The Spanish party Podemos and the German “Alternative for Germany” could not be, apparently, more opposed. However, there is one thing which brings them together: They both successfully use digital communication to reach their electorate in new, unmediated ways.
In the last few months, Western liberal democracies have seen a steep rise in populist parties. With them, populist messages have increasingly entered the public realm. Presidential candidate Trump has one lie ligned up after another, one scandalous statement after another. In the UK, the Leave campaign for Brexit showed how ugly political campaigns can become in the digital age. Racist, xenophobic comments became the “new normal”. Let’s just remember that it went so far that the now foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, compared the EU to a Nazi superstate.
But how have embarrassing lies and entirely fabricated stories become such a commonplace feature in the public discourse? What tools have allowed this to happen? And how have populist parties mastered the art of political communication?
Adapting to the digital age: The advantage of populist parties
The advent of social media has had a significant impact on political communication. Politicians can now address the electorate in an unmediated way, without having to go through media outlets analysing and framing the news. This novel forms of communication has provided a significant boost to political actors challenging the establishment. Due to its low operating costs, wide popularity and the direct link created between public figures and citizens, social media, and in particular Twitter, has become the ideal platform for political communication – and populist movements have tapped right into this opportunity. This, in addition to a political world already largely dominated by celebrity politics, sensationalism and political scandals, has not helped to improve the debating culture in Western democracies. If anything, it has led to a polarisation of political discussions rather than a fact-based dialogue between voters and politicians.
That said, emotions in politics are not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, they are an inherent part of our political culture. We need charismatic leaders able to mobilise a population, able to convince and find arguments with which they reach out to every voter. However, as mainstream politicians increasingly rely on technocratic policy-making to legitimise their politics, voters lose touch with the “political elite” and therefore lose interest in politics altogether, as the technical decisions taken are sold as “too complex” to be understood by a majority.
But: It is the job of politicians to explain to their electorate what their policies are, in a way that respects them and does not pretend that “people are too stupid to understand”. This is why populist parties have been so successful lately – they have understood that politics needs emotions and idealism rather than pragmatic and technocratic decision-making, at least during campaigns. And this is the key to understand why populists are also so successful in using new communication tools:
“It’s easier to insult refugees on Facebook rather than explain a new pensions scheme or income tax reform in 140 characters.”
In order to analyse this trend, we’ve looked at two hugely different parties: The national-conservative German “Alternative for Germany” and the Spanish “Podemos”, which puts traditional left-wing topics on the political agenda.
AfD: Social Media provokes and polarises
Populist parties like to use common sense arguments, short, simplified messages and slogans which often use an “Us versus Them” narrative, find scapegoats and easy solutions to complex issues. There are various examples, but the most common one would surely be the suggestion to build walls to get rid of refugees, whilst tremendously neglecting the root causes of migration. This shows: Right-wing populists consider their electorate as a herd: An ignorant mass of tremendously stupid sheep prone to believe any irrational explanation. But they also manage to “shock” the rest of the population, and thus getting the media attention they wouldn’t get otherwise.
Right-wing populists consider their electorate as a herd of sheep
Here are only a few examples: Just before the Euro football championships, Alexander Gauland, Vice-President of AfD, said that “no one wants to have (national football player) Jérôme Boateng as a neighbour”. Even though he made this statement in Sunday newspaper “FAS”, the shitstorm was already underway. AfD’s secretary general, Frauke Petry, also made a polemic statement favouring the use of weapons against immigrants at German borders. The discussion started when another AfD politician, Beatrix von Storch, used her Facebook account to explain that “weapons can be used against women but not against children”. Besides the obvious fascist traits of those comments, the way in which AfD gets media attention is simple: Provoke and make sure people notice. Social Media are therefore the perfect platforms for quick and dirty messages, and for emotional reactions rather than constructive policy proposals.
Podemos: Politics in the public sphere rather than in parliaments
The Spanish party Podemos has also understood the importance of the public sphere and has thus steeped in new digital networks. In the film “Política, Manual de Instrucciones” (Politics, a Handbook), Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, explains: “Doing politics for real is doing politics on TV sets and in the newspapers. They’re much more important than parliaments”. Podemos has grasped the importance of different channels to reach different audiences: If you want to reach younger voters, use videos and social media. This way, they manage to grasp the attention of young people when other parties fail to do so because of poorer communications strategies.
Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos: “Doing politics for real is doing politics on TV sets and in the newspapers. They’re much more important than parliaments.”
An interesting concept is also new ways of communicating besides the digital platforms. For instance, Podemos’ political programme for the last general elections looked like an eye-catching Ikea catalogue. The key here is to show how transparent Podemos is, showing photographs of the candidates and main figures of the party in their homes.
One could argue that Podemos’ campaigns are the concept of “Audience Democracy” by Bernard Manin put into practice. When parties govern in a vacuum, without a cohesive base organized in subgroups, corporations, associations and unions, political parties have to start to use marketing strategies for each individual – in the end, to “sell their political product”. Podemos has grasped this change in communication due to the modification of the social ties of people: They now have to appeal to a fragmented electorate marked by a deep inter-generational divide and that oscillates between apathy and frustration towards the establishment.
The good, the bad and the ugly of politics on social media
Social Media has allowed small populist parties to gain a large share of media attention, which also draws a lot of its information from social media. This unmediated, unframed and rapid sharing of statements does not only make life harder for factual arguments. This new way of communication also has a largely negative effect on the political debate: It polarises and asks all readers to take a position rather than reflect on the content. But populist have grasped one important thing:
Bad news is still news.
In the end, the successes of populist parties using digital channels to spread their messages leaves a bitter taste. Because we have to acknowledge the following analysis: If the political communication manufactured by these parties can hack public opinion, distort it and multiply its social effect through diffuse and easily accessible networks, it is due to the weaknesses and failures of the current political establishment.
On the other hand, it is never too late to start positive change. Politicians can hamper populist advances (especially on the right, which tend to be much less democratic than on the left), by mixing traditional channels of political communication subjected to journalistic gatekeepers and filter mechanisms with new digital networks as a democratic and public stage for citizenry demands. In addition, the digital age also offers new tools to monitor the wishes and fears of their potential electorate, and adapt and spread their messages to them accordingly. The best example for this new approach was Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
The aim: Re-emotionalise politics without populism
The digital age offers great opportunities for reactive political debates. But for this to happen, mainstream parties need to start talking to their electorate in a way which takes them seriously instead of implicitly pretending that they are too stupid to understand. They need to transfer the message that the voters are better than believing in the outright lies of populists. Finally, they need to re-emotionalise politics without populism and re-create a bond between politicians and the electorate. But for that to happen, mainstream parties have a lot of work – they need to reinvent themselves, and fill the empty buzzwords with content. Otherwise, no digital tool will work.
Inside the Podemos Electoral War Machine, Politico
Did Social Media produce the New Populism?, New Yorker