Paolo Gerbaudo on politics and the social media revolution

Speaking before a packed audience, Paolo Gerbaudo (King’s College, London) delivered a lucid commentary on how online platforms have transformed political life beyond all recognition. Robbie Johnston sends us this report on another thought-provoking talk for the CSMCH. You can listen again to the talk via the Audiomack link below or on our podcast channel.

As social media has transformed the political landscape, its reverberations have been felt everywhere. Prominent analysts and commentators have been left bewildered at the ‘vulgarisation’ of public discourse, intense populist campaigns and the electoral earthquakes left in their wake. Paolo, whose book The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy, was published last year, grounds these developments in a much-needed intellectual framework to make sense of this unfamiliar terrain, and properly examine the affinity between social media and populism.

Three key shifts have redefined politics as we know it. Firstly, the consumer roll-out and mass distribution of technology, enabling people to be more or less constantly ‘connected’. Secondly, populism must be seen in its proper context – the long economic stagnation in the shadow of 2008. The flatlining of wages, job insecurity, the enforcement of austerity, feudalistic levels of inequality, meagre prospects for the young and the hollowing out of comfortable middle class lifestyles have all contributed to an overwhelming sense of decline. The signs are all too visible. And, as the IMF have darkly hinted in recent weeks, further trouble may be on the way.

The third destabilising element is the way in which this discontent has been channelled through the political process. That is, the emergence of populist parties and movements, which have achieved remarkable success almost overnight. Political groupings with hugely differing ideological complexions, from Podemos in Spain to the Italian Five Star Movement, nonetheless articulate a similar sense of betrayal and rage at the elites and experts who govern their lives.

Crucially, they pioneered ground-breaking methods of online campaigning to capture and then mobilise supporters, catching the traditional parties off-guard. Prominent media pundits, initially dismissing them as unelectable upstarts, have seen their assumptions unravel. Populists have not only made electoral inroads across the globe; they set the very terms of the debate. ‘Populism,’ said Paolo, ‘is the new common sense.’

Progressives are caught between a sense of dismay at what they deem to be the coarsening of political discourse, and, on the other hand, a realisation of the potential liberating power of mass communication. In liberal commentaries, social media is typically assigned the blame for the collapse of consensus. It represents a place where ‘fake news’ is disseminated, racism is legitimised, and authoritarian movements are forged. In what has become an all-too familiar sequence of events, strongmen then take power.

Paolo said that if we truly want to understand the problem, we have to take a wider view. Firstly, it is first important to understand the sea change in the social composition of who is active online. Two decades ago, only about 10 per cent of the world population had access; that figure is now somewhere between 55 and 60 per cent. Plainly, this constitutes a shift from an elite to a mass medium. For Paolo, this partly explains some of the more hysterical liberal commentaries, which resemble a kind of moral panic at the thought of the uneducated mass storming the public sphere.

Beyond the headlines of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, there is more going on beneath the surface. Paolo thinks that, instead of viewing social media as the property of right-wing demagogues, it should be thought of as a vital resource to persuade people to embrace an egalitarian agenda. After all, the technology itself is neutral.

Moreover, the potential of mass-communication to build a mass-movement is self-evident; there are already countless examples on the left. Moreover, as Paolo reminded his audience, today is the first time that people are engaging in public writing on such a mass scale. People who you would not usually expect to have strong political convictions are now expressing their hopes and visions for the world. Moreover, there is enormous potential for a broader educational agenda, to spread knowledge and develop a framework in which to interpret political power.

Paolo explores the ‘reactive’ quality to social media politics

The reality, of course, often falls short. Rather than producing meaningful action, social media can produce a more emotive and shallow form of political engagement. In particular, Paolo underlined the problem of the asymmetry of power. Online platforms promise interaction and that all voices matter. For much of the time, though, it results in a kind of ‘reactive’ democracy, whereby ‘power-users’ (e.g. famous leaders) post messages, which the mass responds to with likes and comments. Politics, in this way, risks becoming another form of casual entertainment.

Another key example of a trend towards this form of ‘reactive democracy’ is the way in which Podemos and the Five Star Movement’s online platforms have worked in practice. Paolo’s work has found that issues debated online and settled through internal referenda almost invariably follow the guidance of the parties’ charismatic leaders. For all the rhetorical allusions to ‘the people’, the dominance of the ‘hyperleader’ reflects the persistence of top-down organisational structures.

In a thoughtful commentary, Rory Scothorne (Edinburgh) focused on intellectuals’ own troubled relationship with populism. For the most part, intellectuals have traditionally preferred deliberative, thoughtful spaces to impulsive populism. Historically, this found expression in their ‘fear of the crowd.’ Today, though, they can hardly escape social media and, by extension, a populist state of mind.

More and more intellectuals feel they have to take to online platforms and so threaten to become locked in a cycle of addictive populism themselves. In his closing remarks, Rory suggested that the political party, allowing for a deliberative form of democratic participation, still provides the best means of effecting real and substantial change.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, an audience member echoed this pessimistic message. Do these technologies not ultimately serve as a great distraction from substantive politics? Are we, in the words of Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to death?

Paolo recognised that social media can reduce politics to another form of superficial entertainment; a spectator sport. However, he stressed that, for all its faults, political engagement on social media is unavoidable. It is a fact of life. Progressives must keep in mind its power to spread empowering messages, overcome a hostile media environment and actually influence events. But, in the end, there are no certainties. As Paolo has written elsewhere, ‘Only time will tell whether social media is a sphere for radical and vociferous, but democratically legitimate, expression, or a channel for authoritarianism’.

Robbie Johnston is a PhD student in History. His primary research interests lie in the twentieth-century politics of Scotland and Britain. He is currently working on a thesis which explores the development of Scottish Home Rule and Nationalism from the 1970s to the 1990s. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.