Long-read

Social media: the state of things to come

As a former prime minister of Iceland, I know of social media's power to raise politicians up – and bring governments down.

David Gunnlaugsson

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Iceland is an island, considerably larger than Scotland in area, but with just over 360,000 people, no larger in population than an average-sized British city. Nonetheless, in the nearly 1,100 years that have passed since the formation of an Icelandic state – the commonwealth – the islanders have developed an advanced and diverse society with all the major elements and characteristics of bigger nations. Icelanders are quick to adopt innovations in technology and adhere to the latest trends in everything from fashion to political and social issues (while retaining certain national idiosyncrasies). As a result, Iceland is sometimes regarded as a microcosm of much larger societies, and is often used as a test market for products and services.

Yet it now seems that Iceland might offer some intriguing insights about more than consumer behaviour and the implementation of new technologies. It might very well be an indicator of what to expect in terms of the fundamental changes currently affecting politics and various other aspects of societies across the globe.

A few years ago, I was asked, as prime minister of Iceland, to give a talk on a subject of my own choosing for a gathering of members from Lions Clubs International. Not having found time to prepare, I decided to speak about an issue I had found fascinating since I entered politics unexpectedly some years earlier, becoming leader of the Progressive Party, Iceland’s oldest and most established political party, two weeks after joining.

I explained why I believed that the fundamental changes in how information is distributed, combined with a growing disdain for establishment politics, would drastically alter politics and yield results that were still considered unthinkable. I argued that the homogeneity of traditional parties and politicians – as well as the outsourcing of political authority to an unaccountable establishment and the constantly shrinking box of acceptable political thought and rhetoric – would not go unpunished by the voters. We would see a growing backlash now that the establishment was losing its grip on the flow of information, ideas and the organisation of political activity. If traditional parties (like the century-old party of which I was then leader) didn’t adapt, the result would be a surge in support for fringe parties and politicians.

At the time, the audience didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the subject. I got the feeling they even felt a bit cheated, having not been given my assessment of a more current theme or my take on the latest political quarrels. I suppose the subject came across as nerdy or far-fetched, and perhaps even slightly apocalyptic.

A couple of years later the subject of my talk might again have seemed uninteresting but for completely different reasons. What had previously seemed a bit fanciful had become self-evident. By then we had Corbyn, Brexit, Trump and all the rest of it.

However, at the time I gave the Lions talk, Icelanders had been experiencing a foretaste of these changes. It was with the financial crisis – which resulted in the collapse of all of Iceland’s major banks in late 2008 – that Iceland really came into its own as a precursor of what was to come.

Before 2008, Icelanders had never been keen protesters. Apart from the traditional May Day parades, followed by coffee and cake, or the day-long women’s strike of 1975, Icelanders could usually not be bothered to go out and protest – much to the dismay of radicals who often complained, ‘Why can’t we be more like the French?’. Protesting was considered naff and foreign. Holding a picket sign was deemed just about as embarrassing as carrying an umbrella (in Iceland it usually rains horizontally, making those who walk around with umbrellas targets of ridicule).

Downtown Reykjavik, 5 April 2016.
Downtown Reykjavik, 5 April 2016.

Rioting was tried once, in 1949, when Iceland joined NATO. Leftists fought with police (and right-wingers) for a while in Reykjavik’s main square, before being dispersed with teargas. After that, Icelanders decided rioting wasn’t for them, and for the next 60 years made do with venting their grievances over a cup of coffee with colleagues or – if you were the devoted activist type – with a letter to your party’s newspaper.

Then came social media. Icelanders were quick to appreciate the internet’s potential and acquire the tools, and build the infrastructure, for its utilisation. Iceland soon became, and probably still is, the most ‘connected’ country in the world. Close to 100 per cent of its population have access to the internet (I’ve experienced a far better internet connection on top of an Icelandic glacier than in many of the towns around London). Social media was also an instant hit. Blogging soon became a favourite pastime, and by 2009 Iceland had achieved, by far, the greatest Facebook penetration of any country in the world.

By then we had already seen what later became an archetypical example of the effects of social media in Iceland. In the spring of 2007 a peculiar-looking dog (a hairless puff dog), named Lúkas, went missing in the town of Akureyri in the north of Iceland. With the help of social media, it was discovered that the dog had been gruesomely tortured, put in a sports bag and kicked about by a group of young men until it was dead. The internet then helped identify one of the culprits, a lad who lived in a town close to Reykjavik, hundreds of kilometres from Akureyri. It was explained that he had been visiting a festival up north when he initiated the terrible dog-stomping spectacle.

Emotionally charged candle-lit vigils were held in Akureyri, Reykjavik and other towns, and attended by hundreds of people. There was much discussion about how the event should be regarded as a manifestation of a troubling trend of sadistic cruelty to animals. Calls were made for making an example of the culprit who was chastised on social media and received a string of threatening letters. Then, in late July, Lúkas the dog decided it was time to return from his excursion in the mountains above Akureyri. The distinctive-looking animal was spotted on a hillside close to the town and captured a week later in good health and excellent spirits.

Every detail of the two-month long affair had been a fabrication, crafted by the creative power of social media. The young man who was, for reasons still unknown, named as the culprit had been unable to leave his home for weeks and consequently lost his job and was, unlike Lúkas, in severely diminished spirits.

But soon the internet and social media would, for better or for worse, deliver bigger events than vigils for a missing dog. When the banking crises, with all their side stories, began in 2008, the social strife that followed largely played out on social media with ‘real life’ events following closely behind.

My involvement in politics coincided with the start of the broader financial crisis. Working as a journalist, I started criticising the financial establishment and my country’s government in early 2007, but when Gordon Brown’s UK government decided to use anti-terrorist legislation against Iceland to recoup money owed to the UK, I saw it as an attempt to extort funds from the Icelandic government at the same time as Brown had declared the country bankrupt.

