By Jamie Bartlett
hose who mistakenly thought 2016 was an anomaly, a series of unprecedented events, should have few remaining doubts. Marine Le Pen may have stuttered but still picked up almost 11 million votes. Her opponent, the “normal” candidate, was leader of a party only one year old. The ongoing terror attacks, fake news panic, Trump’s tweets and James Comey: last year never really ended, it just carried straight on into this one.
After decades of exaggerated prediction, the internet is finally transforming politics, but not in the way the digital prophets expected. The 90s, you may recall, were awash with optimism about our online future: limitless information and total connection would make us more informed, less bigoted and kinder citizens. But the internet is an overwhelming mess of competing facts, claims, blogs, data, propaganda, misinformation, investigative journalism, charts, different charts, commentary and reportage. It’s not the slow and careful politicians who have thrived in this busy environment, it’s the people with the shareable cut-through messages. Donald Trump might very well be the first truly social-media politician: his emotion-filled, simplistic blasts are perfect for the medium.
As a result, society is currently gripped by a curious consensus: that the internet has conspired with rightwing populists to sew up the future of politics. Noting the emergence of populist strongmen and demagogues, who seem to be digital wizards like recovering Twitter addict Trump, and violent opponents who seem only to bolster their support, many are comparing – with a certain grim fascination – our current turbulence with the 1930s. That is a very short-term view of things. The supremacy of the populist right is not the inevitable future. The rise of the right is better seen as an early skirmish in a much longer, and far more significant, technology-led restructuring of our politics and society. Digital technology has helped the populist right for now, but it will soon swallow them up, along with many other political movements unable or unwilling to see how the world is changing.