2020, Vol. 27(3) 431â€“440
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The populist allure of social
media activism: Individualized
Lund University, Sweden
SÃ¶dertÃ¶rn University, Sweden
This article argues that the type of individualized social media activism that has been
conceptualized as â€˜connective actionâ€™ has affinities to populism, and may have detrimental
consequences for democratic procedures and the bureaucratic structures that enable them.
We trace the normative allure of individualized digital engagement to the libertarian roots of
techno-utopianism and argue that this, in combination with a form of mobilization fueled by
digital enthusiasm, has potentially dire democratic and organizational consequences. Digital
enthusiasm generated on social media platforms entails self-infatuation, here conceptualized
as a form of individualized charismatic authority in the Weberian sense. This individualized
form of charismatic authority is fundamentally focused on personalized engagement, and
simultaneously interconnected through the technological affordances of social media
platforms. If individualized charismatic authority becomes institutionalized as a legitimate and
predominant manner of organizing, it may have large-scale implications for societal organizing
at large by promoting populism. In sum, we argue that digital enthusiasm not only provides
democratic opportunities for protest and contention in civil society, but that the fickleness of
the individualized charismatic authority it generates may also put democratic procedures and
respect for bureaucratic structures at risk.
Charismatic authority, connective action, digital enthusiasm, populism, social media activism
Noomi Weinryb, Academy of Public Administration, SÃ¶dertÃ¶rn University, 141 89 Huddinge, Sweden.
Email: [email protected]
828565 ORG0010.1177/1350508419828565OrganizationGustafsson and Weinryb
432 Organization 27(3)
In this article, we show how the use of social media platforms to organize mass action contributes
to a networked individualism driven by an emotional vocabulary, which promotes populism, and
potentially undermines the legitimacy of the bureaucratic organizational structures that uphold
liberal democracies. Drawing on the concepts of â€˜connective actionâ€™ and â€˜digital enthusiasmâ€™
(Bennett and Segerberg, 2012, 2013; Gerbaudo, 2016), Max Weberâ€™s (1978) typology of authorities, as well as contemporary research on populism (Bonikowski and Gidron, 2016; Mudde, 2004),
we argue that there is an arbitrary demarcation separating populism in the traditional sense of the
word, and various forms of networked individualist activism (Wellman, 2001).
The emotional fervor stirred on Facebook during the 2015 European â€˜refugee crisisâ€™ illustrates this
argument. The fall of 2015 saw how the speedy rise of spontaneous voluntary initiatives to help refugees organized through ad hoc or existing Facebook groups and pages complemented and indeed
sometimes frustrated more traditional efforts by civil society organizations and public administration.
Different groups of participants used different strategies, and the use of certain tropes and symbolic
uses of expressive and emotional language to mobilize and create cohesion (e.g. the Refugees
Welcome action frame, among others). This enabled a concerted effort to help incoming refugees, but
also brought about massive logistical challenges (Gustafsson, Weinryb and Gullberg, 2018).
This article is structured as follows. First, we describe techno-utopianism and its individualizing
consequences, both in terms of the platforms themselves and on the level of ideology. Second, we
outline how this combination of both technical and ideological individualism has populist tendencies. Third, we argue that the populism brought about by the networked individualist populism
fueled by social media technology grinds down on established organizational structures. Finally,
we argue that, this extreme process of individualized connectivity whirls into a form of networked
individualized charismatic authority, propelled by a short-term emotional impetus challenging the
legitimacy of bureaucratic authority in established civil society organizations. Ultimately, this has
the potential to put the democratic core of our societies at risk.
The ideological push for individualization through social media
To flesh out the broad argument concerning populism and social media that we put forward in this
paper, we will begin by sketching the ideological push for individualization that emerged concurrently with the rise of social media platforms. A major body of research on mass engagement
through social media follows the tradition of techno-utopianism, ideologically tinged by libertarianism, which has been a companion of public and scholarly debate on the Internet, digital media,
social media, and their effects on the organization of human affairs (cf. Morozov, 2011; for a forceful and perhaps somewhat overblown account, see Morozov, 2013). This tradition was already
implicit in thoughts about the potential of the Internet for societal change from the 1970s onwards,
but grew in importance during the 1990s. The inspiration that social scientists interested in Internet
research drew from these ideas created a set of uneasy bedfellows: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs,
leftist activists, and social scientists all congregated around an enthusiastic project to make rigid
governments obsolete by using the power of peers to organize (or not organize) an online society.
