before reading the Wikipedia page on the Sino-Soviet split and deciding that Maoism was the better path? What do we make of a group of proud Hoxhaists on Twitter, or a forum devoted to developing the tenants of Soulism, or a post-liberal nationalist with social democratic characteristics who is flirting with an obscure 19th century Russian ideology that you had to Google to understand?
Part of it may be that I became more political in the last decade. It may be less a matter of kids having insane politics now and more that I only recently discovered the insane political side of Twitter. While I admit that, I also believe something bizarre is happening on social media and that there is something to learn from these online extremists.
The ideological pandemonium occurring online makes sense when we consider social media as a medium. Social media impacts politics because it changes how we conceive of ourselves politically—specifically, it divorces us from context and encourages us to brand ourselves.
Which way to the party?
If I decided that I wanted to be an anarchist a few decades ago, this would entail finding a group of anarchists. It would also involve reading anarchist literature and thinking anarchist thoughts, but the key component would be joining some sort of community.
Most ideologies have functioned that way historically. It would be odd for someone to have identified as a Black Panther while having never attended a meeting, and if you were curious about communism, you would try to find a communist party.
Today, when I run into a monarchist online, I wouldn’t assume they affiliate with some monarchist party. Especially if they are an American, I would assume that they are young and radicalized by a combination of right wing subreddits and long nights of perusing Wikipedia. If they seem especially intellectual, I might assume they bought a few books on the subject.
This is a bizarre shift. At one point, a political self was a social self. To be an activist or an ideologue meant affiliation with a group of people with a geographical and historical context. While the contemporary online radical may have a community online of likeminded people, they are divided geographically. They won’t be meeting to plan a rally in their city, and they likely won’t form a party.
This divorce from context atomizes politics. It makes it an internal, individual phenomenon related more to disposition and personality than material reality or historical forces. While actual material events will conjure opinions and discourse (the protests of 2020 were very real), the online radical will slowly drift into abstractions and questions about their own identity and branding.
Certainly, there were such debates about material events in the past. However, they would occur in person and reflect the context they happened in. A radical party may argue about whether or not they wish to support a recent protest movement. However, the decision to support the protest movement would be material. It would look like joining the protest or giving them supplies. Online, the decision to “support” a movement is a decision about whether or not an individual will give their personal thumbs up or not. Politics online is about deciding the correct emotional and intellectual reaction to have to a material event. If you are particularly devoted, you may throw a few bucks at a charity or jail fund.
I don’t want to be needlessly cynical. This isn’t the case for everyone. Obviously, there were people protesting in 2020. Politics isn’t gone and material reality hasn’t been abolished, but the introduction of online spaces has altered how we interact with it.
As ideas become abstract, they move away from historical context or community affiliation and instead become ideas solely. As contextless ideas, they can be analyzed purely by their merits and their faults. This can be a good thing, but it can also divorce us from reality.
If, after much searching, I conclude that the best political ideology is Fourierist-style utopian socialism, what would this really mean? My values and intellect will affiliate with this new term, but what would the next step be? What does it mean to say that I belong to an 18th century movement without any active communes? As online politics becomes individual and abstract, the only real hope I would get from this identity is that I’m right and history will remember me as the guy who was right. Or, maybe, other online ideologues with similar digital brain prions will think that I am cool for finding an obscure belief system.
Who am I?
In high school, I got interested in psychology. Like most members of online generation, this interest looked like perusing Wikipedia pages on the subject and watching YouTube videos. Eventually I discovered personality psychology—specifically the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
Personality psychology is especially suited to teenage impulses. As adolescent angst wrestles with questions of identity, personality psychology in its most crude online forms allows you to take a short test, answering questions on a sliding scale of agree or disagree, and the computer will spit out a result: you are an INFP or an enneagram 8 or melancholic or some other personality type which will answer that burning question, “who am I?”
Later, I discovered the political compass test which placed me on a grid between the axes authoritarian/libertarian and left/right. It’s a flawed metric, but it’s fun. As time went on, more “accurate” tests became popular. The 8values test or the Political Sextant test all took my opinions and spat out an ideology: left libertarian, eco-socialist, classical Marxist, anarcho-communist, etc.
The similarities between these two types of tests should be apparent. In both cases, I turned to them to ask “who am I?” and they answered. The two blurred together. My politics were a matter of personality. They were a matter of online branding. Political ideology was something to put in a Twitter bio.
As social media begins to divorce politics from context and abstracts it from the material, political ideologies become terms to identify yourself. They resemble fandom or musical preference more than any real conception of the Good or any strategy to act upon your beliefs.
While real political organizing rewards some general coalition-building (without sacrificing ideological purity, of course), the online rewards obscurity. In the same sense that discovering an unknown musical artist or strange film makes us feel unique, interesting, and culturally refined, the discovery of a strange political ideology gives us this same sense of being politically rigorous and elite.
This isn’t to say that popularity should be your guiding political metric, but the ability to communicate and organize around an idea isn’t irrelevant to its value. What do you gain from belonging to some obscure ideology you received on an online political identities test if it doesn’t represent something tangible? The attraction, it seems, is the sense of unique identity it provides.
And why wouldn’t that be attractive? As the narratives we use to understand the world feel more and more fragmented and the world feels more and more disenchanted, we grapple haphazardly at any idea and identity we can hold. We resurrect old ideas or try to innovate new ones. Our politics falls into ideological expressionism that speaks to our personal dispositions and emotions rather than any historical trajectory or community context or material reality. Politics becomes apolitical, and our ideas become brands.
This has all been rather pessimistic, in part because I want to emphasize a problem. However, this problem is also partially an opportunity.
The ability to pull from the past is not inherently a bad thing. The ability to explore obscure and distant ideas online can be beneficial so long as we aren’t lost in the abstract. Expressionist politics is only dangerous insofar as we are alone. Understanding your local and historical context can ground you in reality and prevent some of the narcissistic turns toward branding and aesthetics in your politics that online spaces encourage.
Real world spaces are more challenging. They involve negotiating values and finding mutual interests or passions. They are more likely uncomfortable, but they are also more likely to bring about some sort of change.
The challenge of the 21st century regarding online political thought is to find a relationship between the online and the real, being very aware that the online encourages abstraction and ideological obscurity. The challenge is to find a way to live and act in the real world with the imagination that information technology has provided. However, the first and most challenging step is to actually do something in the real world.