The Personal Is (Again) Political

15. 3. 2017

Personalized communication channels make it possible for the politicians to express an opinion “off the record.” They try to counter the unprecedented collapse of trust in “the system.”

The title recycles a feminist slogan. In her famous text, Carol Hanisch (1969/1970) opposes the possible therapeutic strategies to overcome individual traumas to the fight for changing society, where personal emotions, passions, and even sexuality become a political battleground. Such need to replace the public persona by a feeling body is usually seen at times of trouble in the modern world: sentimentalism, romanticism, nationalism, the radicalisms of the early 20th, the hippie movement, etc. The rise of the digital world, upsetting territorial belongings and social hierarchies, has injected an even stronger portion of emotions into public life. Being accessible, human, passionate, and impulsive has become a certificate for authenticity.

There are various ways to personalize politics through the new technologies. Let us start with the famous Blackberry of Obama, through which he was supposed to communicate with ordinary Americans and which, after his election, retained a purely symbolic function as, for reasons of security, only a dozen of people are allowed to be in direct contact with him (they were supplied with special devices by the security services). In-between, the president maintains a humble Facebook page in an informal and elliptic digital style. For instance, a post saying “Family”is followed by a relaxed picture of him, hugging his two daughters. Comment: “I wanna be like you, sir!” After a while in another post the president will chose to promote real political issues: a poster supporting #obamacare, with the laconic appeal: “Share.” His wife’s page seems less sophisticated. “How many smiles for this beautiful smile?” over the photo of Michelle, smiling beautifully.

Of course, there are cultural variations. Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan congratulates the national football team and passes on good wishes to religious communities. Governor Sarah Palin floods the followers of her page with thanks, blessings, and various raptures. Vladimir Putin, not unlike “The British Monarchy” page, presents us dull press releases of official activities. Nevertheless, if the Russian president curiously provokes a 100% positive feedback, the British Crown still allows for some spontaneous reactions on its wall like “would have been there but had to go to the food bank…” after the announcement of a royal dinner at Buckingham palace. As to Shashi Tharoor, referred to as the “Twitter Minister” (of human resource development), his tweet flow presents photos of him at cultural tourism sites, followed by quotations from prestigious authors, then ideas on India’s future. In short, he creates the character of a cultivated, caring, and competent Indian intellectual.

Personalized communication channels make it possible for the politician to express an opinion “off the record,”to simulate truthfulness by transgressing stiff regulations of protocol. Thus Putin spontaneously bursts out in indignation at some US law, supposedly legalizing pedophilia, then expresses undue human bias for the Olympics in Sochi, that so many Russians, like himself, are proud of. Of course, the simulation of personal presence is a matter of sophisticated balances. Confidences need to suit the temperament in order to convince. Bulgarian right-wing opposition leader Boyko Borissov informs us about the condition of his knee, contused during a football match, then complains that doctors will have to use splints to fix it (“How lucky you have such a strong will, you will need it to recover” comments a polit-fan). Obviously such details would not act as “personal touch” for a leader like Angela Merkel, who practically never speaks of her personal life, God forbid her body. It goes without saying that the hosts of the publications (i.e. his/her team manages) carefully manage reactions by filtering and guiding of the discussion.

What Are Those Politicians Reacting To?

They try to counter the unprecedented collapse of trust in “the system.” Among the reasons for the crisis: excusing of the paralysis of political power by globalization. The rising social differences at the expense of the middle classes. The replacement of majoritarian democracy by a sort of post-democracy (Crouch, 2004), where small, well-organized, vociferous groups attract media attention. The new revolt of the digital masses that invade journalism, science, litera- ture, public debate. The internet, wrote Pierre Rosanvallon, is not merely a tool for doing politics: it is the shape that counter-democracy takes to counter growing mistrust towards authorities through a “spontaneous adaptation to the functions of vigilance, denunciation, and evaluation by the citizens”; we can thus regard it as “a true political form” (Rosanvallon, 2008: 70).

Trust is generated through opposing power. Besides rational forms of “sousveillance” (surveillance from below, Fr.) like blocking of political decisions, leaking of information, or signing of petitions, the web has become a theatre of passions. The curious success of Stephane Hessel’s pamphlet “Get angry!” (Hessel 2010) is telling: it made millions of sales in over 100 countries and influenced the Spanish “Los Indignados,” then “Occupy.” Few people really entered deep into this 92-year-old diplomat’s arguments about resistance during WW2, or the plight of Palestinians; what mattered was the call to outrage. And it is pure outrage that was at the center of social movements in the last couple of years: small causes produced almost civil wars in Sao Paolo and Istanbul, or pure destruction with no demand whatsoever, as in Paris and London. During the series of anti-government movements in Bulgaria, 2013, protesters repeated that it was the absence of leaders, programs and concrete grievances that made them invincible, as it made it impossible for the authorities to give in and thus quench discontent. As in Spain and the USA earlier, this naive idea made them last but not succeed; nevertheless the argumentation is worth considering. A genuine social movement is one that does not have a rational strategy (no “scenario”); it goes back to the etymological link between “emotion” and “emeute” (“uprising”, French, setting people in motion).

For two years, I have observed the emergence of a new type of cyber-agitator on the Bulgarian Facebook. The users I observed were selected according to activity, considerable number of fiends, and prevailing topics of public interest: journalists, NGO-people, former or future politicians, academics, informed citizens, students; their online activism has made them regularly present in the traditional media and in some new party formations.

