By Sarmad Wali Khan 19 July 2022
Social media is to populism what the printing press was to nationalism. Where print capitalism led to the emergence of nationalism in Europe, the social media revolution has brought a surge in populism across the globe, utterly transforming the public sphere.
The printing press made it possible for news and literature to be published in vernacular languages, making otherwise disconnected members of society see themselves bound in an invisible comradeship. As per Benedict Anderson, it was the power of this print capitalism that fostered a sense of ideological unison, or compatriotism, among peoples across lingual lines. It was the printing press that brought disparate groups together into a single whole called the nation. Owing to their lingual-racial-historical basis of group loyalty, which was rejuvenated by the printing press for being European, they witnessed the emergence of national empires like French, German, and British etc. The masses, especially the literate middle-class and the newly born bourgeoisie, were the central forerunners of ‘nation’ and its sovereignty. With colonization, and the globalisation of modernity and the Westphalian state, nationalism emerged throughout the globe. People came to see themselves as having a singular linear history, a single race, and a single language. The out-groups were ‘otherised’. Exclusivism and group purity were emphasized. All the national projects around the globe, though varied, are underpinned by the same logic.
The social media boom in the last decade has revolutionised the global political and communications networks. It has not only expedited the flow of information (also disinformation) but has created an alternative public sphere where the masses express their resentment or approval of an event in the political system. Of course, there is no denying that social media has proved to be a viable platform for policy feedback, but the risks of its manipulation and abuse are also massive. Rather than becoming the voice of the marginalized, social media’s popular discourse came to be dominated by regressive partisan narratives of rightwing populist movements. The voice of the voiceless gets diluted in the daily chorus of partisan blame games and media wars. Trump, Modi, IK, Le Pen, Bolsnaro, all used social media to build an alternative public discourse as opposed to mainstream broadcasting. Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, benefited from viral WhatsApp messaging, while the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, weaponized Facebook against opponents. And, after winning the presidency on the strength of a tweet-fueled campaign, Donald Trump famously declared, “Maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter.” Whereas IK recently held the biggest twitter space event of all time after he was ousted.
The way the printing press challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, so too has social media challenged the power of conventional media. The mainstream media favoured the ones in power and mostly aided the ruling elite in maintaining its hold through consent manufacturing. As social media challenged the monopoly of mainstream media on information and public narrative, it accentuated the dispersion of power back to the masses. The mainstream media became sidelined and Twitter and Facebook became the harbingers of ‘true’ information, the “people’s” information. This way, the traditional media’s gatekeeping role was bypassed. The abolishment of the church’s rule shifted power to the masses and nations, while the breaking of the media monopoly devolved the narrative power to social media users—the new vox populi. The popular resentment when gets aggregated in the person of a single demagogue it becomes populism which is usually posited as a counter-elite phenomenon.
Particularly among middle-class literate voters who are also the most adept users of social media, economic and political insecurity brings out the worst, especially when their promised aspirations are not realized. They become angry and excluded as a result of the shocks of failing economies and the incapabilities of governments. Middle-class worries can be seen in their ongoing irritation with the system as they become more insecure about their social and economic standings. They express their conservative, unwelcoming, and hostile views toward outsiders on social media networks. They stop having faith in the system, and their narrative completely rejects the status quo. Nothing but an alternative to the deeply ingrained, corrupt, and elite-focused status quo is what they aspire for. When these views are expressed on social media platforms, they coalesce to form the dominant public opinion, which is then sharpened on the whetstone of populist propaganda. At such junctures a populist leader would make his/her entry into the scene.
Populism is the nexus of two: the aspiring middle class and the populist leader. Social media is the glue that binds them. Populism thrives on appropriating the popular middle class sentiment which the populists around the globe have been shrewd enough in doing so. With over 100 million followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the most followed populist leader on social media. Modi’s use of social media explains this sinister relationship between populism and social media. As noted by Shreyya Rajagopal,
‘’ Topics and issues were also strategically chosen to make them more appealing to the youth with artefacts and trends like #selfiewithmodi. Through promises of ‘WiFi’ and ‘Smart Cities’ he also represented the “desire for development” that reflected the aspirations of the neo-middle class. Finally, it created a cult around the leader where he was often seen as a God like figure, who people need to pay their heed to or “darshan” especially regarding holograms and its fascination in villages as something ‘magical.’’’
