by Waqar H. Zaidi
If you were to ask someone about the drivers of globalisation, you would probably be told that it is caused by faster, greater, and more accessible transport and communications. These have allowed for greater international travel, faster movement of people and information, and the greater circulation of trade, commerce, and capital more generally. Questioning further, you will learn that the speeding up and spread of transport and communications have in turn been driven by transformative new inventions: most recently the internet, but going backwards in time: the aeroplane, the telephone, the steam-ship, and the telegraph.
Such ideas are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that there is little questioning them. But what if they could be questioned: problematised, analysed, historicised? That’s exactly what historians have begun to do. One line of enquiry has been to examine culture and boosterism in relation to particular technologies as they emerged and spread at particular time periods. By technological culture I mean widespread assumptions and beliefs about particular technologies and technological spectacles. By technological boosterism I mean publicity and rhetoric specifically created to boost these technologies and their positive impact. Important case studies of this ilk include studies of the telegraph in the late 19th century and aviation in the first half of the twentieth century.
But what if we could go further, and see these types of beliefs as ideological: that is as part of wider political ideologies, or cohesive enough to be considered as ideologies in and within themselves? In my new book, Technological Internationalism and World Order: Aviation, Atomic Energy, and the Search for International Peace, 1920–1950, I do exactly that. I argue that aviation and atomic energy were seen by liberal internationalists as internationalising technologies, and were incorporated into both their political projects for political transformation at the transnational level, and their beliefs about the nature of international relations.
The book explores US and British proposals for the international control of aviation between 1920 and 1945, and proposals for the international control of atomic energy in 1946. These proposals, I suggest, need to be seen not only as attempts at arms control (which they undoubtedly were) but also as parts of wider ideologies seeking to remake international relations, and as manifestations of internationalising beliefs about various sciences, technologies, and technical experts. These proposals, I suggest, point to a wider technological internationalism that was not only prominent amongst intellectuals and practice at the time but also more widely distributed in society. This technological internationalism was not uniform in its characteristics, and nor was it unchanging: rather it was heterogeneous, waxed and waned over time, and focused on different technologies and techniques at different points in time. The period 1920 to 1950 was a tumultuous time socially and politically, with ideas and discourses also emerging, changing, and/or dissipating. It is no surprise, then, that technological internationalism was also subject to the same push and pull of domestic and international politics, as well as social, economic, and technological transformations. Yet it retained an essential unity in terms of core beliefs and commitments.
What, then, is technological internationalism, and where might we find it? What’s to be gained by introducing this concept, and what aspects of our world might it allow us to understand better? Two terms currently used by historians shed light on how this notion might function: scientific internationalism and technological nationalism. Scientific internationalism is usually seen as both an activity and an underlying ethos: the activity being scientific cooperation across national boundaries with little regard for political and cultural differences, and the ethos behind it the notion that science as an unhindered knowledge-producing activity is, and should be, inherently international. Scientists, as carriers of scientific internationalism, are said to embody this ethos. Technological nationalism is also both an activity and an ethos, though is generally located in the policymaking sphere, and understood to be the pursual of national technological projects for prestige rather than economic or other rational reasons. It usually includes an ascription to particular technologies of qualities linked to the nation and national prestige. So, for example, in my study of the celebrated British engineer Barnes Wallis I showed that he ascribed aerial qualities to the English nation, and in turn saw his aeroplane designs as peculiarly English.
Technological internationalism, I suggest, is akin to both. Like technological nationalism it focuses on particular technologies, inserts them into historical narratives, and ascribes to them particular transformative properties. More than just artifacts, these technologies are political in that they are thought to naturally achieve, or have the potential to achieve, particular social and political outcomes. Like the science in scientific internationalism, the technology in technological internationalism also helps (so it is believed) to bring people together by transcending national boundaries and political differences.
The attribution of internationalising abilities to technologies first emerged most forcefully in the 19th century as part of a wider attribution of internationalising attributes to international trade and commerce. As the argument that free trade and commerce brought countries together and so spread peace started to spread, boosters of particular new technologies promoted them through these ideas. So, for example, the telegraph was touted as a great internationalising technology bringing the nations of the world together. Similarly the steamship drove hopes for a closer integration of the British empire and English-speaking peoples.
As a ‘new internationalism’ spread in the first two decades of the twentieth century, so did the roster of technologies with these Cobdenite properties. For internationalist Norman Angell, writing just before the First World War, the steam engine and the telegraph were now joined by the railway, printing, and electricity in deepening interdependence. War, he concluded, was an increasingly irrational choice for nations whose commercial interests were so globally intertwined. These lists of technologies kept pace with the latest inventions in transport and communications. By the 1920s it was aviation which was seen as the leading world-changing technology. Radio was soon added too. One list, published by internationalist legal scholar Clyde Eagleton in 1932 read: ‘steam and electronic railways and ships, telegraphs and telephone, newspapers, and now aviation, radio, and moving pictures’.
Technological internationalism consequently emerged as an important component in liberal internationalist rhetoric and imagination because the artifacts that it placed at its center both encapsulated some of the central tenants of liberal internationalism and made them accessible to a wider public. Indeed, by talking about internationalist projects through technologies activists reflected back many society-wide assumptions about these technologies and the world more broadly. It was widely accepted that the aeroplane was ‘making the world smaller’ or ‘bringing people together’. Through technological internationalism internationalists could connect their calls for an international society or greater international organisation to such public ideas.
