How Reality TV and the Internet paved the way for populists

A backslide in positive human and social values has paved the way for the rise in populism and populist leaders and this can be sheeted home to Reality TV and the Internet. We vote in the leaders we admire, so we must conclude that many people these days admire leaders that flout social norms and are self-interested to the point of being narcissistic: they lack empathy, don’t care about facts or truth, promulgate lies, behave badly, lack a moral compass and make decisions that reflect their need for popular approval rather than what serves the national interest.

And guess what? Many of those characteristics are the hallmarks of successful Reality TV programs.

We’ve encouraged leaders to behave as if they are stars in their own Reality TV show.

Reality TV (a misnomer if ever there was one) covers the plethora of shows that feature supposedly fly-on-the-wall style TV. These programs ‘observe’ people either doing what they do – families coping with life’s struggles, people building bespoke motorbikes/fish tanks/tree houses, bidding for the contents of storage containers, running pawns shops, repairing antiques; or recruited and put in extraordinary situations to see how they cope under pressure, whether it’s competing for success, money or sexual attention, votes in a knockout competition, being a cook, a singer, an entrepreneur or a survivor. These shows are almost always cheap to make, not least because the participants or contestants generally don’t get paid, or only a small appearance fee, much less than if they were professional actors or TV presenters. The locations are generally confined to one site, a shop, a kitchen, a studio or an island and can be mass produced to a format.

The appeal of these shows is purely emotional, entertainment that relies on the vicarious pleasure of watching other people perform, compete, cheat, struggle, win, fail, be shamed, respond to brutal criticism, and frequently make embarrassing idiots of themselves.

More than that, often these shows invite you, the audience, to participate in the process. Thanks to the internet you get to vote people on and off.

Many of these shows are calculated to bring out the worst in people on screen and at home. What is not written into the TV guide promoting these shows is the hosts and contestants are carefully selected for ego, emotional volatility, abrasive personalities, flaws and weaknesses. Production companies hire psychologists whose job is to interview candidates and select those they calculate will behave most outrageously, fight with fellow contestants, cheat on their partners, break down and cry.

Emotion + Drama makes for good television. Reality shows are called in the business “unscripted”, meaning they’re supposed to be different to scripted drama and therefore more like real life. The truth is quite different. Most reality shows are highly scripted and orchestrated, starting with the casting of contestants. The job of the producer and director is to manipulate events and characters to create drama, to prod people and situations into conflict, sex or breakdowns.

Participants are “fed” lines and prompted to act in a way designed to maximise opportunity for dramatic highs and lows, moments of tension, emotional outbursts and provide colourful entertainment for the viewers.

In reality, “Reality TV” is a big lie…but it is immensely successful.

TV networks and advertisers love these programs because of the large target audiences they deliver and opportunities for product endorsement and placement.

In the competitive bid to capture viewers (‘eyeballs’ in TV parlance), Reality TV has for many years been in a race to the bottom, developing concepts for shows that dredge the most grotesque, trashy or bizarre aspects of human behaviour for content. This is TV’s equivalent of the internet’s click-bait culture, keeping you hooked by showing you more and more outrageous or extreme behaviour.

Believe it or not there is nothing new in all this. The Romans put on ever more extreme, brutal and freakish events at the Colosseum or Circus Maximus. The audience could determine the fate of a gladiator or animal, whether they lived or died. It was all grist to the entertainment mill.

Societies around the world have had their public hangings and executions, such as the guillotine in France, which people attended as popular spectacle, although part of the intent was also to instil fear and exert social control.

The difference today is the global reach of Reality TV shows, coupled with the power of the internet to shape behaviour, ideas and politics.

At one level it’s all about “bread and circuses”, distracting people from the hardships and inequities in life. But it also operates at another, more insidious level. It’s changing how we think and behave.

