What are the dangers or new opportunities of digital media? One of the major debates in relation to digital media in the United States has been whether they contribute to political polarization. I argue in a new paper (Rethinking Digital Media and Political Change) that Twitter led to Donald Trump’s rise and success to date in the American campaign for the presidency. There is plenty of evidence to show that Trump received a disproportionate amount of attention on Twitter, which in turn generated a disproportionate amount of attention in the mainstream media. The strong correlation between the two suggests that Trump was able to bypass the gatekeepers of the traditional media.
A second ingredient in his success has been populism, which rails against dominant political elites (including the Republican party) and the ‘biased’ media. Populism also rests on the notion of an ‘authentic’ people — by implication excluding ‘others’ such as immigrants and foreign powers like the Chinese — to whom the leader appeals directly. The paper makes parallels with the strength of the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigrant party which, in a similar way, has been able to appeal to its following via social media and online newspapers, again bypassing mainstream media with its populist message.
There is a difference, however: in the US, commercial media compete for audience share, so Trump’s controversial tweets have been eagerly embraced by journalists seeking high viewership and readership ratings. In Sweden, where public media dominate and there is far less of the ‘horserace’ politics of American politics, the Sweden Democrats have been more locked out of the mainstream media and of politics. In short, Twitter plus populism has led to Trump. I argue that dominating the mediated attention space is crucial. One outcome of how this story ends will be known in November. But whatever the outcome, it is already clear that the role of the media in politics, and how they can be circumvented by new media, requires fundamental rethinking.
Ralph Schroeder is Professor and director of the Master’s degree in Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute. Before coming to Oxford University, he was Professor in the School of Technology Management and Economics at Chalmers University in Gothenburg (Sweden). Recent books include Rethinking Science, Technology and Social Change (Stanford University Press, 2007) and, co-authored with Eric T. Meyer, Knowledge Machines: Digital Transformations of the Sciences and Humanities (MIT Press 2015).