In a chapter of his WWII-era book titled “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (1947), German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno hypothesized that capitalist media producers prioritize commercialization over artistic merit, forcing all genres of mainstream entertainment to adhere to rigid guidelines. According to Adorno, the mass media encourage conformity to the point where “every detail is so strongly marked with similarity that nothing can appear that is not marked at birth or meets approval at first sight.” âEnlightenment Dialecticâ was published after the Nazi propaganda machine completely infiltrated German society and offers a unique perspective on the roles of mass media and fascism.
Likewise, Netflix’s recent documentary “The Social Dilemma” (2020) analyzes how social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter promote the spread of misleading and hyperpartisan information. The film’s central claim is that social media sites profit from delivering highly visceral content, so their algorithms are designed to promote partisan news articles that collectively push their users to one or the other. another extreme of the political spectrum. As former Facebook Platform Operations Manager Sandy Parakilas noted, âWe have created a system that promotes fake news. Not because we want to, but because fake news makes more money for companies than the truth. The truth is boring.
Adorno noted that the mass media privileged narrative over integrity and encouraged compliance; these traits are reproduced today on social media sites like Facebook, whose profit-driven algorithms promote visceral but misleading information that polarizes the masses and undermines democracy.
Adorno’s arguments on mass-produced media are reminiscent of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. According to “Cave Allegory”, hypothetical prisoners are trapped in a cave and the only things they can see are shadows cast on a wall in front of them. Plato claims that for these theoretical prisoners, the images they see constitute their individual perceptions of reality. In other words, a person’s reality is limited by the imagery to which they are exposed. The streams of contemporary social media users resemble the caves of Plato; people almost exclusively consume media that reinforce their prejudices. Fake news dominates the realities of a small minority of people, who consume it at a disproportionate rate; In regards to 10% of Americans generate nearly 60% of visits to fake news sites. The effects of fake news appear politically asymmetrical: unverified conspiracy theories are more frequently believed by right-wing people, and right-wing conspiracy theories generally target “outgroups” such as liberals and immigrants.
Because they prioritize profits over integrity, social media sites serve as main distributors of fascist rhetoric in the digital age. Sites like Facebook profit from the spread of inflammatory media, and one cannot realistically expect capitalist companies to prioritize journalistic integrity over profits without enforceable regulation.. The consequences of uncontrolled disinformation on social networks are dire; disinformation erodes democratic norms by deceiving voters and undermining confidence in democratic processes. During the rise of the Third Reich, Adorno noted that the mass media favored isolation and hierarchy, which in turn left society vulnerable to the rise of fascist rulers. Today, social media sites expose billions of people to political polarization and misinformation around the world, which does not bode well for the future of global democracy.