Algorithmic vs Inadvertent Populism – Felicitas Macgilchrist

Keynote Speaker at the Populism & Nationalism Conference 2018

Georg Eckert Institute

“The conference on Nationalism and Populism at Napier University asks (among other questions) which social and political conditions are conducive to the emergence of populist movements. If I only think about nationalist populism for the moment (and with the caveat that I think other kinds of populism are very important), then two central conditions that we can observe today are algorithmic populism and inadvertent nationalism.

1. Algorithmic populism

The first condition, algorithmic populism, is a phenomenon of today’s digital world. Possibly one of the most discussed aspects of ‘right-wing populism’ across the media are how digital tools spur on alt-right, racist, exclusionary, nationalist, Islamophobic, etc. discourses which aim at constituting an in-group of ‘good people’ against the out-group of ‘others’.  To just focus on Facebook for a moment, we can see, as Benjamin Bratton has argued, that ‘platforms are not just “media” they are governing systems’. They are not just ‘media’ because it is not just the content, but the interactive, semi-automated, data-driven dimension of the platform that ‘normalises’ populist positions.

When, for instance, the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) hires a media company (which has been involved in campaigns for Trump, Palin, UKIP and Likud) to direct its social media campaign, one of the key moves was to use participatory media to make the AfD seem ‘normal’, instead of remaining a fringe movement that people were embarrassed to be associated with. The more people openly ‘like’ the party, the more normal it becomes. The campaign aimed to create a community of acceptability (or, in populist terms, it created a ‘people’). Today its Facebook site has 398,947 likes and 412,694 followers, far more than the other German parties.

2. Inadvertent nationalism

A second condition, the shaping of an ‘inadvertent nationalism’, is not at all new. Young people today in schools (in Germany and the UK, at least) still learn that their own country is the best in the world. They learn to be thankful that they live in this specific country and not some other allegedly ‘backward’, ‘cruel’, ‘poor’, etc. country. And they learn through very powerful visuals and metaphors in their textbooks that ‘migration’ means lots of ‘dark’, ‘pained’ bodies ‘flooding’ in a huge mass movement towards them. They tend not to hear personal stories or learn about individual migrant’s lives. This is the background against which nationalist populist discourse can ‘make sense’.

Why is this an ‘inadvertent’ nationalism? When I talk to teachers, textbook authors, educational technology developers, no-one intends to support any kind of nationalism. They can all talk about the ethics of understanding migration, of empathy for refugees, of human rights, of equality and inclusion, of the importance of educating young people to be respectful, democratic, global citizens. And yet this ethical position doesn’t always translate into a critique of nationalism for the young people. Why not?

I wonder if it is because the ethical position is itself depoliticising. If we don’t call out racist and nationalist discourse as political phenomena (if we don’t invite contestation and ‘agonistic’ debate) then we are not helping young people to navigate these issues.”

– Felicitas Macgilchrist, Georg Eckert Institute