Social media energizes the export of American political culture
ARTHUR DO VAL just wanted to be someone. Acting legislator at the São Paulo regional assembly – with, as he boasts in his Twitter biography, the second highest number of votes of all the candidates – Mr do Val rose to fame by heckling left-handers on marches . He learned this tactic, he explains, from documentaries by Michael Moore, an American political filmmaker.
Mr. do Val has since grown into a talented and prolific producer of user-friendly content for the web. His team posts hundreds of images and video clips on social media every week. People want to be entertained, he argues, so politics should also be entertaining. Political arguments should be presented in funny memes and silly videos which, in Mr. do Val’s case, tend to focus on promoting economically liberal ideas and denigrating the left.
“I tried to be a rock star; I failed. I tried to be a fighter, an athlete; I failed. I was just a frustrated businessman. Then I saw on YouTube an opportunity to exploit my outrage, “he explains.” I just wanted to stand out, and by accident it got me into a political career. “
Mr. do Val’s rise from person-to-person to state deputy at the age of 32 was both improbable and impressive. But he embodies a new transnational class of political entrepreneurs who communicate through memes, videos and slogans. They tap into a global flow of ideas, adapt them to local conditions and send them back to the ether. Many are activists or ordinary people. Social media is their most important means of influence, both on their followers and on each other. The result is not only a new class of unorthodox politicians, but also the globalization of political ideas, many of which come from America.
American movies, television and music are loved everywhere. Its consumer brands are globally beaten. Its social media stars have global influence. As the most powerful country in the world, with enormous cultural reach, it has always had a huge impact on political trends and movements.
In 1990, Joseph Nye, a political scientist at Harvard, introduced the concept of “soft power,” which he defined as “the ability to affect others and achieve preferred results through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment “. Hollywood, pop music, McDonald’s and Levi’s jeans are all expressions of American soft power.
For many people beyond its shores, consuming these goods was as close as possible to sharing the American dream. When the first McDonald’s opened in Mumbai in 1996, thousands of Indians lined up to sample its legendary burger (albeit made without beef), replicating a scene from Moscow six years earlier. (The opening of a Starbucks in Mumbai ten years ago sparked a similar reaction.) Mumbai’s film industry, the world’s largest, is called “Bollywood” to emulate its Los Angeles counterpart. Nigeria has “Nollywood”, Pakistan “Lollywood”.
Even though McDonald’s and Hollywood contribute to growing obesity and unrealistic forensic expectations, for policymakers the important thing is that, as Mr. Nye puts it, “attracting others often gets you. what you want “. A fondness for American brands is positively correlated with a favorable opinion of the US government. What has changed is that the culture the country exports has broadened to encompass its politics. And in the age of social media, memes, not McDonald’s, are the primary vehicle for American cultural influence.
Take Brazil. Its political scene is teeming with YouTubers and Facebook influencers. These include supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the president; government critics like Felipe Neto, who rose to prominence by making videos for young people; and a large market of political content creators in between. “There is a lot of influence, even unconscious, of the [American] speech. What happens there comes here, ”says Mr. do Val, citing debates about face masks or race. It’s not as easy as copying and pasting American arguments, he warns. On the contrary, America provides the models that anyone, anywhere, can apply.
According to Whitney Phillips, a media researcher at Syracuse University in New York City, America’s role in shaping political debates does not come only from the standards it promotes. It also “stems from its cultural production – the real stuff of media and memes,” she writes in “You Are Here,” a new book examining global information flows. One of the reasons America’s influence is greater now, she says, is that “social media is global. And there are a lot more people outside of the United States who use Facebook than in the United States.
Black Lives Matter Sweeps Nigeria
Consider the issue of black lives (BLM) protests that erupted in America in 2020. They have inspired local versions everywhere, from South Korea, where there are very few people of African descent, to Nigeria, where there are very few people who are not. In Britain, where police usually do not carry firearms, a protester held up a sign saying “Demilitarize the Police”. In Hungary, where Africans represent less than 0.1% of the population, a town hall attempted to install a work of art in support of the BLM movement, only to win a reprimand from the prime minister’s office. Last year, the Hungarian government released a video stating: “All lives matter”.
QAnon, a conspiracy theory that pedophile cannibals rule America, began circulating in 2017. It has since gained a lot of followers outside of the United States. At a small QAnon protest in London last year, people carried signs that read ‘Stop protecting pedophiles’. In France, it is based on yellow vests (yellow vest) demonstrators. According to one estimate, Germany has the second highest number of QAnon followers in the world. The conspiracy theory has even spread to Japan, despite the country’s radically different political culture.
Cultural influence is not a one-way street. British political influencers enjoy a large following, including in America. The strange Canadian takes a look. Mr. do Val proudly indicates that the “Confused Woman” meme started in Brazil but is now widely distributed abroad. Yet few people know of his Brazilian origins. Brazilian movements – or any other – also don’t inspire similar memes around the world. The ability to influence the world, even indirectly, is proportional to the cultural weight of a country (see graph).
A big part of that is the work of social media. It amplifies new voices, accelerates the speed at which ideas spread, and expands the scale at which people and ideas can gain influence. But established newspapers and TV stations also retain immense influence, even online. CNN is the second most visited English language news site in the world, after the BBC. the New York Times is third. In November, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, complained to the newspaper about his coverage of a terrorist attack near Paris. Mr. Macron is not contacting all media about his coverage. But some 50 million people outside the United States, in every country on Earth, read the New York Times online. Of its 5.2 million digital subscribers, nearly a fifth are located outside the United States.
The media elsewhere are inspired by their American counterparts. According to the analysis of Kings College London (KCL), mentions of “culture wars” in the British press were once a quadrennial phenomenon, suggesting that they occurred in conjunction with the US presidential elections. But in recent years, the use of the term has exploded. “We imported the language of cultural wars into the UK basically, ”says Bobby Duffy, director of KCLInstitute of Politics.
Together, these factors help explain why QAnon gained worldwide fame, lockdown skepticism adopted American vocabulary, and BLM the protests have spread across the world. Just as people all over the world watch Hollywood movies, they also follow US newspapers, TV shows, and social media.
The same cannot be said of any other country. Take China. The protests in Hong Kong have generated sympathy and solidarity, but have not inspired similar protests. Not many people outside of China are enthusiastic about buying Huawei phones or shopping on Alibaba. TikTok, its only globally successful internet product, is split into a Chinese version – Douyin – and the version used elsewhere. The Great Chinese Firewall keeps the rest of the world out, but it also keeps Chinese ideas out.
In addition, the openness of American politics allows for easy appropriation of its symbols and iconography, explains Craig Hayden, professor of strategic studies at Marine Corps University in Virginia. Videos of riots in American streets are ostensibly expected to hurt the country’s standing in the world. Instead, people in other countries see unrest in Washington or Minneapolis and think America is “engaged in this kind of struggle that parallels ours,” he says. And America’s ambitious cachet makes its movements all the more powerful. “I can think of a random country somewhere that has internal racial conflicts; we don’t all retweet what’s going on there, ”he adds.
Uncle Sam’s digital megaphone
Just as political power in the age of social media has yielded to disruptors, so has the power to influence affairs in distant lands. Social media users in Minneapolis or Seattle can impact São Paulo Instagrammers. Arguments that start on New England college campuses migrate to Old England lounges. The Internet promised to help information circulate around the world. But social networks and their algorithms have just amplified America’s voice. ■
This article appeared in the international section of the print edition under the title “What is Japanese for QAnon?”