Right-wing populists around the world have used social media to gain power. They have bypassed traditional broadcast and print media to speak directly to their publics. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal, one view that has become widespread among progressives is that clamping down on misinformation, foreign interference, and regulating Facebook and Twitter and their ilk will curb right-wing populists. Here’s why that won’t happen.
First, while much information that spreads online may seek to deceive or covertly influence the public, that is not the main way right-wing populists are swayed by social media. Exhibit A is Donald Trump, whose use of Twitter gained him enormous attention during Republican primary campaign and then in his race against Hillary Clinton. This turned into a vast advertising advantage when translated into traditional media coverage. Since he became president, he no longer needs this advantage. But he still uses Twitter to great effect to rail against traditional media and promote his own agenda.
Sweden provides exhibit B. Here Twitter hardly plays a role. But several alternative ‘news’ websites support the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigrant party that gained 12.9% in the 2014 election and stands to gain even more in the election this September. Reading these websites, one would think that one lives in a different Sweden from that presented in broadcast and print media: one that is mainly characterized by immigrant crime and threats from Islamism.
As exhibit C we can take Narendra Modi, a savvy social media user who, like Trump, has used Twitter to circumvent his own party establishment to become prime minister. And like Trump, he still uses Twitter to speak to the public, but he only reaches a small base of extreme nationalist followers. Yet this activist base is highly vocal and, as in the Swedish and American cases, promotes an ‘India first’ ideology that resonates more widely.
Second, right-wing populist supporters are not ‘duped’ by these leaders or parties. They, too, use digital media to vent their frustration against the ‘establishment’. There is an ongoing debate about whether the sources of their anger can be put down to economic misfortune or cultural prejudice. Whatever the outcome of these debates may be, it is important to understand why the message of right-wing populists has such an appeal. Again, this is quite different in the three cases.
In the US, a recent revival of anti-immigrant is joined by a much longer-standing ‘producerist ethos’ which seeks to deny benefits to foreigners and to the ‘undeserving’. In Sweden, the populists claim the mantle of the main egalitarian political tradition of the ‘peoples’ home’ and like the Social Democrats, they want to protect its benefits, but deny them to the foreign-born and those with different cultures. In a more extreme way, Modi’s nationalist supporters want to curb the rights of Muslims and silence secular elites.
Notice in each case how warped these worldviews are; misrepresenting history, promoting a narrow view of who should constitute ‘the people’, and ascribing far too much influence to the ‘elite establishment’ and too much of a threat to ‘enemies’. Notice too, however, that in all three cases, the resonance of this warped worldview appeals beyond traditional left/right divides.
What is to be done? All three countries will have elections within the next year. Regulating social media may be appropriate in relation to illegal or foreign content. But this will do little to stop right-wing populists who use social media mostly in legitimate ways to promote their ‘my nation’ first agendas and appeal to a wide swathe of voters. This agenda must be confronted directly, in all media. Against the distorted worldviews they purvey, alternatives must be provided. Information which exaggerates the threat of foreign-born enemies or hostile religions must be set right. Scholars and journalists should concentrate less on the scandals surrounding political uses of social media and more on uncovering how social media work to the advantage of right-wing populists. The public must be taught that social media are not news; they are illegitimate as a means of providing objective, multi-sided and inclusive picture of society.
But winning the media war is less than half the battle. The case must be made for the benefits of open borders (with policies that are generous and fair but reliably enforced) and of open economies, a diverse culture, and tolerant and inclusive politics. Alliances must be forged across the traditional divide between left and right, among cosmopolitans and those seeking to extend benefits equitably to all fellow citizens, outflanking the extreme right and left that espouse closed borders and cultures and who want to restrict the benefits of the state. (Are there are also lessons here for Britain, even if right-wing populists have become a diffuse and marginal force since they have achieved their main goal?)
Easier said than done? Perhaps, especially because these alternatives do not just rely on changing media, but also formulating policies that confront populists rather than pandering to them by stealing their bases of support. But the coming elections in three countries will tell whether the left has more to offer than carping about the undue influence of Facebook and shady media campaigns.
Ralph is professor in social science of the internet at the Oxford Internet Institute