The interwar years, incubators of extreme ideologies and movements, produced radical liberal internationalisms which incorporated such technological internationalisms. These technological internationalisms functioned on two registers in liberal internationalist activist and intellectual output in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The first, noted above, connected straightforwardly to widely held notions of communications and transport-driven international connectivity. The second consisted of particular political proposals for the international governance of technology in the public sphere. These built on and amplified ideas about the inherently pacifying effects of technologies and the perverting nature of militarism, but developed them towards radical proposals that spoke to liberal internationalist agendas on arms control and collective security.
Building on the emergent liberal internationalism of the period (including earlier calls for international naval policing and international organisation), these proposals emerged in Europe after the First World War in the form of calls for the formation of an international police force. This was to consist largely or solely of military aircraft, and was supposed to create collective security by enforcing peace and disarmament. These proposals expanded further during the 1932 Geneva disarmament conference, at which European delegates discussed proposals for the internationalisation of civil aviation as well. Both military and civil aviation, it was argued, needed to be taken out of the control of nation-states and instead controlled by the League. In most proposals nation-states were to retain fighters and small transport aircraft only, with bombers and civilian airliners being handed to the League to create a League air force and airline. Once the disarmament conference collapsed, and rearmament accelerated into the latter half of the 1930s, hopes for internationalised aviation dwindled, but were rekindled during the Second World War. A United Nations air force was widely discussed in US and British internationalist policymaking and internationalist circles (prominent proponents included James T. Shotwell and Quincy Wright in the US, and Philip Noel-Baker in Britain), and even raised at the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the formation of a United Nations organisation. Although no air force was formed, the finalised Charter of the organisation retained some scope for its organisation.
Although these proposals were sustained by a number of social processes, they were also founded on a number of particular beliefs about the nature of science and technology. First, it was believed that modern science-based technologies, such as aviation, were inherently civilian with the potential for great positive impact, but could be, and often were, perverted for militaristic and nationalist ends. Human thinking and institutions were not advanced enough to understand or cope with these negative effects, and so needed to be developed further in an internationalist direction.
In August 1945 a powerful new technology was introduced to the world, atomic energy, which clearly had the potential for great destruction but also promised (so it was believed) cheap energy and other benefits. The internationalist impulse towards international organisation was rejuvenated, though atomic energy now replaced aviation as the great transformative technology in world affairs. The foundational beliefs about the nature of science and technology continued, transferred now from aviation to atomic energy, and from the League of Nations to the United Nations. Internationalists turned to call for the transfer of atomic plant and equipment from the control of nation-states to international organisations, and official proposals (such as the Baruch Plan) were tabled and discussed at the United Nations. It ‘seems inescapable’, announced Manhattan Project physical chemist Harold Urey at a major internationalist conference in 1946, ‘that within a relatively short time a world government must be established if we are to avoid the major catastrophe of a Third World War’.
Although these visions and proposals did not come to pass, and liberal internationalism declined in fervor as the Cold War deepened, notions of communications and transport-driven international connectivity survived. It is still commonplace to hear today that the aeroplane, alongside newer inventions such as the internet, is shrinking the world.
But perhaps the aeroplane, the internet, and other technologies have indeed shrunk the world, and brought about greater globalisation and globalised interactions. If this is so, what benefit do we gain by marking these beliefs as ideological, rather than as common sensical commentary on reality? My book suggests that many such beliefs about these technologies go far beyond simple shrinkage. They focus on the implications of shrinkage, which are generally taken to mean a heightened possibility of both peace and war. These beliefs are thus inherently politically, and allow these technologies to be referenced in or be incorporated as touchstones of political programs or rhetoric that promise international peace and the abolition of war.
Today, the integrationist properties of modern technologies such as the aeroplane and the internet are so widely taken for granted that they are often assumed rather than explicitly stated, and are sometimes even seen as cliched. Yet challenges to technological internationalist assumptions have emerged over the years, especially as the allure of globalisation wore off in the 2000s and people turned to question the meaning and benefits of global integration. More recently, we have discovered that the internet can just as easily spread disinformation, hate, and fear as it can spread understanding. So we continue to grapple today with the questions to which technological internationalists once thought they had the answer: what are the inherent potentials of new technologies, and how can they be use to bring about our utopias and avoid our nightmares. The answers to these questions, I would suggest, are more ideological than one might care to admit.
 Simone M. Müller, Wiring the World: The Social and Cultural Creation of Global Telegraph Networks (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machines, 2nd ed. (London: Penguin, 2013); Robert Wohl, The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005); Jenifer Van Vleck, Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
 Waqar Zaidi, Technological Internationalism and World Order: Aviation, Atomic Energy, and the Search for International Peace, 1920–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
 There is a large literature on scientific internationalism, for an overview see: Brigitte Schroeder-Gudehus, ‘Nationalism and Internationalism’, in R.C. Olby, G.N. Cantor, J.R.R. Christie, and M.J.S. Hodge (eds.), Companion to the History of Modern Science (London: Routledge, 1990), 909-919.
 The term was coined in the seminal paper: Maurice Charland, ‘Technological Nationalism’, Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory X 1-2 (1986): 196-212.
 Waqar Zaidi, ‘The Janus-face of Techno-nationalism: Barnes Wallis and the ‘Strength of England’’, Technology and Culture 49,1 (January 2008): 62-88.
 Müller, Wiring the World), chapter 3.
 Duncan Bell, ‘Dissolving Distance: Technology, Space, and Empire in British Political Thought, 1770–1900’, The Journal of Modern History 77,3 (September 2005): 523–562.
