By Andrew Gula
Information Technology and Populism in Democratic Elections
The way we consume information and share stories today is rapidly evolving. With the rise of information technologies and social media, people have access to unfiltered content that is constantly being deconstructed and reconstructed across the internet. Our understanding of the “truth” continues to take on new meaning, especially in the political sphere.
In this new reality, politicians can gain power in a democratic society by manipulating small details in their favour, inconspicuously. How? With tools such as Facebook and Twitter, candidates can appeal to values and beliefs popular with the masses (i.e. diversity, inclusion) and explain any complex problem (i.e. immigration) with simple and visually appealing content (i.e. graphics, blogs, videos). Social media algorithms and feeds act as echo chambers, mining our data to provide us specific material that will provoke a reaction. For all intents and purposes, politicians are listening to the interests of ordinary people, but aligning them towards their own personal goals. It is a winning formula— clear, easily replicable and because of its emotional appeal, highly effective.
Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart discuss this growing trend towards authoritarian populism in their seminal work Cultural Backlash. In it they conclude that populism undermines public confidence in the legitimacy of liberal democracy while authoritarianism actively corrodes its principles and practices.
The 2019 Ukrainian presidential election serves as another example of this new age approach to winning in elections. Information technologies and populism played a pivotal role in the way things unfolded in Ukraine’s politics. The surprising end result has far-reaching implications not only for the future of Ukraine but for voters in other countries such as Canada, where the federal elections are fast approaching on October 21 this year.
Surprising Outcome of the Ukrainian Elections
Earlier this year in April, Ukraine elected Volodymyr Zelenskyi as their newest president, ousting the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko. In a landslide victory, Zelenskyi garnered 73.4% of the vote.
Why is this significant? Zelenskyi is a former actor and comedian with zero political experience other than playing the role of president in a TV series, Servant of the People (Слуга Народa). In the show, he plays a teacher unexpectedly elected to the country’s highest office after an angry rant about corruption is posted online by his students.
During his campaign, Zelenskyi relied exclusively on viral videos, standup comedy gigs and jokes, while offering almost no information about his policies or plans for the presidency. Not necessarily a traditional approach. As Dodonova argues, out of essentially nothing, a showman won the election; eerily reminiscent of the situation in the United States.
How was this possible? Well, a lot of it had to do with circumstances. As any well-informed Ukrainian-Canadian (like myself or anyone I spoke to) will tell you, there is a lot of political instability in Ukraine. It is facing a number of challenges from a struggling economy to an ongoing war against Russia-backed separatist forces in the east, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives. After the Maidan revolution in 2014, the incumbent Poroshenko promised Ukrainians that they would “live in a new way.” Unfortunately, he failed to implement most of his election promises.
Fed up Ukrainian voters were susceptible to the promise of something different. While presidential candidate Zelenskyi didn’t detail how he would modernize the nation and eliminate corruption, through his television (fictional) performances, Zelenskyi had ironically gained a new level of credibility and appeal among the masses. Subconsciously, Ukrainians applied the ideals and virtues of his on-screen character in Servant of the People to his real persona.
Through vivid shared online content, Zelenskyi successfully spoke to the emotions of the public rather than presenting them with dry facts (and hoping that people would interpret them correctly). The more this content was shared, the more the level of trust in it and the candidate increased.
Drawing Parallels in Canada
So what lessons can we take for Canada? While we are not facing the same level of political uncertainty here as in Ukraine, there are a number of pressing issues including affordability and the environment. When Canadians go to vote on October 21 in Canada’s 43rd federal elections, they will have more than a few candidates offering solutions and promises. All eyes however will be on the incumbent prime minister.
In many ways, Trudeau is reminiscent of Zelenskyi. Both had unconventional careers before stepping into politics—Zelenskyi a comedian, Trudeau a drama teacher at West Point Grey. Four years ago, Trudeau was also swept into power by younger Canadians in a historic victory promising real change. Despite his relative lack of experience, people saw him as the new young face of Canadian politics, a break from Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
What made him so appealing? Populist rhetoric. Among other things, Trudeau promised to legalize recreational cannabis, bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees and overhaul Canada’s electoral system. He built himself up as someone who really cared about the interests of the ordinary people. But when you set such a high standard for yourself as a public leader, you have to live up to it. Otherwise, people will quickly notice the hypocrisy.
Trudeau is no longer an unknown. Despite his accomplishments, he has a track record filled with scandals and controversies, including his trip to Aga Khan’s island and more recently his handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. While every political candidate has their share of indiscretions, Trudeau’s stand out more than most due to his famous last name and reputation as the internet’s “boyfriend.” This is especially important now because information technologies will play a big role in these elections—experts claim that social media will be the new battleground for power.
Just like in Ukraine, other candidates in the opposition and digital advocacy groups will dissect Trudeau for his failings with emotionally-charged content, from internet memes to mocking videos. One of these groups, Canada Proud, regularly packages material that receives upwards of a million online shares, reactions and comments each week— more than some of Canada’s top mainstream news outlets.
Reputation and Image Control?
According to political strategist and commentator Alex Marland’s award-winning book Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, Trudeau could try focusing on disciplined communications—repeating a simple and precise message on what he plans to do if re-elected. For example, a staple of his 2015 campaign was gender equality. If he plays into the topics of affordability, healthcare, taxes, and climate change — the central issues in this election — he might undo the damage to his reputation. Then again, some voters might think that the Liberals are spending too much energy in one area or not doing enough. The most current poll data (keeping in mind margin of error) suggests the latter, with the Conservatives holding a narrow edge today.