The age of the hyperleader: when political leadership meets social media celebrity

In an era of profound suspicion towards party bureaucracies, digital media has delivered a new type of politician. 

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In 1911, sociologist Robert Michels listed the qualities that give a political leader charisma: knowledge, eloquence, self-confidence, self-reliance, and, most important of all, celebrity. At the time Michels was writing, politicians cultivated and transmitted celebrity through newspapers, radio, books and speaking tours. Later came broadcast television and late-night politics shows. The last decade has seen these forums give way to a new mode of communication: social media.

Broadcast TV favoured telegenic politicians able to seduce living room audiences. This was famously the case when John F. Kennedy unexpectedly won the White House in 1960, beating Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate. In the social media era, the relationship between celebrity and politics has mutated into something more extreme.

Political influence is now measured in part through social media metrics: likes, followers, and shares. A politician’s Twitter prowess – or lack thereof – can make or break a political career. If social media was once considered a secondary space for political communication, it is vastly outstripping TV as the medium of choice for political communication. As George Osborne recently put it, politicians who fail to understand the power of social media belong to a “dinosaur age”.

What are the implications of this politics-social media nexus? First, in a moment where digital media has come to mediate political leadership, politicians begin to adopt the colloquial and demotic style of YouTubers and Instagram influencers. Trump misspells “coffee” on Twitter and a flurry of reportage and opinion columns is born. 

Second, contemporary leadership is histrionic and excessive when compared with the politics of old. Politicians of the early 20th century emphasised their professionalism, seriousness and reliability: quite the opposite of the self-narration and narcissism that are key ingredients for a successful social media persona today.

These modern “hyperleaders” invert the relationship between politician and party. In contrast to the representative model of democracy where politicians were figureheads and parties were the true repositories of power, the hyperleader may have a far larger social media base than their organisation. They float above the party, lifting it into the air through their personal visibility.

Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the millennial Wunderkind of this new social media politics. AOC (her initials as well as her Twitter handle) has amassed 3.2 million followers on Twitter, almost one million more than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This does not simply reflect the appeal of her policies (universal Medicare, a Green New Deal and progressive taxation) among particular social groups. It also results from her ability to discuss policy ideas in a social media format while foregrounding her personal story as a young Latino woman from the Bronx.  

AOC has captured the social media limelight through her unashamed deployment of clickbait and engaging content. She has invited users into her intimate world, posting videos of herself cooking at home and playing with her nieces. After a video of her dancing ten years previously on the roof of Boston University was leaked, she “trolled back” with a short video clip dancing to Edwin Starr’s War in front of her congressional office. Her Instagram account describes her skincare and makeup routines in a manner akin to a beauty blogger or celebrity.

No doubt ageing politicos and uncompromising activists will frown upon what appears to be unconditional surrender to infotainment. But the Washington elite is horrified for rather different reasons. As argued by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, AOC’s “self-generated popularity and large social media presence means she doesn't need to ask anyone’s permission to say anything.” Her large social media following, obtained with no financial cost, secures her autonomy from the funders and lobbyists that mould the political agenda towards the interests of large corporations. 

While this may be a boon for Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive supporters, the same tactics are also available to reactionary politicians. The rise of Matteo Salvini, the leader of far-right Italian party Lega (il capitano to his team) is premised on his growing success across Facebook and Twitter. His talented social media manager, Luca Morisi, has transformed Salvini into a digital juggernaut, with 3.5 million likes on his Facebook fan page, making him one of Europe’s most popular digital politicians.

In Salvini’s viral Facebook Live instalments, the politician is pictured in urban landscapes delivering impromptu speeches, holding the phone to himself for a more authentic effect. He insists on giving his amici (friends) updates on the minutiae of daily life. Millions of Italians are informed immediately when Salvini goes to dinner.

Twenty years after Michels wrote about the charisma of political leaders, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci commented on the importance of the “affective connection between the people and the party”. If the new cadre of hyperleaders tells us anything, it is that this connection has mutated.

We live in an era of profound suspicion towards collective organisations such as trade unions and party bureaucracies. Between the 1990s and 2000s, scholars predicted the party’s ultimate demise; political scientists Russell Dalton and Martin Wattenberg wrote that contemporary societies seemed “increasingly sceptical about partisan politics”. Parties that have bucked this trend, including Labour, have brought digital transformation to their very core, using technology to involve their members in decision making.

In the UK, trade union membership dwindled from 13.2 million members in 1979 to 6.2 million in 2017. Generalised distrust towards formal organisations originates from two related trends: the inability of party and union bureaucracies founded in the industrial revolution to adapt to new circumstances, and the ascendancy of an individualist and anti-collectivist ideology.  

As public trust in old structures wanes, notions of partisanship, membership, affiliation and support need to be radically rearranged. While Gramsci thought personal leadership belonged to a pre-industrial past, and that the modern era would be dominated by bureaucracies, the social media age has heralded the return of personalised and charismatic leadership that is ideally suited to navigating a personality-obsessed digital culture.

Hyperleaders compensate for the crisis of membership organisations, providing their followers with a a supplementary form of collective identification. They offer channels to establish bonds that compensate for the failure of representatives to maintain links with the represented. Put simply, hyperleaders have become the intermediary between the people and their party.

In an age where participation in civil society and mass-membership organisations have declined, it is likely that the hyperleader will continue to play a central role in electoral politics in the coming years. Whatever aesthetic or moral reservations we may have about social media influencers, they will define our future. 

Paolo Gerbaudo is director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy (2018). He tweets @paologerbaudo