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Black Mirror: “The Waldo Moment” (S02 E03), social media and (a)political stakeholders

Stand up, the apolitical circus is here!

Screengrab of the “The Waldo Moment” episode

By Isabella de Castro Satiro Aragão and Walter Farneze

“The Waldo Moment” episode shows in a disturbing and dystopian way how the media influences politics and, more than this, the process of political campaign and electoral competition through technology and its mechanisms. In the episode, the creation of a fictional character who does not have any political commitments stars a crisis. Voters without hope in the system resort to ridiculous figures (as a way of “disguised” protesting) and the character, who exposes his lack of political ideology through an exaggerated polarized spectacle, gains control over several indirect ways to manipulate the population.

In this scenario, the blue bear Waldo can be interpreted from two different points of view. At first, he can be considered a “safety valve” used by the population that, unhappy with the traditional political landscape, looks for a nonconventional response. The apolitical feeling that motivates this decision is actually nonpartisan — that is, a notion of people who reject the way of “making politics” of those who are in power, creating a disinterest in the way political parties act and lack of hope on the state control; but keeping their interests on the political results. Therefore, Waldo would be the best manner of parting ways with the usual politics.

However, there is another point of view that reputes the character as a weapon of mass control through the manipulation of the public debate and of the popular opinion by using direct and indirect/intermediary channels such as, respectively, Waldo’s political representation through his image transmitted live on a truck on the street and the massive dissemination of smartphone apps that fortified the character’s political propaganda, for instance.

As evidence that the manipulation happens through the means of access to the voters’ minds, we see that the Blue Bear is a nihilist; he does not stand by any ideology, any political agenda other than the apolitical one (which in itself is political) and, bearing the results in mind — even if this sounds exaggerated, it is true — his apolitical approach and trolling reveal themselves as the most harmful of ideologies.

This discourse which is disconnected from any real public policy and only turned to the media can be seen, for example, both on the electoral propaganda made by the candidates and the disguised ones on the social networks made by the media. The latter is the one that really makes voters rethink the grounds they are living on, believing that they are not enough and thus, capable to change according to the empty promises made through these channels.

Another example is the remarkable easiness with which candidates alter their standpoints and ideology so they are more compatible with most voters. In Brazilian politics, we can see that on the iconic photo of the then-candidate for Mayor of São Paulo Fernando Haddad sealing a deal with Paulo Maluf (for more advertising time) or on João Dória’s quick change regarding the bus fare after winning the elections.

Considering whichever point of view, both reach the same conclusion: the political opinion is influenced by the voters’ feelings and emotions. As they are dissatisfied with the traditional political structures and more and more unaccustomed to the political-democratic debating process, they facilitate, particularly through the immediacy and shallowness of the social networks, polarizations. These, in their turn, happen when members of a group begin to adopt similar positions and consider as enemies all those with different opinions, promoting the antagonism against the true conflict of ideas. The legitimacy of plural ideas is not recognized.

Therefore, polarization can happen, for instance, when political groups impose the feeling of being “the only owners of truth” to voters under their influence, unqualifying any other dissident thoughts through the stigmatization of their adversaries. This can have serious consequences on the results of an election or a political dispute since when the goal is to mobilize emotions in order to attain political objectives, sensible parts of the popular dissatisfaction are touched, creating a communication difficulty between opposing groups which hinders the progress of the political debate and the elaboration of new proposals. This is the strategy used by Waldo in Black Mirror, but also by so many others “political bears”, like Jair Bolsonaro and Kim Kataguiri who use the social networks as an important means for the dissemination of an impulsive polarization focused only on the short-term, preventing a more broad reflection on important topics for the society.

In addition, the “gain” of popular support by political parties relies on the encompassing of several agendas in order to please all possible voters. Parties and politicians keep less and less of a steady hand on topics, as the mutability of ideas has a bigger chance of winning people and votes, which will enable a larger impact and social control. For this, direct and indirect channels are essential for the dispersion of ideas — mass media and the internet receive great attention on this aspect since they are responsible for bringing politics closer to entertainment.

Today’s politicians change agendas as easily as you change a pair of shoes. They stand by empty opinions and encourage the hate through insults and personal attacks towards their adversaries, leading to the voters’ apathy and indecision. As candidates have fewer differences between each other, the population has no alternative. The lines distinguishing candidates and their ideas have become blurred, meanwhile, the electoral process is permeated by incitements of hate and fear; that is why we have tighter elections in various eastern democracies.

“The Waldo Moment” predicted how the politicians’ discredit and the celebrity culture created the antidemocratic storm we are going through, causing the control of digital populism and the manipulation of the public opinion via trolls. In this sense, for example, when Donal Trump was about to become President of the United States, the series official Twitter account warned that what was happening was not an episode, not a marketing stunt, but reality itself. Even if there are differences between Waldo and Trump, the run of events that led to Trump’s election and the new rise of populism and of apolitical thinking in other countries make this episode the closest to our reality. And not only in the US, but it is also possible to see a growing political polarization in Europe — like the one lived by England during Brexit and by France through the population’s strong tendencies towards the extreme right — which shows the instability and dangers caused by the political manipulation and the trolling of international democracy.

In a kind of come back to the “bread and circuses”, the political debate is no longer held by specialists with arguments and academic study, but by populists who make exaggerated statements to create an impactful spectacle without any practical content. In this scenario, we can conclude in favor of the second hypothesis, which considers the masses an instrument for political manipulation and social control. And this situation is being consolidated through a wide range of technological tools used to assert certain world perspectives over the public’s alienation from the political debate — be it a tragicomic blue bear or empty revolutionary promises.