Populism in the internet age

After decades of promise, the internet is finally starting to transform politics, just not in the way that we would have expected. In the ‘90s, digital prophets were riding a wave of optimism for our online future. The internet presented the chance to bring people together and to create e-citizens, who are more informed and open-minded. However, now, the internet is an overwhelming mess of contradictory facts and claims, misinformation, and propaganda. So, the main question becomes, who benefits from this, and in particular what role does populist politics have to play in the current chaos of the internet world.

In the internet world, Twitter is a news agency where populists can claim their hostile chants of “fake news”. In fact, there are no longer dominant information suppliers, with e-citizens not even paying attention to those that are propagating the message anymore. The consequence is that all sources now compete equally, regardless of their reputation or their factual basis. In her essay, “The weakness of truth”, the French philosopher Myriam Revault d’Allonnes touches on a structural change between truth and lies, saying that we are in a ‘post-truth era’. In this era, facts become a matter of opinion and the ground-truth narrative that allowed a discussion of the world common to all of us is threatened. Populist politicians who play with duelling narratives and public opinion are the primary beneficiaries of this new era where the truth becomes secondary.

TrumpIn the internet world, 40% of the population has a Facebook account, and this is a tool for populists’ opinions to appear as having a consensus. The societal impact of information is based on how many users are receptive to it. Research shows that by repeating ideas enough, listeners start to believe it. In 2016, Donald Trump’s digital campaigners understood this new structure of information was spreading. They bought domain names en masse, added pro-Trump articles on them, and used ‘bots’ – an automated account that is programmed to look like people – to leverage information. The goal of this operation was to make Trump and his ideas appear as having consensus on social media. Then, the internet became a strong instrument in a political campaign, as the one of Trump, to legitimise artificially populist opinions.

In the internet world, social media seem to be linked with populist’s aims, which are to destroy our collective institutions. In his book “The Revolt of the Public”, Martin Gurri proposes that the ultimate effect of social media is undermining collective credibility around public institutions, such as the government or the press. Populist politicians benefit and exacerbate this undermining. In France, for example, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party, continues to stir up the idea that France’s leaders govern against citizens’ interests, and against the country itself. When Emmanuel Macron signed the Aix-la-Chapelle treaty, Le Pen claimed that the president was looking to cede Alsace to Germany. In reality, the treaty’s aim was to reinforce transnational cooperation. This situation shows that successful politicians may be now those who stir up various forms of hysteria and populist rhetoric, rather than the one who promote a collective project to improve our society.

However, in the internet world, political power grows out of the screen of a smartphone and populists could not be the only ones who can benefit from it. We can still hope that this world would give us a new generation of political talent, a new way of political commitment, or even new forms of exercising politics.

by Arthur Dinhof

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