 Following from the nineteenth-century liberal intellectual Richard Cobden, Cobdenism was a commitment to international free trade and commerce as an antidote to war. Peter Cain, ‘Capitalism, War and Internationalism in the Thought of Richard Cobden’, British Journal of International Studies 5,3 (1979): 229-47.
 Norman Angell, The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage, 4th ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1913), 142, 277.
 Clyde Eagleton, International Government (New York: Ronald Press, 1932), 10.
 I take liberal internationalism to mean, broadly, a belief in a community of nations and a commitment to peace and international order through international trade, commerce, and organisation. See for example: Fred Halliday, ‘Three Concepts of Internationalism’, International Affairs 64,2 (Spring, 1988): 187-198.
 Harold C. Urey, ‘Atomic Energy, Master or Servant?’, World Affairs 109,2 (June 1946): 99–108.
 On the internet, see for example the work of historian and social theorist Mark Poster. E.g. Mark Poster, ‘National Identities and Communications Technologies’, The Information Society 15,4 (1999): 235-240.
by Angela Xiao Wu
Dissent is an opinion, philosophy, or sentiment of non-agreement or opposition to a prevailing idea or policy enforced by a government, political party or other entity or individual in a capacity of contextual authority.
Before the Lunar New Year, Beijing’s winter was brutal. I bicycled daily from my college dormitory to an intensive class for the GRE test required for US graduate schools. In the camp, a talkative guy named Luo Yonghao was responsible for coaching vocabulary sessions. Buried in piles of workbooks, 200 students listened to his venting, jokes, and meandering comments about silly Chinese norms in culture and politics. It was 2004, and I was a sophomore. Much of my college days had gone into ploughing through commentaries and memoirs chaotically dumped in online forums. These materials were too “sensitive” for broadcast media. With this inoculation, I found Luo’s extracurricular offerings delightful and amusing. But I was oblivious to what came next from him.
Locating the Chinese Dissent
China entered the “Year of the Blog” in 2005. In 2006, as blogging underwent rapid commercialization, Luo Yonghao left his GRE coaching job and founded an independent blogging platform called Bullog. About the same time, I started my M.Phil. studies in Hong Kong. Each day sprawling networks of online writers engaged in endless fierce disputes. Rivalry aside, their implicit addressees were always the faceless readers on the other side of the screen. Some readers extolled, some quarrelled, and numerous others, including myself, kept lurking.
In summer 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake killed nearly 90,000, including thousands of children buried under shoddy public school buildings. Within a couple of weeks, led by Luo Yonghao, “Bulloggers” organized its own disaster relief initiatives and received 2.4 million RMB (then about 400 thousand USD) donation from its reader-base scattered across China. As Bullog marshalled massive civic support, it also came under attack on many sides for relentlessly demanding government accountability in school construction work and for pushing back against the patriotic fervour sweeping the country at the time. This was one of the highlights of China’s so-called “liberal dissent” that had been blossoming online.
What increasingly troubled me was the gap between my personal observations and the academic vocabulary that I had newly acquired. The dominant framework in the Anglophone research literature over Chinese politics and digital media, much informed by mainstream American political science, was one that juxtaposed liberal resistance with authoritarian rule. It focused on how people use the internet to criticize and protest. Left out were questions so prominent on my mind: Where did the protesters come from? How did they develop their dissent? The Chinese online world was a vast restless landscape of self-complacency, genuine confusion, existential exasperation, and tragic posturing of the lone enlightened thinker. What truly fascinated me was instead the emergence of discontent in a cultural/media environment instituted to hinder it. In hindsight, the issue boils down to how perceptions of a regime’s illegitimacy may grow in a population.
After I arrived in the US for Ph.D. in 2008—during the Beijing Olympics—the puzzle began to expand. What constituted dissent in China in the first place? In mainstream political science, attention to nonliberal regimes focuses primarily on factors and forces fostering formal democratization. This agenda contrasts sharply with critical theories (emergent in liberal democracies) that explicate how liberalism and neoliberalism ideologically underpin forms of oppression and exploitation.
In fact, similar tensions underlay much of the intellectual debates within China since the 1990s, known as the “right vs. left” opposition between “liberal-rightists” (e.g., many Bulloggers) and the so-called “neo-leftists.” These labels were profoundly confusing, because in post-reform, post-socialist China, being “leftist” was not perceived as radical, but as conservative, for its association with the Maoist politics of the past. The Chinese right, in turn, inherited the legacy of being persecuted under Mao. Being “rightist” was not equated with conservatism—as in clinging to traditional Chinese values such as Confucianism—but with political dissention critical of the current regime of Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But what really divided the Chinese right and left? On the one hand, the ways in which contemporary China narrated Maoist politics were passed onto the contemporary Chinese leftist position. Was it about supporting powerful state apparatuses, economic egalitarianism, the disregard for formal procedures, or some combination of each? In the eyes of their critics, Chinese (neo-)lefts were complicit with authoritarianism. On the other hand, claiming to “speak truth to power,” the Chinese liberal-rightists targeted the party-state as the embodiment of power. The leftists accused them of propagating ideas that ultimately served the interests of capital, abandoning social groups already marginalized in China’s economic reforms, which were orchestrated by none other than the current regime. Indeed, I saw strands of liberal ideas, including market fundamentalism, circulate among many Bulloggers.
