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Given the recent rise of hyperpartisan media-often described as purveyors of 'fake news'-and populist right-wing parties across a series of western contexts, the present study details the degree to which these actors succeed in overtaking their more mainstream competitors when it comes to audience engagement on Facebook. Focusing on the one-month period leading up to the 2018 Swedish national elections, the study finds that right-wing actors across the media and the political sector are more successful in engaging their Facebook followers than their competitors, often utilizing sensational rhetoric and hate-mongering as campaign techniques. As audience engagement is a key factor for social media success, the study closes by providing a discussion on the repercussions for professionals within the media and the political sector.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
Anders Olof Larsson
Kristiania University College
School of Communication, Leadership and Marketing
Given the recent rise of hyperpartisan media – often described as purveyors of ‘fake news’ –
and populist right-wing parties across a series of western contexts, the present study details
the degree to which these actors succeed in overtaking their more mainstream competitors
when it comes to audience engagement on Facebook. Focusing on the one-month period
leading up to the 2018 Swedish national elections, the study finds that right-wing actors
across the media and the political sector are more successful in engaging their Facebook
followers than their competitors, often utilizing sensational rhetoric and hate-mongering as
campaign techniques. As audience engagement is a key factor for social media success, the
study closes by providing a discussion on the repercussions for professionals within the
media and the political sector.
Social media; Facebook; Audience Engagement; Journalism; Alternative Media;
Hyperpartisan; Political Communication
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
General elections are indeed “unique moments of national political activity and debate
(Gibson et al., 2014: 124). It is difficult to imagine other societal events where actors seeking
to yield influence so intensely sharpen their communicative efforts, resulting in massive
torrents of information and persuasive attempts being released upon potential voters.
Focusing on Facebook use during the 2018 Swedish elections, this study assesses the
influence of two comparably novel types of actors during an election campaign. Specifically,
we are interested in the rise of of hyperpartisan media actors and the growing popularity of
right-wing populist political actors.
While notions of ‘alternative media’ (Atton, 2001) have been employed to denote
journalistic endeavors emanating from outside of established media organizations, the
offerings prepared by what is referred to in this study as hyperpartisan actors could be seen
as a different animal. The term is used here to identify media outlets who present
themselves as truthful substitutes for their supposed Lügenpresse mainstream competitors.
Hyperpartisan media tend to portray themselves as in almost constant conflict with their
competitors and with a select set of political interests (Fletcher et al., 2018; Tandoc et al.,
2017). With the influx of media actors like Breitbart in the US, similar right-wing initiatives
have also emerged elsewhere. More often than not, they succeed in reaching their readers
by means of social media (Holt and Haller, 2017). For political actors, then, populism is on
the rise as made evident in a series of elections across the globe. Regardless of how
populism is defined – for example, as a ‘thin’ ideology (Mudde, 2004), as a style of
communication (Jagers and Walgrave, 2007) or as a political strategy (Weyland, 2001), it is
clear that actors understood along these lines have utilized social media to largely
“uncontestedly articulate their ideology and spread their messages(Engesser et al., 2017a:
Regardless of societal domain, both hyperpartisan media and populist parties have
employed the capabilities of social media to spread their messages. While research into
online developments pertaining to journalism (Djerf-Pierre et al., 2016) and political
communication (Larsson and Svensson, 2014) alike have previously suggested that online
opportunities largely tend to normalize power relations – those enjoying attention offline
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
will do so also online – the entry of right-wing media and political actors appears to at least
partially challenge this assumption (Larsson, 2019). The study at hand, then, provides
empirical insights into the popularity enjoyed by such novel actors when compared to their
mainstream competitors by focusing on the use of Facebook during the 2018 Swedish
The Swedish context appears as suitable for a study into the spread of hyperpartisan and
populist content on social media for several reasons. Featuring high levels of online news
readership (Facht, 2016) and high levels of voting attendance (IDEA, 2019), Sweden is an
interesting case with which to compare the oft-studied UK and US contexts – especially since
the country features a party-centered rather than a candidate-centered political system, and
since it historically been understood as a moderate pluralistic party system – featuring
multiple parties and limited ideological differences amongst these parties (Sartori, 1990).
