How populists benefit from the revolution in information technology

By Martin Eiermann

Long before the Brexit referendum or the US presidential election, digital ecosystems had changed the political calculus.

Since the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election in 2016, much discussion has focused on the factual accuracy of viral news, or has attempted to explain the electoral success of populist figures, movements and parties as the result of micro-targeting and foreign interference on social media. However, neither of these approaches sheds much light on the political significance of information technologies.

For example, election results are influenced by such a multitude of factors that the explanatory power of any single factor is often quite limited. Likewise, exposing news content as falsified or fabricated does not explain why voters are attracted to inaccurate information in the first place, and how it empowers insurgent political movements.

Such movements use three kinds of information technologies to mobilize: those that facilitate information collection (like Cambridge Analytica’s use of the Facebook API to gather detailed user data); those that deliver information in a targeted manner (like partisan websites, recommendation engines on YouTube and Facebook, or micro-targeted ad campaigns on social media); and those that allow for viral informational dissemination (like social media platforms that encourage users to share content organically with each other).

These technologies do not usually exist in isolation but instead form emerging digital ecosystems.

They are ecosystems insofar as they bring together a multitude of platforms and service providers that collectively facilitate the accumulation, dissemination and consumption of information – the list includes data analytics companies as well as social media organizations, news websites, and even talk radio.

They are digital because they are disproportionally dependent on online platforms and digital data streams.

Finally, they are emerging insofar as many publications and platforms within these ecosystems are relatively young. In the US, for example, most websites with a distinctly populist bend were founded within the last decade.

Because many contemporary insurgent political movements are ideologically rooted towards the far left or the far right, these ecosystems also tend to have a clear ideological bend: according to one 2017 study in the Columbia Journalism Review, news stories that circulated among Trump supporters on social media tended to come disproportionately from center-right publications that attract few liberal or centrist readers. Content that travels within these ideologically stratified ecosystems thus tends to reinforce existing worldviews. This is true on the left as well as on the right.

These emerging digital ecosystems help to facilitate insurgent political movements in three significant ways.

First, they provide spaces of cognitive liberation. When scientists study social movements, they often find that individual grievances don’t translate into collective action unless people are able to see themselves as part of a larger constituency and regard their personal frustrations as exemplars of pervasive discontent.

This is one reason why, during the civil rights movement in the United States, churches played such a crucial role to political mobilization: most of their black members regularly experienced racism in their everyday life. Yet it was during Sunday services that those experiences were framed as shared experiences of the black community, and hence clarified as parts of a larger political struggle.

Despite their radically different agenda, websites like Breitbart and the Daily Caller (in the United States) or Tichy’s Einblick (in Germany) play a similar role for political mobilization on the far right: they articulate the ideological underpinnings of populist movements, frame political debates and news events in light of this ideology, discredit alternative perspectives, and thus help to cement populist worldviews.

This is also true for ostensibly value-neutral platforms like Youtube, perhaps inadvertently so. Because their recommendation algorithms are usually optimized for engagement, they tend to present users with political content that mirrors existing preferences and veers towards ideological extremes.

Second, media ecosystems mitigate the collective action problem. They exploit network effects to educate and mobilize people into political action, and thus help to solve one of the most significant challenges for insurgent political movements: because their success is often uncertain, and because the eventual benefits of success are usually available to people who didn’t participate in the movement, it is often rational to remain on the sidelines.

Yet if too few people leap into action – during community meetings, during protests and canvassing events, in online forums, or at the voting booth – the movement fizzles.

Digital ecosystems – including Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags or MeetUps all serve this purpose in one way or another – provide a home and strengthen an infrastructure that can serve as the basis for offline and electoral organization. By lowering the threshold of engagement, and by linking people into like-minded communities, they ease the movement of formerly disengaged citizens into the political arena.

Dismissing this online engagement as mere ‘clicktivism’ risks underestimating the degree to which digital engagement resembles many other forms of political action. Most forms of democratic participation fall in the low-effort low-risk low-impact category: voting and dinner table discussions are the norm; marching through lines of riot police is the exception.

Third, digital ecosystems create and exploit opportunities for political intervention by destabilizing monopolies over information. They thus help to generate what social movement scholars often refer to as ‘political opportunities’: cracks in the structures of power that allow relatively powerless insurgents to upstage established parties. This is one reason why small populist movements have disproportionately benefited from digital media in recent years.

The rise of new online publications like Breitbart on the right or Daily Kos on the left and the emergence of social media as a space for information dissemination has changed the rules of the game for everyone, yet their benefits have been asymmetrical. They have accumulated disproportionately to those who were excluded from public discourse by traditional gatekeepers, especially during a time when newspapers face deep uncertainties about their business models and when social media companies are struggling to police ‘hate speech’ on their platforms.

The interregnum period between the media ecosystems of the 20th century and those of the coming decades has been a boon to insurgent political movements around the world. Thus, long before voters cast their ballots during the Brexit referendum or the US presidential election, digital ecosystems hand changed the political calculus and the dynamics of political mobilization. They have helped to amplify the voice and influence of insurgent political movements. In the 2010s, such movements have been predominantly on the right – but this is almost incidental.

Indeed, information technology has been tightly and powerfully interwoven with political strategy of multiple progressive campaigns. In 2008 and 2012, the Obama campaign drew on detailed voter data to direct field resources and maximize voter turnout in critical districts. In 2014, the Spanish M15 movement relied on online outreach to mobilize protesters and ultimately helped to create the Podemos party. The left can benefit from disruptive technologies as much the right.

As we glance into the near future, the question is: which insurgent groups will most successfully exploit powerful technologies to serve their political ends? How long will it take incumbent parties and governments to respond? And what shape will their responses take?

Martin Eiermann University of California at Berkeley

PhD candidate in the department of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.

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