The dynamic of digital media and society, especially in the context of the current populist zeitgeist in Britain and beyond, is one of the key aspects of contemporary politics. On the social level, the rise of British right-wing populism around Brexit should be viewed in the contemporary context of global and national neoliberalism and the way it has led to a democratic deficit. The success of the UK Independence Party in 2013-2016 and Brexit Leave campaign in 2016 indicates failure of representational governance, clouded by hyper normalization of neoliberal rationality. The Brexit discourse has been emotionally invested against economic liberalism, free movement of capital and labor, and deregulation of financial markets – even though, in practice, all these were ultimately reduced to anti-immigration rhetoric in its populist articulation and appropriation. In other words, immigration became symbolic of both the evidence and the source of policies which had harmed many lower-class people. In other words, associating the structural faults in the distribution of wealth & opportunities with visibility of immigration has been the strategic narrative cultivated by the bulk of the political and media establishments.
But what is the role of social media in this? Participatory digital spaces or social media communication (SMC) should be viewed as a completely new communicative paradigm. This new communication system has made a radical shift in the way the media has been understood, upending established mass media assumptions in terms of linearity, mono-directionality, one-to-many, top-down dynamic of communication. Users work together in the production and dissemination of content. They interact with each other in front of a broad audience of other users and have direct access to both media content and the space to react to it.
In effect, the new paradigm of communication has changed politics and the nature of what can now pass as political communication and activism. ‘Old’ media are now branded as elitist, as grassroots users and makers take over the task of production, consumption, and distribution and seek to have an impact on events. Free and global access to discursive resources (e.g., language, visuals, memes, videos, music, networked publics, digital meaning-making, etc.) is uncritically celebrated as democratic involvement. Although social media spaces continue to be used for positive change in specific contexts, communities, and practices, the global and structural promises of the so-called participatory web have been largely abandoned. Social media is neither a neutral technological infrastructure nor does it provide a genuine representation of society.
Most observers agree that social media has eroded rational debate and reduced politics to a popularity contest as networked publics have become sharply divided by polemical extremism. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and its impact on the 2016 election in the United States underline urgent concerns about the centralization of data and communications infrastructure, its impact on democratic processes, and, most importantly, the power of algorithms in content distribution. Although users who may care deeply about democracy are responsible for sharing, they are not responsible for how algorithms and consolidated technologies do with the content. There is increasing concern about the way this new form of digital influence may impact the visibility, quality, and distribution of political content. Politically charged content arrives on a social media feed either because of in-house algorithmic operations that increase user engagement by systematic ‘suggestions,’ ‘promotions’ and ‘nudges,’ or by third-party manipulation that makes use of personal data. In both cases, this amounts to a form of manipulation that users understand as spontaneous in the way the world out there is perceived. This arrangement of content works based on an inbuilt preference for increasing the users’ media engagement and contribution, which is monetized in various forms, for example, targeted advertising. This process ‘trains’ users in the ways they can be more influential by playing the game with the effect on normalizing values such as individual competition and popular legitimacy.
The reduction of democratic practices to a rigged popularity contest is a significant problem, but it does not fully explain why social media enables digital populist tendencies. Social media spaces increasingly function on the principle of affective relevance rather than social significance. That is, in fact, what social media companies promise us: that the platform will predict what the user will like and show them that, not that they will facilitate deliberation and collective learning. Our feeds are governed by a different logic, more akin to reality television than the news: everyday-ness, infotainment, and frivolousness. Even when a social media space is designed for a serious political cause, it does not do so through meaningful argumentation, but through the logic of visibility and popularity. Popularity, in particular, is not a function of truth but of capital, whether commercial, cultural, or political, and is not promoted by balanced, nuanced, well-measured analysis. By its very design, then, social media encourages affectively charged, explicit, controversial communication, promoting political extremism and populism. In fact, social media’s focus on affective truths is consistent with classic thinking about populist communication, which emphasizes an overt preoccupation with regaining lost power and actualizing a romantic past.
Despite crucial differences, the origins, characteristics, and discursive strategies of populist-nationalist discourses have striking similarities wherever they appear. They pivot around a real or constructed problem in the social, economic, and political status quo. They also revolve around the discursive construction of a homogeneously perceived Self, e.g., Us (the British) vs. a homogeneously perceived Other, e.g., Them (the migrants, the Muslims, or the EU). Targeting the public’s disenchantment with official politics, they present themselves as the indigenous, socially relevant, and righteous response to the media and political establishment. Despite the general disillusionment about the viability of real democratic function for social media, the right-wing proponents of social media celebrate social media claims around the empowerment of the ordinary, mobilization of mass politics, and equality of access. Arguments against the ‘old’ media are a common recurring theme in every populist discourse across the world in their claims to empower the ordinary and validating (subjective) feelings over (objective) numbers, etc.
Populism requires more. As a style of communication, it employs linguistic, rhetorical tools to create affective trust and relatability: extreme use of us and them pronouns, promotion of ‘man of the people’ narratives, and reliance on emotionally charged anecdotes. Social media is best suited for this communication, in part because its operational design promotes those styles and norms. Style and content reinforce each other and act as different ways of establishing the same discourse.
Corporate social media design and populism also have important ideological overlaps. Both reflect a strong pro-free market logic, within which popularity, self-interest, and extreme competitiveness are the ultimate value and sources of legitimacy. The appeal of affective engagement and the rise of social media personality politics is, on the one hand, predicated on the internalization of such ethos and, on the other, works as a revolt against the perceived political and media establishment. In a similar vein, the extreme individualism and the corporate algorithmic manipulation of news and information-feeds pave the way for normalization of a populist perception of public communication and collective identity.
The affective characteristics of social media communication are both a reflection of a social shift that values personalized media as well and a function of design. What follows is what we experience on these platforms: provocation as a way to make the user’s performance more authentic and real, again, this reflects the success of reality TV. Here, we must concede an important point: there are strong and legitimate but incoherent grievances in society and few suitable platforms for expressing them on the official public spheres. But social media is not producing a more deliberative democratic conversation: the pro-Brexit side in the UK, for example, was marred by various social media emotionally charged campaigns which in effect promoted an irrational, anti-expert, and anti-science positions. Both the Brexit vote in Britain and the 2016 US presidential election show that sizable portions of the working class cast protest votes as a shakeup, and an attempt to reclaim power from elite, central, urban, and cosmopolitan populations. Within a highly affective populist frame, the Brexit discourse managed to reduce the British EU referendum debates to a single issue of immigration against a context of the perceived globalist political establishment. Despite differences between these two cases, populist-nationalist discourses pivot around a structural problem that has been identified in the social, economic, and political status quo, most prominently the perceived, joint economic interest of corporate elites and immigrants in a world opened to unrestricted worker mobility. Through social media, populists effectively target the public’s disenchantment with the world as it is while presenting themselves as the indigenous, socially relevant, and righteous solution to establishment corruption.
Despite social media’s agency in promoting populist forms, it would be wrong to assume that social media has caused the rise of populism on its own. Politics is, after all, about society, and any analysis of the role of media in politics must return to society as well. But the characteristics, penetration and technological logic of new communication systems impacts society by remaking the terms by which a mass of people have a conversation about society. Because of this, as we seek solutions, we must consider the interaction between social context and technological design, without reducing one to the other.