Laura Morton / The New York Times

March 1, 2021

KUDVA DRISKELL | Twitter Populism

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Picture the scene — it’s 7 a.m. on a Friday morning, and you’re frantically trying to put together your news assignment for Spanish class when you come across an article about the community level impact of Nayib Bukele’s social media strategy in Paisnal, El Salvador. You pause for a moment, blink at your screen, and think “Damn, populists really love Twitter.”

I’ve had this same realization at other points in time. Like almost everybody else, I spent Jan. 6 glued to my screen, watching as rioters stormed the Capitol, spurred on by months of propaganda. Similarly, the last four years have been a lot of “Oh my god did you see what he tweeted?” followed by some remark about the world falling apart, which has made me uncomfortably aware of Twitter’s power in propagating political discourse. 

Generally speaking, populism has been on the rise. Though populist politics are by no means a novel concept, populist movements and leaders have grown immensely since social networks took off in the late 90s. The exact reason why populist politicians are popping up left and right is unclear, but potential causes include the failure of neoliberalism and cultural backlash theory. In this way, we can understand populism as a reaction to the modern era, articulating the alienation and widespread disenfranchisement of people across the political spectrum. Or, in layman’s terms, we can understand populist politics as a reaction to the fact that the world makes no goddamn sense

Yet, there’s still a lot of controversy around what “populism” actually entails. As Thomas Frank writes in The People, No, “Today, seemingly every well-educated person in America and Europe knows that populism is the name we give to mass movements that are bigoted and irrational that threaten democracy’s norms.” By extension, as Aaron Lake Smith points out in his Jacobin review of Frank’s work, “Populism is a smear. Those that embrace it do so at their own peril.” I’ve noticed this in my own interactions, which always surprised me as my particular understanding of populism doesn’t confine populist practice to any side of the political spectrum; rather, it’s based on a specific logic of articulation. 

Here, I’m going to provide a very, very, very basic explanation of Ernesto Laclau’s definition of populism, as presented in Populism: What’s in a Name? Political theory bros of the world, please don’t come for me — I will ignore you. 

Laclau’s work, more than anything, treats populism as a method of analysis. In situations where a large number of demands go unsatisfied by political institutions, people’s collective frustration leads to a rise of solidarity, creating reaggregated demands based on a “logic of equivalence.” This logic takes different demands and creates a chain between them — thus, any claim presented is part of a larger set of social claims which, because of their connection to other demands, can no longer be satisfied in a non-antagonistic, administrative way. Basically, demands become fighting demands. 

As these connections are created, we see the emergence of a popular subject, informed by a distinction between “people” and “power.” This distinction is necessarily homogenizing, since it seeks to simplify and define “the people.” Using this definition, populism isn’t regulated to the political left or right. Insead, it’s an ontological category, and any movement or ideology is potentially populistic. 

Because populism depends on a logic of equivalence, social media platforms like Twitter are prime facilitators for populist politics. By allowing tech-savvy politicians to circumvent traditional media and communicate directly with their constituents, social media enables populist discourse. When you consider the average comment structure, you can see literal chains of equivalence: Person A posts their political opinion, and person B through Z are then able to respond directly in a literal chain, commiserating and elaborating on their arguments. 

Of course, populists aren’t the only apolitical figures utilizing social media for their causes. Consider, for example, one of the earlier adopters of social media-centered politics: Barack Obama, whose 2008 presidential campaign team went on to secure Mariano Rajoy’s victory in the Spanish 2016 general elections. Of course, one can’t assume that these campaigns triumphed solely because of social media; however, what we are seeing is that social media has become an integral part of our hybrid media system, which blends older and newer media into an interdependent cycle of politics.

Social media-centric populist discourse, as noted in this 2016 study by Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser and Florin Büchel, is spread in a fragmented form — meaning that the elements of populist discourse are generally isolated from one another. This study proposes three potential reasons for online populism’s fragmented nature: First, that the speakers are attempting to make populist ideology more comprehensible; second, that fragmented discourse allows for a more malleable and ambiguous ideology (thus expanding the populist base) and third, that presenting a fragmented populism allows for populist ideas to travel beneath the radar from one like-minded person to another.

As noted by Enrique Dans, this fragmented ideology also allows for populists to draw people in. Due to the simplistic structure of social networks, “liking” one fragment of discourse allows you to be drawn in deeper into the populist echo chamber, which molds your vision of the world into a filtered division of people versus power, effectively using algorithms to promote populist dichotomies. 

I don’t necessarily want to take a hard line analysis of this interaction and claim that because social media is populist, we should all lose our minds and delete Twitter. Well, actually, I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to that, but given that the majority of the public seems deeply invested in their symbiotic relationship with screens (myself included), I will argue that the political logic of Twitter populism is something which can’t be ignored. As social media increasingly creeps its way into political discourse, I think we’re headed straight for a future in which online discourse defines our political agenda, and the fact that said future is dependent on corporation-controlled media giants makes me incredibly nervous as to what that agenda will look like. 

However, we’re not there yet. And for the time being, perhaps there is emancipatory potential in Twitter politics, depending on who’s shaping discourse. So, tweet away! But perhaps take a moment to consider who’s defining the people versus power. 

Mira Kudva Driskell is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Portrait of a Gen Z on Fire runs alternate Mondays this semester. She can be reached at mdriskell@cornellsun.com.