Christian Heilmann

What if the Nazis had the internet and social media?

Wednesday, July 19th, 2023 at 9:36 am

Book cover of the NSA novel with an eye as an icon in a nazi propaganda styled cover

Going through the bargain bin at a local store I came across the novel NSA by Andreas Eschbach. It is based on the intriguing idea what would have happened if the Nazis had access to the internet, social media, mobile devices and card payment systems. The NSA is a state-owned department of the government before the Nazi takeover that is data-mining the internet and storing all the information.

One of the first bits in the book is a fast forward to when the Nazis had taken over and WW2 is already in its desperate end phase. The NSA department tries to show off to the Nazi regime by proving that they can find out who is hiding Jews. They do this by tracking all the food people bought over a period of time and how many people live in their flats. A huge discrepancy in those numbers indicates that there are probably more people living there than are in the official registry. The Nazis then go on to verify this by dispatching inspectors to a house in Amsterdam. At first they don’t find anyone, but after adding another datapoint by looking up the blueprints of the house they find a hidden family and send them to the death camps. After burning the daughter’s diary as its contents should be a problem if it gets distributed.

Picture of the radio

The book also goes on to describe how the Nazis used computers, mobile devices and online forums to track people, spread misinformation and fire up groups to gang up on people who write about topics that aren’t about purity of race or nationalism.

It is a chilling read, and – if you think about it – not far from what has happened, albeit only with other media. The Nazis were excellent at using Radio and TV to hide the sheer evil they represent with positive messages that pandered to people’s pride. This went as far as creating and distributing highly affordable radio sets into homes called Volksempfänger.

In essence, controlling the media means controlling the masses. And the book describes how having information is as powerful as having heavy weapons. That’s no new insight, of course. George Orwell’s 1984 had similar ideas, after all, and many people, including me, have warned about oversharing for quite a while.

Anti-social media

Why am I writing about this? Because we are not far from a world like that. Social media has become anything but social. People either drown in a river of generated and opinionated content or recede into their own, smaller bubbles where they can talk with likeminded folk without fear of being ganged up on by louts and trolls.

The big elephant in the room, of course, is Twitter and what happens to it now that a single person was able to buy it and change it to their ideals. A lot of people who have been preaching about privacy and evil corporations are now quick to utterly disregard it and move away to other places. None of these places having the same size or impact though. Maybe it is a good thing that Twitter’s monopoly is dwindling, but it is dangerous to assume that people who just want a daily information fix will stop using it and move to other platforms. Platforms that appear much harder to use or only get rolled out in certain locales.

Poster advertising the volksempfaenger radio with the caption that all of germany listens to the fuhrer with the twitter logo overlaid

Twitter has become rough and annoying. It is easy to feel smug about that and wave a huge “we told you so” banner, but that does not change the fact that people still read Twitter and if the calmer and more enlightened voices leave, the hooligans and their puppet masters take over.

The other day someone told me that Twitter is a fascist platform and anyone still using it is a fascist. What a bunch of elitist and defeatist nonsense. If you march alongside fascists in the street without distancing yourself I agree – that makes you a supporter. If you donate money to a platform or a cause that is inherently against people’s rights or freedoms, that’s even worse. I won’t pay for Twitter, that much is for sure. But I keep using it the way I always used it. To me, it’s a publication channel. I don’t go there for information, as the algorithmic timeline made that pointless some time ago. I do comment on people who attack others or point out wrong information and I use it to direct message people and answer incoming messages.

Leaving a place when it gets rough and people spout hatred instead of standing up to them is not that much better than endorsing it. The fact remains that Twitter, much like Facebook, has a huge impact in the media and people do use it. And they are being manipulated by others on these platforms. I see Twitter as a pub that has had an influx of rough folk that shout racist and sexist paroles with an innkeeper that’s asleep at the wheel. If that pub is your hangout, it’s up to you to stay there and work against that takeover. Much like football clubs need to distance themselves from hooligans to ensure that fans of the sport and the team can still safely attend a match.

Fascism works through intimidation. Civil courage is needed to prevent it from becoming the norm.

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