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  • Writer's pictureBarney Jones

The Rise of Digital Populism

Barney Jones

The rise of social media brought a fever of optimism and excitement. With promises of more friends, more connections, and greater unity. This reality has yet to be actualized. Presently, social media creates greater division than ever – and with it, it has ushered in a new era of politics: digital populism. But what is it, and why is it on the rise?

At first glance, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Jeremy Corbyn have very little in common. They all represent different parties; all have drastically different ideologies and have their own versions of Brexit, and I am sure they would all resent being grouped together. However, they are united by their utilization of digital platforms to spread their political ideology. Across the political spectrum in the UK, digital populism has taken a firm grasp on politics. Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, and political leaning, all of us in the UK witnessed first-hand the prevalence of populist messages over digital platforms in recent years.

Populism is not a new political phenomenon and has been prevalent around the globe. In its simplest form, populism looks to unite the "people" against the "corrupt elite.” However, digital populism represents a blend of new and old; it is a type of political behavior indicated by using the internet to spread anti-elite sentiment and mobilize support. To understand digital populism, we must first understand why populism has seen a resurgence.

The Surge in Digital Populism

Across the globe, there has been a resurgence in populism. From 1990-2018, populist leaders have increased five times. But what has caused this? There is a range of country-specific explanations. In the UK, the origin of populism can be traced back to Thatcher’s premiership and the ensuing globalization and free market reforms introduced. In the past decade alone, 600,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost to globalization in the UK. This has left whole communities decimated. With the mainstream political parties unable to provide a solution, voters are forced to the extremes to find an answer. Voters who have been avid supporters of either Labour or Conservative move away out of sheer desperation and wanting to see any change, be it positive or potentially negative.

Globalization and free market reforms have massively fuelled inequality and slowed wage growth – with real wages continuing to fall since 1970. The resulting decline in social status further pushes people to the populist fringes. From this, we can see the embers of populism have been slowly building up. The UK had, until recently, staved off populism. The enduring British Political Tradition of slow, gradual change and a sense of "political politeness" within politics kept these populist forces at bay. Yet, populism in the past decade has taken over in the UK with the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 election of Johnson VS Corbyn. Both of these leaders are prime examples of populist figures. So, what has changed in the UK?

Succeeding Populist Movements Through Digital Platforms

Digital platforms have given all political actors a direct line of communication with millions of people, but populist leaders consistently outperform mainstream parties. A recent study found that populist figures triggered far more reactions and shares than mainstream parties. In the UK, UKIP in 2016 received double the interactions of the Conservative Party on social media.

There could be several underlying factors behind this. Firstly, social media allows for direct communication between leaders of populist movements and the electorate. This direct link benefits populists for two reasons. The first is the charisma and personality of the leader can be invoked and create an almost “personal” relationship with potential voters. Something that traditional political leaders cannot emulate as well. Secondly, there is no longer the traditional political gatekeeping of traditional media outlets. Online posts do not face the same vigorous fact-checking or debate in the public arena. This lack of debate entwined with echo chambers creates a fierce storm of political allegiance to populist leaders.

The most prominent example of this in the UK is Nigel Farage. During the 2019 election, he had the 2nd highest number of followers. Farage's social media outweighed Johnson, the Labor party, and the Conservative party – which is surprising given his lack of electoral success or relevance to that election. This social media dominance came from his charisma and a "man of the people" persona. Many of his videos will be him with a pint of beer or simply talking to the camera with no producers to be seen. This "authentic" appeal and his own version of "anti-politics" resonated with voters. This connection he created would never have been possible on traditional media outlets.

Secondly, the core battleground of politics is emotion. Populists on social media play on our human intuition of fairness. Our human desire for justice is preyed on by both populist parties and social media. Voters do not choose rationally, much like consumers who buy based on impulse and emotions. This is to be expected; we are only human. Therefore, posts on digital platforms that play on this raw emotion to feelings of injustice, anger, and fear, generate greater responses and, in turn, are far more popular on social media as the algorithms spread them across the platform.

This process can be seen at its worst (and best, depending on who you're asking) on Facebook – where the algorithm promotes content that will get the highest engagement. This ultimately prioritizes controversial content, which spreads further polarizing content. No one knows the precise inner workings of the Facebook algorithm, but we do know its aim. To get people to watch as many adverts as possible, any subsequent spread of disinformation, hateful content, or divisive political messaging is merely a bump in the road toward the billions of profits they rack up.

Take the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which the Leave campaign dominated Facebook and Twitter. The Leave campaign, which used Cambridge Analytica to successfully guide its social media strategy, knew that posts that invoked an emotional reaction garnered greater engagement. This is why their adverts played a far greater influence on voters' fears and insecurity over immigration and the NHS. While the Remain campaign ultimately lost the social media campaign due to the complex and hard-to-read data they promoted.

Turning The Tide on Digital Populism

The growing inequality this winter will only push people in the UK toward the political extremes. Mainstream political parties are failing to provide the answer, leaving people with no choice but to look elsewhere for solutions. Much like Farage did in 2016, another charismatic leader will take his place and lead another populist revolt, except this time with an even greater social media presence, unless decisive action is taken.

Governments need to take on a far more significant role in regulating the social media giants – who, through the algorithms, promote the divisive, click ensuing posts that broadcast political extremism. Social media firms like Facebook will always prioritize this business model; more clicks equal more attention and advertising revenue. With their ultimate goal being profit, this is to be expected. To curb this, governments must be prepared to hand out tough fines for social media companies that allow misinformation to spread and do not enforce their own rules effectively. No substantial change will be made until governments begin to hurt their bottom line.

However, this is a challenging task. Take Twitter, for example. Elon Musk and the previous owners want to promote Free Speech, yet they have varying definitions. Misinformation can be very different depending on who you are asking. Traditional nation-states have similar economic and political weights to large multinationals like Facebook. Their power and oversight have slowly diminished; thus, for an effective regularity framework, there must be an international effort by governments to effectively regulate social media. The UK alone cannot take on Facebook; there needs to be a collective effort from the leading countries. The Online Safety Bill, for example, is a step forward but ultimately, without international agreement, it will be very limited in its impact. Digital platforms and their regulation are no longer solely a domestic issue but also a foreign policy one.

I propose a collective regulatory framework to be introduced to greater police digital platforms and have far more powers to fine and limit profit. However, how much is ever achieved at grand international summits is yet to be seen. Instead, I suggest a bilateral agreement between the UK and USA, which would guide further conversations and regulations for the future, while also allowing the UK to take center stage in tech and innovation.


Barney Jones is a recent graduate in Political Economy from the University of Birmingham. Having seen the recent political turmoil, Barney is keen to write on social justice to raise awareness and improve education. Barney is passionate about all things politics with a focus on democracy, international development and foreign policy.


This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) December 2022 Issue

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