Strongmen and social media
by Femi Olugbile
It took the unforgettable saga of Donald Trump to finally reveal to the world how powerful an instrument the social media could be in the hands of a strongman.
Who, one may ask, is a ‘strongman’?
With an eye on the practicalities of modern-day experience, and without recourse to any dictionary definition, a ‘strongman’ may be described as a leader of extreme views, left or right-wing, usually right-wing, who is imbued with such powers of ideological and nationalistic rhetoric that he is able to stir up the basest instincts and primordial sentiments of a large mass of the population and collate this into a dominant political force.
While strongmen often get into power on the back of democratic elections, by instinct they immediately proceed to subvert all the tenets of democratic institutions, using whatever instruments come to hand, including fear, lies, and brutal force.
In most cases, the mass of blind, passionate, ready-to-die supporters they create is substantially made up of poor citizens in whom a sense of grievance is readily stoked. But it invariably also includes a large proportion of well educated, financially comfortable citizens.
The grievance-driven followership is based on ideological and economic planks, and not exclusively on ethnicity.
Any strong-arm leader who does not meet these criteria, no matter how brutal his grip and how rapacious his reign is but a puny little ‘dictator’, and has not earned the ‘superior’ title of ‘strongman’. Hitler was a strongman. Sani Abacha was a dictator. Idi Amin was a dictator.
General Juan Peron ruled Argentina brutally for nine years before he was deposed and sent into exile in Spain. The thinking world made fun of Argentina because it allowed itself to be ruled by such a demagogic ‘jerk’. But so powerful was Peron’s grip on the psyche of the Argentine masses that eighteen years later, with millions of Argentines ready to die for him, he came back again to rule the country. He was the prototypical strongman.
The story of Peron helps to understand the psychology of how a limited, deceitful, even criminal Donald Trump still has such a large swathe of America in his pocket, several months after a disgraceful exit from the White House, and how it is not entirely beyond possibility that he may yet stage a comeback to take off where he left off.
It is instructive to look at a few examples.
Take Donald Trump. Here was a man whose typical day, after a mere four hours or less of sleep, began with a rash of tirades on Twitter directed at real or imagined enemies. It was a laughable habit at the beginning. It became a lethal preoccupation once he was in office. Presidents and Prime Ministers were eager to know what Trump said in his latest early-morning tweet, who he was firing, who he was hiring, who he was making and who he was destroying. International Markets rose or tumbled based on his tweets. The ultimate oxymoron – ‘alternative truth’ became accepted into the general lexicon. The values that separated good from bad in American society were shredded, and ‘men of God’ stood on the pulpit to proclaim lies which were avidly lapped up and defended to the death by ignorant rednecks, but also by well educated professionals. In the end, the Facebook and Twitter belatedly found the moral courage to ban Donald Trump and his accounts. The bans are yet to be lifted.
Take Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India. His party stands for a strong Indian nationalism, based essentially on the ethos and identity of its Hindu majority. He has been widely criticized for lack of compassion in his party’s attitude towards ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslims and Sikhs. However, his push for a strong, even aggressive India has resonated with a large swathe of his countrymen. His ‘Make In India’ campaign and his tough militaristic line against Pakistan have galvanized the Indian diaspora and created a sense of pride in many Indians. He shows the strongman’s tendency to play loose with facts and to deny uncomfortable reality. Strangely, because of the economic interests of companies such as Facebook in the Indian market, Modi is able to twist their arms to do his bidding. Recently his government forced Facebook to take down a #ResignModi campaign. It was only after the move elicited loud howls of protest from all over the world that the #ResignModi page was reinstated. Modi’s party has used Facebook to propagate its message, some of which is classifiable as ‘Hate Speech’. It regularly tries to get Facebook to block posts from Indians critical of the government’s incompetent handling of COVID19, which has led to a renewed wave that is taking a heavy toll on Indian lives.
From the left-wing, there is President Madura of Venezuela. Like every strong man, he is loved and hated passionately by almost equal numbers of his countrymen. He strives daily to control the social media in Venezuela, arresting people who criticize the government, at the same time using social media to disseminate disinformation to his people and the world at large.
It is possible to go on and on in this vein. President Bolsonaro in Brazil. President Duterte in Philippines. Comrade Xi Jinping in China deleting key words in real time from social media broadcasts. And – oh- President Putin in Moscow with his army of bots and paid hackers, trying to influence elections in favour of strongmen elsewhere in the world through lies disseminated on the social media.
A final word. Strongmen are often disparaged by intellectuals, especially the ‘liberal-democrats’. Part of their strength lies in the fact that they are underrated, until they take power. Strongmen often have a case, and a cause. Often the case is overstated, the cause is unbalanced, and the argument, though emotionally charged, is faulty when the detail is scrutinised. Their recent ascendancy in different parts of the world is ‘a sign of the times’.
Hopefully those times will pass, and the world will come back to gentler, more civil interaction between human beings. Social media, the double-edged sword in the hand of the strongman, may yet play a big role in taking down these dinosaurs and ushering in happier times.
But that day is not yet here.