When technological thresholds for information exchange and coordination were lowered, individuals were described as being allowed to â€˜self-organize and develop their individualityâ€™ (Vinken,
2007: 51). Users could together create â€˜collective intelligenceâ€™ as a cooperative collective (LÃ©vy,
1997: 13) or a â€˜wisdom of the crowdsâ€™ as an aggregate of individuals (Surowiecki, 2004). Through
the virtual networks they would â€˜organize without organizationsâ€™ (Shirky, 2008) and form â€˜smart
Gustafsson and Weinryb 433
mobsâ€™ (Rheingold, 2002), seen as coordinated groups with common goals acting in a more cohesive fashion than â€˜traditionalâ€™ mobs. A â€˜virtual publicâ€™ (Negroponte, 1995; Papacharissi, 2002) or
a â€˜virtual agoraâ€™ (LÃ©vy, 1997: 57) was thought to develop, functioning as a platform for political
deliberation and digital direct democracy. Sometimes it was claimed that such a platform could
replace representative government (LÃ©vy, 1997). In its most extreme shape, it was posited that
network structures could replace hierarchical organization and nation states completely (Castells,
As a result, Internet entrepreneurs mired in techno-utopian libertarianism designed their platforms accordingly. However, although users adapted their behavior to the affordances created by
the new technology, they also came up with novel ways to take advantage of these platforms that
were not envisioned by their creators (Baym, 2015). For instance, Mark Zuckerberg did not foresee
that Facebook would be used as a tool for organizing political protest as well as mass-coordination
of volunteers. Neither did he foresee what the effects would be when activistsâ€™ engagement became
visible to their peers and others in unexpected ways as a result of the algorithms producing the
feed. We mean that these unforeseen consequences of mass action, not only for protest but also for
logistical coordination of volunteers, pose specific populist challenges to the way society at large,
and most pertinently civil society, is organized.
The normative allure of individualized digital engagement
With the rise of prominent social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in the mid-2000s,
subsequent studies of networked activism and social movements taking advantage of digital media,
mainly focused on â€˜goodâ€™ causes (the environment, human rights, democracy, social justice, antiracism, feminism, and rights for asylum seekers), whereas â€˜badâ€™ causes more often associated with
â€˜populistâ€™ movements (racism, anti-feminism, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, anti-immigration) to a large extent went understudied. Perhaps this focus is the reason that the populist affinities
of networked activism in and of itself, and the potential harms that a spread of this kind of populism could do to democratic systems, largely remained a blind spot for a long time.
In their seminal article and accompanying book, Bennett and Segerberg (2012, 2013) outlined
how the technical affordances of social and other digital media platforms can enable movements
that are qualitatively different from previous forms of collective action in that they do not require
participants to share a common identity or vision. According to Bennett and Segerberg (2012),
â€˜digitally enabled action networksâ€™ entail â€˜technology platforms and applications taking the role of
established political organizationsâ€™ (p. 742). As a part of this development â€˜personal action framesâ€™,
where individuals can buy into, customize, and share â€˜framesâ€™ or â€˜memesâ€™ like â€˜We are the 99 percentâ€™ in the case of the â€˜Occupy Wall Streetâ€™ movement, or â€˜Refugees Welcomeâ€™ in the case of the
2015 â€˜refugee crisisâ€™, replace collective action frames defined by organizations (Bennett and
Segerberg, 2013: 37). They associate this development with a long trend of individualization in
post-industrial democracies, where various types of organizational membership and loyalty to collectives have been steadily dwindling for the past 40â€“50years (cf. Inglehart, 1977). Instead of
channeling voluntarist yearnings through hierarchical organizations with a huge ideological and/or
organizational baggage, new generations naturally choose to engage in a more flexible way, in
which their individualism is preserved (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012: 744).
