Nowadays we are all busy mindlessly scrolling through our screens, casually absorbing and internalising whatever story comes our way. News is a constant and feeds our relentless need for emotional distraction, base intellectual stimulation, and procrastination. Alternatively put, as consumers of the news on social media, we propagate the institutions and speakers that channel it, as we voicelessly comply to a sort of intellectual passivism and consent to be inundated by other people’s beliefs and rhetoric on a daily basis. Who is profiting from this one-sided communicative power? Those who are not afraid to share their most extravagant, extreme, and captivating ideas: the alt-right and neo-nationalist leaders. These charismatic leaders who advocate nationalist sentiments, have gained political leverage in the wake of the refugee crisis, worldwide recessions generated by the globalised economy and an increase of terrorist attacks in Europe by the extreme Islamic group ISIS; i.e. a time when global tensions and anxiety over national welfare are extremely high. The more the population are fuelled by societal tensions and anxieties, the more they seek news to confirm their beliefs, the more they adhere to extreme nationalist rhetoric on social media. This mass submission to social media is therefore increasingly dangerous as it blurs distinctions between intuitive beliefs and beliefs formed by the rhetoric of speakers, journalists and individuals advocating certain performative ideologies.
Examples of these nationalist populist parties, starting with the most notorious is Donald Trump, business tycoon and avid twitter user. Donald Trump commercialised himself in the election campaign through the advertisement of his ability to put America first with tough anti-immigration policy and the empowerment of the working class of America. Through his populist discourse, Trump capitalises on societal anxieties of globalisation as he tries to revert to a sense of secure traditionalism. We see this in Europe, where we have ‘The Freedom Party of Austria’ which gained presidency in 2017; Victor Orban, the current prime minister of Hungry and his ‘Fidesz’ Party, who capitalising on the Syrian refugee crisis, has gained prestige with his strong rhetoric against migrants; and ‘Golden Dawn’, a strongly anti-immigrant party in Greece. In France, we have ‘Le Front National’, led by Marine le Pen, who in advocating French traditionalism with the notion of ‘laicité’, calls out the veil as being ‘oppressive to women’ and outwardly rejects the idea of multiculturalism in France. In Germany, there is ‘Alternative for Deutschland Party’, a party gaining momentum after Chancellor Angela Merkel let 1 million refugees into Germany; and the list goes on. Many of these parties have existed for decades, however, what we are pinpointing here is the dramatic rise of their influence with the electoral vote population and the ubiquity of their rhetorical discourse on social media.
Many of these leaders have experience a dramatic increase in power and influence since the refugee crisis exploded in Europe in Spring 2015. This global tension has allowed them to use social media to ‘exaggerate the potential immigration threats and then appear as saviours.’ (BBC). Social media has therefore become a platform for the commercialisation of extreme views, feeding off xenophobia and social sentiments of insecurity and instability.
The nationalist rhetoric on social media appears to be contagious. For example, Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” has resulted in other countries wanting to restore their countries to an image of a confabulated golden era in the past, when everything was retrospectively “under-control”. His anti-elitist rhetoric is directly employed by European leaders, for example with The Alternative for Deutschland Party claiming that the current leaders are “traitors to their people”, and Marie le Penn promising to “Rendre le pouvoir au peuple” (Give back power to the people). Trump’s influence is evident with Marie Le Pen’s odds of winning the Presidency in the 2016 French elections went from 15% to 50% after Trump won the American presidency (Harvard Political Review 2018).
Trump’s anti-institution and anti-elitist rhetoric, as persuasive as it is to many, is built upon a hollow paradox; his rejection of the power plantations that made him. This is particularly evident with populist leaders’ mass rejection of media institutions – the same institutions that have mobilised their rhetoric to the masses. They advocate freedom of speech and do so unwittingly, using the wildest forms of rhetoric to capture the vulnerabilities of the masses; yet they cannot handle the idea of the free press. This paradox can be seen to seep into the heart of the debate of the freedom of speech; as those who are empowered by lucrative and extreme rhetoric, excel on social media platforms whilst individuals who advocate more nuanced, thought-out, rational opinions, sink to the side-lines.
It is becoming more and more evident of just how social media is used as a powerful platform to channel political advertisements with the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russia intervening with the Brexit referendum and American Presidency via social media advertisement. From history, we can see that nationalist rhetoric sells from the rise of Nationalism leading up to WW1 when patriotic sentiment was popularised through England’s ‘penny press’; cheap tabloid newspapers that demonised and satirised Germans and Russians whilst glorifying the British. Nowadays, politicians can effectively buy people’s political beliefs as our data is liable to be harvested and sold and what we read every day online is orchestrated to the benefit of the buyer.
All in all, we can see social media being in many aspects, manipulated by those who have the power and confidence to promote their insidious and bold opinions; as it is the most entertaining news which proliferates on our screens. How can we start to challenge this? Perhaps awareness of what is hitting our screens and slapping us across the face every day as we read the news and twitter; and using our capacity to reflect and separate our opinions from those who dominate the screen.
-Bethany Tallulah Howard, Politics Editor