Postmodern populism: why we must learn to tread carefully in the online world

7 Dec 2016

 

It is almost easy to overlook the astonishing impact that the internet has had upon every aspect of human society.

 

Since the internet’s mainstream explosion in the 1990s, communication, international business, socialising, entertainment, shopping, education, the arts: all have been engulfed by the amorphous mass of the online universe. Never has a technological development transformed society so universally in such a minute historical window.

 

Until recently, it didn’t seem particularly clear how the internet phenomenon was going to change politics. But with the old political consensuses of the 20th century imploding, the internet seems to be an obvious source of explanation for the strange and uncertain political climate we are entering.

 

Perhaps the most dangerous of the internet’s powers is that it is an extremely effective tool for manufacturing consent, and is capable of normalising almost any view or opinion, regardless of extremity.

 

Earlier this year I stumbled upon a YouTube video entitled Why the Jewish Elite Hates Donald Trump - uploaded by David Duke, infamous anti-Semite holocaust denier and former associate of the KKK. In this video, Duke argues the US media’s opposition to Donald Trump was due to manipulation by the ‘Jewish Establishment’ that is conspiring against traditional American culture by supporting mass immigration, and despising Donald Trump for his supposed neutrality in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

 

The video’s vile anti-Semitic sentiment is not what I find most frightening, for what is even more startling is how effectively the aesthetic presentation and contextual framing of the video subtly neutralises the toxicity of its content. The video is professionally edited, presenting Duke as a respectable figure - “Dr. David Duke PhD in History & Former Member of the House of Representatives”. Duke speaks articulately in an informative, inoffensive manner, citing numerable 'examples' to back up his point. To an ill-informed individual with little knowledge of Duke, the ugliness of anti-Semitism and the dangers of the extreme far-right could be blurred.

 

After watching this clip and a handful of other videos of a similar sentiment that day, every time I re-entered YouTube over the following week, my suggested videos menu was riddled with a host of other videos of a far-right, white nationalist sentiment. This trend of ‘suggested content’ on many websites such as YouTube has the potential to further perpetuate the circle of exposure. The more of this content you watch, the more likely an online ideological bubble is to emerge, where you only see online content from one political school of thought and before long, this could become your new world view.

 

In Novemeber, The Guardian published a poignant article on this matter: Alt-Right’ poison almost turned me into a racist. In this article, the anonymous author describes falling into the exact trap of online exposure I’ve just described. Beginning by watching videos of seemingly ‘innocent’ figures such as well-known atheist Sam Harris, via ‘suggested content’ algorithms, he describes how he started to unwittingly come into contact with venomous Alt-Right content, particularly that of infamous alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos;

 

The author describes how this subtle, incremental process of clicking on related content led him down a slippery slope towards some ‘racist’ alt-right sentiments:

 

'It seemed so subtle – at no point did I think my casual and growing Islamophobia was genuine racism. The good news for me is that my journey toward the alt-right was mercifully brief: I never wanted to harm or abuse anybody verbally, it was all very low level – a creeping fear and bigotry that I won’t let infest me again'.

 

The Alt-Right have proven to be the kings of modern internet populism. By playing the left at their own game, presenting themselves as an edgy, ‘alternative’ movement, and whipping up hysteria on social media, the Alt-Right have successfully utilised the online sphere as a means to normalise the sentiments of the far-right, re-framing them in a manner appealing to a younger, liberal audience who would normally reject such views.

 

Lacking a body to exert any kind of moral or intellectual scrutiny, the internet has become a fertile pasture for toxicity, populism and deception. The rise of the Alt-Right proves the internet’s formidable ability to construct legitimacy for sentiments that once lay in the realm of the extreme. We must now learn to tread carefully. The online world must now be treated as a dangerous space.

 

Whatever political content you interact with online, regardless of its ideological affiliation, I urge that you approach with scepticism. Do your research, and be wary of falling into the echo chamber of related content. If we are not wary of these dangers, many will be led down a trail of breadcrumbs to some misleading and ugly places. We are all at risk.

 

 

 

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