The surge to prominence of extreme right-wing beliefs has become a sign of our times. It only takes a glance at a comparative analysis of election results and how they changed over the last decade in many Western countries. Similarly, a look at the change of tone in public debate and popular consent, which imply racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, nationalistic, clerical or homophobic sentiments, sometimes a hatred for one specific nation/religion or acceptance of violence as a viable means of political action. Some only recently unacceptable views have entered the mainstream public opinion.
Questions about causes of this phenomenon emerge. One of the most frequently given explanations is the underlining frustration of social groups, triggered by the perceived or real decline of living standards. In the second decade of the 21st century, social media of the Web 2.0 era have become a major tool for the proliferation of extremism.
People’s idealistic expectation towards the Internet were fundamentally different from what is being experienced. The World Wide Web was expected to secure freedom and was to be an agent of universal inclusion – giving everyone a path to being a public debate influencer. Whoever wanted could be enabled to stop being only a communication recipient. Due to various Internet tools (such as blogs, discussion forums, internet radio podcasts, video streaming sites or comments under news articles) people were equipped with the possibility to emerge as broadcasters with a chance to summon a large audience and alter the views of its members.
Social media have additionally reduced the virtual distance between the broadcaster and her/his target audience. They have turned out to be an instrument perfectly designed for political propaganda. Hence the increasing ease with which all manner of thought, idea or postulate is expressed. In the time of ancient Athens, a troublemaker misled to do that on the major agora would be removed by consent before he could spur confusion.1 More recently, in the age of newspapers and later with omnipresence of television, a troublemaker of this kind would rather be faced with the challenge of getting away with his propaganda past the critical oversight of a newspaper or TV news channel’s editor-in-chief.
Extremists have always utilized technology to their benefit. The National Socialists’ proficiency in using the radio some 80-90 years ago is almost legendary.2 Yet radio, television, and even the news websites, blogs or discussion forums on the Internet are of a different quality from Social media. To produce successful propaganda using all the former types of media required the existence of infrastructure.
No niche radio station, no amateurish local cable TV channel effectively watched by merely a few hundred people (if that many), and no blog with a similar audience reach, can alter the political processes in a democratic country. To influence the direction of a country, the owners of such media would need to have built a following by means of classical political action (networking, rallies, posters and pamphlets) before broadcasting anything.
Meanwhile, social media enables even weak and small groups to become conspicuous and to expand their reach incrementally (with the application of likes and retweets, among others). It is specifically these mechanisms that provide them with a mode of communication not only to already interested or convinced viewers/readers/followers, but also to odd recipients, who are potential recruits.
Therefore, faced with old-type channels dominated by the mainstream, extremist groups are betting visibly on social media. They have become a substantial political power in this realm. They are now able to generate the impression that their real-world level of support is drastically higher than it actually is. They achieve this goal by means of quantity (their strong activity on social media, the number of their posts, the fact that their comments tend to outnumber those of their critics) and quality (their showcased conviction to be agents of obvious truths and aggressiveness paired with a strong drive to be “winners” of all arguments they partake in). Their popularity is an Internet creation, but it also seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. From one point to the next, social media is emerging as a turning point in the battle of liberal democracy vs. extremism.3
Read full article: PIOTR BENIUSZYS_ POLITICS UNDER THE REIGN OF SOCIAL MEDIA
1 Blackwell, Ch.W. (2003) “Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview”, [in:] Demos. Classical Athenian Democracy. Available [online]: http://www.stoa.org/projects/demos/article_democracy_overview?page=all
2 Adena, M., R. Enikolopov, M. Petrova, V. Santarosa, and E. Zhuravskaya (2013) “Radio and the Rise of Nazis in Pre-War Germany”, PSE Working Papers. Available [online]: https://www.princeton.edu/csdp/events/Petrova04042013/Petrova04042013.pdf
3 Montenegro, R. (2015) “Social Media Is Turning Us into Thoughtless Political Extremists”, [in:] Big Think, July 13. Available [online]: http://bigthink.com/ideafeed/social-media-is-turning-us-into-thoughtless-political-extremists,.