Our case country also features comparably high levels of trust in the media (Syvertsen et al.,
2014) in sum, a rather different context when compared to the previously mentioned
countries. Moreover, as Sweden accepted a comparably large share of immigrants during
the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, and as the country suffered a supposedly IS-related terrorist
attack during 2017 (e.g Nyberg and Masters, 2017), previously largely positive opinions
towards immigrants among Swedes appeared to be changing (Mohdin, 2016), but also in the
elected social democratic government (Crouch, 2015).
Taken together, these characteristics set the scene for a study of how novel political and
media actors make use of social media to convey their messages. While populist parties in
other European countries have emanated from varying ideological backgrounds (e.g. Nai,
2018), the Swedish situation leading up to the elections studied here saw little influence
from non-right-wing populist actors. Similarly, the major hyperpartisan media outlets in the
Swedish context tend to take right-wing perspectives (Holt, 2018). With these characteristics
in mind, the terms “right-wingwill be used in the paper at hand to refer to populist political
actors and hyperpartisan media outlets alike. Drawing on the suggestions for research into
such actors made by de Vreese and co-authors (2018), the study presented here makes a
contribution to the broader field of political communication first of all by featuring a
comparative approach, detailing the activities by two different types of right-wing actors in
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
relation to their mainstream competitors. Relatedly, the study engages with “populism by
the media” (de Vreese et al, 2018: 429) in that it encompasses activities by media actors.
Finally, the methodological design will allow us to assess “the degree to which social media
are platforms for sharing disinformation” (de Vreese et al, 2018: 433) in that it details the
degree to which populist and hyperpartisan actors succeed in their online endeavors when
compared to their mainstream competitors.
Recent research in political communication has suggested that right-wing populists have
been especially fervent in their utilization of social media such as Facebook (Engesser et al.,
2017a, 2017b). Such findings provide food for thought to the ongoing debate regarding the
influence of political ideology on online campaigning practices and success. For instance,
comparably early research looking into online campaigning in the UK and Australia
suggested that right-wingers were “the most visible online” (Gibson et al., 2008: 26) and that
similarly ideologically inclined parties in France made “the most of the internet’s potential
for disseminating information to various audiences(Vaccari, 2008: 17). However, these and
other similar findings from the same time period largely deal with pre-social media uses of
the Internet, where candidates and parties would typically use web pages to try and
persuade potential voters. Comparably later research efforts have suggested that the
introduction of social media has led to a deideologization (e.g. Kalsnes, 2016; Lilleker et al.,
2011) of such activities. Essentially, such a perspective suggests a spread of online prowess
regardless of party placement on the ideological spectrum – perhaps due to the supposed
diminished financial burdens that political actors have associated with such services (e.g.
Strandberg, 2013) or because of the perception that social media like Facebook would be
easier to use than their ‘web 1.0’ predecessors (e.g. Vergeer and Hermans, 2013).
Relatedly, it would appear that many of the populist parties that have surfaced across
European democracies in recent times can be understood as what Margetts (2001) has
referred to as cyber parties, “characterised by technologically-aided relationships between
party and voters rather than formal membership(Margetts, 2001: 1). These relationships
are also seen as fluctuating, as they succeed in engaging voters from varying ideological
backgrounds depending on the context of engagement and the themes dealt with. Indeed,
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
the term “populism 2.0” (Gerbaudo, 2014) has been employed to indicate how such parties
are successfully portraying themselves as using services like social media to maintain their
supposed close ties to ‘the people’ – arguably a characteristic that is often associated with
populist parties (e.g. Jagers and Walgrave, 2007). Relatedly, populist leaders seem to be
more capable than their non-populist competitors to employ online services to create or
reinforce bonds with those reached by them (e.g. Mosca et al., 2015). Thus, we might expect
such tightened relationships to lead to greater success for populists when it comes to
engaging Facebook followers – for instance by urging those reached by the posts to
redistibute them by means of the Facebook sharing functionality. Thus, as right-wing
populist parties had been rather successful in their online endeavors during recent elections
in our case country (Lorentzen, 2014; Larsson, 2017) as well as elsewhere (Larsson, 2014),
and as populist parties of other ideological persuasions had not been as successful in gaining
traction during the period preceding the studied election, we expect right-wing parties to
succeed in attracting the attention of supposedly politically disenfranchised citizens (Gil de
Zúñiga, Veenstra, Vraga et al, 2010), thereby increasing their online visibility. In sum, we
suggest the following two hypotheses in relation to the studied political actors:
H1: Right-wing parties will have larger followings than non-right-wing parties
H2: Facebook engagement will be more pronounced in relation to right-wing
parties when compared with their non-right-wing political competitors.