The relationship of social media platforms and networked individualism is thus not one of deterministic cause and effect, but rather an example of the â€˜social shaping of technologyâ€™, in which
societal trends and technology bounce off each other (Baym, 2015). The platforms themselves
replace the organization (links, event calendars, likes, shares, etc., are enough to keep the movement going) and simultaneously fulfill the emotional needs of the individuals. As stated above, the
434 Organization 27(3)
underlying techno-utopian ideology favors spontaneous â€˜ad-hocracyâ€™ (Tufekci, 2017: 53 with
notes) over planned bureaucracy. In other words, connective action abandons the strive for a formal
democratic and bureaucratic organization (Selznick, 1949) and replaces it with another type of
organizational imperative, which is appreciated and sought after by the individuals who join.
In the case of the mobilization around the 2015 refugee crisis, there was clearly a strong force
of enthusiasm driving engagement and emanating from the fast and large mobilization of volunteers. For example, an analysis of a large number of posts from Facebook groups and pages associated with both ad hoc networks and established civil society organizations who were mobilizing
volunteers around the 2015 refugee crisis in Sweden reveals that words associated with positive
emotions were used to a large extent in both categories, and also generated higher levels of engagement (Gustafsson et al., 2018). However, this engagement was frequently very short-sighted, competing with the refugee aid provided by established civil society organizations, and often seemed
equally geared toward the needs of volunteers to be part of a cheering collective of â€˜do-goodersâ€™ as
to the needs of the refugees (Gustafsson et al., 2018). In our view, this self-infatuated imperative to
show, tell, and cheer engagement online may be labeled as charismatic: its individuality entails the
boom and bust cycle of digital enthusiasm (Gerbaudo, 2016), and it peddles populist beliefs in the
power of the individual in opposition to the elite.
The prevailing opinion on the risks of social media engagement often focuses on the use of
hate speech, anger, and resentment, especially in relation to ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism. However, we mean that also the usage of â€˜positiveâ€™ emotional expressions (related to love,
heroism, solidarity, etc.) on social media, exhibits similar populist traits. By focusing on the
medium, we propose that populism is not only inherent in the populist messaging, but rather in
the organizing itself. We argue here that the individualism and personal action frames facilitated
by social media pose populist threats to established organizations and institutionalized forms of
organizing. This is done primarily through the belief in the power of individualized mass engagement on social media, disregarding its fickleness and boom and bust cycle. In this process,
established civil society organizations stand in the first line of fire in terms of seeming obsolete
and overburdened with administrative procedures in comparison to spontaneous networked
engagement (Gustafsson et al., 2018), although a similar absence of belief in the relevance of
public administration is very likely the next step.
Online populism and the democratic and organizational
consequences of individualization
The populist idea that â€˜the peopleâ€™ are fighting against â€˜the establishmentâ€™ or â€˜the eliteâ€™ is not only
found in specifically ideologically driven movements, for example, right-wing or left-wing
populism. In fact the very medium of contemporary social media platforms facilitates specific
populist forms of engagement by basing this engagement on short-term, emotional, and individualized rhetoric. Although often associated with party politics, populism has been pointed out in other
spheres, for instance, the media and social sciences (Mudde, 2004: 542). Mudde (2004) has defined
populism as â€˜an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into [â€¦] â€œthe pure peopleâ€ and â€œthe corrupt eliteâ€, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volontÃ©
genÃ©rale (general will) of the peopleâ€™ (p. 543). However, rather than being an essential characteristic of political movements, populism can be seen as a repertoire of strategies, or as a discursive
style, which can be used at different points in time and to a larger or lesser extent (Bonikowski and
Gidron, 2016). It is a â€˜thin-centeredâ€™ ideology which can be connected with any other ideology, and
stands in opposition to pluralismâ€”the idea that society is made up of a â€˜heterogeneous collection
Gustafsson and Weinryb 435
of groups and individualsâ€™ with different ideas, interests, and goals (Mudde, 2004: 544). Mudde
(2004) finds a combination of factors underlying this, among which most notably he points out the
development of the media and the emancipation of individuals (p. 552 ff).
Mudde and Kaltwasser (2012) claim that populism can be both positive and negative for democracy. Positive because of its focus on the political views of â€˜ordinaryâ€™ citizens, negative because of
its undermining of the â€˜bureaucraticâ€™ elements of democracy: rule of law, human rights, and so on.