Reality TV has created its own reality, by normalising ‘bad behaviour’, making it fun, entertaining and ‘ok’ to throw tantrums, cheat on your partner, break the rules, win at all costs, be selfish, cruel and brutal in your judgments of people, enjoy their stupidities and mistakes, criticise their looks, vote them off (so what if they commit suicide, they failed, it’s their fault), and so on.

By voting on contestants and making comments on social media, viewers are complicit in this trashing of social values.

This kind of behaviour is real, but it reflects the more destructive and disruptive characteristics of human beings. Unmediated by a moral counterpoint, it’s at odds with the socially accepted norms and values that underpin human society.

It validates humanity’s baser instincts and, as we know all too well, social media (via the internet) is an echo chamber, with a global multiplier effect that endorses and reinforces popular feelings and perceptions. Thanks to the algorithms that select the most outrageous comments and videos for your attention, the same negative attributes and behaviours that have been normalised by Reality TV have been magnified and propagated via the internet.

The “net effect” is a world in which anti-social behaviour has become acceptable and mainstream. It’s ok for people to think and act selfishly, to make vicious personal judgments and attacks online (anonymously), to “vote” people off by making personal and professional attacks, to express violent thoughts and make threats towards people, to behave badly and inconsiderately in public. It’s more than ok, it’s your ‘right’ to think and behave this way, to be selfish, self-opinionated, arrogant, greedy, violent and shameless. So what! Get over it!

We have allowed a culture of selfishness and self-obsession – more typically associated with tantrum-throwing two-year olds – to become acceptable, with disastrous consequences.

The first consequence is that social values which bind societies together, set standards that govern how we behave, and which act as a brake on anti-social behaviour no longer carry the same weight. Everything has become relative to the emotional intensity of what we feel and our need to express that, without any filter. Individualism trumps social norms and accepted behaviour, not to mention courtesy or consideration for others. Indeed, being out there with your opinions, especially online, is rewarded with likes and approbation, re-enforced by the algorithms which connect you with like-minded others. And if anyone dares disagree with you, you and your online buddies gang up and shout them down. It confers a sense of immense power – what I feel and say are more important than rules, laws, governments, experts, lawyers, doctors, scientists, than anyone or anything else.

It is a precursor to anarchy.

The second consequence of this society, in which social norms and human values that bind us together are subverted by egoism, individualism, anti-social behaviour and a zero-sum game mentality is that it encourages the election of leaders who reflect our worst attributes.

The mirroring of negative stereotypes creates a dangerous feed-back cycle, a disruptive process that challenges and undermines society as well as democracy. It encourages anarchy as a means and opportunity for authoritarian control, to re-establish a new order out of chaos, one that suits a self-interested minority.

There is a disturbing trend visible in populist leaders to challenge and cast doubt on democratic processes, to bend the rules or attempt to manipulate electoral outcomes, to attack the judiciary, stack institutions in their favour, lie systematically and to encourage greed and self-interest.

It suits them to ‘tear down’ the existing structures and mores of society because the status quo constrains and limits their ego and their ambitions. They thrive in a disordered world, in which they set the rules, a zero-sum society of winners and losers in which their ego is the driving force, and they are always the winners.   

Drawing a connecting line between Reality TV and the Internet, and a decline in democracy and a rise in political extremism is not hard.

There is mounting awareness and concern around internet engines and platforms creating a distorted perception of what is real and normal, enabling the dissemination of false information, establishing norms that are often at odds with the values that underpin social harmony and democracy.

There is also ample evidence that social media platforms have, wittingly or unwittingly, been used to target voters based on their social media profiles and preferences.

Millions of people across the world have been manipulated through their emotional inclinations expressed online. Algorithms assess their desires, weaknesses, fears and send personalised messages to influence their political and voting decisions.

Reality TV, or what is in reality a contrived and fabricated reality to attract viewers, has manipulated viewers’ emotions and values, making them more susceptible to external influence and exploitation especially via the internet and so made the job of disruptors that much easier.

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