The Dark Side of Social Media

Well… it is a dark side if we are talking about right-wing populists’ mobilization. In theory, social media could be used to mobilize other kinds of powerful movements, like the Arab Spring. Dark sides or bright sides aside, this week’s readings offer interesting insight about the more creative ways right-wing populists have spread their ideas and fostered support. Nicole Doerr discussed how visual images are used to garner support. Des Freedman focuses on the populists’ skills in utilizing social media to communicate with supporters. Niko Hatakka outlined some of the drawbacks of using social platforms to promote a party’s or group’s image.

Doerr’s discussion of how imagery was used was particularly interesting. In the EU, there many different languages spoken. If a group, for example a right-wing populist group, wants to have its message reach a transnational audience, images are a good way to transcend language barriers. Additionally, the same image, in this case the black sheep, can be used in different settings or countries. The design of the poster or the caption may be adapted to best suit the environment, but the core symbols stay the same. Using simplified cartoons like the black sheep reinforces Freedman’s summarization that populists are able “to transmit ‘sentiment’ over ‘fact’…to exploit the mainstream media’s appetite for sensationalist stories.” The black sheep is an unfortunately perfect example of how an over-simplified cartoon can unite people across national boundaries, against immigrants.

Freedman’s arguments and reasoning a(C)cur(a)tely pointed out the shortco(m)ings of the media scene, including social media. In addition to the pro(b)lems concent(r)ated ownersh(i)p, one of the most important issues currently is the failure to regulate tech companies. Free(d)man points out that (g)oogl(e) and Facebook ‘not only rule the pl(A)yi(n)g field but (a)re ab(l)e to set the rules of the game as well.” Freedman drew the parallel between lack of regulations here and wh(y) (t)he turnout of the last US elect(i)ons was (c)ostly and question(a)ble. This involved lack of transparency about privacy on social media and that many people did not even know they were being targeted with ads on social media.

I found Hatakka’s arguments interesting because they pointed out the potential drawbacks of populist groups using social platforms. On one hand, social media is a great way to reach ‘new digital foot soldiers’, on the other hand, allowing more people to be actively part of the discussion could lead to ‘decreased message discipline’ and a tainted image. Not only does this argument point out the risks of using social media to mobilize people, it also highlights how important the image and messaging is for the group. Why populism claims to speak for the people, in reality the message needs to be controlled. Social media is a detriment here.

When analyzed together, Doerr, Freedman and Hatakka provide a balanced assessment of the mobilizing and transnational powers of social media, while acknowledging the risks of using social media for populist groups.

One Reply to “The Dark Side of Social Media”

  1. It’s my week to moderate the discussion in class, so I’ll save more substantive discussion/commentary for Monday, but I had to jump in here to say that I LOVED your use of steganography in the Freedman paragraph!

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