September 15, 2016

Moore’s Mobs: Technology and the New Populism

By Iain Whitaker, Assistant Director, Leadership Programs

Brexit may have surprised many, but it occurred against a backdrop of growing resentment toward mainstream politics across the western world. The drivers of this phenomenon are manifold and disputed although globalization, immigration, rapid social change, and political dysfunction are often the prime suspects. But as a source of both social and economic disruption, and as a platform for the elevation of popular grievances, the role of technology as a catalyst for this new wave of populism should not be discounted.

Technological advancements have always created losers who, like the Luddites of industrializing England, strike back against changes that appear to threaten their livelihood. But whereas labor saving advances have historically impacted single trades or industries, the rapid pace of today’s advancements touch virtually every part of the economy. This is the bleak assessment advanced by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford in Rise of the Robots. In the face of Moore’s Law – the exponential growth in computing power – alongside the advent of big data, 3D printing, and advanced robotics, an era of mass unemployment and social decay beckons, Ford believes.

Independent analyses give some credence to this prediction. A 2015 report by Boston Consulting Group predicted that up to a quarter of current US jobs could be replaced by either smart software or robots by 2025. Studies by Merrill Lynch and Oxford University produced similarly bleak assessments. It should be stressed that these lost jobs are not all of the repetitive, low-skilled variety that have fallen prey to robots in recent decades. Increasingly they are “white collar” jobs—attorneys, surgeons, and even, ironically, software developers—that were assumed to be too skilled to automate. For example automation, particularly the adoption of “e-discovery,” has contributed to the loss of around 31,000 jobs in the US legal sector alone in recent years. Technology also has enabled and accelerated that great political piñata, corporate offshoring.

Such trends, Ford contends, help explain why rates of long-term unemployment and underemployment – workers who are only able to get part-time jobs or work below their skill level – remain stubbornly high long after the economy officially recovered from the great recession. Further, technology has become the “main driver of the recent increases in inequality,” according to MIT professor of management Erik Brynjolfsson. In addition, the tech economy, he argues, disproportionately rewards a small group of individuals and is fashioning a new digital elite. Shrinking incomes, diminishing prospects, and class division are surely a recipe for an angry and resentful electorate, and fertile ground for the weeds of populism to bloom.

Beyond the role of automation in heightening economic insecurity, technologies of the information age are also transforming the tone of political discourse. Web-based communication platforms increasingly have a politicizing momentum of their own. In particular, social media is reshaping the relationship between citizens, politicians, and the democratic process in ways that appear to undermine the established order.

Social media’s power to engage young voters and build protests has been critical to some of the most important social movements of recent years, from Tahrir Square to #BlackLivesMatter. But the traits that have made social media so beneficial to protesters—its speed, accessibility, and personalization—have also served to level the democratic playing field between established, mainstream parties and those on the fringes.

As The Economist reported, very few of the social media stars of European politics are centrists. Ahead of the Brexit vote, for example, the average Facebook message posted by the United Kingdom Independence Party garnered around 4,000 “likes,” more than twice that of the governing Conservative Party. To a degree this phenomenon reflects how political messages are consumed in the social media age. In an oversaturated information marketplace, bold, controversial, or emotional judgments resonate over complex or reasoned arguments. This atmosphere favors the outsider or rabble-rouser who is more comfortable distilling the world’s problems into 140 characters.

An allied trend that appears to feed modern day populist sentiment is the increased personalization of internet content. Companies today make widespread use of algorithms, based on past viewing habits and other personal information they have gathered, to feed customized information to users. And just as websites think they know what you wish to buy, they also believe they know how you plan to vote. As evidenced by the recent firestorm over allegations that Facebook suppressed conservative viewpoints in its news feeds, social media platforms are powerful shapers of news consumption today. And they have a wide reach: according to Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Facebook users (or 41 percent of all US adults) get news from the site.

Financial Times US editor Gillian Tett has argued that this customization of information is contributing to a social “silo effect” wherein individuals are exposed to contrary viewpoints with decreasing regularity. Speaking at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2015, Tett argued that, just as silos undermine (often catastrophically) the success of corporations, so they also weaken societies by entrenching polarized opinions and reducing the likelihood of compromise. A siloed electorate is a tough audience for a centrist, consensus-seeking politician.

Technology alone is not responsible for the hardening of partisan divisions that have come to characterize modern politics, nor the elevation of populist arguments seen in the current US election campaign. These trends have been underway for decades, and reflect very human failures of policy. But we cannot assume that the massively disruptive power of modern technology will be politically benign. In the coming years, the existential challenge for centrists may be to articulate a response to tech-driven dislocation and divergence – without sounding like modern-day Luddites.

The Council will explore the recent surge of populist movements and the myriad ways they are changing the political landscape at a half-day symposium on Monday, October 24. Learn more.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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