I and a small group of people with little in common – other than a shared affinity for the UK and a conviction that both the Icelandic and UK governments were not handling the matter correctly – came together and formed an organisation called ‘In Defence of Iceland’. Using the internet and social media, our small group managed to galvanise the Icelandic public. We organised large demonstrations and got a third of the voter population to sign a petition against the UK government’s use of anti-terrorist legislation, before turning our sights on a financial dispute with foreign governments. Thus, by use of social media, a small group of people with no formal mandate took on governments, the EU and the IMF, gaining support from the citizens of dozens of countries in the process.

However, it was not long before social media’s attention turned to domestic quarrels. The previously protest-shy public took to the streets to demonstrate with growing intensity. Having been a harsh critic of the Icelandic government before coming into politics in the midst of the turmoil, I was happy to see the strong opposition to a regime that I was now actively trying to bring down. But at the same time, I was shocked to witness how quickly the anger got out of hand. The police were stretched to the limit defending parliament buildings, parliament employees were assaulted, MPs had to flee through underground tunnels, and ministers’ cars were attacked. These were things that I would previously have thought unthinkable in my small and peaceful country.

A protester throws an egg at the parliament building in Reykjavik.
A protester throws an egg at the parliament building in Reykjavik.

All this happened in a country where unemployment had not even reached eight per cent and inflation was far below what Icelanders had experienced in earlier decades. This was not a population in the depths of a deep depression. This was a population shocked by the frailty of the financial and political establishment as well as by their latest mortgage bill, and, crucially, a population discussing these matters and the appropriate response on social media.

This is not to make light of the effects of the crisis. My involvement in politics has primarily revolved around making things right for the people affected by the crisis and society as a whole. But it was not the people who had experienced the greatest personal ordeals that were the most fervent rioters. The senior citizens who had lost their life savings and the hard-working tradesmen who were in danger of losing their homes were not the ones throwing excrement at parliament or attacking ministers’ cars. Apart from opportunistic criminals, the rioters were largely made up of the most radical members of the chattering classes and others primarily known for being active in the blogosphere and on internet message boards – people, that is, who saw the financial crises first and foremost as an opportunity and as validation for their years of committed dejection. Finally, their time, as they continue to see it, had come.

Now, over a decade since Lúkas went on his spring break in the mountains, ‘the weekly outrage’ on social media remains a staple of public life in Iceland. Miscellaneous issues, big or small, burn bright and fast. The next big outrage is always around the corner. All this serves to sustain a prevailing underlying theme — namely, that even though Iceland may have recovered economically from the financial crises, it has not recovered socially. ‘We still have not managed to rebuild trust’ goes the mantra.

This is a misleading notion. First, politicians and the establishment in Iceland did not enjoy anything resembling universal ‘trust’ before 2008. Far from it. Second, in the age of social media and internet news, a consensus on anything of political significance is simply impossible, no matter how straightforward the issue or clear the facts in question. The unlimited access to unedited information, good or bad, constructive or plain crazy, and a system of interactions where the discourse is often led by the most outrageous participant, will not yield a consensus or increase trust.

What makes the situation worse is that traditional media tends to magnify the effect rather than emphasise edited quality content as an alternative. Admittedly, traditional media has been put in a difficult position, forced to compete for ‘clicks’ with the most outrageous or sensationalist take on events that the internet has to offer. The more uncompromising the story, the likelier it is to be shared. Also, stories and events are routinely assessed in the traditional media by what was said about them by the most fervent tweeters. The tail has started wagging the dog.

The effects of social media on politics and society have become quite evident, ranging from the so-called Arab Spring and the surge of militant Islamism to upsets in almost every democratic national election over the past few years.

In Iceland no government has managed to finish its four-year term with a majority since the financial crises. One made it to the finish line, with help from opposition members, only to lose more than half of its MPs in the next election. My own government capitulated after three of its ministers (including me) were mentioned in the so-called Panama Papers. By the time an official inquiry regarding our tax record finally yielded the conclusion that my wife and I had paid all our taxes – and were in fact owed overpaid taxes – two governments had come and gone.

Leaving aside the collapse of individual governments, it is enlightening to consider the reasons for the apparent increase in civil instability and the new dynamics that social media has brought to politics. The old rulebook no longer applies.

In Autumn 2017, having gone to my bedroom in a cabin in my constituency, I watched how Facebook communications brought down Iceland’s government in a matter of hours, the final decision being taken in a hastily summoned late-night meeting following discussions over the internet. Most people heard the news when they woke up the next day but those that followed the online ‘chatter’ had already seen what conclusion had been reached on Facebook even before the formal decision was made.

Leaving aside the reasons for the collapse of that particular government, it has become clear that things that previously might have been considered minor or defused in a matter of days in the media (or over several years in an enquiry) now have the potential to start a ‘nuclear chain reaction’. This is the new political reality. The speed and unpredictability of modern communications means that an infinite number of issues, big or small, have the capacity to take on a life of their own. They have the potential to start social trends, provoke riots, and bring down governments or even start wars.

This will not just affect party politics. A prominent member of a union told me as prime minister: ‘It used to be that the old guys who knew the ropes would have the last word [in the union], there might be unrest, but control was maintained in the end. Now the one that makes the biggest claims on Facebook is the leader.’ Currently, control over the biggest unions in Iceland, previously run by untouchable leaders, is falling to outsiders one after the other.

Society must adapt to these changes, as must the political process. We are experiencing a paradigm shift that could be extremely beneficial or enormously damaging.

Whatever the outcome, things are going to continue to get very interesting.

David Gunnlaugsson is a former prime minister of Iceland.

All pictures by: Getty

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