Civic tech guru: Trump, Breitbart and populism are ‘the new normal’

Victor Fleurot [Victor Fleurot]

The election of Donald Trump in the United States, helped by the far-right opinion news site Breitbart, is not a one-off event, says Victor Fleurot, a communication expert and self-proclaimed “visual activist”, in an interview with Euractiv.com.

Victor Fleurot is the initiator of the social think tank 2084/, based in Berlin, the European hub for participative process tools.

He spoke with Christophe Leclercq, Euractiv’s founder, as part of the #Media4EU editorial series.

Populist movements like Brexit and the Trump campaign have been supported by far-right online opinion media like Breitbart in the US, which is now considering expanding in France. How significant is this trend in your view?

This trend is fundamental. The conditions have changed dramatically and permanently: “normality” will not be restored in the public debate. The pendulum is unhinged.

Brexit and Trump are not one-off events that will remain isolated. In fact, it may only be the beginning: the Overton window [the range of policy ideas the public will accept] is shifting fast. Faster than at any time since 1989, possibly 1945. What political leaders are saying today would have seemed outrageous two years ago and may seem mild in two years’ time.

Whether it’s populist parties that paved the way for Breitbart or the other way around is less critical than the fact that there is no turning back. The alliance of political and new media strategists against the establishment is a powerful one, and it’s here to stay.

What are the equivalents on the left side of the political spectrum? You attended the summer Campus of European Alternatives, and observed the rise of political movements like Podemos and Syriza. Could they become a major Europe-wide force by the 2019 elections?

Movements critical of unregulated capitalism from the Left have also benefited from the loss of credibility of the “moderate” political establishment since 2008. Their platform is more inclusive, universal and radical than right-wing populism – economically speaking.

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We can identify similarities between Podemos, Syriza, Corbyn and the Bernie Sanders campaign. In France, Mélenchon will probably have more and more influence on the 2017 campaign.

At European level, the people behind DiEM25, led by Varoufakis, are trying to connect the dots. Unlike Corbyn or Mélenchon, they boldly refuse to use nostalgia and national protectionism to reverse the course of history. Instead, they want to convince those tempted by nativist discourses that the answer lies in what they call a ‘Progressive International’ movement. They will certainly have a major impact on the 2019 elections if current polarisation trends continue or accelerate.

Paradoxically, right-wing populists – or nativists – have had more success with transnational digital networks. They are creating symbols, memes, slogans, videos against Islam and refugees that have gone viral in the last couple of years. This arsenal of tactical media content is easier to translate directly into repressive national policies than the Occupy-style vision of the left, which would require systemic reform beyond the ageing nation-state model.

But a counter-movement is taking shape on the left with innovative media networks, such as the one set up by European Alternatives. It brings together investigative journalists from Open Democracy, Roar Magazine, AthensLive and Krytyka Polityczna in Poland, among others.

Both traditional media and the ‘establishment’ criticise the lack of objectivity of radical ‘opinion media’. Are they in denial? What should national media groups be doing?

It feels like 2016 is the year when the digital revolution has finally hit the nervous centres of democratic power. Global media outlets spent years discussing the impact of blogs on serious journalism, the role of social media in the Arab Spring and in the Greek protests, the risks of cyber-attacks, etc. Now that the White House has fallen to anti-establishment insurgents, there is a survival instinct and a renewed urgency to talk about facts, opinion, fake news, filter bubbles and propaganda.

However, there is certainly also an element of denial. We cannot suddenly blame people for preferring entertaining formats, when the media have been pushing consumers in that direction for decades in search for ad revenues. How else can we understand the rise of “infomercials”? Radical ‘opinion media’ may be beating established media at their own game in a way, taking this trend of more entertainment to its logical post-truth conclusion in a re-politicised context.

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We should also respect audiences and not lump everyone together in the same basket. There are still serious investigative commentators in new media, and consumers who value independence and integrity. But the formats have changed. Is it really effective to lecture people on the independence and impartiality of traditional journalism when the owner of The Sun has bought the Wall Street Journal, when industrial giants control French dailies, and the founder of Amazon runs the Washington Post?

On the other hand, if quality media brands get involved in the ‘strong opinion’ game, would they lose their credibility and maybe even their supporters?

We must begin by asking: ‘who are their supporters and what do they value?’ Media brands must weigh the pros and cons of moving away from tradition towards novel formats, in order to remain attractive to new audiences. Chances are, their existing supporters will follow them — what other choice do they have?

If people want hard facts today, Wikipedia has a fiercely independent business model and the most advanced, crowd-sourced fact-checking system in the world. There are also public services like the BBC with a higher guarantee of independence.

If consumers want breaking news and opinion, they can shop around for formats that are attractive and easy to digest. For more challenging analysis, they may commit more personal effort and resources by supporting critical reporting they enjoy and trust. And people will keep looking for serious journalism in the right formats (podcasts, long reads, etc.).

Social media platforms and tech giants like Facebook and Google now publish media articles enlarging their footprint but also harvesting readers’ data. Is this the right strategy for the media?

This seems to be a very tough dilemma for traditional media: either you accept Facebook’s opaque algorithm and its arbitrary changes, or you give up on the most effective platform to reach and grow an audience for your content.

I don’t think Facebook will ever develop its own editorial team. It would probably be a mistake if they did. Platforms and content producers will always need each other, although the relationship may become more unequal until some form of regulation appears.

One way new ‘activist media’ operate is through direct donations, which create loyalty and a duty to fulfil their mission. They often stand out against the mainstream media by focusing on critical reporting and leaks. Leaks prove that facts still matter – especially critical and uncomfortable facts. We can turn the tables here: is the traditional media’s reluctance to publish leaks that may compromise their sponsors or national security an ‘a priori’ mentality? The Intercept has used the leaks approach quite effectively.

