“People here will tell you that social media is democratic. It is not: social media is incapable of building new structures for democracy.” Andrew Keen stunned the audience at a conference on Wednesday (2 April), which dealt with social media use in European political campaigning. He explains his views to EurActiv.
Andrew Keen is an entrepreneur, technology commentator and author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture, a book that is critical of online participation, or Web 2.0’. He spoke to EurActiv reporter Laurens Cerulus.
You rallied against much of the conventional wisdom on how the Internet can open up democracy to voter participation, dubbed ‘e-democracy’. What is your core argument against this?
What we should remember is that social media is deeply anti-social. It is self-centred. When it comes to being informed, we select to be exposed to what we already endorse – what [Internet activist] Eli Pariser called the ‘filter bubble’.
In fact, there is very little interaction on the Internet; it is more of a mirror that people use to glorify themselves. The ‘selfie’ is a clear illustration of this.
We’ve been hearing about the fact that social media will lead to more democracy, but it hasn’t. It is incapable of building new structures of democracy. That is the challenge: how to change this [online environment] into tools that can really create political organisation?
Another aspect is that social media does away with past and future: everything takes place in the present. This is a challenge to politics, because you have an electorate that is suffering from a kind of amnesia. And so the challenge is to always be in the now.
The EU institutions and many of the European political campaigns have put forward social media strategies to boost voter turnout. Will it help?
The reason people don’t vote is that the EU is so boring and irrelevant to people’s lives. So if you put it on social media, people will simply switch you off.
There is nothing magical about social media use. Something that is boring and irrelevant can’t suddenly be made interesting and relevant. In my view, the reason people don’t vote is because they don’t care.
In social media, there is a sweet spot: to be exposed to a personalised version of the universe. And EU politics – slow, bureaucratised and highly technical in its debates – is the ultimate social media turnoff.
Every institution can create its own social media account… So what? They can be on Facebook, on Twitter or on Vine, but it won’t get people to vote. Ten years ago, the story was "have email." Now, it is tweet, go on Facebook. But those aren’t solutions, because you reach a tiny proportion of people, and the institutions aren’t even popular on these networks.
The European Parliament has one million followers on Facebook. You don’t believe this helps their outreach?
No, it shows its irrelevance. What are people doing on facebook? They’re networking with their friends; they’re boasting selfies; they’re getting advice on where to eat. When people follow the European Union, it is like following [tennis star] Maria Sharapova or [football star] Lionel Messi.
These are just brand. It is irrelevant to the way that politics works. So having 1 million followers is exactly the kind of figure that is completely irrelevant, and that is used by the marketing people to justify their investment in social media.
The real issue is that people aren’t voting – that people don’t care. What would be really interesting is to see how many of those one million followers go out and vote.
Populists do a better job at getting media attention, and are perceived to be “less boring” because they shy away from nuance and compromise. Is social media their platform, then?
Absolutely. Marine Le Pen, Beppe Grillo or Nigel Farage. Those are politicians who can use social media very successfully.
Grillo is particularly interesting. He has a strong identity, linked to his personality. He doesn’t give press interviews, and is incredibly mysterious.
Beppe Grillo epitomises the kind of politician who can win in a social media environment. The kind who are carefully reinvented as brands. And who are marketing a simple idea, like Islamophobia, leaving the EU, or burning the establishment. Anything beyond that is very hard to represent in social media.
Does social media help or hurt public debate?
I think it is too easy to blame social media for the decline in public debate. It reflects something much more profound: the fragmentation and individualisation of life. The Internet is both a cause and consequence of that.
You can’t see the Internet as a cause of this problem. It is a mirror; a reflection of the change in society and of the way that politics is changing.
I think the biggest crisis is one of the old political establishment, namely the inability to resonate with the social media generation. It is due to the inability of the old elites to come up with a message and a version of the world that can reach people.
On the other hand, the thing that is reaching people that is so damn destructive. Many popular movements – the Le Pens, the Grillos, the Farages – are deeply anti-establishment. Then, they grab power and become the establishment and so we end up in a destructive cycle.
I think the challenge for progressives in the 21st century is to figure out a way to incorporate a respect for the establishment and for political expertise, and authority, into the world view [of citizens]. That needs to happen, because otherwise we’re in an age of continuous destruction and atomisation.