The definition of Facebook engagement employed in this study is offered in the method
section of the paper at hand. Next, we move on to look at the rise of right-wing actors in the
media sector.
Within the broader field of journalism studies, social media like Facebook have often been
discussed in terms of carrying with them the potential to take on complementary or indeed
oppositional roles (e.g. Bruns and Highfield, 2012) in relation to institutionalized, traditional
journalistic efforts (e.g. Deuze, 2005). Combining the open-ended architecture of these
platforms with the disentanglement from established journalistic practices and codes of
conduct often associated with hyperpartisan news, it would seem that the often emotion-
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
triggered algorithms that guide social media fit with the similarly emotional rhetoric often
featured in the contents offered by hyperpartisan outlets (Montells, 2017; Socialbakers,
2013; Zhang et al., 2017; Hermida, 2013; Larsson, 2019). Following Nygaard (2019), the rise
of hyperpartisan outlets appears to be coinciding with the previously discussed increased
presence of populist political parties (Aalberg et al., 2017) - as well as with the rise of more
loosely organized movements geared towards criticism of societal elites and immigration
(Sheets et al., 2015). At first glance, we might expect these seemingly related tendencies to
contribute to a leading role for hyperpartisan outlets in terms of numbers of Facebook
followers – much like for the right-wing parties discussed above. However, given the
previously mentioned important role of mainstream media in the context under study, we
expect the number of mainstream media followers to be higher than the same statistic for
their hyperpartisan counterparts. Our third hypothesis reads accordingly:
H3: Non-right-wing media will have larger followings than hyperpartisan media
As levels of engagement will influence the spread and visibility of Facebook posts, the
degree to which followers can be convinced to engage by means of reacting to, commenting
on or sharing posts is a key metric related to social media performance (García-Perdomo et
al., 2017; Trilling et al., 2017). Indeed, results from the U.K. (Chadwick et al., 2018) as well as
from France and Italy (Fletcher et al., 2018) suggest that followers of hyperpartisan media on
Facebook are more active in engaging with content found on such pages than are the
followers of mainstream media pages. Thus, when formulating our fourth and final
hypothesis, we remember the suggestion made by Van Aelst and co-authors (2017) to study
the demand for hyperpartisan news in an empirical setting:
H4: Facebook engagement will be more pronounced in relation to hyperpartisan
media outlets when compared with mainstream media outlets
For data collection, Table One provides an overview of the political and media actors
included in the study.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
Actors were chosen to be included in the study based on two criteria - first, whether or not
they had been subject to similar scrutiny in previous work (e.g. Larsson, 2017; Holt, 2018;
Newman et al., 2018); second, whether or not the actors had succeeded in gaining attention
in the media during the period leading up to the election. This latter criterion was primarily
relevant in relation for the right-wing actors across sectors – for instance, while parties like
Alternativ för Sverige (Alternative for Sweden, Afs) were not well-known in Swedish society
before the 2018 election cycle, the attention enjoyed by their German equivalent Alternative
für Deutschland warranted the inclusion of this and other actors like them.
Focusing on the Facebook Pages operated by the actors, CrowdTangle was employed to
gather data on the posts made by each actor during a one-month period leading up to the
election date, September 9th, 2018. With full historical access to Facebook Page data,
CrowdTangle is reminiscent of Netvizz (Rieder, 2013) and was used here to archive Page
posts and their corresponding meta-data – such as number of reactions, shares and
comments posted to each post at the time of data collection, as well as the number of
followers that each page had at the time of each posting (CrowdTangle Team, 2019). The
one-month period of data collection was selected based on practices identified in previous,
similar studies (e.g. Larsson, 2014; Laaksonen et al., 2017).
