• Amy Erica Smith

Did social media cause the rise of right-wing authoritarianism in liberal democracies?

By Amy Erica Smith

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be alone at the metaphorical table. / Source: Number 10 (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom)

This morning brought a striking mix of headlines. In the US, we learn that President Trump has told his aides he wants them to pull out all the stops to build the wall before the 2020 election -- don’t worry about the laws, and he’ll pardon anyone who needs to be pardoned.


Across the pond, we hear that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has asked the Queen to suspend (i.e., prorogue) Parliament for five weeks -- a tactic widely believed to be aimed at forestalling effective resistance to a “no deal” Brexit.


Let’s take a minute to outline the parallels. (1) That hair. Like, wow. (2) More seriously, chief executives determined to force through their agendas -- regardless of traditional liberal democratic constraints such as legislatures and laws. (3) The particular agendas -- both men aim to raise barriers at their borders. (In the UK, the barrier is mostly abstract and legal, but a “no deal” Brexit could entail a new physical barrier between Ireland and Northern Ireland.)


In my Party Manifesto relaunching our blog, I outlined a series of changes happening in parties globally. These include the rise of a new right focused primarily on cultural rather than economic issues, and a global drift towards authoritarianism. Today’s headlines certainly seem like cases in point.


What’s driving these trends? Why now?


I’ve been thinking about those questions a lot lately. Fully accounting for the right-wing authoritarian turn would require a very, very long piece. Or maybe a whole bunch of books. The story ranges from voter psychology to elite-level polarization; it may include rising inequality and legislative gridlock. Climate change and migration probably play a role, as do global networks of right-wing nationalists.


I want to focus on oft-discussed hypothesis: that social media did it. Could Times Magazine’s person of the year, “You” the Netizen, be partially to blame?


Timing and geography make the hypothesis intriguing. Voter psychology likely doesn’t vary that much over the time (actually, that’s a complicated subject for another day). Elite polarization began in the US in the 1980s, and levels of polarization vary from country to country, as do levels of legislative gridlock. Inequality has also been on the rise globally for decades. By contrast, the global rise of social media precedes the beginning of the global wave of autocratization by just a few years.


The hypothesis is popular in media commentary. From Brazil to the US to New Zealand, YouTube has apparently fostered new right-leaning communities and spread fake news. Reddit also gets the blame. In Brazil’s 2018 presidential election, right-wing fake news spread via WhatsApp group messages. Facebook and Twitter also come in for plenty of blame.

And academic research provides some support for the hypothesis.


Commentators debate which social media platform gets the most blame. It seems likely that different platform characteristics interact with the social context to affect how people receive, process, and then pass on messages: publicity versus privacy; anonymity versus identification; the use of text versus images versus videos. YouTube’s algorithm that suggests incrementally, progressively more extreme content likely plays a role.


But why social media at all? Are there features of social media that would facilitate the rise of both a new right and popular authoritarianism?


A few more specific hypotheses occur to me:


Hypothesis 1: Compared to traditional modes of communication, social media might foster new communities and identities united by shared grievances. Discussion in those communities may in turn intensify people’s grievances.


Social media appears to have fostered the rise of movements on the left as well as the right. It is hard to imagine recent social movements around gender -- for instance, the “Me Too” movement or Argentina’s “Ni Una Menos” -- without invoking a hashtag sign.


What unites #metoo and the men’s rights movement? Both involve shared feelings of injustice and communities that organize across geographic lines. As people who share a grievance discuss their common cause, their sense of injustice grows. Posts that evoke anger at injustice may spread more quickly. And then rival communities play off each other, intensifying each other’s perceptions of persecution.


Hypothesis 2: Compared to traditional information sources, social media might make it harder for people to discriminate between accurate and false information.


YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has defended her platform as being “like a library.” “There’s always been controversies if you look back at libraries,” she argues. But the library analogy is unintentionally revealing.


How is social media not like a library? Though traditional libraries are ostensibly neutral repositories of information, a moment of thought reveals how different a library is from, say, YouTube. My beloved public library doesn’t promote anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, and it doesn’t have shelves devoted to scribbled racist rants from local cranks. And it certainly would never promote those rants for me to read from the comfort and convenience of my smartphone. Professionals select and curate the information my children and I find.


Of course, social media users have the power to critically evaluate and resist specious information they come across in the Wild West of Facebook or WhatsApp. But when online communities with shared identities and grievances encounter uncurated misinformation, the fake news can spread in a decidedly un-library-like way.


Hypothesis 3: Social media might foster simpler analyses of social phenomena and lower use of critical thinking skills than traditional forms of media.


The logic of social media virality might tend to advantage catchy hot takes that simplify social problems. And once again, in online communities united by shared identity and grievances, such hot takes could turn into screeds against outgroups.


However, it’s important to remember that this last set of criticisms has long also been leveled against television, and before that tabloid journalism. A recent paper argues convincingly that the rise of entertainment television in Italy fostered lower critical thinking skills, which in turn contributed to the ascent of the right-wing populist Berlusconi. Trump’s rise as a public figure in the US is likewise tied to entertainment television and tabloids. Turning to a populist from the other side of the political spectrum, Hugo Chavez was undeniably a hoot on TV. And it’s hard to talk about polarization in the US without mentioning Fox News. Maybe social media has just exacerbated a long-existing trend in this respect.


So did social media do it?


Certainly not in isolation. But perhaps social media has exacerbated and accelerated other trends. And if so, the question is, can social media fix it?

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