Why Demagoguery and Populism are on the Rise Throughout the West


From Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen to Hungarian Jobbik Party, Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom and UKIP in Great Britain, many of the Western countries experience now what the Economist once called “the rise of far right” movements and nationalistic sentiments, which eventually lead to the rise of demagoguery and populism. The reasons for this are many and complex (as always with social phenomena), including frustration with ruling elites and lack of accountability, fear of terrorism and insufficient response to asymmetrical threats, migration and failure of multiculturalism in Europe, economic and social hardships, etc. However, there is one relatively new factor that has a tremendous impact – the internet. Social media and “big data” have further complicated and exacerbated the situation.

Currently the technology allows us to access, transfer, store and retrieve vast quantities of information at a click of a button; communicate among individuals and institutions at a speed previously inconceivable. In contrast with the vast information provided by television, this new form of exchange is interactive, whereby everybody is a provider and consumer of information simultaneously. Such capability is novel for human civilization – only a decade old – and provides with an unprecedented opportunity to utilize data for the betterment of our societies. At the same time, it carries unpredictable risks and consequences for humanity yet to be discovered.

As the public at large receives information instantaneously, this often pressures politicians to make quick decisions not to lose popularity and place on the headlines. This pressure, in turn, makes it almost impossible to act strategically.  Moreover, big data mining provides campaigns with the possibility of learning more about and targeting specific demographics. It allows politicians, especially during an electoral cycle, to understand public expectations and sentiments by focusing on specific slices of information and act accordingly, regardless of the complexity of a larger issue or the harm any given decision may cause in longer term perspective. In some cases losing integrity may be more beneficial.

At present, huge amounts of information are collected about online users – their “likes” and preferences, political and religious views, etc. This data and corresponding algorithms, which were initially created for marketing purposes, can now predict what kind of advertisements you would like, what type of article you would read, and who you would likely vote for and why. These days, no electoral campaign in a developed country goes without big data analysis. The problem often is that on social media easy answers generally prevail over complex strategic solutions, which are required for adequately tackling sophisticated social phenomena; the psychological need for consensus within a group prevails over individual curiosity and emotions often prevail over rationality.

In his World Order, Henry Kissinger puts distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom. He argues that while the factual information spreads quickly, it is rarely self-explanatory. Its significance, analysis and interpretation depend upon context and relevance; and only then it emerges as actual knowledge. For an ordinary citizen, it is easier to bandwagon with the majority rather than deeply study the matter at hand by reading 10000-work essays. In cyberspace, it takes courage for individuals to oppose or reject concepts reached by consensus. Furthermore, people searching for the same thing on the web may have different results, depending on their previous online behaviors. It deepens polarization over important issues that we can observe in many countries. Once at this stage, the distinction between right-wing and left-wing parties becomes less clear.

In this environment, people tend to be more responsive to hypothetical threats, stereotyping, and eventually demagoguery. The aforementioned political groups often declare policies or rely on slogans incongruent with actual political realities. For instance, Donald Trump’s campaign suggests making America safer for citizens in spite of the fact that violent crime rates actually decreased in recent years, while also opposing any initiative aimed at gun control. Trump campaign advocates closing the border with Mexico in order to stop illegal immigration, while in 2015 more people left the US for Mexico than the opposite. These political groups (whether they know it or not) fall into several psychological traps, such as negativity bias (psychological phenomenon by which humans have a greater recall/focus on unpleasant memories and analogies compared with positive ones); confirmation bias (the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities); declinism (tendency to view the past favorably and future negatively);  shared information bias (the tendency for group members to spend more time and energy discussing information that all members are already familiar with (i.e., shared information), and less time and energy discussing information that only some members are aware of (i.e., unshared information)); etc.

The influence the internet and big data have on political processes still needs to be studied further and patterns need to be systematized. The phenomenon is new and we will still witness its effects on our societies. This includes both risks and opportunities. And while there is nothing new in demagoguery and populism, this environment provides a fertile ground for their rise.  The argument that social media and big data cause the rise of demagoguery needs to be discussed and debated and this article aims to encourage such a discourse. In the meantime, political processes today already involve a lot of pathos, while ethos and logos are gradually losing their ground.

Image source: hlidacipes.org, wikimedia.org

About the Author 

Babken Matevosyan holds a Ph.D. from SNSPA in Bucharest, Romania. His research focuses on democratic transitions, security in European eastern neighborhood, frozen conflicts, etc.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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