Social media is overhyped” a friend said to me in a social setting yesterday. “Look at the Arab Spring – it failed!” I agree with the latter part – what happened at Tahrir Square (and how people came to the square), and indeed Gezi Park, would seem to indicate the power of social media within the classic view of politics and protest is overhyped. Zeynep Tufekci argues that social media gives the impression that a movement is actually stronger than it really is, and this short-cutting of the hard work to build a genuine protest movement has its downsides. I tend to agree.

But both Tahrir Square and Gezi Park were, ultimately, classic underdog grassroots organisations versus the traditional and authoritarian power of the establishment, the sort of fight – either physically, or in terms of communication – that has been played out for decades.

What, I wonder, if social media is actually better at something else, namely creating an alternative version of reality? And then attracting so many people to that version of reality that it eventually comes to be accepted as some sort of truth?

I was at a debate this week in Berlin about the Austrian elections, and one of the speakers explained how the FPÖ had moved from – under Haider in the late 1990s – from being a party dominated by one man, and whose staff were the first to put pressure on newspaper editors, to a system where now, under Strache, the party had built its whole own apparatus online where its professionalisation and reach dwarfed that of all the other parties. They have the means, the speaker said, of drawing people into their own bubble, where their own version of reality is accepted as a kind of truth. And it took the party to within a hair’s breadth of winning the Austrian presidency. This pattern is repeated across Europe – parties on the extremes are better at social media.

The UK’s EU referendum exhibits some of the same sort of tendencies, where trying to have any sort of sensible discussion about the issues at stake is impossible – as there is no common definition of reality. It’s easier to play the person, to brand them as somehow biased or crooked, than it is to actually engage with what they are saying. Meanwhile even those with a notional position of responsibility – MPs – lie at will, and what they say then gets reported.

The pro-Brexit core believer mentality is that those coming to the UK are migrants who will take your job, and your benefits, and are probably jihadists. Brits in the rest of the EU meanwhile are harmless expats who contribute to their local economies. Further, anyone who has ever had anything to do with the EU must be tarnished and untrustworthy as a result of the experience.

This then all gets rolled into a media narrative. If the BBC is too harsh on UKIP, or says the wrong thing about the EU, it’s because the BBC is biased. Conversely if the BBC is too pro-UKIP it’s biased. Meanwhile Labour is obsessed that the BBC is too biased against it, leaving some to question who is actually for it. Some Labour people have also been hissing the BBC’s political correspondent. Classic commentators assume Labour will eventually see Corbyn is selling snake oil, but that’s based on the idea that their version of reality is the same – it’s easier to believe a made up map instead. And in the meantime newspaper circulation is dropping, and Breitbart can always feed whatever conspiracy theory you happen to want feeding today.

This then, as I see it, is the power of social media – the power to allow people to create their own reality, to make it harder for a population to have a common understanding of what is actually happening in the world (before you come to the question about what to do about it). Into this arena, with the Overton window shattered, step the likes of the FPÖ, UKIP and Trump, while the establishment is left scratching its head about how it feels it has lost its grip.

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3 comments

  1. Martinned

    I agree with Nils – to a point – that there are also very powerful non-social media examples. In the US, Fox News defines the reality in which Republicans compete for power, and the New York Times defines the reality for Democrats.

    If you’re Hillary Clinton trying to beat Bernie Sanders in the primaries, there’s no point in worrying what Megyn Kelly thinks of you, or in worrying what Bill O’Reilly thinks caused the banking crisis. The only question is how to get Paul Krugman to write another big column in the New York Times saying that Bernie Sanders doesn’t understand banking. (While Krugman writing about Paul Ryan makes not a jot of difference, because people who vote for Paul Ryan don’t read Krugman anyway.)

    Each party has its own reality, and they don’t need social media for that.

  2. Jon

    @Nils – it’s a fair point, and I don’t disagree. But there was a reason I didn’t include your point. It’s because whatever the mainstream media’s version of reality (or distortion) is, all the traditional political parties still compete for the attention of the media. Or at least they did until very recently. No-one opted out of it completely, even if your party disliked the editorial line of a particular paper. What strikes me as now especially interesting is how relatively separate these spheres are becoming – the SPÖ is not competing to be heard on the FPÖ’s Facebook channels.

  3. Nils Woerner

    In my eyes, you miss one point. The traditional media also creates their own narrative which does not represent reality. Would you say that the tone of the British media towards the EU before the rise of social media was accurate? Clearly no. This is a very obvious example, but there are many more less obvious wrong narratives in the traditional media and people have realised that it does not depict their reality correctly. I am convinced that people are looking for alternative narratives because they believe that the narrative of liberalism, market economy and free trade has failed them. For too many people in society (and it’s not the few really well educated people like you) real fairness, equal opportunities, a better future don’t exist and the media ignores their perspective. I don’t blame them for searching new narratives. Unfortunately they are falling for even worse alternatives and even tragically: people will only realise that, when a new narrative starts shaping reality.