Could Donald Trump Make Europe Great Again? #MEGA

When it comes to dealing with Donald Trump, European leaders should turn to parents of toddlers for advice.

As any three-year-old can attest, there are times when throwing your toys out of the pram is an excellent negotiating strategy. In other situations, it simply limits your supply of fruit gums.

The challenge for parents is to reduce the opportunities for unavoidable concessions. These include busy supermarket lines and long-haul flights. In all other circumstances, presenting a united front does the trick.

The European family is of course going through a period of extreme dysfunction. A messy divorce has triggered a heated debate about its future. The question of what to do with the hundreds of thousands of people who have sought refuge or a better life in its midst has polarised opinion and sparked questions about whether Europe can even be considered a family at all anymore.

At a time of low morale, a good rallying cry can work wonders. No one knows this more than Donald Trump. His promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ managed to combine hope for a better future with indignation for his country’s faded glory.

Hope and indignation are powerful political forces, which Europe has so far failed to package into a digestible message of 140 characters.

This is a pity because as any social media professional will tell you, messages of hope and indignation have a tendency to spread.

In November of last year, Irish Labour politician Aodhán Ó Riordáin shot to Internet fame after he posted a video of himself lambasting Donald Trump. “America has just elected a Fascist,” he told the handful of senators gathered in the Dublin chamber. “And the best thing the good people of Ireland can do is ring him up and ask him if it’s still okay to bring the shamrock on St Patrick’s Day.”

Fast forward a few months and the taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny found himself in a bit of a pickle on St Patrick’s Day. Ingratiate himself with Donald Trump for the sake of the economy like his British counterpart Theresa May, or stand up to him and earn brownie points at home? He opted for the latter and extolled the virtues of St Patrick, the immigrant.

Donald_Trump_and_Enda_Kenny,_March_2017

Attribution: Shealah Craighead [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His speech too went viral.

These examples demonstrate the extent of an appetite in Europe – and beyond – for an unequivocal response to Donald Trump.

A day after Enda Kenny’s visit to the White House, it was German chancellor Angela Merkel’s turn. When Trump ignored her request to shake hands for the cameras, she responded with the kind of bemused expression one might direct at a sulky child who has rebuffed their caregiver’s command to “say hello to Auntie Angie.” Once again, the Internet exploded in delight.

The positive attention such encounters have attracted prompts a provocative question: could Donald Trump Make Europe Great Again? (#MEGA)

The answer is that he could, if European leaders keep three important things in mind.

First, they must show that despite Brexit, the continent remains bound by common values.

While many Europeans found British Prime Minister Theresa May’s charm offensive in Washington cringe-inducing, there was widespread respect for the decision by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, not to welcome Donald Trump to address parliament during his return visit. For pro-Europeans, this was a welcome reminder that the UK’s divorce from the EU has not made it an unquestioning bedfellow of the United States.

The next thing leaders must do is take serious action to stem the rise of the Trump-loving far right at home.

On this front, there are reasons for cautious optimism.

The defeat of the far-right populist Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections in March was a promising start. Then in France’s presidential elections in May, Emmanuel Macron, an unapologetic fan of the EU, scored a decisive victory over Marine Le Pen, who had threatened to leave the bloc.

The selection of former European parliament president and crowd pleaser Martin Schulz to challenge Angela Merkel in Germany’s upcoming elections makes it a near certainty that the continent’s most powerful economy will continue to be led by a Europhile.

The third and most important thing Europe must do is launch a major PR campaign.

Ignorance of what the EU does and what it stands for remains embarrassingly widespread.

Here it can learn a thing or two from Donald Trump, who leaves little need to speculate about what it is he believes.

With European identity abstract by definition, social media provides an ideal opportunity to present the spirit, if not the nuts and bolts, of European identity.

If there was any doubt before, Britain’s decision to leave the EU confirmed that Europe is in disarray. But hitting rock bottom is often what it takes for a family to pull together. After all, the only way to withstand the outrageous demands of a screaming toddler is with a united front.

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Why I’m afraid of social media timelines and you should be too.

If you think scrolling through your Facebook or Twitter feed is no big deal, take a moment to imagine the offline equivalent:

The posters on your train to work keep changing in line with the items you purchased last week.

An anonymous colleague  drops clippings of interesting articles on your desk. You have no idea how they know about your fascination for modern art and dancing hamsters.

Political canvassers representing views just a little more extreme than yours randomly appear when you’re in your favourite thrift store, or browsing through magazines at the newsagent.

We all know algorithms aren’t actual people. But they might as well be, because the information they gather is sold to real companies, which use it to make you buy stuff or influence the way you think.

Social media is a dream come true for advertisers. Rather than hoping a random billboard might grab your attention, they simply buy the right to find you by following your online cookie trail.

And as much as we like to consider ourselves free-thinking, independent individuals, big data and advances in statistics have made our behaviour eerily easy to predict.

This cringeworthy video designed to celebrate big data implies that its main advantages are to help us remember our friends’ birthdays, choose clothes and source free cupcakes.

I’m aware of the enormous real benefits of big data – like helping to make roads safer, improve healthcare and stop the spread of diseases.

But its commercial use presents a moral dilemma.

As we know from economic psychology, people generally base their decisions on the information most readily available to them. It’s called the availability heuristic and as common sense would suggest, means that we often act on the first thing that comes into our head.

The first thing that comes into our head is usually the information we’ve been exposed to over and over again.

Articles in our timeline which reinforce our existing worldview.

Photographs similar to ones we’ve reacted strongly to in the past.

Groups of people we’ve associated with before.

In other words, a repetition of who we are and the experiences we’ve already had.

The use of mass data sets coupled with algorithms adds a new dimension, without us even realising it.

An essay by WIRED editor David Rowan, which appears in a book titled “What should we be worried about?” opens:

“In a big-data world, it takes an exponentially rising curve of statistics to bring home just how subjugated we now are to the data crunchers’ powers.” He goes on to lament that:

 “Any citizen lacking a basic understanding of, and at least, minimal access to, the new algorithmic tools, will increasingly be disadvantaged in vast areas of economic, political, and social participation.”

The problem with cookie-led advertising and links generated by algorithms is that they are covert. There is no one to hold accountable for them.

There is no guy with a roller pasting an ad to the wall of an underground station.

If we open up a print newspaper, we know that every other reader is going to see the same advertisement for a high-power vacuum cleaner on page 6.

We can also reason that another publication might instead be trying to sell readers wellness retreats or flat-screen televisions.

Individually tailored timelines remove that certainty and erode our biggest antidote to advertising: collective cynicism.

Since the links and advertisements we’re seeing change from one second to the next, it’s  impossible to develop a coherent narrative about their presentation, let alone construct a common picture of what’s happening.

So, what’s the solution?

Sure, we could quit social media altogether.

But it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What we really need to do is to be aware of the extent our world view is being shaped by the things people pay for us to be exposed to online.

That is the first step towards reclaiming our capacity for independent thought.