How a 19th century French thinker predicted the rise of Donald Trump
Published 09/09/2016 | 02:30
Picture this: it's July 21, 2016, and Donald Trump has taken to the stage to begin his presidential nominee acceptance speech. The atmosphere is intoxicatingly palpable: bright lights, chants, an abundance of Trump memorabilia. You can feel the energy pulsating from the live Twitter stream as you watch remotely on your phone, absorbed in the moment with the crowd. It is an experience at the cross-section of modern politics and the digital world, not to mention 19th century figure Gustav Le Bon.
In his much-vaunted 'Psychologie des Foules', Le Bon outlined his theory that individuals in crowds undergo a psychological transformation in which they become less rational, more impulsive and given to overly exaggerated feelings; feelings which have a habit of infectiously spreading across the group.
Fast track 121 years later and it remains a startlingly accurate template for political interactions in the 21st century. The difference today is that the fast, connected, anonymous digital world has mobilised the mob on a global scale and exaggerated its most tempestuous temperaments.
With global platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as aggregators like Reddit and 4chan, instant access to real-time news and political updates from across the world has created unlimited opportunities for people to unite around ideas in a virtual crowd.
After Trump's incendiary comments calling for a ban on Muslims entering the US, the backlash in UK news and social media was overwhelming; a petition calling for Trump to be banned from the country attracted 378,000 signatures and another successfully had him stripped of his honorary degree.
Despite people in the UK having no direct involvement in the US election, the virtual world has provided them with a platform to engage.
The influence of sophisticated algorithms on what news we see, channels us further into virtual crowds. Whilst the type of news people access has always, to a degree, been self-selecting, automated algorithms remove the conscious choice to avoid conflicting and challenging positions.
In doing so we are becoming more exposed to people like ourselves, making it easier to unite around shared viewpoints and block out those that disagree.
Analysis by Oxford statistician Emma Pierson on tweets about the US Ferguson shooting revealed conservatives and liberals operated as two highly distinct groups on Twitter. Whilst within these groups there was a dense level interaction, between them there was little, and where there was, it was largely adversarial and offensive.
As well as creating opportunities to participate in virtual crowds, the attributes of modern digital engagement support the transformation of individuals within them.
Le Bon believed even the most erudite become impressionable, impulsive and irresponsible in groups - qualities exaggerated by the social media environment.
The ubiquity of smartphones, and access to social media sites, has made it increasingly easy to pick up news, share posts, tweet and retweet on the fly.
By virtue of catchy hashtags and Twitter's 140-character constraint, these comments are often heavily simplified and binary too.
With this set up, it is unsurprising that in a YouGov poll in America last year, more than half of those surveyed said they regretted something they had posted on social media, with the biggest reason cited as not having given proper consideration to the post.
Coordinated trolling is a newly sinister twist to the online collective mentality. Anti-Trump delegates have received death threats from online trolls, whilst in the UK MP Stella Creasy was recently subjected to a barrage of rape threats on Twitter.
As well as falling victim, political leaders can be an engine for some of this less appetising group activity. In Le Bon's world, leaders influence the beliefs of crowds by presenting them with highly simplified messages and ideas.
In the modern age, social media has further facilitated this by providing platforms for politicians to share simplistic statements and images.
The downside is that these messages are often decontextualised and reduced to the type of hyperbole that fuels extreme sentiments.
Is it any surprise that, after the crude and divisive rhetoric of Trump, the Brexit campaign that anti-immigration sentiment in the UK and US is enjoying new highs?
There are a lot of old ideas that turned out to be wrong - plenty of Le Bons were pretty far off the mark - but crowd psychology wasn't one of them. In reality, crowds aren't all bad.
Le Bon recognised that they were capable and responsible for "the heroism that history is made [of]".
But we as participants need to be more cognisant of their trappings.
In the meantime, let's hope on November 8 it is individual reasoning that wins out at the ballot box in the US, not the mob's - despite some of the candidates' best attempts to encourage otherwise. (© Daily Telegraph, London)