One type of political communication seems to be particularly well suited to participatory propaganda – populism. In positioning a political leader on the side of the “people” in a struggle against a corrupt elite, populists use the participatory propaganda model effectively to erode faith in the established order. Many of the steps outlined below help to sow doubt and fuel dissatisfaction with the way things are.

Populism occurs naturally in a democracy, due to the inherent contradiction in liberal democracy that at once derives its legitimacy from ‘the people’, but at the same time governs them through “complicated institutions, laws and practices aimed at safeguards, checks and balances” thus containing  the very power of ‘the people’. When these complex systems fail to meet the needs of the electorate populism arises.

The dissatisfaction with the status quo in a democratic society, such as feelings of being unheard or under-represented, may lead to finding the existing political order wanting. American voters have been expressing such sentiments about their government for some time. Only 19% of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey in 2014 said they “can trust the government always or most of the time” and 74% said, “most elected officials put [their]own interests first”. In a similar survey in 2015, 64% of American respondents said they felt “their side loses more often than it wins” in politics.

Voices that are not widely heard on mainstream media are amplified online, making such groups easily identifiable through audience analysis. Once identified, savvy politicians can pick up on messages spread by such disenfranchised groups, playing to them to encourage not just votes of support, but active participation in propaganda efforts to encourage others.

As populist rhetoric often simplifies complex issues and finds a scapegoat to blame, it is particularly well suited to the online environment, where messaging is short, easy to digest, and there is a culture of outrage. Conversely, many average voters struggle to understand the complicated procedures that comprise a liberal democracy. Populists understand this, which is why they reduce the political debate to simplified terms.

Populism is dangerous for democracy, particularly if such leaders take power. Eroding checks and balances and minority rights in the name of popular support, causing irrevocable political divisions through the “moralization of politics” making consensus and coalitions impossible, are some of the ways populists degrade democracy. Far-right populism tends to incorporate nationalism and xenophobia, using identity politics to break society into groups of a homogeneous ‘us’, and a dangerous foreign ‘them’.

Digital technologies are facilitating the spread of right-wing populism. The fast rise of far-right populism in Europe was “mirrored online”. Far-right populists have proven to be adept at using digital technologies to propagate, recruit and coordinate activities, often with online followings far outstripping actual offline membership. This use and keen understanding of digital media has led some commentators to dub the trend “the rise of an interactive and participatory populism: a populism 2.0.” Trump’s rise to the oval office is no exception.


Thank You… and Propagandise About This Topic

Yes, that was a long read. Thank you for staying with it. My research on the subject of participatory propaganda is at its early stages. If you believe this is a topic that needs deeper understanding and broader awareness among voters, please like, share, and comment on this post. Yes, I am asking you to be a propagandist in my own participatory model – but that support will convince a publisher that this topic is worthy of the time and effort for turning it into a book. I am also interested in the constructive feedback loop – feel free to reach out.

This research is also available in a full-length talk format – please reach out if you are interested in including it in your conference or event.

About Author

Alicia Wanless

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age.

Alicia researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. As the Director of Strategic Communications at The SecDev Foundation, Alicia develops campaigns and strategies for engaging beneficiaries in outreach and behavioural change. Her work includes developing a training program that deals with verifying information and the spread of content online, and has supported projects in the Middle East, Vietnam and the post-Soviet space.

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