In a chapter from his World War II-era book dubbed “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (1947), German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno hypothesized that capitalist media producers prioritize marketability over artistic value, causing all genres of mainstream entertainment to conform to rigid guidelines. According to Adorno, mass media encourages conformity to the point where “every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight.” “Dialectic of Enlightenment” was published after the Nazi propaganda machine fully infiltrated German society and offers a unique perspective on the roles of mass media and fascism.
Similarly, Netflix’s recent documentary “The Social Dilemma” (2020) analyzes how social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter promote the spread of misleading, hyperpartisan information. The central claim of the movie is that social media sites profit from the spread of highly visceral content, so their algorithms are designed to promote partisan news articles that collectively nudge their users to either extreme of the political spectrum. As former Facebook platform operations manager Sandy Parakilas noted, “We created a system that biases towards false information. Not because we want to, but because false information makes the companies more money than the truth. The truth is boring.”
Adorno noted that mass media prioritized narrative over integrity and encouraged conformity; these traits are replicated today on social media sites such as Facebook, whose profit-driven algorithms promote visceral but misleading news that polarizes the masses and undermines democracy.
Adorno’s arguments about mass-produced media are reminiscent of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Per “Allegory of the Cave,” hypothetical prisoners are trapped in a cave and the only things they can see are shadows projected onto a wall in front of them. Plato claims that for those theoretical prisoners, the images that they see constitute their individual perceptions of reality. In other words, a person’s reality is constrained by the imagery to which they are exposed. Contemporary social media users’ feeds resemble Plato’s caves; people almost exclusively consume media that reinforces their prejudices. Fake news dominates the realities of a small minority of individuals, who consume it at a disproportionate rate; about 10% of Americans drive nearly 60% of visits to fake news sites. The effects of fake news appear politically asymmetrical: unverified conspiracy theories are more frequently believed by people on the right, and right-wing conspiracy theories generally target “out-groups” such as liberals and immigrants.
Because they prioritize profits over integrity, social media sites serve as the primary distributors of fascist rhetoric in the digital age. Sites such as Facebook profit from the spread of inflammatory media, and capitalist corporations cannot realistically be expected to prioritize journalistic integrity over profits without enforceable regulation. The consequences of unchecked disinformation on social media are dire; disinformation erodes democratic norms by deceiving voters and undermining trust in democratic processes. During the rise of the Third Reich, Adorno noted that mass media promoted isolation and hierarchy, which subsequently left society vulnerable to the rise of fascist leaders. Today, social media sites expose billions of people to political polarization and misinformation worldwide, which does not bode well for the future of global democracy.