Viral populism: what happens when isomorphism through algorithm hits politics?

This is an admirably prescient post from 2014 by BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith about the viral populism which social media has facilitated. It brings a new dimension to political life which eludes the familiar expectations of pundits:

At some point in the next two years, the pollsters and ad makers who steer American presidential campaigns will be stumped: The nightly tracking polls are showing a dramatic swing in the opinions of the electorate, but neither of two typical factors — huge news or a major advertising buy — can explain it. They will, eventually, realize that the viral, mass conversation about politics on Facebook and other platforms has finally emerged as a third force in the core business of politics, mass persuasion.

The incentive structure which Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Breitbart and the many other platform intermediaries have adapted themselves to is one which politicians now confront as well:

What is beginning to dawn on campaigns is that persuasion works differently when it relies on sharing. It is a political truism that people are most likely to believe what their friends and neighbors tell them, a truth that explains everything from sophisticated and earnest door-knocking efforts to malign email-forward whispering campaigns. And the social conversation favors things that generations of politicians have been trained to avoid: spontaneity, surprise, authenticity, humor, raw edge, the occasional human stumble. (Joe Biden!) As mobile becomes increasingly central to the social web, I suspect that more voters in 2016 will be persuaded by a video in their Facebook mobile browsers than by any other medium.

The terrifying prospect this suggests is that the process we have seen in the media, what Caplan and boyd call isomorphism through algorithm, will be seen in politics as well. With each viral success story aspirant politicians will be inclined to immediately mimic their strategies. This doesn’t mean that they will be identical to each other but rather their strategies will be orientated around the same touchstones: authenticity, spontaneity, emotionality. The closing paragraph immediately made me think about Rory Stewart’s viral success in the Tory leadership contest as a striking example of how unradical this political populism might prove in practice:

A few modern politicians appear to have a real feel for the raw emotion and, sometimes, (apparent) spontaneity that people will want to share. Elizabeth Warren’s blunt and casual economic 2011 tirade and Ted Cruz’s theatrical confrontations (and even his own low-production-value cell phone videos) are the beginnings of that viral populism for which the social web has opened a real space.

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