How social media has created a breeding ground for populism

Written by Jodie Voss, 22.

The impact of social media on elections has been well-documented in recent years.

From Facebook’s court case about its relationship with Cambridge Analytica, to Twitter’s announcement that it intends to stop political advertising on its platform, it is clear that today’s information environment for voters has changed drastically from what it was a few decades ago.

Exposure to a diverse range of views is deemed by many scholars an essential element to the proper functioning of democracy. As we see the rise in partisan news outlets and algorithmically personalised online news feeds, it follows that this pillar of democracy may now be under threat. Either consciously or via algorithms working beneath the surface of the platforms, social media allows people to 'personalise' the news they are exposed to. Is it now the case that people are living in a world in which they only encounter information with which they agree, thus entering an 'echo chamber' of their own ideas? And, has this perhaps contributed to the rise of populism, which we seem to be experiencing in many Western democracies?

If social media is your main source of news, there is a risk that you will never be exposed to information you disagree with

The conscious decision to screen out or avoid information which you disagree with is not a new practice. For years, people have had freedom of choice over which newspapers they read, or which television networks they watch, and have tended to seek out information with which they agree. However, one element that has changed in recent years is the advent of the internet and social media. At first glance, having vast amounts of information at our fingertips does not seem inherently harmful. In fact, it could be a positive thing that we can fully inform ourselves on a topic without the mediation of traditional media outlets. However, with the abundance of information comes the necessity to choose what to consume.

We have entered an age wherein, according to many sources, a majority of adults get at least some of their news information from social media. Most social media sites are designed so that you can connect with people of your choice, most commonly people that you already know. You then consume content shared by this network, which thanks to your common backgrounds, you'll likely agree with. Theoretically, this could perpetuate and deepen social divides, as the people you encounter offline in your social circles are those who make up your online information sources. If social media is your main source of news, there is a risk that you will never be exposed to information you disagree with; a phenomenon known as an ‘echo chamber’.

In his seminal 2011 book, Eli Pariser coined the term 'filter bubble' to describe the existence of a “unique universe of information for each of us” as a result of the algorithms which personalise our online sphere.

In many cases, people to do not choose to be subjected to news feed personalisation and are clueless as to when and to what extent it is happening. This makes is easy to assume that any information encountered in your online experience is unbiased, objective, and true. ‘Filter bubbles’ not only reinforce our own perspectives, but also favour easy-reading and sensationalised articles, such as those about celebrity gossip, because they are more likely to be clicked on and shared, which is what matters to the algorithm. Although the existence of ‘filter bubbles’ has been contested somewhat, research has been limited due to the nature of the information needed and is thus sometimes even led by the information giants themselves.

We seem to be existing in a populist ‘moment’ in the West, in which previous fringe parties are increasingly entering the mainstream.

After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, many commentators suggested that social media had played a decisive role in his victory. There were widespread reports that Cambridge Analytica had used data analytics via Facebook to target advertisements to specific demographics. Facebook merges sponsored content with peoples’ existing news feeds, so it is often difficult to tell apart from a post from somebody in your network. The fact that the advertiser can choose specifically what ‘type’ or demographic of person to contact means organic echo chambers resulting from personal networks are exacerbated by paid content.

Another social network commandeered by Trump during his 2016 campaign was Twitter. He used his personal Twitter account to spread campaign messaging and propaganda, which already had millions of followers due to his ‘celebrity’ status. His tweets consistently went viral because his content was defined as ‘popular’ by Twitter’s algorithms due to his existing network, as well as the sensationalist nature of the content he shared.

Despite the momentum surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign which eventually led him to victory, his win came as a surprise to many academics and journalists. The nature of Trump’s campaign – the vast majority of which was conducted online – meant that not everybody was exposed to the content seen by the people he was trying to persuade. The use of micro-targeting for adverts on social media has a by-product, that is, those groups who are predicted as unlikely to consider voting for Trump would never be exposed to the advert in question.

In addition, the nature of the Twitter platform which Trump used excessively throughout his campaign has similar ramifications in that one is only exposed to content from those you ‘follow’ directly and that which is ‘retweeted’ by these people. This resulted in an echo chamber, not just for those supporting Trump, but also for those who opposed him. Had they been aware of this potential, perhaps more could have been done to counter his social media strategy and provide cross-cutting content to those who had been inundated with only pro-Trump material, to allow them to make up their own minds based on more complete information.

Social media and other media proliferation has changed the landscape of Western politics

Where social media was first seen as a way to diversify the views of the population, the proliferation of choice, coupled with the introduction of internet personalisation has created clusters of like-minded people online, acting as a perfect breeding ground for populism.

Examples from the 2016 US presidential election show that although this is speculated to be more of an issue for less politically-educated individuals who cannot break out from the ‘filter bubble’, elites have been somewhat subject to their own echo chambers too, which has led to an unawareness about the momentum behind populist movements in recent years.

Despite vast amounts of literature on the phenomenon, it seems that governments have been slow to catch up and impose regulations on social media. Social media and other media proliferation has changed the landscape of Western politics by providing a fertile breeding ground for like-minded groups of people, which can both give rise to and be targeted by populist actors.

This contribution was written by Jodie Voss, 22. Visit her profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.