For analysis, hypotheses 1 (“Right-wing parties will have larger followings than non-right-
wing parties”) and 3 (“Non-right-wing media will have larger followings than hyperpartisan
media”) dealt with the number of followers enjoyed by each page during the studied time
period. To examine these hypotheses, we utilized the “Page Likes at Posting” variable
reported by CrowdTangle, which as the name implies reports the number of users who liked
each page at the time of each post. Conversely, hypotheses 2 (“Facebook engagement will
be more pronounced in relation to right-wing parties when compared with their non-right-
wing political competitors”) and 4 (“Facebook engagement will be more pronounced in
relation to hyperpartisan media outlets when compared with mainstream media outlets”),
dealt with the levels of Facebook engagement enjoyed by each included page post at the
time of data collection. Engagement is understood here as the total of reactions, comments
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
and shares for each post, and these three varieties will be examined in isolation from each
other in order to identify any differing use patterns. The term ‘pronounced’ is used in
hypotheses 2 and 4 to entail a heightened level of activity per follower in relation to posts.
We measure this activity by dividing the different types of engagement per post with the
number of followers that each page enjoyed at the time that each specific post was posted.
Of course, posts can spread beyond such followers (for instance by means of being shared),
gaining a greater audience and thus a greater potential for being engaged with. Albeit a
somewhat crude metric, this operation nevertheless provides us with a measurement of the
degree to which specific posts succeed in gaining engagement as defined here.
The collected material was analyzed by means of a series of statistical techniques. To be
precise, a series of ANOVA tests featuring effect sizes (partial eta squared, ηp2) and planned
comparisons corresponding to the hypotheses were executed. While these statistical
analyses provided the results necessary to examine our four hypotheses, they did not
provide much detail regarding the types of posts that succeed in terms of reaching higher
levels of engagement. The second part of the results section thus identifies and provides
some detail into the posts that where especially successful in gaining traction across the
studied Facebook pages.
The results are presented by means of a series of figures and corresponding statistical
measurements. When possible, numbers have been rounded to the second decimal –
however, in some instances it was necessary to report up to four decimals in order to
properly convey the results.
Figures One through Four employ greyscale to denote the different actors under scrutiny.
White bars indicate activity related to non-right-wing parties and party leaders, while the
checkered bars represent activity emanating from right-wing parties and their respective
leaders. Activities related to mainstream media outlets are shown as light grey bars, while
their hyperpartisan competitors are represented by dark grey bars.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
An ANOVA indicated significant mean differences ([F(3, 7557) = 3881.62, p = .000, ηp2 =
.606]) between the different groups of actors. Judging by the guidelines for effect size
interpretation suggested by Cohen (1988), the reported ηp2 must be considered as large,
indicating a substantial influence of actor type on the average number of Facebook
followers. As previously mentioned, planned comparison analyses were employed to detail
the precise nature of these differences as suggested by the hypotheses guiding the study.
Starting with the political actors under scrutiny, the mean number of page likes enjoyed by
right-wing political pages (M = 105 747.97; SD = 83 284.86) emerged as larger than the mean
of page likes of their mainstream political competitors (M = 80 540.89; SD = 59 514.324).
Results from a planned comparison analysis detailed the mean difference suggested by the
ANOVA further, focusing first on the political actors discussed above. This analysis proved to
be significant (t = 6.38; value of contrast = 25 207.08; p < .000) – a result that confirms H1.
As such, during the month-long period preceding the 2018 Swedish elections, right-wing
parties succeeded in amassing and maintaining followers on Facebook to a higher degree
than their non-right-wing competitors.
For the media actors included in the study, hyperpartisan outlet pages emerged as enjoying
a smaller number of followers on average (M = 45 529.97; SD = 32 360.002) than their
mainstream competitors (M = 333 865.14; SD = 145 607.688). Building on the ANOVA
reported above, planned comparisons analysis indicated that the reported mean difference
was statistically significant (t = 87.382; value of contrast = 288 335.17; p < .000). In terms of
Facebook followers, then, mainstream media outlets emerge as more popular than their
hyperpartisan competitors. This finding confirms H3, which stated that mainstream media
outlets would enjoy larger amounts of Facebook followers than their hyperpartisan
competitors - a reverse dynamic from the influx of right-wing parties and their leaders as
explored previously. Thus, for followers, while mainstream media actors are able to hold
their own, the same cannot be said for mainstream political parties who are faced with right-
wing incursion.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
With regards to H2 and H4, an ANOVA ([F(3, 7557) = 221.483, p = .000, ηp2 = .084])
suggested that for the reactions variety of Facebook engagement, significant differences
were found between mainstream and right-wing actors. Utilizing the aforementioned
guidelines for effect size interpretation, the ηp2 reported here suggests a medium effect of
actor type on the averages. Looking first to the parties and party leaders included in the
data, the results show that the mean number of reactions per page follower in relation to
right-wing actors emerged as smaller (M = .014; SD = .014) than the same statistic measured
for their non-right wing competitors (M = .017; SD = .04). Planned comparisons revealed the
uncovered mean difference to be statistically significant (t = 3.79; value of contrast = .003; p
< .000) – a finding that is not in line with H2. As such, for the reactions variety of Facebook
engagement, followers of mainstream political parties and party leaders emerge as more
active when compared to followers of right-wing political actors.