Modi Mobile App was yet another facet of Modi’s techno-populism.
The economic loss for the middle class is not only material; it also has a spiritual component to it. It is also a loss of national pride and prestige. They believe themselves to be the vanguards of the ideological national sphere, and for them, the current configuration presents a distorted version of national life that must be rectified through proper national reconfiguration under a resolute and heroic leader. Imran Khan’s rhetoric of “change”, “Naya Pakistan”, “Riyasat e Madina”, “Imported regime”, “Are we your slaves?”,” “We are an honorable nation,” while the dishonorable are his rivals, who are a disgrace to this nation, an anthema to be treated, a deformity in national life. Through his masculine, belligerent, loud-mouthed charisma, he projects himself as an angry, virile, old-young man who fits into the middle aesthetics of a leader who will restore national honor and lost glory to their motherland. All these incessant aspirations and desires of the middle class, made prominent by a crisis, serve as a perfect recipe for populism. Their hope is rekindled when a populist ideologue emerges from the ashes of a collapsing political order, mirroring their aspirations and sharing their concerns, blaming all problems on outsiders and criticizing the political establishment. He promises and boasts about national salvation and sovereignty. Finally, the middle class sees its spiritual shadow anthropomorphized in the messianic leader. What he says is right, what others say is wrong. He becomes the esteemed savior. Hence, the messianic portrayal of the populist leader becomes prominent, leading to cult formation and hero-worship. The sheer performative ordinariness and difference through the exhibition of piety and ‘people’s’ attire resonates strongly as a non-elite, pro-people, people-like leader. IK showing a tasbeeh in his hand, flaunting shalwar kameez with a waistcoat, and Modi growing his beard and showing off his ‘Modi kurta’ are some of the antics. Modi’s tactical use of religion through social media has turned voters into ‘Bakhts’, while IK has spiritualized his stardom (by marrying his sufi master), which has won him a following of diehard ‘fans’. A sinner finally turned saint to rescue his nation from the “dishonorable” predicament.
Unlike traditional media, social media platforms allow the quick and unfiltered dispersion of shallow narratives. Through digital platforms, the masses remain involved in all the ongoing developments of national life. Many half-truths, lies, and propaganda against opponents are spread through images and videos. In the face of the decayed credibility of conventional media, the masses consume information through digital media. Masses are fed constantly with selective information and disinformation. Where conventional media could have been censured, social media provides the leeway for populist leaders to appeal to the masses. Trump called out many news channels as propagators of fake news on social media and even publicly shunned many reporters of CNN. On the other hand, Modi, in 2014, started criticizing the media for not holding the current government accountable and popularized the term ‘pressitute’ on Twitter to delegitimize the conventional media.
Populism feeds on polarization, and polarization starts with extreme and irreconcilable narratives. And digital media spreads those narratives. All those against populism are dubbed as part of the corrupt and inefficient status quo. People are demonized on the basis of their political orientation, sexuality, religion, or color. A sense of us versus them, locals versus foreigners, just versus corrupt, etc., is created. In a nutshell, anyone who opposes the populist agenda is otherized. And social media platforms have become echo chambers for the dispersion of such hatred for out-groups. Left-right, government-opposition, colored-white, and Muslim-Hindu binaries have become unbridgeable.
Digital media is used to hijack the national narrative and to break the democratic consensus on the role of institutions. The credibility of the media, judiciary, and legislature is questioned when they don’t reflect populist demands. This way, the authority of every institution is sidelined as long as it does not fit the populist agenda. In short, populism works by hijacking the public narrative, and in these times, there is no better way to do so than through digital media. The Trump supporters attacking Capitol Hill while disputing the election results and IK denouncing the supreme judiciary and election commission are nothing but attempts at eroding the public trust in the institutions.
Lastly, the famous Barrington J. More’s thesis, “No middle class, no democracy,” seems to be refuted when the burgeoning global middle class, armed with social media, is running on the bandwagon of the anti-democratic wave of populism that has shaken the democratic consensus in public sphere.