Global Global Policy Studies & International Security Politics and Governance

The Social Media Era of Political Culture: The Case Study of Iceland

Caption: Icelandic Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson baking a cake in an oft-mocked campaign ad. Source: Nútíminn

While the United States is still reeling from a 2016 election campaign besmirched by online hatred and international interference, the small island nation of Iceland proves that even countries without raucous political cultures are not immune from the pervasive effects of social media.

The polarization and sensationalism that plagues  U.S. politics of late is not a unique product of innate qualities Americans possess or even the behavior of its media. Rather, these trends reflect a global digital culture that is wreaking havoc on political systems worldwide, regardless of how prone they were previously to division and distraction. Social media  has  a tremendous impact on political landscapes: politicians and parties have new, easy ways to draw attention to themselves; advertising is more pervasive and has lower standards; and there are fewer and less stringent barriers to entry into public political discourse.

I think the universality of the power of social media on politics is well illustrated by my home country of Iceland, given its traditionally subdued political culture – a result of the low stakes of a small, peaceful society. Icelanders are extremely knowledgeable in, and focus on, mundane issues of policy. Debates typically surround topics such as specific tax exemptions, regulations surrounding fishing quotas, and how the government chooses to invest the country’s pension fund. This election season feels very different, as the focus has shifted from policies to scandals and from parties to their leaders.

The sitting Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, has been hurt by two major scandals in the span of two months. First, his governing coalition collapsed after a complicated saga involving a convicted pedophile, Benediktsson’s father, and a law premised on an archaic notion of ‘honor.’ A second scandal then surfaced: while serving in the parliament’s economy and tax committee in 2008, Benediktsson sold his personal bank assets hours before the government nationalized the bank they were held in. The prime minister was elected despite a previously scandal-wrought career, but the polls indicate that this election could be different. Support for Benediktsson’s Independence Party (the ‘natural ruling party of Iceland’) shrunk from 29% in July to under 20% in October.

My inkling is that this decline in support is not because these new scandals are seen as more detestable than earlier ones, but because Benediktsson has been relentlessly mocked this election season at the expense of nearly all other discussion of his party. Why is Benediktsson, who in 2015 was found to have an Ashley Madison account with the nickname ‘Icehot1,’ only being subject to this treatment now? Because Iceland’s online political discourse has completed its shift from well-reasoned blog posts to short quips on Twitter and Facebook. News has become consumed in the same place as social interests, sports results, and recipes, and it is using brevity, humor, and extremism to compete for attention.

This campaign season, almost all parties are using social media as a key strategy. The Social Democrats  are doing so most explicitly, naming comedian and ex-mayor of Reykjavik Jón Gnarr as their campaign manager. Gnarr’s contributions seem largely limited to his Twitter feed, where he has increasingly focused on mocking politicians in other parties. Other political actors are using social media  to advertise outlandish claims. Former PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson  started a new political party in an attempt to resurrect his political career, and one of his main efforts has been a series of sponsored anti-establishment Facebook posts wherein he blamed his demise as PM on the manipulations of George Soros (a common target of late for far-right politicians across Europe). A finance newspaper with a conservative bent was found to be muddying the waters using a similar tactic – sponsoring anonymous content on Facebook that smears frontrunning candidate Katrín Jakóbsdóttir of the Left-Green Party.

Extremism of a variety unique to the Internet era has also been shaking up Iceland’s party landscape. The Peoples’ Party has emerged as a new populist right-wing challenger in this election, headed by a nationally renowned singer who has described herself as “probably a Marine Le Pen type.” The party has seen some success in the polls after being the only major party to vocally oppose immigration – a viewpoint in Iceland that previously was largely confined to internet comment sections.

Many of these themes probably sound familiar, but America is different: the stakes of its internal political rumblings are very high for people across the world, hence why Russian Twitter bots and e-mail hackers sought to make a deep imprint on the 2016 election. Journalists found Twitter a great tool to break news, but unlike ever before, they have mixed their reporting with their opinions, making them biased perpetrators of fake news. Those who are skeptical of Donald Trump’s use of Twitter as a soapbox for name-calling and the airing of personal grievances should demand more of other politicians – most have followed the President’s example instead of letting his use of social media stand out. When posting on social media, users should give some thought to writing in long form so others more fully understand the basis of judgment and opinion. Users should make cases to others one-on-one so that society can understand the terms of agreement past a like or retweet, and the terms of disagreement past a flame war or unfollow.

The solution seems clear: we must reclaim our political discourse from the depths of our social media timelines. We should demand more from media and politicians. We should all hold ourselves accountable. We aren’t just tweeting into the void; we’re partaking in a conversation.

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