Next, for the media actors included in the study, the mean of reactions per page follower
emerged as higher for hyperpartisan publications (M = .009; SD = .012) than for mainstream
media outlets (M = .001; SD = .002). A planned comparisons analysis indicated that the
observed mean difference was statistically significant (t = 11.552; value of contrast = .008 ; p
< .000), thus supporting H4.
Much like for the previously reported ANOVAs, the one reported for the comments variety
of Facebook engagement suggested significant differences between the two categories of
actors ([F(3, 7557) = 149.013, p = .000, ηp2 = .056]). Following Cohen (1988), the ηp2
reported here suggests a moderate effect of actor type on the degree to which their
Facebook followers engage by means of commenting. Conversely from the reactions variety
of Facebooks engagement, right-wing parties and party leaders emerge with a larger number
of comments per page follower (M = .002; SD = .004) than their more mainstream political
counterparts (M = .001; SD = .003). Planned comparisons revealed this uncovered mean
difference to be statistically significant (t = 6.837; value of contrast = .001; p < .000), thus
supporting H2.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
Similar results were found for the media actors under scrutiny. Specifically, the mean
number of comments per page follower for hyperpartisan outlets (M = .001; SD = .002) was
found to be higher than the corresponding statistic for their mainstream media competitors
(M = .0002; SD = .0008). Planned comparisons again revealed the reported mean difference
to be statistically significant (t = 1.18; value of contrast = ,0008; p < .05) – a result that
supports H4.
Finally, for engagement by means of sharing, an ANOVA indicated significant mean
differences ([F(3, 7557) = 30.917, p = .000, ηp2 = .012]) with regards to shares per page
follower. In contrast to effect sizes reported in relation to the previously discussed varieties
of engagement, the ηp2 reported here suggests a rather small effect (Cohen, 1988). For the
political actors included in the study, right-wing parties and party leaders come out on top
when it comes to the average number of shares per page follower (M = .003; SD = .02) when
compared to their non-right-wing competitors (M = .001; SD = .004). Much like for the
comments variety of Facebook engagement, the uncovered mean difference emerged as
statistically significant (t = 2.512; value of contrast = .002; p < .05) – a result that again
supports H2.
Moving on to the media outlets, right-wing actors appear to prevail also here. To be precise,
the mean number of shares per page follower was reported as higher for hyperpartisan
outlets (M = .003; SD = .02) when compared to their mainstream media counterparts (M =
.0001; SD = .0004). The mean difference was shown to be statistically significant (t = 8.255;
value of contrast = .003; p < .000), a result that supports H4.
While the results clearly supported H1 and H2, the threefold findings related to engagement
(detailing levels of reactions, comments and shares) among those who had liked specific
pages demand further attention. Specifically, as levels for all three types of engagement
emerged as higher for hyperpartisan media outlets than for mainstream media outlets, H4
can be supported. With regards to H2, while levels of comments and shares per page
follower were higher for the right-wing parties included in our sample, an opposing result
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
was reported in relation to the reactions variety of engagement. Nevertheless, with two out
of three varieties of engagement emerging as supporting the specified hypothesis, we can
comfortably confirm the second hypothesis as well. In sum, while the mainstream media
outlets studied here remain successful in terms of number of followers, these established
actors appear to be losing the battle for follower engagement. A similar image appears when
we focus our attention on the political actors under scrutiny – here, right-wing actors
dominate with regards to larger numbers of followers as well as in terms of more sizeable
measures of engagement performed by those followers.