The main genre of citizen’s indignation has moved from public speech to editorial, from manifesto to personal blog. At present, it seems to be embodied in the Facebook post and Tweet, where a link to someone else’s message is forwarded, usually with a short, passionate comment, intensifying the meaning, or else turning it upside down, possibly with an attached photo, etc. (“convergence culture,”Jenkins 2006). The comments and “likes” of other users act like an objectively measurable applause: they also help it survive the instant of posting, as every new reaction is transmitted by a visual and sound signal to those, who already liked or commented it. Its viral quality to be resend or retweeted boasts the digital ego of the author; at any stage of the process he/she acquires new friends and followers, which seems to be the ultimate goal of the exercise, especially for users with public ambitions.

Famous people that have a guaranteed digital suite, tend to produce original content, where as new pretenders tend to forward content produced by others by adding personal attitude. Thus they parasitize on prestigious sources of information, but are also able to produce more postings. Because, unlike the traditional libraries, on platforms like Facebook or Twitter the last entry pushes into the background the former ones, making it thus necessary for the user to be present all the time. Andrew Keen called this “the law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and most opinionated” (Keen 2007: 15).

Impulsiveness, speed, passionate bias— this makes the cyber-agitator seemingly authentic, as the main suspicion we have about the web (if not about the global world as such) is that invisible players are pulling the strings behind the stages. Emotional reactions forward you to the forestage, by replacing the plotting subject by the feeling body. The style of posts adds to the feeling of spontaneity with orthographic errors made out of hurrying, emoticons, punctuations like five exclamation marks, but also familiarity and rude group jargon (former PM becomes “Pumpkin,” the present one Orecharsky is renamed to “Oligarchsky,” a contested corpulent deputy is represented as a pig…).

In fact, the proportion of positive to negative messages, as counted by students of mine is less than 1:20; attacking enemies is systematically preferred to praising friends. On one side, this seems to be due to the overall folklore-like aspect of the web, where the new digital masses tend to ridicule and reject elites of any sort. On the other, there is a semiotic reflex that the media-world has cultivated in us: positive messages tend to be seen as ads, hatred is for free. I do not mean this in terms of psychology, which distinguishes primary from socially constructed feelings, but rather as a sort of distinction between ways to generate trust in different fields. When you speak of animals, you are authentic if you show tenderness; of politicians say nothing unless bad. “The web demystifies the hidden scenario, this is its primary function” I was told by one digital leader.

The most intricate aspect of the new digital leadership is the imperative of amateurism. The influential cyber-agitators I observed are, as I said, mostly professionals, nevertheless they create their online character by avoiding systematically overstating their expertise. One of the NGO presidents observed had no more than 1 in 10 posts informing about her concrete projects, as she was afraid to put off here Facebook “friends” by instrumentalizing the network. She also runs an institutional site with activities, invitations, documents, etc., but it seems rather dead. “Dynamics are different” she said, “personalized messages are much more influential.”The fear to be identified as “professional citizens” paid for by foreign sponsors is, in between, very vivid in Bulgaria; in Russia a recent law obliges abroad-funded NGOs need to declare themselves as “foreign agents.”

We trust amateurs because they are “digitalized version of Rousseau’s noble savage” (Keen 2007: 36), and one way to fake amateurism is to spend more time and energy on matters of personal interest, react naively outside of one’s sphere of competence. But it would be wrong to think that digital intimacy is something spontaneous. People are extremely conscious about the image they produce—the music they will recommend, the sites they will follow. In the interviews I conducted, this turned out to be a real problem, especially for younger users, who were afraid not to deceive their network. The generalized surveillance in the digital world transforms the tiniest lifestyle detail into a political statement, the same way communist control over consumption transformed wearing blue-jeans into an act of dissidence. You thus feel obliged to “like” the type of music that fits your digital image (folklore for a nationalist, opera for a hereditary conservative…) even if you do not actually listen to it in real life.

The trust in the digital leader—your intangible friend who connects you to the daily information flow—can easily acquire a socio-political dimension. During the nuclear referendum in 2012 those human hubs spontaneously (?) changed their Facebook icons to “yes” or “no”; in 2013 some adopted symbols of mourning for the young person, who immolated himself in protest against the political system, later, of solidarity with the protesting students in Sofia. Again, dosage is essential here, as the suspicion of interested use of the web is what most radically destroys trust: real political engagement should be seriously diluted by the stream of digital consciousness made up of consumer concerns, shocking pictures, congratulations of friends, intriguing news articles, etc.

It is the specter of money that overshadows public trust. The deinstitutionalized type of interaction, anonymity, distance, speed, they make it difficult to judge whether the interlocutor is paid for what he/she says. According to estimations between 10 and 35% of consumer evaluations in the US are fake, the highest being in the sphere of book sales, where the author can buy them wholesale on specific sites. There is no reliable data about political usage of fake postings, nevertheless it is an issue that is constantly debated in Bulgaria. In fact, a constant suspicions accompanies even offline activities like demonstrations or occupations: are those real citizens or are they paid for by some backstage “script writer”?

One way to reestablish a minimum of trust by cyber-leaders of public opinion is to put forward the spontaneous, incontrollable, irrational private “me.” Of course, the latter is but a cultural- historical convention; as Arlie Hochschild wrote “acts of emotion management are not simply private acts; they are used in exchanges under the guidance of feeling rules. Feeling rules are standards used in emotional conversation” (Hochschild 2003: 18). The ascent of the digital leader in pajamas seems to be, in this perspective, a new standard that aims at making up for the decline of public personae.

Ivaylo Ditchev

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, Bulgaria. He has been teaching abroad, mainly in France and the USA. He is also an editor of the journal for cultural studies Seminar BG.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.