Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of globalization has made promises of prosperity, and the advent of the internet has provided hope for democratization.
But while globalization has made the world wealthier and decreased poverty, it has also left many behind. Likewise, while the web has made societies more open, it has also increased instability. This openness has benefited many communities, but it has also keyed up growing tensions between elites and populists. If this discord continues, it could pave the way for more equitable economic systems—or tailspin into more unrest and global instability.
At no other point in history have the underclasses of society better understood how the wealthy live. The chimera of life’s material desires is everywhere thanks to the prismatic filters of Instagram and Snapchat. They range from the infinitely absurd—stacks of cash on yachts moored in Monaco—to the mundane made exotic, like lattes sprinkled with gold flakes. This is the currency of social media: the privilege of enviable experience hoarded by the already rich and influential.
Take, for example, the civil war raging in Syria. In 2013, while the country was torn apart by bombshells and marauding factions in pick-up trucks, wealthy teenagers partied to house music not far from Damascus in the beach town of Latakia, swimming and taking selfies.
Their images became digitally imprinted as the “Rich Kids of The Internet.” While they were posting images of themselves frolicking in sun-streaked opulence, grainy YouTube videos of people finding shelter in the barrage of shellings were making headlines in a different corner of the web. It’s an unalloyed contrast between privilege and survival.
“Any person can see how the other side lives,” said the former president of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, at the Global Baku Forum in March. “For a long time, the stability of the societies was due to the fact that there was a public face of power—a public face of wealth.” What is concerning, according to her, isn’t just the “level of glitziness, of glamor, of power, and wealth that others are often displaying in a rather tasteless and ostentatious way,” but the degree to which disparities are externalized and made worse by a connected world. Globalization was supposed to level the playing field, not make superstars out of some players.
In this ever-more interconnected society, the internet has made the world flat, thereby exposing the inequality in wealth and human experience. It was economist Thomas Friedman who first described this flattened world in the early aughts, saying it was a result of innovation “without emigration,” as well as the potency of the internet and technology. The tools for creative destruction were now in everyone’s hands—opportunity was everywhere.
In 2005, venture capitalist and internet entrepreneur Marc Andreessen chimed in, reaffirming that “today, the most profound thing to me is the fact that a 14-year-old in Romania or Bangalore or the Soviet Union or Vietnam has all the information, all the tools, all the software easily available to apply knowledge however they want.” Nearly 15 years later, that same inequality-unmasking technology has lifted the lid on an old political movement: populism.
Social media as a catalyst for movements and populism
Exposure to the internet has given rise to a world interpreted through filters, where the lenses are distorted and often exaggerated. For the less fortunate, the social media display of neighbors vacationing in exotic locations gives rise to envy and resentment; images of parades of private jets in Davos this past year take this natural response to whole new heights.
The internet has come to display the perks and rewards of economic status. With inequality now staring us in the face via our phone screens, this transparency materializes as social uprising, often precipitated through hashtags and social media groups. It has helped spark revolutions like the Arab Spring, movements like Occupy Wall Street, and more recently the yellow vest protests in France.
Whether we approve or not, the internet is also globalizing populism. The web emboldens left- and right-wing leaders as they play emotions “like a violin,” as Vike-Freiberga noted at Baku. India’s Narendra Modi, for instance, used Twitter to galvanize supporters and sidestep his own party, and the recent president-elect of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a comedian-turned-politician whose YouTube videos numbered more than his appearances at rallies.
The right-wing populists are playing the same notes as the liberal uprisers—anti-elitist, anti-corporate—but they differ in their normative perspective of the world. The populists yearn for the past, while those on the left compare their current state to what they ought to have in the future. The performance that plays out is local, but with global consequences; the marionetting spreads on stages and then online.
Consider the exasperation of middle-class America. The deal that many Americans presumed to have secured in the post-WWII era—of good paying jobs, a house with a white picket fence, a disposable income—was dissolved in the era of globalization. “They took that deal. Then their jobs moved overseas or the coal mine shut down,” Kerry Kennedy of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation said at the Global Baku Forum. When running for US president, Donald Trump used this long-forgone ideal as his running platform, “Make America Great Again.”
Today’s generations face equally menacing economic challenges as their grandparents, in the forms of education, housing, health-care, and the attrition of labor wages. What’s more, these economic retrogressions are consolidated as distinct messages by political figures on both ends of the political spectrum. Attitudes that have laid dormant are triggered by political pugilists who bend narratives of the root causes of economic injustices. They turn to Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube and reinforce populist messages.
Inequality therefore now exists in the form of a stark notification every time we scroll through our news feed. In this great reveal, it has both democratized power and enabled groups of people to organize movements around messages. It may very well continue to embolden populists globally—or we can take back the original promises of the web and use it as an opportunity to solve some of the greatest crises of our time.