Much has been speculated about the rise of populist, nationalist and reactionary voices in the public discourse. The rise of Trump, Brexit and ‘strongmen’ leaders around the world has been associated with potential causes from deindustrialisation to immigration to Islamisation to filter bubbles and Russian hackers. Studies have been undertaken on the psychological disposition of Trumpistas, Brexiteers and similar movements from Seattle to Saratoga, from Bordeaux to Lake Baikal. And yet, a diagnosis of the populism still eludes us. And so does a cure.
Today we propose a hypothesis to disentangle the phenomenon: the validation hypothesis. While all of the factors mentioned above may have contributed to the populist surge, we have identified a single underlying driver that has propelled its astonishing success on social media: the need for validation as a source of self-esteem. Democracy, thy enemy is dopamine!
Before we examine the validation hypothesis, however, we take a look at the inability of demographic variables alone to explain Trump, Brexit and similar movements. All of them share a sense of national identity as the basis of a claim to superiority, while advocating a closed economic model. Thus, it can be reasoned that such movements are supported by those who stand to lose least from reduced trade and international cooperation.
[U.S. figures are courtesy of CNN 2016 exit polls, UK figures from Lord Ashcroft exit polls]
Age: much has been written about the chasm opening up between globalist Millennials and their grandparents revelling in national glory of the past. In fact, Trump’s vote ranged from 36% (18-29 bracket) to 52% (65+ bracket). While significant, generational preference alone cannot explain the phenomenon. Put ten young people into a room and chances are that 4 of them voted for Trump.
Education: both Brexit and Trump were favoured by population segments without a university degree, the majorities of Clinton and the UK Remain vote among graduates were insufficient to compensate. For example, Trump won 53% of male college graduates, something that couldn’t have happened if a higher degree of scholastic knowledge insulated voters from populism
Income: while 57% of wealthier AB segments voted to remain in the EU, they didn’t overcompensate the 62% of lower-income C2DE segments voting to leave the EU. Trump even won a plurality of 48% of U.S. voters with annual incomes of more than $50,000, while Clinton won 53% of those earning less (they were tied among voters earning $100k). Thus, the achievement of a high income is an insufficient barrier against populism
Urbanity: this one looks more interesting at first sight: Clinton won 60% of the vote of urban areas, but only 34% in rural areas. In the UK, Remain won around 55% of the vote in cities but only 45% in rural areas. However, both cases reveal that almost half of city voters seem receptive to nationalist proposals and thus removed from the so-called “cosmopolitan elite”
Immigration: while 73% of the roughly one third UK voters concerned about immigration voted Leave, only 36% who weren’t concerned did so. In the U.S., of the 13% voters whose main concern was immigration, 64% voted Trump. Those are sizeable numbers, but one could also argue the other way around: the vast majority of both U.S. and UK voters do not see immigration as their main priority. Other factors must be driving populism, too.
Religion: it is interesting to note that Trump won 55% of the vote among those who attend religious services weekly but only 30% of those who never do so. In the UK, Leave was backed by 60% of Anglican church members but only by 43% of voters without a religious affiliation. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that a populist vote was motivated primarily by religious reasons, such as islamophobia.
In summary, we find that demographic variables explain parts of the populist surge, but fall short as an overall explanation. Many of the demographic variables are correlated (eg young voters tend to be more urban, more educated, less concerned about immigration and less religious than older voters), cliches are quick at hand: the Remain-voting hipster sipping a latte in an East London cafe versus the retired steelworker waving his cowboy hat at a Trump rally in rural Pennsylvania.
So, what gives? If demographic variables fail to explain the success of populist campaigns, the hour has come for psychographic and behaviouristic variables—a much greyer science than clean-cut demographics. We are entering the realm of anecdotally supported hypotheses and the seemingly unrelated data points. And yet, out of a haystack of noise emerges a storyline that doesn’t only explain a great deal of populism’s strengths but also tracks wider societal changes that will be instrumental in its rollback.
As we build a new narrative, let’s start with a crucial observation: Donald Trump ruled Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and other social media by a wide margin even though Hillary Clinton won more overall votes. In the UK, Oxford’s Vyacheslav Polonski showed that Leave outperformed Remain on Instagram by a factor of ten to one (it was a slightly more balanced 7:1 on Twitter). Not only were there twice as many Leave voters active on Instagram, but they were also five times more active than advocates of Remain.
Hello? On Instagram?! Isn’t it supposed to be full of young hipsters sharing photos of their avocado toasts?
A 10:1 gap cannot be explained by different spending priorities of electoral campaigns, Russian bots and trolls or even the machinations of Cambridge Analytica. Something else must be going on. Just why are proponents of populist ideas so much more active on social media than their liberal counterparts?
