IMAGE: VOX meeting (7/10/18) — CC0

Understanding how the new politics works isn’t difficult; limiting its scope will be harder

Anne Applebaum’s investigative piece for The Washington Post on Vox, which as well as featuring interviews with its leaders, details the communication strategy of the far-right group that garnered 10% of the vote in Spain’s April 28 general elections largely based on the use social networks that copied those used by the Trump campaign in 2016.

Vox relied on a network of more than 3,000 “abnormally high-activity users”, who could have been bots or real people, constantly publishing inflammatory messages and very possibly charging for it, organized around a few sources creating content that was constantly being redistributed to influence opinion. This artificial activity is part of the techniques of the so-called new politics, a use of social networks common to several countries and to various parties or movements of different ideological hue.

The article identifies some of these people and organizations dedicated to spreading extremist and polarizing content: anti-Islamic, anti-immigration and anti-Catalan nationalism that gradually increased to fever pitch as the elections approached. Extremely biased views, distortions — the abundant use of graphic material from other sources that is constantly reused — designed to polarize opinion that attracted enough voters to put 24 Vox deputies in Congress. The election result may have failed to live up to expectations or fears, but was nevertheless a major success for a party that was only founded in 2013 in a country that had largely rejected far right politics for more than four decades.

In short, the new politics is about manipulating social networks, which are still largely unregulated, to spread messages that are passed on thousands of times as though from friends or acquaintances. This is using technology to manipulate and polarize to the max: Trump did it in the United States, Bolsonaro did it in Brazil, and now Vox has done it in Spain: creating anger in a section of the electorate through the repeated use of divisive messages. This approach requires certain circumstances, seizing on issues that need to be addressed, but are instead manipulated to bolster arguments through communication engineering.

This carefully coordinated use of social networks is inauthentic and further highlights the need for regulation of social networks. We have seen how this kind of manipulation, used by different ideologies, has shown itself capable of disrupting politics, of converting traditionally marginal tendencies into votes. That said, this is not about ideas as such, but how they are communicated, how they are used to skew the debate, opportunistically taking advantage of crises to force discussion on issues in ways we thought we’d left behind. It’s about extremism, manipulation, and demographic segments highly prone to influence.

It’s getting harder by the day to regulate social networks, but it’s one of the most important challenges we face.

(En español, aquí)