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Digital Demagoguery: Preparing For A New Digital Politics

16/05/2017 16:05 BST | Updated 16/05/2017 16:05 BST
Lasse Kristensen via Getty Images

We're having an election here in the UK. News broke, well, where else? Within a minute of the announcement, the web was alive with the sound of politics. And with the first tweets, the first e-petitions, the first Facebook posts imploring people to vote, we were quickly reminded that digital politics is a strange old thing.

A new political culture is emerging. Perhaps it already has emerged. It is based on 140 character inanity, on infectious memes and viral messages, a politics measured in the currency of clicks and shares and comments.

It's the politics of the Spectacular Own Goal, of the Evisceration and of the Crying-Laughing and the Fire Emojis, as if PMQs had its own 24-hour cable channel to be pored over by a press lobby of millions. We bay for televised combat and scream derision at our political enemies from our sofas.

It's a decentralised politics, where party lines are stretched and broken by rogue voices who capture the imagination. Central control over a party's 'message' is weaker than ever, assuming party politics even matters in an age where a single political Facebook group can reach millions of people without its body ever really participating in the electoral process.

It's a politics that happens at a thousand miles an hour: prolonged debate or discussion are impossible at this speed. Refresh the page of your favourite platform, and there are new things to object to, a never-ending stream of people to try to win round (at first, maybe), then rebuke (second), then abuse and hold up for ridicule (when it's getting late). Or there aren't, and the walls of your echo chamber are closing in.

We were promised a marketplace of ideas, but we've ended up with a strange, conspiratorial coliseum of Facts, where conflict is inevitable but actually fighting or winning an argument is impossible. The web sustains as many ecosystems of knowledge as there are people who want to believe them, and they live comfortably side-by-side, untroubled by their opposition.

Politics on social media today is a politics of certainty, a politics of knowing things. There is almost no greater shame, nothing more deserving of a good social media pillorying, than not knowing something. The politician who won't answer the question, who doesn't know, who hesitates, is not a politician for this new digital culture where everybody knows, everybody chips in and everybody will answer the question, whether asked to or not. In a world of easy answers - "just Google it!" - it is little wonder established politicians look timid or neutered when compared with your mate on Twitter ("Sixteen retweets yesterday!") who just says it as it is.

The future belongs to a new politician. What they might look like is still a mystery. They might be the ones who've seized the initiative in the present chaos: Donald Trump's stream of consciousness in the States, Beppe Grillo's digitally-coordinated "fuck off" days in Italy, even brutal fascists backed up by an army of automated propaganda machines, trolls and bedroom propagandists like Duterte in the Philippenes.

Or perhaps that's too myopic: they might look like cyberpunks harnessing the power of the web to reinvent democracy like the Pirate Party in Iceland or Audrey Tang in Taiwan, whose platform is already responsible for turning digital deliberation into law. Who knows, maybe we'll even live to see an AI running for Enfield North 2050.

Who cares? Tweets aren't votes. We still don't know whether ploughing millions into Facebook ads wins elections (Facebook claim it doesn't. Or maybe it does). But it matters because digital politics is a thing, and it brings with it new activities, norms and expectations, all of which map poorly to the structures of politics as we know it.

There will only be one winner. As more of our lives move online, our politics will too, and the structures and traditions that underpin offline politics will creak, then crumble away. An obvious example is in decision-making. Digital channels will make referenda cheaper, quicker and easier, and with that demand will grow. What's the point in electing representatives, the argument will go, when we can easily make decisions ourselves?

This election will provide more evidence. Many who will take to the web to do their politics won't head to the ballot box. In 2015 just 43 percent of 18-24 year olds turned out to vote. A paltry 36 percent cast their ballot for the EU referendum. "I'm disappointed in my peers", wrote one journalist in the wake of Brexit, describing politically-active non-voting millennials as "curious and infuriating". "Do they care enough one way or the other?", lamented another. "I don't think so."

I'm willing to bet they do care. My colleagues at Demos worked with Ipsos Mori to survey UK social media users in July 2015. Young people were more likely than anyone else to feel politically engaged online, as well as highly likely to use the web to do politics. 20 percent of young people paradoxically claimed to have no interest in politics, but had still sent messages with political content online.

I bet they do care, and they will be angry that all their digital electioneering was unsuccessful. They will look towards alternatives, and the digital world will provide them. What kind of politics this will bring about isn't clear yet, but we should keep an eye on it, because it is already shaking up the current political system and will, in good time, sweep it away entirely.