Mapping Chinese Disagreements
No singular line of division defined the purported left-right antagonism in China. But both sides strategically downplayed the latent multidimensionality in order to denounce each other. This resembled the level of complexity in political ideologies that is taken for granted for studying liberal democracies. In China, as in other societies, no popular struggles can play out without enacting the local ideological magnetism and rhetorical devices. In fact, China’s lack of institutional consolidation of partisan division through voting, political organization, education, and media might make ideological articulations even more fluid.
In the early 2010s, an opportunity led me away from the vertigo of convoluted intellectual debates to think about where ordinary web users stand amidst a constantly morphing Chinese web. Some folks created a Chinese version of the Political Compass quiz. In absence of cultures and institutions formed around partisan politics, but with a raucous web filled with ideational conflicts, people resorted to this online quiz to understand their own political positioning. Between 2008 and 2011, hundreds of thousands of Chinese took it out of curiosity. In a country where formal survey design was highly policed and survey responses unreliable due to fear and discomfort, this immense cumulation of anonymous answer sheets regarding 50 ideational statements were invaluable. They recorded what an individual simultaneously agrees and disagrees about, which in aggregation can be used to map, bottom-up, the “indigenous” political belief system.
My analysis found that, in the popular mind, while statements reflecting political liberalism (e.g., it’s OK to make jokes about state leaders) tended to come with those of cultural liberalism (e.g., supporting gay marriage), none of these had a systematic alignment with economic liberalism (e.g., opposing certain government subsidies). This is not surprising given China’s lack of education and political socialization on abstract principles guiding economic policymaking. This also means that among its broad online population, unlike within intellectual discourse, views about the economy were yet to become a prominent factor informing their political positioning.
The data shows that, between 2008 and 2011, the popular line of division was not even views about the political system. Instead, it was about whether one was for the vision of China rising to be a global superpower, something not aligning neatly with the intellectual left-right division. In other words, it is fair to say that a significant portion of Chinese web users had formed their opinions in ways that systematically rejected this aggressive nationalist craving. Such a rejection came with an embrace of plural cultural values and critical views of the political system. This was confirmed by my oral history interviews of Bullog readers. A large portion of my dissertation (2014) explored their changing subjectivities—how they groped their way out of nationalism over time. Much of this transformation hinged not on political values per se, but on them acquiring folk theories about the power of media environments in moulding one’s existing thinking. Many developed a paranoia of having been brainwashed, in sharp contrast to our broader climate where calling one’s opponents “brainwashed” is commonplace.
Regime Legitimacy as Shifting Perceptions
The Chinese government banned Bullog in early 2009, the same year that Weibo, China’s much-larger-than-Twitter platform, was launched. With technical features enabling unprecedentedly wide and swift public participation, Weibo in its beginning years was expected to further augment “liberal dissent” in China. In the summer of 2011, amid its fast growth, the propaganda department called to better “guide online opinion.” Additional to targeted censorship, this push leaned much on mobilizing government agents and legacy media outlets to encourage and amplify desirable content on Weibo. Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012. Toward the mid-2010s, China scholars and observers alike began to note a broad waning of online protests.
What makes the Chinese party-state legitimate? Plenty has been written with a focus on the CCP’s official claims and China’s historical, structural propensity (e.g., the government's economic performance was the last resort when neither a charismatic leader like Mao Zedong, nor a genuine socialist conviction, remained alive). Yet ultimately, it comes down to how ordinary Chinese conceive these issues. If emerging dissent amounts to growing perceptions of regime illegitimacy, the observed conservative turn of China’s online cultures may boil down to changing perceptions about what constitutes regime legitimacy. These perceptions exemplify how people experience and evaluate the regime—I call them “regime imaginaries.”
One way to explore regime imaginaries is to investigate how tizhi is popularly spoken of. Tizhi is an umbrella-concept difficult to concretize. Its dictionary definition is ‘form and structure, system (of government, etc.).’ Today, tizhi often invokes some aspects of Chinese establishments. The term’s extraordinary breadth, ambiguity, and opacity effectively alludes to party-state’s fraught roles in national politics, culture, and social life, which distinctly characterizes China’s sociopolitical configuration. When people talk about tizhi, what are they talking about? Coexisting ‘regime imaginaries’ are discernible from analysing massive amounts of Weibo posts containing tizhi to identify recurring semantic contexts surrounding the term. Analysing datasets from 2011 and 2016 respectively, changes were also evident.
First, the most prevalent regime imaginary in 2011—let us call it “Critical-Reform”—attributed various social ills accompanying China’s economic reform to the regime’s negligence and incompetence in governance. In 2016, vocabularies used in Critical-Reform broke down to formulate two discrete imaginaries focused on governance over economic and judiciary matters, respectively. With this change, the permeating sense of crisis and urgency for structural overhaul had waned, and in its place emerged specific issues to be addressed professionally and bureaucratically.
Second, another major regime imaginary in 2011—which can be called “Liberal-Democracy” reflected a critique of Chinese regime legitimacy according to Western liberalism. Unlike Critical-Reform, Liberal-Democracy harboured a rejection of the existing party-state system. In 2016, many of its vocabularies, such as “liberty” and “democracy,” were absorbed by the most predominant regime imaginary that I call “Civilizational-Competition.” These terms were simultaneously discredited, as Civilizational-Competition was about revelations about Western hypocrisy and calls for national solidarity. Also entailed was pride over traditional cultures and suspicion of global capitalism. In the Civilizational-Competition imaginary, the regime at once represents and protects China's prowess. Moreover, this imaginary resulted from populist sentiments, because it dominated the semantic landscape of individual user accounts on Weibo, much more than that of organizational accounts.
