Week 2: The Digital Soapbox
Does social media favour populism + demagoguery?
I love Twitter. I love being able to type thoughts I think are amusing into 140 characters and sending it off into the blackhole of the internet in the hope that someone else finds it funny enough to “like” it or — and this is the real treasure — even retweet it. I love being able to get banking help without using the most anxiety-inducing communication device (the telephone) and being able to contact young people making their art directly no matter where they are around the world.
I am not in the public eye. For now, I am just a twenty year old student at a university in Canada. I am not, for example, running for the leadership of a federal political party.
Nor am I currently the leader of a global superpower.
(I hope you appreciate those embedded tweets because it physically hurt me reading through their feeds to find them.)
Trump and O’Leary have a lot in common. They’re both middle aged white men, they both made their names being reality TV stars, and now they’re both pretending they’re qualified to be politicians. Putting aside the fact that a country is not a business and needs a completely different set of skills to run, this provides an example of how Twitter can provide a platform for demagoguery.
Reading through both Twitter feeds it was hard to ignore the same topics coming up again and again: job creation, the economy, their TV ratings. They both prey on the fears of the population to gain popularity, Trump especially so.
While I tried not to pay attention to Trump over the course of the election because listening to him and his followers makes me physically ill, I remember three main points from his campaign. His talk about building a wall to stop illegal immigrants from Mexico entering the US, the demeaning way he speaks about women, and the straight-up hateful and racist way he talks of minorities. Everything he says sounds wrong and horrible to me, and yet he was able to receive enough votes from the US population to win the Republican nomination and then the presidency. At first look it’s baffling how someone could sway so many people to his cause using such outdated and hateful rhetoric, but with a closer look it starts to make more sense. In fact, another leader with questionable hair used the same tactics 85 years ago to win an election.
He seized upon the population’s fears, identified a group to blame, and then continued to demonize them through his campaign. But in this case the group to blame wasn’t members of the Jewish faith, it was literally everyone who wasn’t white. And he used his social media presence, specifically his Twitter account, to spread his message. Through social media, people who share the same views reared their ugly heads. They organized, they congregated, and now we live in a world where the White House has to tell the president’s supporters not to do the Nazi salute at gatherings.
(Quick side note: what the hell, people! Since when is this okay? Since when can someone supported by Nazis — no, not the “Alt-Right” or whatever they want to be called, they’re freakin’ Nazis people — win the election in the US? What. The. Hell.)
Whether or not social media favours demagoguery is difficult to say (admittedly because I love social media and don’t want to throw it under the proverbial bus like that) however it certainly enables it. Social media allowed Trump to disseminate his message through more channels than were already provided to him as an ‘entertaining’ candidate. Traditional media, referring to newspapers and news programs on television, are to blame for spreading his message as well. By giving him so much air time and so much space in the public eye, they provided him a platform and the people’s attention so all he had to do was talk.
Figuring out whether his prominence on social media or in traditional media came first is a question akin to the chicken and egg scenario. It’s impossible to pin it on just one. I don’t know if the US would have a different president right now if it wasn’t for social media. All I can do is look to the future in our own government. With Kevin O’Leary actually doing well so far in his bid for the Conservative leadership, my eyes will be on him to see if he enters into the same terrifying ideologies supported by Trump. He has a similar background and a similar affinity for Twitter. Many people are already drawing comparisons between the two and it doesn’t help that O’Leary admitted he was inspired by Trump’s win to enter politics in the first place. Whether he can leverage it to the same heights as Trump will be seen in the coming weeks, which is it’s own kind of terrifying.