In fact, they aren’t. 18-35s are still more active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube than 65+ retirees. College graduates still eclipse non-graduates online. City dwellers tend to share more on social medias than their rural cousins. The non-affiliated still post more than the devoutly religious. Social media should have been the perfect storm propelling Clinton and Remain to victory. Why wasn’t it?
The answer is that when populist voters post online, they post a lot more about politics than the general population. A much larger proportion of their posts cover political subjects than those of the average social media user, providing free advertising and promotion to populist candidates and ideas.
But why do they do that?
Two more observations help us get to the core of the matter.
First, according to the U.S. Economic Policy Institute, 85% of income growth since the financial crisis has accrued to the top 1% of income earners. Another boring statistic, you might say, and you would have been right before the age of social media.
Prior to 2000, the average person only interacted with a few dozen people on a regular basis: family, friends, colleagues, business partners etc. Thus, the growing income disparity might have slipped underneath most voters’ radar screens. ‘Oh, the dentist bought a new Mercedes,’ might have been all they would have noticed, especially since a lot of the newly created wealth aggregated in a few (mostly coastal) cities.
Now, however, the average person has about 350 Facebook friends. As a result, most of us receive daily insights into the lives of roughly 1-5 people that visibly benefited from the economic upturn since 2009. We see them frolick around on pristine beaches, dine at fancy restaurants, or travel the world in search of the next deal.
Their self-esteem balloons even further for every Like and Share they earn on social media. But human self-esteem is a curious thing: it is not measured against an absolute standard, but against other people. Feelings of inadequacy build amongst those left out of the bonanza as they watch others participating in it.
Depending on an individual’s nature, there is a positive and a negative way to rebalance one’s self-esteem when it has been affected by a perception of having received less than one’s fair share from the global economy.
The positive way is to find greater comfort within one’s inner self or from cherished relationships. Few things on social media provide testimony of the human ability to find meaning in each other than pictures of harmonious gatherings with friends and family. Human bonds even trump images of cute cats and dogs.
On the negative side, there’s a tendency to find validation in what Yuval Harari describes as imagined entities: belonging to a nation, a tribe, a religion, even a party. While being discouraged on most mass media, the sense of being ‘better’ than the Pole next door or the Muslim down the road thrives unchecked on social media. Nationalists and racists validate each others’ racist rantings with Likes, shares and comments, unimpressed by facts or opposing opinions, which are easily dismissed as ‘fake news.’
Anecdotally, lack of social validation was also diagnosed among (male) populist voters in Germany, who were found to have been disappointed in relationship matters. Comments of UK Leave voters are also instructive. Their motivation to exit the EU can be grouped in roughly three categories:
(1) Need for validation through an imagined identity (eg nationality, skin colour, beloved national candy brands)
- “So that we can go back to the way Britain was in the 50s.”
- “Because Muslim women will no longer be told by their husbands not to wear make-up.” (Caller to LBC)
- “Because the EU made them change Marathons to Snickers.” [That decision was taken by Mars, not the EU.]
- “Because they never vote for us in Eurovision.”
(2) Low self-esteem, feeling threatened by others and desire to bring down others:
- “It [Sunderland] already is [a giant jobcentre]. That’s why I voted Leave, to put everyone else in the shit like us.” (Twitter)
- “Because otherwise, 7 million Turks will come over here.”
- “To send them women in the headscarves back home. One of them stole my mother’s purse.”
- “Because I felt uncomfortable when a group of brown people got on the bus the other day.”
(3) an ignorance of basic facts, eg misattribution of causes:
- “Because the EU closed the coalmines.”
- “Because vaccines should not be mandatory.” [The EU has never passed any law making vaccination mandatory]
- “Because we are like Germany, and Germany isn’t in the EU.” [Germany was a founding member of the EU.]
- “Because if we stop all the immigrants using the NHS, it will work properly again.” [share of EU workers in NHS are higher than share of EU patients using NHS]
So, what can be done about hatred, bigotry, misinformation flourishing on social media, providing fertile ground to populists around the world? Can the self-reinforcing cycle of low self-esteem and validation based on imagined entities be broken?
For things to change, the real economy would have to deliver for those who feel left behind. Nationality, religion and other imagined entities would need to be replaced by real things or close personal relationships as sources of validation. Facts need to be put forward to disprove false arguments, or at least to seed enough doubt among populists to break their self-reinforcing cycle of validation. After all, it often only takes an online search disprove matters others are posting about with seemingly great confidence.
Can it be done?
Mark Zuckerberg’s professed goal of resolving Facebook’s issues around fake news, extremism, hate speech and other ills during 2018 indicate a growing awareness of the problem of online validation seeking, especially among populist supporters. Nevertheless, a lot of work has to be done not just to remove the fertiliser from the fields of populism, but to pull out its roots.