The â€˜peopleâ€™ are not the entire people, but an imagined community representing â€˜a virtuous and
unified populationâ€™ (Taggart, 2000: 95 cit. in Mudde, 2004: 545). A core belief in populism is that
the people do not need to be educated or have their views altered; they already have common sense
and thus know best (Mudde, 2004). Mudde finds a â€˜populist Zeitgeistâ€™ caused by the undermining
of the political eliteâ€™s bureaucratic authority as defined by Max Weber (1978), instead making way
for a reintroduction of charismatic authority (Mudde, 2004: 556).
According to Weber (1978), charisma â€˜arises from collective excitement produced by extraordinary events and from surrender to heroism of any kindâ€™ (p. 1121) The power of charisma rests
â€˜upon the belief in revelation and heroesâ€™ (Weber, 1978: 1116). In the context of digital activism,
charismatic authority can be interpreted as digital enthusiasm, defined as â€˜intense occasions of
online interaction in which the emotions of thousands of Web users fuse into a collective sense of
possibilityâ€™ (Gerbaudo, 2016: 256). However, as Gerbaudo (2016) points out, this enthusiasm is
short-lived, following a boom and bust cycle of engagement that puts long-term protest as well as
established civil society organizations following in its footsteps in peril (p. 270). For populism,
there can be no costâ€“benefit analysis of conflicting goals: compromises are impossible, since the
conflict is the one between good and evil. Taggart (2000) links populism with charismatic leaders
because of its lack of key values, but as we are going to show in the what follows, charismatic
authority can be projected onto the networked individualized engagement itself.
The self-infatuation generated on social media platforms
In his foundational work on authority, Weber (1978) contrasted the modern phenomenon of bureaucratic authority with that of traditional and charismatic authority. Whereas bureaucratic authority,
the foundation of modern liberal democracy, adheres to rationalized modern tenets such as specified rules, spheres of competence, and the systematic division of powers, the other types do not.
Traditional authority derives from hereditary claims to power, whereas charismatic authority is
based on the specific charismatic traits of the leader, as defined and recognized by her or his
followers. Charismatic authority exists when it is understood as such in the eyes of its adherents.
For the purposes of this article, we do not mean that digital enthusiasm necessarily implies the
existence of one specific charismatic leader, who stands as an ideal type at the core of Weberâ€™s idea
of charismatic authority. Instead, we mean that this authority becomes inherent in the form of
engagement itself. We call this individualized charismatic authority. This type of authority differs
from that presented in the work of Le Bon (2017 ), viewing the crowd as obliterating the
unique actions of single individuals, or the transcendence beyond individual action in Durkheimâ€™s
(1976 ) concept of collective effervescence (Lindholm, 1992; Pope et al., 1975; Tiryakian,
1995). Instead, we mean that the relevant unit of analysis in the case of social media is the populism generated by each individualâ€™s focus on their own engagement, and at the same time the
interconnected individualism that the technical affordances of social network sites make possible.
As self-centered social media usage enables the exhibition of narcissistic behavior (Buffardi and
Campbell, 2008; Leung, 2013; Mehdizadeh, 2010), individual social media users become their
own â€˜crowd crystalâ€™ (Canetti, 1984) or their own â€˜mirror hungry personalityâ€™ (Post, 1986).
436 Organization 27(3)
Using personal action frames (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012), each individual activist simultaneously becomes a charismatic subject/follower of their own actions. Digital enthusiasm replaces
the external singular leader with an individualized charismatic authority, where individuals coalesce around themselves, seduced and blown-away by their own engagement as much as by the
movement itself. This is somewhat reminiscent of Pasini et al.â€™s (2015) reinterpretation of Weberâ€™s
(2015) concept in â€˜leaderlessâ€™ organizations of the digital era by focusing on the charismatic situation rather than the charismatic leader (p. 85). The charismatic leader from Weberâ€™s original conceptualization is thus replaced by the self-infatuation enabled by contemporary technological
platforms. This is also in line with recent research pointing to social media platforms as promoters
of narcissistic behavior (Buffardi and Campbell, 2008; Leung, 2013; Mehdizadeh, 2010). Rather
than merging into a collective conscience (Durkheim, 2018 ) the social aspect of social
media is its interconnected self-infatuation; the central aspect is the focus on the â€˜meâ€™ showing,
cheering, and being cheered in this public or semi-public setting. The social media platforms
simultaneously enable both extreme individualization, and profound connectivity, creating the
basis for the individualized charismatic authority.
