Social media and how it fans populist extremism

Once upon a time, in a not too distant past, the likes of Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, Andrea Leadsom and Donald Trump would have been consigned to the dustbin of history and, to paraphrase the outgoing Britich Prime Minister, branded as comic book cartoon character fruitcakes and loonies.

Yet today, these more extreme politicians have become part of the mainstream narrative and we can see that many of their views are entering the more established discussion. They haven’t quite managed to get to be in charge of the red button yet, but they are getting closer and they are getting much much closer very very quickly.

So how has this happened? After all, it is not just happening in just the UK and the US. Across much of Western Europe left and right wing parties and personalities are gaining ever more traction, membership and power.

Where power lies has changed radically from one of top down to an equal playing field. And this change has been brought to us via the internet and social media.

Before the web, the two main places where views were shared were either person-to-person down a local pub, church, office or from establishment-to-person through mainstream media. Whilst the more extreme views which often pervade person-to-person discussions may have been passionately held, they could never gain nationwide support since the mass media who could spread that message had no desire to.

Those media outlets, particularly newspapers, have several core objective they need to focus on- the most important two being importance for the owner to have a large enough readership to command influence amongst leading politicians and for that same newspaper to attract advertising in order for the organ to make a profit.

Espousing extreme ideas would always stop these two objectives being fulfilled. Advertisers would stop advertising and readers would stop reading. After all, a particular newspaper is only ever bought by an individual to reinforce their own prejudice. If an editor feels that he or she is set to alienate that readership by becoming more and more radical then they cannot possibly go down that route. And at the same time, it would ensure that the previous mainstream politicians would stop listening to what the owner, through their newspaper, was trying to say.

For decades, this understandable watering down of ideology and views to ensure profit and ABCs has been remarkably successful in keeping the status quo. But now, with the advent of social media and the internet, this status quo is crumbling to dust.

Why and how has it done this? Where those extreme views held in a pub were kept hidden, there is now a place for them to be voiced. And not only voiced, but others who also have held these views but have maybe kept them secret then can find others who share their passion – a website, a facebook group or a twitter feed. Then, once they have found similar minded people, the group starts looking for anything to prove their point and reaffirm their prejudice even if it is not true. In psychology it is known as confirmation bias.

Finding information to prove that confirmation bias is now so much easier. Websites, links, tweets, comments, quotes – true or made up – can all be found somewhere in order to justify a point of view. And when someone challenges the veracity of a statistic or a report or a quote they are deemed a heretic. Donald Trump and his supporters shows this in spades, as did the Leadsom campaign, the continuing Corbyn leadership and probably, most successfully, the Brexit campaign and campaigners.

Harnessing the power of social media they have managed to gather a massive following around extreme and unsubstantiated claims, pretend they are ‘anti-establishment’ whilst being more establishment than the establishment and foster and create a cult of either fear or loathing against others. It isn’t terribly clever but it works – especially amongst those who have felt disaffected for many years. They now feel their voices, through tweeting or blogging or on interactive websites, can be heard when before they would be like a tree falling in a forest.

Is this a good thing? People power harnessed for the common good can be an amazing thing. It can change lives for the better. It can educate and stimulate. It can open minds and challenge stereotypes. Yet, this isn’t happening. Instead it is spreading fear, hatred, loathing and ignorance – and – because of the anarchic way the internet works – there is not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

Populism and nationalism is on the march and very soon a radical extremist will be holding power in a democratic Western democracy very very soon. Maybe it will be France next year? Or maybe Trump this. But, as the success of the bullshit of Brexit showed, it is coming.

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