“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.