The fickleness of individualized charismatic authority
The proliferation of individualized charismatic authority poses risks to democratic organizations
and societies. Weber described challenges for organizing based on charismatic authority, primarily
related to its durability, eventually leading to its transformation or demise. According to him, â€˜[e]
very charisma is on the road from a turbulently emotional life that knows no economic rationality
to a slow death by suffocation under the weight of material interests: every hour of its existence
brings it nearer to its endâ€™ (Weber, 1978: 1120). Charismatic authority is thus inherently unstable.
In this respect, it is similar to the boom and bust cycle described by Gerbaudo (2016), outlining the
short-term peaking of digital enthusiasm and its accompanying evanescence.
There is risk in a disproportional belief in the importance and ability of each individual activistâ€™s
engagement: I can judge what is important, I can judge what is true, I can judge can who and what
is wrong, stupid, and bad. I am the superior judge of the faults of our society, and without the wish
to coordinate collective action with respect for bureaucratic organizational processes, I can demand
change at any price as long as I am cheering others and being cheered in return. In its online format,
charismatic authority is a direct threat to the bureaucratic authority as the prerequisite of modern
states and representative democracy (Suleiman, 2013). A democratic state needs a functioning
bureaucracy in order to attain state capacities necessary to implement decisions:
The rich and powerful have ways of looking after themselves, and if left to their own devices will always
get their way over nonelites. It is only the state, with its judicial and enforcement power, that can make
elites conform to the same rules that everyone else is required to follow. (Fukuyama, 2014: 56)
The reason that bureaucratic authority is the cornerstone of representative government is that it
replaces demagoguery and emotional responses to societal problems with a system designed to
produce binding decisions based on a legal framework guaranteeing the rule of law and the equal
treatment of citizens (du Gay, 2000). Conversely, civil society initiatives that are driven by individualized charisma rather than bureaucratic organization run the same risk of ending up as either
entities kidnapped by powerful interests, or by becoming deadlocked in a tactical freeze (Tufekci,
2017), unable to coordinate action and wield negotiating power.
A normative tilt toward charismatic authority as a way out of the bureaucratic iron cage has
gradually crept into discourse on public and civil society organizations in recent decades, often
Gustafsson and Weinryb 437
attributed to the spread of managerialism and the hyping of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism (du
Gay, 2000). A dominant idea in this line of thought is that bureaucracy traps individuals and societies in inhuman and rigid systems, and fragments different parts of the human experience, excluding emotions, love, compassion, creativity, and so on.1 Similar versions of this critique emanate
from different directions, including both post-structural thinkers and neoliberal managerialists (du
Gay, 2000). We mean that this tilt toward charismatic authority should be viewed on a broader
scale, tracing it to the individualistic roots of the ideological and technological features of online
platforms. Charismatic authority replaces organized democratic decision-making with trust in the
leader doing the right thing. It is the same phenomenon in the type of individualized charismatic
authority we describe hereâ€”it stipulates that each individual by definition knows and does what is
right. This mirrors the libertarian ideas surrounding such enterprises as Wikipedia, where the
alleged operating procedure is that the best and most neutral text on a subject will arise naturally
from the cooperation between peers: the wisdom of the crowd relies in this sense on charismatic
authority, which is fueled by emotional fervor and cheering crowds, rather than on democratic
decisions and a structured distribution of responsibility and accountability.2
Anti-bureaucrat critiques as well as critiques of representative democracy (Beitz, 1989;
Pateman, 1970) play a major part in the anarcho-libertarian ideology that underlies a lot of intellectual development related to movements associated with the Internet, the web, and social media.
