New Populism, Social Media and Direct Democracy

Ingo Plöger
Brazilian entrepreneur, Pres. CEAL Conselho Empresarial da América Latina – Brazil

Large-scale political analysts are beginning to pay special attention to New Populism. Strongly supported by social media, a leadership emerges by not using “political correctness” to communicate, receives a growing amount of attention, direct dialogue, and finally, votes. The power of synthesis of Twitter’s 280 character limit makes communication very straightforward, blunt, and shallow. They are headlines and links that one can read in less than 2 minutes with immediate reactions. This mobilizing force has overthrown governments, settled in popular movements, and serves as an immediate protest for what we do not want. Twitter is hardly set up to promote programs, ideas and proposals that need deeper insight. A few people use Twitter to set up “their tribe of excellence” by following thinkers and proposers. The trend of thought conformity of the chosen “tribe” is continuously reinforced in their opinions, through the Artificial Intelligence embedded in the system. Artificial Intelligence (AI) seeks the similar, causing us to have more and more “communities of harmonic thoughts,” that is, offerings of ideas and thoughts that are closer to our values and preferences. This would reinforce conformities in volume and speed, reducing the habit of the coexistence of the antagonistic. Today each one of us confronts from childhood through to college and groups of friends, the need to confront divergence of ideas.  Learning to separate, in civilized coexistence, to distinguish the idea from the person, learning in controversy does not customize the adverse opinion. In harmonious communities, these difficult conversations are reduced, and the less civilized confrontation is in the clash among the “tribes.” Observing the unfolding of Brexit, the passions rose to such a level that within families, pro and con groups became radical in such a way that there were situations of members no longer speaking to each other. We observed a similar effect in the Brazilian elections, between Bolsonaro adherents and adherents to Lula’s Haddad, to the point that family WhatsApp groups have irreparable separations from family members.

Direct and unfiltered language through social media increased the “clash of civilization,” not as Huntington predicted by cultural values, but by the deep disharmony of the tribes. While traditional mass media increased the “politically correct” language, in the opposite direction, social media uses direct language and nothing politically correct and often offensive, better portraying the reality of people’s opinion. It is not hard to imagine that this same phenomenon, now driven by Artificial Intelligence to reinforce simple, opportunistic and momentary opinion, carries leadership to power. At the same time, we perceive a weakening of the traditional media, stuck to the politically correct, and cannot regain its adhesion by bringing a differential of qualitative journalism that grabs attention and has adhesion like social media.
The new political leadership, inspired by this opportunity, realized that in the use of social media of great impact, they could have a differential that would lead to power by direct voting. This happened very visibly with the outsider Trump, and now in Brazil with Bolsonaro.
The interesting thing is that they continue in the communication to keep this straightforward dialogue, through Twitter, privileging the self and the public, and taking out the intermediation of the media and the public transmitter. Presidents of this profile do not need spokespeople, and even the press has no way to interpret something that followers have seen on Twitter. It is a way of bringing and staying with the voter in the listening, by the synthetic form of the 280 characters, enough to know what is going on. Totally insufficient for a deeper, analytical and strategic assessment. He becomes a populist because his communication turns to the snapshot of effect phrases, leaving the interpretation to whatever people want to make of it.

Direct democracy begins to settle by the easy and immediate technology. The problem is that forces of democracy such as the public opinion, democratic parties and institutions, parliaments, etc. need high-quality discussion and debate.
The risk of this abrupt transformation is that debate becomes less civilized and wilder. That the citizen wants another form of communication and resolution of their problems than the politically correct in the language is understandable, but – now comes the most critical part – in the procedures is an overriding acceptable? If I no longer have patience with controversy, in the clash of ideas, the trampling of democratic and legal decision-making processes become acceptable. The risk of democracies being run over by the New Populists with the support of many is no longer fiction. The best example is in Brexit, where the mindset of leaving the EU overlapped with any rationality; today political and legal procedures have made any solution unfeasible, ending up in a deadlock. We know that the “turnaround” of the Brexit opinion came when Cambridge Analytica entered the game bringing the assessment of 50 million British Facebook users, making a campaign targeting each individual in their specific uncertainty, through their AI.
Who is in check now? it’s democracy. If democracy does not reinvent herself, it may succumb!
Latin America, which is predominantly democratic and has great creative and innovative potential, must begin to modernize its political process. Starting with the parties, and their way of managing their representation. A new form of governance is required in the parties’ decision making process.  Those who succeed, using the effectiveness of networks and technology to get closer to their constituency will win! Nevertheless, they will have to admit first a new governance. Direct democracy without governance turns an easy game to demagogues and populists. The new debate on the governance of democracy is fundamental in these new determinants of social networks and the phenomenon of New Populism.
Nothing different from what happens in our companies. If we are far from the preference of our consumers, and do not reinvent ourselves in our organizations, we are bound to succumb. Understanding and interacting with people will be strategic, because every day we see something new appearing and changing the mindset of our consumer.
Modern entrepreneurs, active in social media and political actions, urgently need to be the protagonists in the performance of party modernization and political processes. Otherwise, we will have more unpredictable New Populists in our democracies, and our future will become much more unpredictable.
New Populism will move forward but … what will New Democracy be like?


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