6.4.2 Politicians Interacting Directly with the Public
People can communicate directly with politicians, to ask for favours or changes in policy. Politicians respond by finding ways of trying to please people, because they want the support of the population – which may take the form of votes in a democracy (6.3.2) or tacit acceptance in an authoritarian system (220.127.116.11). The need for support is a form of pressure on the politicians, sometimes leading to dishonest manoeuvrings.
A government’s stability largely depends upon how it manages its continuous communication with the population. Controlling the narrative is very important. A topical example of this is the way in which President Putin exploited the fears and resentments of the Russian people, as described in the article Putin and the psychology of grievance:
“For years, he’s spun a narrative of humiliation at the hands of the West. …As Sam Freedman notes, this was the backdrop to his sudden occupation of Crimea in 2014, when his lagging popularity levels suddenly shot up to their highest ever levels amid “the first substantive national ‘victory’ in the lifetime of most Russians”.”
It was easy to blame the West and liberal democracy for the economic problems that Russia faced during the Yeltsin years in the 1990s, and to frame the expansion of NATO as a security threat and a betrayal.
Direct interactions between politicians and the people have always been possible, but Internet social media have now transformed the ways in which people communicate: the public and the politicians can now broadcast their views to directly influence each other, the communication is almost instantaneous and stories can spread very rapidly (whether they are true or false), and the use of brief messages increases the risk of carelessly using broad labels – such as ‘conservative’ – to oversimplify complex subjects (2.2).
The following sub-sections describe different kinds of interaction:
● People can communicate directly to politicians, as individuals or in collective demonstrations of concern (18.104.22.168), although there may be issues that constrain their ability to do so, as discussed later in this chapter (6.8.3).
● Politicians might try to win easy popularity with policies that are irresponsible (22.214.171.124).
● They can be tempted to tell lies, use misleading statistics and exaggerate to make arguments that suit them when trying to gain public support (126.96.36.199).
● They can also use well-documented propaganda techniques to manipulate public opinion (188.8.131.52).
● Politicians often compete for popularity by criticising each other (184.108.40.206), although they reduce each other’s legitimacy and undermine public confidence by doing so.
● Many people now get their news directly on Internet social media, bypassing newspapers and television (220.127.116.11). The sources cannot be held to account and there has been an increase in ‘fake news’. Algorithms only feed people the information that reinforces their existing beliefs: an ‘echo chamber’ effect that is deeply polarising.
● Internet ‘echo chambers’ help conspiracy theories to flourish (18.104.22.168). They offer people a comforting alternative picture of reality and politicians can foster such narratives to demonise opponents.
● Distortions on Internet social media have led to calls for regulation, although censorship is problematic (22.214.171.124).
The above forms of contact between politicians and the public are unsolicited. Formal consultation processes, which are initiated by politicians to help form policy on specific issues, are described later (6.5.3).
This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/642e.htm