In short, under the Xi Administration, the two legitimacy-challenging imaginaries—Critical-Reform and Liberal-Democracy—morphed drastically in five-year’s time. On the one hand, interconnected social conflicts became pigeonholed into domains of law and administration. On the other, the liberal democratic persuasions crumbled as the sense of foreign (Western) threats heightened. Characterizing the general trends at China’s political and ideological conjuncture, the discursive landscape in 2016 was much more in the regime’s favour.
Cut to 2020, the year Covid-19 and xenophobic populism ravaged China and the rest of world. Like the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, the pandemic created a moment of national crisis and in its wake sweeping waves of patriotism. Courageous individuals again emerged, with support from numerous strangers online, contending that patriotic mobilization could be blinding and oppressive. But Bullog is long gone. And there are no similar hubs for comradery and coordination, toward which alternative voices can gravitate. At any rate confidence in the current political system is peaking. But this is not solely an outcome of authoritarian coercion and censorship.
It should be clear by now that in Chinese popular imaginations regime support is intricately entwined with nationalist sentiments and impressions of Western democratic systems. Already evident in 2016, the crumbling of liberal democratic ideals boosted favourable perceptions about regime legitimacy. What 2020 witnessed in the US and other Western countries, especially through the relay of Chinese media field, further hollowed domestic visions of liberal democratic rule as a viable, let alone desirable, option.
Meanwhile on the Chinese web, quite a few erstwhile prominent Bulloggers, together with many other Chinese liberal-rightist intellectuals, openly cheer for Trumpism and deride U.S. public policies that address social justice. The human rights lawyer once enamoured on Bullog, Chen Guangcheng, who in 2012 escaped to the US from state persecution, urged US citizens to vote for Trump to “stop CCP aggression.” Luo Yonghao, Bullog’s founder and once my GRE coach, became a tech entrepreneur manufacturing smartphones in the early 2010s, and then, after his business failed in 2019, joined legions of celebrities to live stream and sell goods, which were worth hundreds of millions of RMB at a time.
In shifting global geopolitics, continuing capitalist perversion, and our desperate search for transnational solidarity, the Chinese dissent cannot be assumed as the purported “liberal resistance” to authoritarianism, cannot be delegated to persons of heroic deeds, and cannot be pinned down to any binary framework. What we need is sustained attention to how popular political discourses warp, how some convictions become cozy together while repelling others, and how these changing formations relate to larger structures of power.
by Ico Maly
We are all living algorithmic lives. Our lives are not just media rich, they increasingly take place in and through an algorithmically programmed media landscape. Algorithms, as a result of digitalisation and the de-computerisation of the internet, are ubiquitous today. We use them to navigate, to buy stuff, to work from home, to search for information, to read our newspaper and to chat with friends and even people we never met before. We live our social lives in post-digital societies: societies in which the digital revolution has been realised. As a result, algorithms have penetrated and changed almost every domain in those societies.
Algorithms have become a normal and to a large extent invisible part of our world. Hence they are rarely questioned. Only when big issues erupt—think about Facebook’s role in Trump’s election, the role of conspiracy theories in the raid on Capitol, or content moderation failures— do debates on the role of digital platforms and their algorithms become prominent. Otherwise, they just seem to be “there”, just as the old media is part of our lives. As Barthes eloquently argued, normality is always a field of power. Normality and normativity, he argued, are not neutral or non-ideological. On the contrary, they are hegemonic. Other ideologies and normativities are measured against this ideological point zero. We could expand his logic and argue that digital platforms, their algorithms, and the ideologies that are embedded in them are part of the invisible and self-evident systemic core organising daily life. Just because we fail to recognize those algorithms and platforms as ideologically grounded, it is necessary to examine and study the impact of this algorithmic revolution in general, and its impact on politics—and the production and distribution of ideology—in particular.
Ideology and the algorithmic logic of post-digital societies
Digitalisation and algorithmic culture have rapidly reshuffled the media system and the information flows and interactions within that system. Politicians, activists, journalists, intellectuals and common citizens politically engage in a very different context than in the 1990s, let alone the 1950s. We now live with an algorithmically-powered attention-based hybrid media system. The different types of media—newspapers, television, radio, and social media platforms—do not merely coexist, but form a media system that is constantly changing. That perpetual change is, according to Chadwick, the result of the reciprocal actions and interactions between those different media and their media logics. In that new media system, the distinction between “old” and “new” media or digital and non-digital media has almost become non-existent. Tweets become news and the newspaper tweets. Moreover, the newspaper is also more and more algorithmically produced.
All media in this hybrid media system are increasingly grounded in an algorithmic logic. Our interactions with algorithms determine which information becomes visible to whom and on which scale. Algorithms, datafication, and the affordances of digital media that allowed for the democratisation of transmission and the banalisation of recording disrupt the status quo. We cannot understand the rise of Trump and Trumpism, or the rise of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Squad without taking this new media environment into account. While we should carefully avoid the trap of technological determinism, we cannot disregard the importance of including this new socio-technological context in our analysis of ideology and political discourse in contemporary societies. Post-digital societies create new possibilities and constraints for the production and circulation of discourse. New producers and new relationships have been established between the different actors in this media system and they have had fundamental effects on the construction and circulation of (meta-)political messages and meanings.
