Rabble-rousing in the 21st century

A century ago, with Europe at war and his beloved Ireland struggling to break free from its dominant neighbour across the Irish Sea, William Butler Yeats was drawn to ponder demagogues, crowds, and the dangers they posed to civility and truth.

In their certainty, he said, those leaders of the crowd accuse people who are different of “base intent” while debasing “established honour” and claiming as fact “whatever their loose fantasy invent”. 

The politics and psychology Yeats describes – the slurs aimed at opponents and minorities, the tricks of language and rhetoric – are the same now as then. Rabble-rousing is as old as humanity.

Back then it was limited to street-corner speech and leaflets, often anonymous, but that would soon change. Radio lifted Adolf Hitler from obscurity to a national stage; television won a presidency for John Kennedy. With such technologies leaders could rapidly influence masses across nations, and beyond.

Lies, exaggeration and anonymity remain in the propaganda toolbox today, but the media of pamphlets and street speeches, even radio and TV, are past history. From bedrooms, bus stops and all manner of places, today’s rabble-rousers use keyboards and smartphones to attack their victims, often using the foulest of language, with virtual impunity.

It’s impossible for amateurs – most of us – to grasp the full extent of what’s happening in the public-private social media world. We develop our views and opinions oblivious of the intelligence, artificial and otherwise, that is at work manipulating our thinking. Clever technologies allowing us to keep in touch, pay bills, buy things, dig out information and conduct meetings without leaving home seem miraculous. But miracles come at a price.

Australian political operatives have always been quick to adopt leading-edge social media technologies, especially where there is advantage to be gained, as in the case of the Voice referendum. On this score the Yes and No campaigns were poles apart.

Intent on presenting a pleasant, welcoming front to the wider public, the Yes campaign was based on person-to-person communication, seeking to avoid social media sledging that has become commonplace at all levels of politics. 

But relying on goodwill against an active opposition was a foolish mistake. The No case came in a stock-standard negative form. Its operatives were careful to maintain plausible deniability while allowing a stream of misinformation about what the Voice might do – hit hip pockets, privilege few over many and so on – to pass uncontested. 

It got personal. When Indigenous leader Marcia Langton called out as racist and stupid a stream of social media slurs branding Aboriginal people as bludgers, thieves and liars, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton posted on Instagram a photo of Langton plus a comment that she had branded No voters as “racist, stupid”. 

Technologies widely used to lead people into dark places and rob people of their life savings readily lend themselves to upending a political campaign in the hands of experienced media players. The Yes campaign’s main failure was that it didn’t anticipate and counter this. 

We are yet to feel the worst effects of what is happening abroad, where in some situations, misuse of social media threatens lives. As with so much in modern life, the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States, offers up the most troubling evidence of this. Constitutionally-guaranteed free expression and vast dark money resources make the US exceptionally vulnerable to takeover by a strongman. 

Donald Trump is this century’s rabble-rouser-in-chief. In office he was the most powerful demagogue since Hitler; he will become the most powerful of all time next year if he wins office again. And the US will no longer be a democracy.

In 2020-21 Trump exposed multiple people to potential violence by online verbal assaults on election officials and others. Now facing multiple indictments, he is using social media to attack opponents including law enforcement officers, prosecutors, jurors, even judges and warn that they’re in danger – knowing there’s a good chance that someone, somewhere, will answer his call.

The Republicans have been transformed by Trump’s relentless pursuit of power from America’s party of patriotic conservatism into one of grievance, devoid of policy, belief or ideology, apparently hell-bent on destroying government institutions and damaging US foreign policy. That sorry state is highlighted by its current inability to choose a new House Speaker.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” wrote Yeats in 1920. Australia is far removed from that place. But with a substantial part of the body politic maintaining a careful ambiguity about Indigenous aspirations while offering nods and winks to lies and racist slurs, we are headed in that direction.

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