Social media: ideal for populists and right wing extremists?

Some will argue that social media has enriched our lives and some will despise it. One of its aspects is that it can be used to communicate to large groups of people (almost) without being mediated. Mediated. That word sounds familiar. The first five letters of that word form the word media and that is how politicians and others that had something they wanted to say very badly communicated their message before social media emerged. Of course there were protests but those didn’t happen every day and of course populists participated in debates and such but in a debate there is still less freedom in what you can and can’t say. If you were to say something based on loose facts or say something that is just not true, you could be asked questions on this fake information. Social media makes it easier because although you can also be pointed out on the fact that you are lying, an army of trolls is just around the digital corner to defend you. Besides, the ability of spamming people with your (untrue) message makes it harder to be proven wrong. If you say something often enough it kind of becomes the new truth for people.


Social media also has some practical aspects that benefit populists and their followers. Populists want to address the heartland of the people and the ability to communicate to people directly by sending out a quick tweet of Facebook posts fits their preferred way of communicating. Their message also remains largely unmediated. It is not the media that speaks about them, it’s the populists themselves that speak about themselves or critique others.[1] Additionally, the spread of fake news is often not checked. I remember coming across a picture of two refugees carrying two large grocery bags just outside a building. The ‘news’ page explained that these refugees got two bags of groceries for free. The article then related this to the fact that there are a lot of Dutch families that are living with hunger and that it is unfair that they have to pay for their food while ‘foreigners’ are getting ‘everything’ for free. However, later I came across some kind of fact check page that explained that this was a picture of indeed two refugees but they were not holding bags of groceries, they were holding two bags containing the only belongings they got left after fleeing form the war in Syria! To me this shows that social media can be used to spread fake information quickly. The problem is that most people already believe and want to believe that these fake messages are true and therefore do not bother to check whether they are real. I guess the challenge is to counter the spread of misinformation on social media without damaging the freedom of speech.

[1] Engesser, Sven, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, and Florin Büchel. “Populism and Social Media: How Politicians Spread a Fragmented Ideology.” Information, Communication & Society 20, no. 8 (2017): 1109-126.