In the last two decades, the digital infrastructure has become an inherent part of the social fabric of society. It is one of the deep, generic drivers of concrete human behaviour in hypermediated societies. Without attention to this social structure, one risks the fallacy of internalism, as J.B. Thompson called it. With this concept, Thompson pointed to the widespread idea that the meaning of a text is only to be found in the text itself (and thus not in the attribution of meaning through the uptake and reproduction of texts). He stressed that ‘the analysis of ideology in modern societies must give a central role to the nature and impact of mass communication’, and argued that cultural experience is profoundly shaped by the diffusion of symbolic forms distributed through mass media. As a result, the study of ideology should—if one wants to avoid the fallacy of internalism—be focused on all three aspects of mass communication: ‘the production/transmission, construction, and reception/appropriation of media messages’. If we follow Thompson’s argument, we should at least direct some attention to the algorithmic nature of the distribution of discourse and ideology in contemporary societies.
Algorithmic culture and the attention-based media system
It is important to note here that algorithms are much more than mere technological instruments. They are socio-technical assemblages. Algorithms only work if they are fed with data. In other words, algorithms should be understood from a relational perspective. Not only do programmers (their values and their companies’ goals) matter, but also the interfaces, the data structures, and what people do with algorithms deserve our attention. The idea—so prevalent in public debate—that algorithms just do things and that users do not have impact is false. The recommended videos on YouTube are the result of the interactions between the recommendation algorithms of YouTube, viewers, and how producers prepare their content for uptake. Algorithmic culture matters. People will try to optimise their content, link to each other, have a network of fans which they ask to share content, or even have bots to push certain content.
Algorithms and people have agency. It is in the interaction between humans and algorithms that the contemporary production and circulation of ideology should be understood. When we take the assumption on board that algorithms have agency, then it is important to understand the socio-technical but also the economic context in which they are created. The objectives of the platforms are clear. Beneath all the fine talk of big tech boasting about ‘connecting the world’ and ‘doing no evil’ lies the quest for profit. Social platforms make profit by commodifying our digitally networked social relationships: our emotions, photos, posts, shares and likes are repackaged into ‘tradable commodities’. Or more concretely, data is used to predict the likelihood that certain audiences will be receptive or give attention to certain messages from companies or politicians. The more data those companies have about their users, the more accurately they think that sellers can target them and the more profit big tech can extract from that behavioural data. The result is an unbridled surveillance and datafication. Even if users don’t post or like and don’t leave comments, they still produce data that can be processed and traded.
In order to gather more data on their users, digital media platforms nurture a specific culture in which audience labour takes a central place. We have all become prosumers: we do not only consume information, we also produce it. This has crucial consequences: information—including good quality information—is now abundant. It is no longer a scarce commodity. A wealth of information creates a lack of attention. We have ended up in the opposite of an information economy: an attention economy. In order to convert that attention into profit, attention is codified and categorised. The like, the comment, the view, the click, the share function as proxies of attention. The digital infrastructures of the attention economy are not only organised to keep the users hooked, they facilitate audience labour and thus data production.
This commercial algorithmically-programmed attention economy creates a very specific environment in which we develop our social relationships. “Popularity” has become a crucial factor. The more followers you have, the more likes your posts generate, the more you contribute to the goals of the platform, the more valuable you are for the platforms, and the more visible you and your discourse becomes. As a result, people increasingly present themselves as public personas in search for an audience. In order to capture the attention of platform users, we see that branding strategies have been democratised. People create their brand in relation to the so-called vanity metrics: they monitor the likes, followers and uptake and use it to gain insight in what works, when, and why. Or in other words, they try to acquire and apply algorithmic knowledge to produce attention-grabbing content. The influencer or micro-celebrity is a structural ingredient of this new media environment: they help platforms in realising their goals. These new human practices are best seen as result of their interaction with the algorithms and values of that platform.
The management of visibility and ideology research
The algorithmic logic of this attention-based media environment forces us to understand the importance of algorithmic knowledge in the dissemination of ideologies on the rise. Not only the management of visibility, but also avoiding non-visibility as Bucher stresses is a constant worry for all actors in this media system and is thus of crucial importance for all ideological projects. In line with Thompson, Blommaert argued that ideologies need to ‘be understood as processes that require material reality and institutional structures and practices of power and authority’. Ideologies are thus not just a cognitive phenomenon, they have a material reality. Hence, they cannot be understood without looking at how people spread those ideas, who they address, which media they use, and how those media format the discourses. Studying ideologies in the contemporary era means not only looking at the input, but also at the uptake. Uptake here refers to
(1) the fact that within the digital ecology users are not only consumers but also (re)producers of discourse, so-called prosumers; and
(2) that algorithms and the interfaces of digital media play an important role in the dissemination and reproduction of ideas.
Uptake realises visibility. Human and non-human actors (from bots over the algorithms organising the communication on a platform) are a crucial part of any ideological and political battle. Note here that seemingly simple ‘reproduction’ actions like retweeting, reposting, liking, and sharing are not just ‘copies’ of the same discourse, but ‘re-entextualisations’: a share (and sometimes even a like depending on the algorithms of the platform) is the start of a new communication process where the initial message is now part of a new communicative act performed by a new producer who communicates to new addressees in a new type of interaction. It is also a meaningful act seen from the perspective of the algorithm: a share and a comment adds to the ‘popularity’ of the post and thus can also contribute to its visibility far beyond the audiences of the people who have shared it. Digital media are thus not just intermediaries, they affect the input and the uptake.