It is for this reason that the prospect of organizing without organizations (cf. Shirky, 2008) holds
such a great promise for anti-authoritarianists. As a result, formal decision-making is avoided altogether in these social media initiatives, or rather, decisions are taken all the time, but on an ad hoc
basis, which paradoxically reinserts the same kind of informal power that riddles traditional organizations, but without the legitimacy and stability rendered by a formal structure (Brunsson, 2007;
Cyert and March, 1963; Selznick, 1949). For example, the various ad hoc efforts put together during the 2015 refugee crisis had no way of deciding on how they should interact with government
authorities, and so proved to be difficult partners both to public agencies and traditional civil
society organizations (Turunen and Weinryb, 2018).
For Weber (1978), the transformation of charisma into established organizational forms contains the seeds leading to its demise. The instability of charismatic authority is relevant in relation
to other forms of authority: â€˜in its pure form charismatic authority may be said to exist only in statu
nascendi. It cannot remain stable, but becomes either traditionalized or rationalized or a combination of bothâ€™ (Weber, 1978: 246). However, although charismatic authority may dissipate or transform with time, we suggest that the reoccurring bouts of individualized charismatic authority
brought about by digital enthusiasm may perpetually challenge the very legitimacy of bureaucratic
forms of organizing. If the way to bring about large-scale digital engagement is through individualized charismatic authority, and if its digital enthusiasm becomes institutionalized as the predominant legitimate manner to organize (albeit in short time spans), this may challenge previous ideas
on what it means to be a legitimate organization (Meyer and Rowan, 1977). Indeed, trust in existing democratic institutions may drop as bureaucracy loses out and populist movements gain
ground, thereby making the functioning of democratic society even more difficult. Since this drop
in trust has arguably already begun, any further losses in legitimacy could have dire consequences
What lies ahead?
In contrast to most contemporary organizational research pointing to (and often implicitly criticizing) the ever-proliferating bureaucratic organizing of society (Bromley and Meyer, 2014;
Meyer and Bromley, 2013), the large-scale proliferation of networks organized through social
438 Organization 27(3)
media entail the spread of individualized charismatic authority as a radically different organizational imperative. If populist tendencies of individualized charismatic authority become institutionalized as a legitimate and prevalent manner to bring about collective action in society, this has
implications not only for existing civil society organizations, but for democracy and bureaucracy
at large, especially as digitalization increasingly prevails in many societal spheres. In their longterm panel study of the political socialization of Swedish youth, AmnÃ¥ and Ekman (2014) found
that many potential activists were â€˜standby citizensâ€™: interested and engaged, but remaining passive until a window of opportunity or a catalyzing event in society transforms them into activists.
But if these standby citizens can only be mobilized for short bursts of action and attention,
oscillating in and out of ad hoc connective action networks driven by digital enthusiasm, will they
be an independent force for societal change, or will they rather be numbers to be exploited by
more or less populist interests?
The problem is not that a group of people are only active or attentive to societal affairs during limited
periods of time; the danger lies in whether the lure of connective action and the massive scope and
energy that can be mobilized for short periods of time: moments of enthusiasm becomes a dominating
yet capricious way of organizing in democratic societies. In addition, individualized charismatic authority may occur in any normative contexts, and is as such an unpredictable and populist manner of engagement. Whereas some populism may appear as being benevolent from a democratic perspective, the
same mechanisms may entice populism based on, for example, ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism.
Digital enthusiasm does not merely provide democratic opportunities for protest and contention. Its very
evanescence may put civil society and the established benefits of democratic procedures at risk.
The authors thank their colleagues at the Academy of Public Administration at SÃ¶dertÃ¶rn University for enabling this study. A special thanks to Mattias WahlstrÃ¶m for excellent comments on an earlier draft of the text.
They also thank Pascal KÃ¶nig and participants at the panel From Helping Hands to Molotov Cocktails â€“
Understanding Citizensâ€™ Miscellaneous Reactions to the Refugee Crisis at the 2017 ECPR General Conference
for valuable comments and insights. Both the authors contributed equally.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: N.W. was funded by Riksbankens Jublieumsfond, Grant No. SGO14-1174:1. N.G. received
no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors for this study.
1. Of course, bureaucratic organizations are run by people who have emotions. It can even be posited that
a set of emotions underlie bureaucracy itself (cf. Albrow, 1992).
2. Wikipedia has since its early days moved toward a more hierarchical mode of operation, but that really
only proves our point.
Noomi Weinryb https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1477-2493
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