Why is populism booming? Today’s tech is partly to blame | Jamie Bartlett

Social media platforms are the perfect places to deny nuance in favour of extreme opinions – and we are hooked on them

Rightwing populists around the world have had a good couple of months. The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats won 17.6% of the vote in September’s general election, making theirs the third largest party in the Riksdag. In Brazil, the far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro has become president. And in Italy, being in power doesn’t seem to have damaged Lega Nord or its coalition partner, Five Star.

What’s going on? There are lots of good reasons why voters want change. The right says immigration levels and an out-of-touch elite are helping the outsiders. The left points to flatlining wages and financial insecurity, noting the 10th anniversary of the financial crisis. But neither acknowledges that populism is a style of politics as much as a set of specific promises. It is doing such a roaring trade because our political culture is evolving to fit the media we communicate through.

The word populist has become a derogatory and patronising term of late, typically used by liberals to belittle things they don’t like – most obviously Donald Trump and Brexit. But populism has two chief characteristics. First, it offers immediate and supposedly obvious answers to complicated problems, which usually blame some other group along the way. Second, it claims to represent the decent but downtrodden “people” against a corrupt and distant elite. This style and narrative can be left- as well as rightwing. Social media provide the perfect platform for both lines of attack.

This makes sense once you understand that social media platforms are, given where their money comes from, advertising firms. As any ad man will tell you, emotion and simplicity sell. Online, that’s true in the literal sense: the more content is shared, the more advertising revenue it generates. Populist messages – especially if you’re in opposition, and can rant without the inconveniences of power – perform better than anything from the watery centre ground. But the natural affinity runs deeper: populists are more spiritually attuned to today’s technology. From shopping to dating to music to news, everything is personalised – quick, convenient, as-you-wish. What a frustrating, compromise-ridden and plodding affair politics is by comparison! Populists promise to cut through that. They offer Tinder politics – swipe left or right to get exactly what you want, without thinking too much. Anyone who stands in the way is part of a shadowy corruption – Blairites, newspapers, judges, immigrants… The good news is, says the populist, we now have a direct line to those honest, decent, hard-working people, circumnavigating the self-interested establishment parties and media. This is why many populists – whether it’s Twitter addict Trump, or the Swedish Democrats or the Italian Five Star Movement – are early adopters, and entirely at ease with the format.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say we are all – voters and leaders alike – becoming populistic in our norms and expectations. To understand this, we must ditch some patronising liberal canards. One is that the populist surge is caused by some other idiots getting duped by fake news. A bigger problem is that we can, and do, surround ourselves with the warm, corroborating glow of cherry-picked, true news. That’s not the same as fake news, but the effect is similar: when a commonly shared truth is replaced by individual realities, there is nothing upon which to anchor political discussion and debate. All that remains is two groups screaming at each other, and populists can scream louder.

Then there’s the view that (again, usually other) people are trapped in echo-chambers of the like-minded. But online we are surrounded by people with whom we disagree too. Rather than listening, however, we ignore, denigrate or find the worst version of our opponents’ position and take it to be typical. When was the last time you changed your mind after discussing something online? Probably never. Who has time online for the long, careful, respectful discussion necessary to see the other side of things? I’ll wager the more you hear from your opponents, the more you disagree with them.In a print-based society, for all its flaws, there is at least an inclination towards an ordering and coherence of facts and ideas. Social media platforms are built to a different logic: we’re drowning in rapids of dissonant ideas and stories and facts and charts. It’s too much to handle rationally. And with our attention under siege, we’re increasingly unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes without checking our phones. The cultural predisposition is therefore to rely on gut and heuristics – to react without reflection, to filter, to ignore, to simplify, to caricature. Being constantly distracted must make us less capable of handling complicated, nuanced ideas and arguments. A distracted nation is one that prefers emotional certainties to the grey areas.

These are all human weaknesses, but social media have, in a mostly unanticipated way, turned them into a structural feature of modern information consumption, and exploited it for money. These are perfect conditions for the tribal leader who can channel the rage and offer to bring order to the chaos. Isn’t it odd that, despite this being an age without deference, there is a new found hero-worship in certain quarters? Supporters of Trump and Corbyn would both detest the comparison – but note how both have the merch, the chants, the poems, the almost impenetrable loyalty and belief.

It’s no use blaming the tech companies: they’ve just unleashed something they can’t really control. And there have always been populists, who are usually early adopters and exploiters of the latest tech. For all its problems, populism can be a useful check on power that has become too distant from the people. Part of the solution (assuming you want one, and many don’t) will be for mainstream political parties, and democracies more generally, to offer more choice and control over decision making, ideally without offering “digital votes” on everything, which would make things worse. But is a solitary tick on a ballot paper every few years the best we can manage, when the rest of our lives offer so many opportunities for feedback, nuance and personalisation? It’s starting to look absurd.

In the end, we’re all to blame. We keep clicking and sharing the angry stories; we scream, caricature and insult. We need to pledge to listen to our opponents with respect, finding their best arguments rather than their worst. And if we can weaken the ads-for-free-services business model on which social media depend, there would be less incentive for them to keep us hooked online and emotionally fully charged all the time. How about joining some paid-for social media platforms? Or switching off for a while?

The tech firms must help with that, by adopting designs and services that aren’t all about attention capture. Because if this wave of populism drifts into authoritarianism or worse, no one benefits – not even the tech titans who have inadvertently and lucratively helped get us into this mess.

• Jamie Bartlett is the author of The People vs Tech


Jamie Bartlett

The GuardianTramp

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