Social media are interactive computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation or sharing of information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks. Social media have become powerful populist tools by enabling a direct connection between the people and their voice.
The variety of stand-alone and built-in social media services currently available introduces challenges of definition; however, there are some common features: i) Social media are interactive Web 2.0 Internet-based applications. ii) User-generated content such as text posts or comments, digital photos or videos, and data generated through all online interactions, is the lifeblood of social media. iii) Users create service-specific profiles and identities for the website or app that are designed and maintained by the social media organization. iv) Social media facilitate the development of online social networks by connecting a user’s profile with those of other individuals or groups.
Users usually access social media services via web-based|apps technologies on desktops and laptops or download services that offer social media functionality to their mobile devices (e.g., smartphones and tablets). As users engage with these electronic services, they create highly interactive platforms through which individuals, communities, and organizations can share, co-create, discuss, participate and modify user-generated content or self-curated content posted online.
Networks formed through social media change the way groups of people interact and communicate or stand with the votes. They ‘introduce substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organizations, communities, and individuals.’ These changes are the focus of the emerging fields of technoself studies. Social media differ from paper-based print media and traditional electronic media such as TV broadcasting, Radio broadcasting in many ways, including quality, reach, frequency, interactivity, usability, immediacy, and performance. Social media outlets operate in a dialogic transmission system (many sources to many receivers). This is in contrast to traditional media which operates under a monologic transmission model (one source to many receivers), such as a newspaper which is delivered to many subscribers, or a radio station which broadcasts the same programs to an entire city.
According to an article by Enrique Dans, there seems to be mounting opinion linking the increase in populism around the world with the popularization of a technology that, within a few years, has come to monopolize a good part of our time, thoughts and even how we consume news: social networks. He writes that “the relationship between populism and social networks cover more aspects than are usually considered. The awareness of some politicians that social networks, oriented to marketing and hyper-segmented campaigns, offer the perfect way to spread their message is only one facet.”
“Figures like Donald Trump, suddenly the biggest advertiser on Facebook, were supported by foreign governments, which used mass microtargeting campaigns to spread his inflammatory message among susceptible voter groups,” says Dans and adds “Without question, this tactic would have been impossible before the social networks. But beyond this important direct use, there are other links between populism and social networks that invite reflection.”
According to Dans’ article populism is far from a recent phenomenon, but the appearance of populist movements and leaders has multiplied since the moment social networks really took off in the late ‘90s.’ He says that “simple black and white, good and bad stories are packaged and delivered with laser precision to those who most appreciate it. I don’t want long, difficult articles; give me messages that fit in a tweet, to the point. Give me memes I can share. Better simple solutions and clear and concise messages than gray areas of uncertainty about complex problems I can’t be bothered to understand. Good and bad stories: the search for the common enemy. Make me feel good about myself, simplify my problems, and I will vote for you, either actively or reactively.”
Meanwhile, anthropologist John Postill claims in an article that to understand the link between social media and the recent rise of populism we need a global, comparative approach that carefully scrutinizes claims about the effects of new media technologies on political change. “Future thinking and action on social media and populism must consider a larger set of factors and cultural contexts than those normally considered, while carefully checking reports about the direct impact of social media analytics, filter bubbles or fake news on populist successes,” he says.
To Postill’s article, it would be an error to regard social media as a realm apart from the rest of the media environment. Instead, social media are an integral part of the total media system. Reminding that Andrew Chadwick has theorized the emergence of ‘hybrid media systems’ that encompass legacy and social media, Postill explains, in such systems, social and mass media feed off one another in recursive loops of what he calls ‘viral reality’ whereby populist leaders and their followers co-create content, often through hashtags that straddle the social versus mass media divide and blur the lines between news and opinion.
It is a fact that many observers are concerned that echo chamber effects in digital media are contributing to the polarization of publics and in some places to the rise of right-wing populism. However, astudy which employs survey data, collected by Shelley Bouliann, Karolina Koc-Michalska and Bruce Bimber, in France, the UK, and the US in 2017 could not find any evidence that online/social media explain support for right-wing populist candidates and parties.
Instead, they found, in the USA, use of online media decreases support for right-wing populism. Looking specifically at echo chambers measures, the study found offline discussion with those who are similar in race, ethnicity, and class positively correlates with support for populist candidates and parties in the UK and France. The findings challenge claims about the role of social media and the rise of populism.
However, in a collective study, researchers Nicole Ernst, Sina Blassnig, Sven Engesser, Florin Büchel and Frank Esser found that political parties are generally more inclined to use populism-related communication on Facebook and Twitter than in political talk shows and that both new challenger parties and extreme parties use higher amounts of populist key messages and style elements.
Stating that social media plays a major role in the political communication strategies of contemporary parties, the researchers write that “Especially, Twitter and Facebook have emerged as central media platforms that rival traditional news media in reach and influence. The possibility to bypass news journalists and the ability of political actors to communicate directly with their publics increases the chances of successful self-promotion. This gives us already an idea of why social media networks has transpired as a particularly well-suited channel for populist communication.”
They also list four opportunity structures of Facebook and Twitter foster the potential for populist communication: i) They offer the possibility to establish a close connection to the people. ii) They provide a direct access to the public without journalistic interventions. iii) They can create a feeling of community and recognition among otherwise scattered groups. iv) They foster the potential for personalization.
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