Messaging in the digital age is thus not a linear process between sender and receiver, but involves a multitude of human and non-human actors that are all potential senders and receivers and even co-constructs the message. This ‘uptake’ is as crucial as the input and this again highlights why it is important that ideological and discourse-analytical research not only focusses on the content, but also on the different actors and the systems of communication.
Myths, ideology, and the far-right
We can illustrate the importance of the new communicative environment when we zoom in on the emergence of the far-right in the last decades. Although it is certainly not the only factor, the algorithmic hybrid media system is unmistakably an important ingredient in this rise. It has reshaped and re-organised the far-right. The far-right has always used digital media to propagate their ideologies, but in the last decades, we see a fundamental change in the form, content and strategies that are being used today. The far right’s adoption of meme-culture, LARPing (the ironic and metapolitical use of Live Action Role Playing in order to do or say things that are too outrageous for “normies”), digital harassment, trolling, conspiracy theories, and the adoption of influencer culture for metapolitical goals are all relatively new practices that have contributed not only to the spread of their ideologies, but also to recreation, re-emergence, and the mobilisation power of the so-called true right on a global scale.
In post-digital societies, the far-right rarely manifests itself as a hierarchical organisation with one stable ideology or a mass party. More commonly it takes the form of a polycentric and layered network of niched ideological groups. Maly and Varis coined the term micro-populations to describe such social groups. They argued that micro-populations are the material expression of temporary and emerging micro-hegemonies. The Capitol riots in the US are a clear example of how all those digital practices have shaped a wide range of such micro-populations that were moulded into a militant offline mass on 6 January 2021. An analysis of the linguistic signs on display during the storming of Capitol shows us how Trump-supporters are a loose, unstable, and temporal coalition of micro-populations. Next to the red and camouflage MAGA caps and Trump hats, one could spot Confederate flags, QAnon t-shirts, Kek and “three-percenter” flags, Neo-Nazi hoodies, ‘stop the steal’ boards, and of course the Proud Boys themselves.
All these signs and emblems refer to different groups who occupy different (4chan, thedonald.win) or sometimes overlapping online spaces (GAB, Parler, MeWe). Trump—with his massive reach in the hybrid media system—was potentially most important, but he was clearly not the only communicator. Key influencers like Nick Fuentes, Dan Bongino, and Gavin McInnes all collaborated in the production and distribution of discourse. In many cases, we see a complex, layered and ‘democratic’ network of influencers that co-constructs a (micro)-ideology. If we zoom in on QAnon, then we see that even that niche is a decentralised and polycentric pyramid-like conspiracy theory that is constantly being produced and reproduced in different niches by different producers. Mom-influencers, yoga communities, 4channers, and MAGA-activists all prosume the theory and make it ready for uptake in their niches using different angles and discourse strategies.
Trying to understand 6 January means understanding how many of those micro-populations merge to become a mass. One key element is understanding that since Election Day, influencers and prosumers in all those different niches started adopting some version of the conspiracy theory that claims that this election was stolen. This particular type of coalition is grounded in a network of social media sites and of course in the digital campaign of Trump itself. These groups were born within mainstream platforms like Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Facebook before some had to move to more fringe platforms like Gab, Parler, and thedonald.win after being deplatformed. In the months before the riot, all those niched groups used digital media to construct their own normalities, their partisan views of the world. In that world, the election was stolen by the left, the liberals, or the deep state. The enemy was accused of manipulating the voting machines, stealing or throwing away ballots, or organising fraud with mail-in and absentee ballots. The seeds for this myth were planted by Trump in the even before his election in 2016—but of course they resonated with discourses on the deep state that were already popular in many of those niches—and were carefully constructed by many of his performances during and after the elections. Trump’s electoral loss was read as the deep state taking over control again. It created a sense of urgency and opposition to the democratic institutions of the US.
We can best understand those conspiracy theories as contemporary and vulgar variants of the Sorelian myth. The Frenchman George Sorel was a prominent and influential anti-elitist and anti-democratic philosopher within revolutionary syndicalism that had a prominent impact on fascism. Myth was central to Sorel’s thinking about revolution and the overthrow of the bourgeois order. He saw myths as “groups of ideas” or knowledge-constructs that can direct reality, people, and movements. Those ideas didn’t need to be rational or true. What was important according to Sorel was that they had affective power. For him, myths had a social function. He saw them as means to mobilise people.
If we look at the role of conspiracy theories from the perspective of this Sorelian concept of myth, we see how they function as a site of ideology:
All those political conspiracy theories create a world in which the liberal elites are destroying traditional societies, enable multiculturalism, feminism, and the destruction of Western culture. That is why debunking the myths doesn’t work. It didn’t matter that Pizzagate was debunked; the general idea—that the liberals are morally rotten—was still seen as true. Important to note again is that those myths are not only cognitive-ideational phenomena, they are grounded in a material reality which is as important as the affective qualities of those myths in the mobilisation of people.
Ideology and algorithmic politics
If we understand ideologies as ideas that penetrate the whole fabric of communities and result in normalised, naturalised patterns of thought and behaviour, then we should realise how important the role of algorithms is in the construction of that normality. The reach of these groups cannot be solely explained by the discourse they produce; all of those influencers and groups deploy ‘algorithmic knowledge’ to spread their discourse and to construct a community around their profiles. Even more, their discourse on ‘censorship’ from the mass media and mainstream digital media platforms helps them to spread digital knowledge. Far-right influencers constantly stress the importance of getting the news out by sharing and liking. This produces fertile ground to grow a supportive culture. The other side of the coin is that the interaction with the personalisation algorithms contributes to the construction of the niched groups circling around specific influencers and pages, whereas the recommendation algorithms help to build a network of different micro-populations.
