Beware of digital populism

The new brand of populism which bases its political programme directly in the power of social media should scare us all.

5 star movement photo for Santi op-ed Reuters
Co-founder Beppe Grillo, Davide Casaleggio, son of co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio, and Italian Deputy PM Luigi Di seen at a Five Star Movement party rally in October 2018 [File: Max Rossi/Reuters]

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. 

In recent 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. 

While 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.

In order 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.

In the past 30 years, democratic elections throughout the West became mainly about pushing forward bipartisan coalitions that could delegitimise 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. 

Populism, 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”.

The emotions 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.  

Although 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 information technology.

What 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. 

This 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. 

This 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 organisation and flexible ideology. 

The party is the vision of a digital marketing specialist who believes the internet has made traditional political parties and the organisational 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”.

Convinced 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. 

He enacted 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

Last 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.

A few 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. 

The radically 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.  

Digital 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. 

The Five 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. 

The use 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. 

For a 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.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.