Social networks, algorithms and populism
Politics has not been immune to the transformative impact of social media. Most notably, the relationship between politicians and the public has changed, and with it the methods of political communication. Various politicians have had no choice but to embrace social media, often much to the amusement of the tech-savvy younger generation, but the question of who benefits most from this change is under-explored. As the way we consume information has changed, echo chambers, disinformation, polarization and outrage have all skyrocketed, which suits some politicians more than others. others.
The recent rise of populism
Populism, while not a new term, has been increasingly used in recent years, so much so that it has become an integral part of the public lexicon when it comes to politics. Defining it is complicated – it does not belong to the left or the right and is often thrown into the arena of political debate as a means of discrediting a leader or a movement. Populist politics also changes form from region to region. In Western Europe it tends to take the form of anti-European integration or anti-immigration rhetoric, whereas in Australia it often takes the form of climate change denial.
Populism, as defined by eminent populist scholar Cas Mudde, is a movement that seeks to divide the world into “two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on one side and the corrupt elite on the other”. , where leaders espouse that they pursue the “will of the people”. Mudde adds that populist leaders often use simple, sometimes vulgar or deliberately controversial language and slogans.
The outrage factor is essential. How often do we see a controversial tweet go viral? Or a provocative Facebook post shared everywhere? Populists are much more likely to invoke debate and interaction on social media. A study by the Demos H2020 research project found that, on average, posts by populist politicians triggered 3,000 more reactions and 500 more shares and comments than posts by non-populist leaders. Solid details and analysis rarely go viral on Twitter or TikTok. Is it any wonder then that Nigel Farage – who has never been an MP – has more followers than Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey combined?
Controversial stories are less shareable if they are complex. In a world of 280-character tweets, simplicity always wins. The populist “us versus them” narrative is inherently simplistic, even when it contains a shred of truth. Whether it’s Trump tweeting about the draining of the swamp or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez declaring her intention to tax the rich on Instagram Live, these methods of communication are simple, controversial and consequently viral.
Social networks play a big role
It is not just the content of messages from populist politicians that enhances their reach and appeal. There is a lot to be said for algorithms and how they reinforce echo chambers. Misinformation is often a tool up the sleeves of populists, which, if left uncorrected, can help shape narratives and build support for their campaign. The phrase “sunlight is the best disinfectant” also applies to misinformation. Factual rebuttals from journalists, publications, and influencers against misinformation can be helpful, but are they often seen by those who already support the candidate? It is likely that Republican supporters would not follow left-wing pro-Democrat journalists, publications or influencers on social media, and vice versa. Where there are echo chambers on social media, a populist who firmly chooses a side and peppers their social media channels with misinformation can gain consistent support and narrative survival.
Social media creates echo chambers which, in turn, reinforce polarization. Interestingly, a recent analysis by academics found that echo chambers were not prevalent in climate change debates on Reddit, but on Twitter. Indeed, Reddit is essentially an “open forum”; the user sees posts from anonymous individuals, whether they follow them or not, and is therefore more likely to consume opinions that differ from their political beliefs. Thus, the potential for polarization and creation of echo chambers is less.
It is, however, a two-way street. Populists need social media, but social media proportionally feeds on populists. Advertising is central to the business model of social media companies. This is why clicks and user engagement are so important to social media platforms. TikTok, for example, has little incentive to reduce bias and echo chambers. In fact, providing a political party supporter with more content that reinforces their point of view means they’re likely to stay on the app much longer.
Unfortunately – and as Frances Haugen has so bravely revealed – there is little financial gain for social media companies in the fight against disinformation, and as a result they have always paid little attention to it. There is growing evidence that social media platforms are using algorithms that favor extreme and unreliable content to boost user engagement. Misinformation is the lifeblood of a populist, and attacking it means attacking populism itself. The marriage between populists and social media is undoubtedly unhealthy, but it will continue until there are serious public conversations about social media and its impact on democracy and the public sphere.