All over the world, populists are on the rise. At the same time, social media has become a favoured means of communication for politicians. What part does this play in this concerning development?
This year, Austria had a rather turbulent presidential election, which pitted the far-right against the liberal left. A long political campaign, the discussion around refugees and immigration heated the atmosphere in the country. The mood was tangible – especially online. It resulted in many incidents that involved serious threats against journalists and others.
One of them against Florian Klenk, Editor of the Falter. A young man from the countryside openly asked ‘if someone could please light him (Florian Klenk) on fire.’ Klenk was troubled and went to the police. Soon he received an apology from Boris. They decided to meet and talk.
Boris was not what the journalist expected: he was an educated, upper middle class, self-employed, eloquent, young family man. Boris admitted, that he was ashamed of his brutal statement. When the incident made headlines, work-colleagues approached him, unable to believe he would say something like this. So how did he become a person that asks to set others on fire?
Social media platforms use algorithms which recognize how much time you spend looking at various content. It connects what you like, share and comment, and presents you with a tailor-made news feed. Therefore, it has become easier to stay in your content-bubble with like-minded people. Psychologists call it confirmation bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms what one already believes in. It also allows little space for alternative opinions and possibilities (Plous, 1993). An invisible influencer with enormous power.
In Gaventa’s power cube he identifies various levels, spaces for participation and forms of power. Let’s have a look at it with the example of Boris and Florian and which powers influenced it (2006):
The level was a national/global one:
- The discourse was around Austrian television: In his tweet the journalist Florian Klenk suggested to introduce Turkish subtitles when the national Austrian television-broadcaster talks about Turkish news. This way, Turkish immigrants who do not speak German would be able to understand Austria’s stance on foreign policies concerning their home country. The discussion was mostly amongst Austrians, but through the platform internet, open to the global public.
The space for participation was invited:
- Florian Klenks tweet was published online in the first place. Then, a politician of the Austrian independent party used Florian Klenks tweet on his Facebook-profile to start a discussion, to widen participation, and to polarise.
The power was invisible:
- Invisible power is what shapes meaning and what is acceptable. As a result of the information algorithm people primarily see the information they want to see, and due to its spatial domination think it to be truthful. Also, the legitimisation by the invited space contributes to strengthen values and beliefs around certain topics. Like in the case of Boris: politicians also voiced a strong opinion about Florian Klenks tweet. The bubble of discourse created here, was one where Boris felt it was okay, to make such a statement. Later, when he was approached by outsiders, the bubble burst and Boris realized what he had done.
It is a highly dangerous development. That legitimizes hate and intolerance all around the world wide web; which broadens the stage for a post-truth, polarising and one-sided communication-culture.
Plous, S. (1993). The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. p. 233.
Gaventa, J. (2006). Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis. Institute of Development Studies Bulletin. Volume 37, Number 6, November 2006.