when strategy subsumes platform
BEWARE OF DIGITAL POPULISM
ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona.
His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy
(2008), The Remains of Being (2009) and Hermeneutic
Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), all published
by Columbia University Press. His most recent book is
Why Only Art Can Save Us. (2017) This essay
first appeared in Al Jazeera.
This year more than
60 countries will hold elections, and all will be facing a similar
threat: populist parties and movements that use data analytics
firms to help them amplify their message, connect directly with
the populace and widen their support base.
years, right-wing populists have taken power in several countries,
from Brazil to Hungary and the Philippines. Coinciding with the
rise of populism, data analytics firms, such as Cambridge Analytica,
Aggregate IQ and others, have been perfecting techniques to quantify
the behaviour of voters to influence their votes.
the expansion of the reach of right-wing populism through the
work of such firms is undoubtedly worrying for the future of democracy
and human rights, there is another form of populism that is even
more dangerous, as it pretends to be above the political categories
of left and right all together: digital populism.
to identify digital populism, it is first necessary to understand
why and how populism itself has returned to political arenas across
the globe. In the 21st century, populism has emerged as a reaction
to the transformation of politics into the technocratic management
of public affairs.
past 30 years, democratic elections throughout the West became
mainly about pushing forward bipartisan coalitions that could
delegitimize both left- and right-wing ideologies, as well as
the very notion of opposition. This was done in order to obstruct
alternatives to neoliberalism. Against these out-of-touch technical
coalitions -- responsible for an unprecedented increase in social
and economic inequality -- populism offers to return politics
to the people.
as famed political philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe
explain, is not an ideology but rather a political strategy "capable
of articulating identities" and bringing together "different
demands in opposition to a common enemy."
marshalled by right- and left-wing populists are radically different:
fear of the foreigner, rooted in hatred and indifference, on the
one hand, and hope for a better future through more justice and
equality, on the other. For right-wing populists, such as French
National Rally leader Marine Le Pen and US President Donald Trump,
the enemy of the people is certain sub-categories of the same
people, such as immigrants and minorities. For left-wing populists,
such as US Senator Elizabeth Warren and Spanish Podemos leader
Pablo Iglesias, meanwhile, the enemy of the people is not immigrants
but the economic elites, that is, big transnational corporations,
such as Facebook, which Warren plans to break up.
the neoliberal establishment continues to discredit and ignore
the difference between right and left populisms, there is no question
that populism is a necessary dimension of democratic politics
and that the strategy aligns particularly well with today's distributed
the different strains of populists have in common is the direct
relationship they claim to have with the people. Populists in
the past relied on traditional media to connect with the people,
but social media now enables them to convey their messages directly
to the people and even interact with them. This use of social
media is common among both right- and left-wing populists.
is where digital populism differentiates itself from traditional
right- and left-wing populism. It not only uses digital platforms
to allow politicians to communicate with the electorate, but also
bases its political programme directly in the power of social
media and its potential for manipulation.
is the case with Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement,
which in just 10 years has managed to become the largest party
in the country. Openly populist in its stance against the elitist
and closed Italian political system, the party is atypical in
its horizontal organization and flexible ideology.
is the vision of a digital marketing specialist who believes the
Internet has made traditional political parties and the organizational
model of democratic politics obsolete. The Five Star Movement
was founded not solely by the comedian Beppe Grillo, as many believe,
but also by the IT specialist Gianroberto Casaleggio, who once
ran a web consulting firm. Although Casaleggio passed away in
2016, the firm continues to offer strategic consulting services
for online positioning under the direction of his son and other
associates. The leader of the United Kingdom's populist Brexit
Party, Nigel Farage, who was among his most successful clients,
described Casaleggio as a genius.
that political parties were no longer needed in the age of the
Internet, Casaleggio dreamed of replacing parliaments with an
online democracy where citizens could decide matters for themselves.
In his books, he predicted a "world where no one would need
to delegate any more as consensus on efficient smart solutions
would have been brought about through the wisdom of online crowds."
Casaleggio's goal was not simply to attack the out-of-touch professional
political class as other populists do, but also to start the "disintermediation"
of democratic institutions.
this disintermediation through the online platform Rousseau, where
100,000 registered members vote on various political matters concerning
the decisions of the parliament and the Five Star Movement.
year, for example, the platform put the parliamentary immunity
of former far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to an online
vote as a group of judges asked for the permission of the Senate
to investigate him for kidnapping immigrants using the power of
the state. According to Rousseau, its voters elected to preserve
Salvini's immunity, an outcome in line with the party leadership's
wishes at the time.
months later, however, in another vote on the online platform,
members of the movement appeared to overwhelmingly support the
formation of a new coalition between the Five Star Movement and
the centre-left - once again an outcome that pleased the party
leadership. When this coalition government came to power, it forced
Salvini to face an investigation.
different outcomes of these two votes, as well as many others,
have raised suspicion that votes on Rousseau are being manipulated.
Fittingly, only Casaleggio's son has access to the voting records
and the identities of individual members.
populism, like overtly ideological right- and left-wing populism,
claims to give politicians supporting it an opportunity to have
a direct relationship with the people. But it combines the manipulation
of fear used in right-wing populist strategies with the hidden
manipulation of private data, making it far more sinister. This
explains how the outcomes of votes on the platform can contradict
each other so often.
Star Movement will soon vote for a new leader on this platform,
as its leader Luigi Di Maio, stepped down as party leader in January
and the party suffered a major defeat in the regional elections
of Emilia-Romagna and Calabria a few days later.
and manipulation of data in politics have already damaged democracy
across the world. We have seen this in the overwhelming success
of right-wing populist campaigns ran by Trump and Brexit supporters.
Nevertheless, the way the Five Star Movement uses data is far
more dangerous than anything we have seen before. Trump and Brexit
campaigns were at least formally separated from the companies
running their data strategies. The Five Star Movement and Rousseau,
however, are the one and the same.
movement founded on the idea of participatory democracy, the fact
that a single person possesses all the data used to supposedly
show the desires of the people raises serious transparency concerns.
Although the Five Star Movement seems to be the only example of
digital populism that has risen to govern a nation, voters around
the world should be on the lookout for similar threats.