Does social media encourage right-wing populism?

While discussing contemporary variants of nationalism, and populism, we often overlook nuances and fall prey to empty rhetoric. Whilst nationalism is a broader, wider-ranging concept that encompasses a feeling of “shared affinity” amongst a population and can take many forms, including but not limited to, more ethnically dominated types (as seen in Western European variants), or religious types (as observed in Pakistani and Iranian variants), or even a “healthy civic spirit and associationism (as seen in the US example, with its focus on the melting pot of the races frame), populism reflects a social connection formed between a political leader who manages to woo the masses based on an anti-corruption, anti-establishmentarian or anti-elite agenda, which can more often than not be mere rhetoric, or in its perverse form, bigoted propaganda and a cynical “us-against-them” siege mentality. Nationalism and populism can overlap in a dangerous cocktail whereby base fears and in-group feelings of the masses can be riled up and exploited, leading towards far-left tyranny or far-right racism.
Often, extreme forms of nationalism and populism overlapping have exploited feelings of historical injustices, war-woundedness and sectarianism to rile up anti-human sentiments. Historically, this has manifested itself in the racism of Nazi Germany in one of its extreme forms, and led to genocides in Armenia, amongst others. Some nationalist movements are focused around primordialism: a good example is Wali Khan’s statement in the 1960’s that he was a Pakistani for 20 odd years, Muslim for 1400 years, but a Pushtoon for 5000 years.
Primordialists assert that national identities are almost natural in a sense, which is why they stand the test of time. Ethno-symbolists agree on the historical roots of nationalist variants, but reflect more dynamism: they assert that at critical historical junctures, specific strategies can change the fate of nations: the Pakistan movement, if seen especially in a reaction to the tyranny of the Congress ministries of 1937-39, reflect how the original confederal aims of the Muslim League’s leaders based upon seeking merely provincial autonomy switched towards demanding a separate state, as Jinnah asserted that Muslims would stand to suffer economically due to the tyranny enforced upon them being a permanent minority. Once the partition happened, a “path dependence emerged.” There is little or no chance that the partition can be reversed. It can also be asserted that populist fashions change with time: the 1970’s was a time of left-wing populists, as seen in the emergence of ZAB in West Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib in Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi in India, amongst others. Are the current times a reflection of right-wing populism? This shall be discussed later.
Before moving forward, it is important to situate this in the context of early modernity. Benedict Anderson, in his seminal work, Imagined Communities, reflects on how the modern European variant emerged due to the invention of the printing press. All of a sudden, people residing in geographical territories could feel a sense of camaraderie when they saw their ethnic identity being discussed in newspapers, magazines and pamphlets. People they had never met could be considered similar in imagination.
Of course, as Max Weber asserts, this was coupled with the constellation of many historical factors in Western Europe and North America: including, but not limited to, the emergence of capitalism, scientific advancement, creation of a money market, secularization, technological advancement. Ho overlooked “colonialism,” however, The key takeaway is that communicative possibilities matter. Walter Benjamin, in his seminal text, The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction discusses the ‘aura’ and ‘novelty’ of the film medium in the early 20th century as ‘talkies’ emerged, which he suggests was the strongest possible medium achieved in human history and could have serious propagandist potential. If we see the propaganda films in USSR and Nazi Germany which people watched in public cinemas, while observing rituals such as standing up for the national anthem, we can imagine the strength of in-group feelings which must have emerged. Moving on to our contemporary times, nationalism and populism cannot be discussed without overlooking the effect of modern social media technologies which have completely altered the range of possibilities which can both be an opportunity and a challenge.
In a sense, it is important to differentiate between the fascism of the 1930’s and 1940’s in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy and the right-wing populism emerging today. For one, most far-right movements these days based around populist narratives simply do not have the militarized masses of the past, as social justice warriors think the job is done when they have posted a tweet. The culture of hyper-individualism and instant gratification which can be observed in this day and age stands opposed to communitarian solidarity and calls for political action of the past. However, this is mere speculation, and not some one-size fits all objective commentary.
Contemporary populism as seen in the context of the emergence of Bolsnaro in Brazil, Trump in America, Modi in India, and even Imran Khan in Pakistan, and the recent victory of the far-right in Italy, reflects how the image is more important than the reality in a post-truth age, surely on the way towards a post-modern trajectory? As Donald Trump would rile up anti-immigrant, anti-minority sentiments, anti-abortion and pro-life sentiments, and focus on “making America great,” he was also constantly shooting down any legitimate criticism against him as merely “fake news.” If the Cambridge Analytica scandal is to be believed, surely the Twitter algorithm was exploited by strategic communication consultants, data was illegally mined, and with the range of demographic possibilities available to sponsors, social media feeds were manipulated during election campaigns to manage the “personality cult” of the leader. Truth was often the biggest casualty.
Truth is treason in an empire of lies. Populists create simple solutions, construct heroes and villains, and the goal is to overload the followers of the cult with so much information which is constantly repeated that they refuse to believe anyone else. Modern social media works in a strange way: you only get to see similar accounts in your suggestions feeds: this makes one oblivious to the counter arguments and dissenting voices because one doesn’t simply see them. Sheri Berman suggests that populists on the right thrive on giving simplistic solutions which exploit the emotions of the masses while progressive and left-leaning alternatives are too dense and require serious abstract thinking so they do not work. Does the Left need to investigate the current circumstances via the technological advancements which have constrained the communicative possibilities? Maybe the way the algorithm works is just not suited for real emancipatory politics? I don’t have an objective answer to this question, but it surely does require serious reflection and empirical research.

Irtiza Shafaat Bokharee

The writer is a faculty member at the Department of Political Science at Forman Christian College University.

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