Former United States President Donald Trump has not been too visible of late. His diminishment started with the suspensions and bans imposed on him by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube following the Capitol riots of January 6 that were provoked by him and his allies. It was illuminating how quickly Trump disappeared from our lives, even before Joe Biden took over as the country’s president, once social media became inaccessible to him.

Does that mean that social media tends to magnify populists like Trump? Or does it mean that social media merely reflects the reality out there and hence enables us to keep track of the rise of politicians like Trump?

One way to answer this question is to look at what social media does. Is it a kind of political platform or is it sheer gossiping in the corridors?

A communicative device

There is no doubt that social media can be used to organise political protests. But that highlights its role as a channel of communication. It does not make social media a platform for political action, a space where change can be planned, negotiated, applied.

By definition, political action needs a physical presence. Social media is more like a telephone. No one has ever argued that the telephone is a political platform. However, that claim is often made for social media.

In effect, social media is a communicative device like the telephone – but it is like the telephone magnified many times. The telephone was primarily the source of one to one communication. It is only with the rise of digitalised social media options – such as WhatsApp or Zoom – that we can call many people at the same time.

This is a major “advantage” of social media: it seems to enable collective communication. You can call or text five people at the same time. You can post on Facebook or Twitter and reach thousands simultaneously.

But this “advantage” also changes the nature of the communication. It works more like gossip now. The point of gossip has never been that it was reliable or not, that it was true or false. The point of gossip was that it could not be pinned down: it circulated on its own. And that it was shared among intimates. Even if its source was vaguely identified, the source did not matter. What mattered were two things: who passed on the gossip to you and what you were already predisposed to believe.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used social media masterfully to bolster his image.

Social media and godsibb

This is different from the idea of communication, which is always based on an identifiable and negotiable discussion between people. In English, the etymological sources of “communication” come from a Latin word meaning “sharing” (as a noun) and “making common” (as a verb). Gossip, on the other hand, is related to the Old English “godsibb”: “a person (sibling) related to one in God”. It was with such a person that one could talk loosely – “idle talk” – and hence the current connotation of gossip.

The very nature of social media inclines it towards gossip: as the source of the information cannot be settled and as the information is being shared across great distances, trust in what is being suggested is a matter of personal belief. It is like trusting a “sibling”, “aunt” or “grandfather”.

It does not involve critical thinking, which communication does. It is a gut reaction: I retweet you because I like what you are saying, without examining its validity. But, again, this is not exactly the “idle talk” of gossip – between family members in a kitchen. This is “political”, “social”, “economic”, and other kinds of “talk” between total strangers, sometimes millions and millions of them.

Hence, what prospers on social media is not analysis, discussion, commentary, communication, though some of this can and does take place. It takes place in the same way as it would in a classroom, or over a telephone. But this is not the distinctive or dominant mode on social media.

What is distinctive is an expansion of how gossip worked in the kitchen over much larger areas. We believe in certain things on social media because we want to believe in them, just as we believe in an aunty gossiping about her neighbour because we wish to do so.

Populists like Trump thrive in this situation. They are not giving you arguments or reasons. They do not care about facts. They are pushing the right buttons: the buttons of your grievances, frustrations, resentments, failures, aspirations, anger, etc. Social media encourages this kind of intercourse. It turns the wide world into your little kitchen, full of the smells of your life, in which you can relate to a “godsibb”.

Analysts often suggest that people like Trump are savvy and canny enough to use this. I disagree. This cannot be done – in a sustained manner – by pretending. It will not work. Because what is being exchanged are not facts, ideas, etc, but something far more subjective and visceral.

What populists like Trump exude is a real aura of resentment, anger, frustration, distrust etc. You can immediately relate to that aura in the kitchen of your life. They do not pretend. It is natural to them, and you can sense it. Of course, the resolution of the resentment of a rich man like Trump will never be the same as your resolution. But you do not realise it, or even want to. Social media has enabled you to find your godsibb in this wide world, and vote for him.

Tabish Khair, the author of several books, is an associate professor in the Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark.