Social networks and populism: cause and effect?
There seems to be mounting opinion linking the increase in populism around the world with the popularization of a technology that within a few years has come to monopolize a good part of the time, the thoughts and even how we consume news: the social networks.
The relationship between populism and social networks cover more aspects than are usually considered. The awareness of some politicians that social networks, oriented to marketing and hyper-segmented campaigns, offer the perfect way to spread their message is only one facet. Figures like Donald Trump, suddenly the biggest advertiser on Facebook, were supported by foreign governments, used mass microtargeting campaigns to spread his inflammatory message among susceptible voter groups, a tactic, now proven beyond question that would have been impossible before the social networks. But beyond this important direct use, there are other links between populism and social networks that invite reflection.
Firstly, what we might call historical coincidences. Populism is far from a recent phenomenon, but the appearance of populist movements and leaders has multiplied since the moment social networks really took off in the late ‘90s. Starting with the Arab Spring of 2010, many pundits predicted that social networks, with their capacity for exponential dissemination, would play a fundamental role in political protest. There was a rapid evolution from those first spontaneous, grassroots approaches that used the social networks as an alternative to state-controlled media, to others that appeared similar but that were far more sophisticated and carefully designed by analysts employed by opposition candidates.
Secondly, the simplistic structure of social networks: do you like what you are reading? Press “Like” and say something positive. If you don’t like what you see, or you have a different opinion, then say something vitriolic: don’t worry, there’ll be no blowback. Since you can’t see the person you’re attacking, your prefrontal cortex doesn’t inhibit aggressive responses, and in addition, the asynchrony of communication eliminates the need for consensus. In this kind of scenario, we’re all surrounded by “friends” whose opinions we share, who make us feel good about ourselves, identified, understood and protected. The social networks reaffirm our beliefs, become an echo chamber, a bubble that filters what we read, molding our vision of the world, simplifying the reality of a world we find dizzyingly complex.
As a result, we tend to be attracted by politicians who not only leverage their campaigns on the social networks and whose messages reach us in a seemingly neutral way, often through our friends, but most importantly, offer simple solutions to complex problems. A group of prestigious scientists prove in a report that global warming is much worse than we thought years ago? No problem: it can be dismissed with four words: “I don’t believe it”, as if science were a matter of opinion and that by denial, the problem will just go away.
One “I don’t believe it” and several thousand “Likes” later, in the collective imagination, the most important challenge ever to face humanity is a non-issue, a conspiracy by pinko scientists allied with foreign powers attacking the interests of the country. Simple messages, black and white, good and bad stories simply packaged and delivered with laser precision to those who most appreciate it. I don’t want long, difficult articles; give me messages that fit in a tweet, to the point. Give me memes I can share. Better simple solutions and clear and concise messages than gray areas of uncertainty about complex problems I can’t be bothered to understand. Good and bad stories: the search for the common enemy. Make me feel good about myself, simplify my problems, and I will vote for you, either actively or reactively.
Are social networks to blame? Not necessarily: like the sorcerer’s apprentice, they have simply set in motion a machinery they can no longer control, and even if they could, why would they? Their business model depends on clients like Donald Trump. We are possibly facing the biggest crisis of democracy in its history. Is there a solution? Would the fall of the Facebook empire change things, or would we simply move to the next tool, the next social network, to Instagram, the ownership of which Facebook keeps very quiet about? Is the solution to stop using social networks? Or is the problem just a certain type of social network, which turn us into raw material whose attention is shredded and sold to the highest bidder? Or is this simply a process, and that over time we’ll learn how to use them?
Many questions, but few answers.