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Another strategic trend is to establish media brands across different platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.). This can help reduce the dependence on a single algorithm, such as relying on Facebook for boosting content reach.

Some studies have shown that Facebook uses a typical ‘addiction strategy’ when it comes to promoting pages and posts: you get fantastic reach the first few times you pay, but the cost of maintaining it increases over time. If you stop artificially boosting your content, your reach may even drop to levels below those of pages that never paid in the first place. This suggests that potential customers are more interesting than lost ones. The question is: is there a better, less addictive solution out there?

Finally, from an activist perspective, there is an additional ethical dilemma to consider when using Facebook: the very high risk, some argue certainty, that critical content and conversations are collected and used as part of a surveillance regime. Many may deem this acceptable under their current government, but maybe not during their next one.

Let’s now turn to cross-border exchanges of media content. Is there a potential for increasing their volume in the future? Are new formats like short videos, data journalism and mobile headlines more shareable transnationally than full articles?

As mentioned in the #Media4EU project, there are new tools that can help media content cross linguistic barriers, in particular, automated translation. It would also be interesting to see statistics on how much Facebook users in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland, Portugal etc. are already exposed to English language content (videos, memes, etc.) on a daily basis.

In any case, visual and mobile formats are highly shareable and can easily be subtitled. Even native English speakers are becoming comfortable with subtitles if the content is relevant to them and their interests. We can see the viral impact of videos made by AJ+, Channel 4 News, Now This and others.

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And there are new formats around the corner, such as video games and Virtual Reality (VR), that will be used to tell stories about social and political issues. Our visual activism platform 2084/ investigates and participates in such formats.

You define yourself as a ‘visual activist’ and you are under 35. You are probably aware of Ségolène Royal’s ‘Désir d’Avenir’ campaign in 2007, the Netscouade consultancy behind it, and software such as Nation Builder. Which tools do you believe will dominate the French and the German campaigns of 2017? And the European campaign of 2019?

Twitter, as an open space where ideas are formed and challenged, played a key role both in Brexit and in the US election. If Facebook is the industrial platform of mass distribution, Twitter is the R&D department where innovative ideas are developed by micro-communities of interest – more creative and active than networks of “real-life” acquaintances.

Furthermore, platforms like Reddit, 4chan and Imgur share the anonymity and virality potential of Twitter, but also act as incubators for emerging slogans and memes, especially in the visual sense. They have been used very effectively by the “anti-establishment” campaigns.

On the other hand, data analytics and community activation software programs like ‘Nation Builder’ provide campaigns with the tools to identify and analyse the distribution of potential support for specific policy proposals, to help them reach their supporters more effectively.

Data analysis and community activation are two connected yet different sets of expertise, which also require a more instinctive understanding of the perceived authenticity of your storytelling. Establishment politicians, whose records in office are now on display and open to public scrutiny, unsurprisingly have a harder time achieving this perception. That’s why ‘outsider’ candidates have a clear advantage. This trajectory concerning public perception highlights a brutal reversal of the value of experience, especially compared to the corporate world, in which work experience is becoming detrimental.

In my interview with the founder of Mediapart.fr, he declared that Europe’s survival depends on developing a more participative media. How would you organise an interactive process to re-launch the EU?

One fascinating example of this is the Icelandic experience of a crowd-sourced constitution, an amazing effort launched in 2009 by civil society movements with governmental support. At some point, 1,500 citizens (including 1,200 people randomly selected from the national registry) participated in 162 working groups to discuss the constitutional values and direction the country should follow after the crisis. Nevertheless, the results of this process were shelved by the new government after the 2013 elections and are currently in a legislative limbo, despite strong popular support.

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Proposing a similar participative process, a growing number of people are calling for a 6th République in France with a new, less presidential constitution.

However, even if multilingual hurdles could be overcome, I am not convinced that this approach could solve Europe’s crisis. The risk is to consider democracy as a purely technical process that can be improved using technology, without paying attention to communicating stories. Anti-establishment forces use public emotions, they use symbols that appeal to the imagination, even if it is on a nostalgic level.

Participative processes will only succeed in improving democratic life in Europe if an inspiring project arises to lead the EU into unchartered territory. Participation for participation’s sake under the supervision of the current institutions would fall short of opening such perspectives.

Berlin, where you live, has a vibrant ‘participative tech’ culture. What can other capitals learn from this city?

Berlin has been able to attract a wide range of activists and innovative thinkers, based on its complex history and relationship to corporate capitalism. Where else could you hold an international digital conference sponsored by Google talking about the company’s links to the NSA and government surveillance?

We recently had a workshop on video games and politics with high school students as part of the TeenageInterNetwork Convention (TINCON) launched by Tanja and Johnny Haeusler, a visionary event working on civic tech issues with tomorrow’s citizens. Leading US internet activists have also gathered in the city, from the founder of TOR Network to the director of Citizenfour. This is where DiEM25 had its launch this year and Wikileaks held their 10-year anniversary conference.

Berlin has also been an experimental battleground for testing the limits of representative democracy for civic tech and participation movements, with the spectacular rise and fall of the Pirates Party in the city parliament – from 15 to 0 MPs between 2011 and 2016.

Looking ahead, 2084/ will be launching Civic Game Jams in 2017 with local game developers and activists, in order to create interactive experiences on the urgent social and political questions of a post-Trump world. Similar initiatives are already taking place in Paris and Brussels: it’s up to local institutions, public and private, to give them more support, or simply some room to grow and experiment.

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