If we want to analyse ‘political ideologies’, we must not only focus on the content or the large ‘isms’, but also on the form, the communication economy, and the uptake. We need to understand how politicians and activists adapt to this new communicative economy and understand how they use it for their political struggle. What is clear by now is that this new communicative economy creates a polycentric world of communication. Such a world is far more complex than a world dominated by the so-called “mass media”. It thus creates an enormous challenge for scholars of ideology, because we will need to update our toolkit. The good news is that it may help us to develop more fine-grained analysis that takes into account the full context, including the socio-technical context.
 Taina Bucher, If… Then: Algorithmic power and politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
 Florian Cramer, ‘What Is “Post-digital”?’, in David M. Berry and Michael Dieter (eds.), Postdigital Aesthetics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Hill and Wang, 1957).
 Jan Blommaert, Discourse: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 160.
 Andrew Chadwick, The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); John B. Thompson, ‘Mediated Interaction in the Digital Age’, Theory, Culture & Society 37(1) (2020), 3–28; Tommaso Venturini, ‘From fake to junk news: The data politics of online virality’, in Didier Bigo, Engin Isin, and Evelyn Ruppert (eds.), Data Politics. Worlds, Subjects, Rights (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).
 Bucher, If… Then.
 Tarleton Gillespie, ‘The relevance of algorithms’, in Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kristen Foot (eds.), Media Technologies (Cambidge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).
 Ico Maly, ‘The global New Right and the Flemish identitarian movement Schild & Vrienden: a case study’, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies no. 220 (2018); Ico Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics and the Algorithmic Activism of Schild & Vrienden’, Social Media + Society (2019); Ico Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers: The Case of Brittany Pettibone’, Social Science (2020), 9(7); Ico Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism and the datafication and gamification of the people by Flemish Interest in Belgium’, Trabalhos em Linguística Aplicada 59(1) (2020) .
 Jan Blommaert, ‘Political discourse in post-digital societies’, Trabalhos em Linguística Aplicada 59(1) (2020).
 John B. Thompson, Ideology and modern culture: Critical social theory in the era of mass communication (Cambridge: Polity, 1990).
 Ibid., 264.
 Ibid., 24.
 Shoshana Zuboff, The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power (New York, NY: Profile Books, 2019).
 Venturini, ‘From fake to junk news’, 130.
 Vincent Miller, Understanding digital culture (London: SAGE, 2011).
 José Van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A critical history of social media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
 Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to build habit-forming products (London: Penguin, 2014).
 Van Dijck, Culture of Connectivity.
 Alice Marwick, ‘You May Know Me from YouTube: (Micro)-Celebrity in Social Media’, in P. David Marshall and Sean Redmond (eds.), A Companion to Celebrity (Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2015).
 Richard Rogers, ‘Digital Traces in Context| Otherwise Engaged: Social Media from Vanity Metrics to Critical Analytics’, International Journal of Communication 12 (2018).
 Bucher, If… Then; Maly, ‘The global New Right’; Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’.
 Bucher, If… Then.
 Blommaert, Discourse, 163
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’; Maly, ‘The global New Right’; Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism’.
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’; Piia Varis and Jan Blommaert, ‘Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures’, Multilingual Margins 2(1), 31–45.
 Thomas Poell and José Van Dijck, ‘Social Media and Journalistic Independence’, in James Bennett and Niki Strange (eds.), Media independence: working with freedom or working for free? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 182–201.
 Maly, 2018.
 Maly, 2018, Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism’.
 Ariel Winter, ‘Online hate: From the far right to the ‘Alt-Right’, and from the margins to the mainstream’, in Karen Lumsden and Emily Harmer (eds.), Online Othering: Exploring Violence and Discrimination on the Web (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2019).
 Lisa Bogaerts and Maik Fielitz, ‘Do you want meme war? Understanding the visual memes of the German Far Right’, in Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston (eds.), Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right: Online Actions and Offline Consequences in Europe and the US (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2019); Daniele Conversi, ‘Irresponsible radicalisation: Diasporas, globalisation, and Long-distance nationalism in the Digital age’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 38 (2012), 1357–79; Edwin Hodge and Helga Hallgrimsdottir, ‘Networks of Hate: The Alt- right, “Troll Culture”, and the Cultural Geography of Social Movement Spaces Online’, Journal of Borderlands Studies (2019), 1–8; Rebecca Lewis, Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube, Data & Society (2018); Ico Maly, ‘Populism as a mediatized communicative relation: The birth of algorithmic populism’, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies no. 213 (2018); Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Washington, DC: Zero Books, 2017); Marc Tuters, ‘LARPing and Liberal tears: Irony, Belief, and Idiocy in the deep vernacular web’, in Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston (eds.), Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right: Online Actions and Offline Consequences in Europe and the US (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2019).
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’; Maly, ‘Populism as a mediatized communicative relation’; Maly, ‘The global New Right’.
 Ico Maly and Piia Varis, ‘The 21st-century hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 19(6) (2015), 637–53.
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’.
 Ico Maly, ‘The Army for Trump and Trump’s war against Sleepy Joe’, Diggit Magazine (2020), https://www.diggitmagazine.com/articles/trump-war-sleepy-joe.
 Georges Sorel, Reflections on violence (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 2004).
 Blommaert, Discourse, 159.
 Maly, ‘The global New Right’; Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism’.