With the confirmation of all four hypotheses in place, we now move on to provide a bit more
detail regarding the content of the most engaged with posts included in our sample. Figures
Five and Six provide such insights for the political actors (Figure Five) and the media actors
(Figure Six) under investigation. Both Figures identify the post made by means of nodes. The
size of these nodes corresponds to the number of reactions achieved by each post at the
time of data collection. The placement of the nodes on the horizontal axes of the Figures
indicate the number of comments received, while placement on the vertical axis indicate the
number of shares received. Based on these interpretational guidelines, Figures Five and Six
feature a series of text boxes that contain translations and summaries of the content of the
most successful posts based on the different types of engagement.
Much like expected from our now confirmed hypotheses, the highly popular posts identified
in Figure Five were mostly authored by right-wing parties – such as the Sweden Democrats
(Sd) and Alternative for Sweden (Afs) – but a clear presence of the Social Democrats (S) can
also be discerned. As can be seen in the text boxes summarizing the most popular posts, the
themes dealt with are largely reminiscent of the themes uncovered by previous studies
looking into social media campaigning by political actors – live speeches, reports from the
campaign and calls to offline as well as online action (e.g. Larsson, 2015; Filimonov et al.,
2016). The tendency for right-wingers to employ “a political style based on provocations,
offensive language, aggressiveness, and negative emotionality(Nai, 2018) is also visible in
the posts emanating from the pages of Sd and Afs respectively. We can, for instance, point
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
to the most shared post (visible in the upper left corner of Figure Five) which features a
crudely shot mobile video of supposed rioting. Combined with the textual element, this post
arguably tries to instill a sense of urgency and authenticity by means of capital letters and
repetition (as suggested by Enli, 2017: 58) – a stylistic choice that indeed can be identified in
several of the other right-wing party posts as well.
While Figure Five was dominated by posts provided by right-wing political actors, the
situation emerging for media actors appears as more balanced as posts from both
mainstream and hyperpartisan media are clearly visible among the content most engaged
with. Hyperpartisan actors like Samhällsnytt and Politikfakta appear to be especially
successful when it comes to producing highly shared posts, while their mainstream
competitors emerge as more adept at producing posts that gain more comments. Many of
these latter posts appear to involve urging the reader to comment – more specifically to
‘tag’ a friend who it is suggested might be interested in viewing the post. In urging their
readers to comment rather than to share or react, the MSM actors included here could be
seen as adapting their Facebook activity to fit with the skepticism towards sharing among
primarily younger users that has been identified by previous research projects (e.g. Costera
Meijer and Groot Kormelink, 2015).
While the numerical differences uncovered during the testing of our hypotheses cannot be
considered as sizeable, they nevertheless emerged as significant. As such, while they are
small, these differences do tell us something about the ways in which online engagement in
relation to political elections is developing. Overall, right-wing actors across the two domains
studied here – politics and the media – emerged as more adept at engaging their followers
by means of reacting to, comment on and sharing their posts than their mainstream
competitors. Thus, established actors appear to be losing ground on one of the currently
most important platforms for news consumption and political communication.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
With regards to followers, the analyses undertaken in relation to hypotheses one and three
found that while the mainstream media outlets included in our study succeeded in amassing
more followers than their hyperpartisan competitors, mainstream political parties emerged
as less successful in this regard when compared to their right-wing opponents. For the media
actors, this result is likely related to the aforementioned high readership of daily news that is
commonly found in the Swedish population. Similarly, if we also take into account what
could be referred to as the path dependencies of audiences (e.g. Webster and Ksiazek,
2012), we can interpret the results found here as part of an established structure of media
consumption. As audiences have depended on traditional or indeed mainstream news
sources such as the ones identified here for extended periods of time, the resulting write-
read relationship becomes cemented in Giddensian structures that guide our everyday lives
and actions (Larsson, 2012) and subsequently manifests itself in terms of followership.
However, the results also indicate that such path dependencies do not appear to hold true
for political actors. Perhaps as a result of the often-discussed disenchantment of western
voters in relation to their democratic political systems (e.g. Gil de Zúñiga, 2012; Christensen
and Bengtsson, 2011; Gibson et al., 2014), voters are finding other actors to engage with
politically – such as on the Facebook presences of the right-wing political actors studied
While the number of followers can serve as a suitable metric with which to gauge popularity
on a service like Facebook, followers that do not engage by means of reacting, commenting
and sharing are not likely to be very helpful in spreading content to larger audiences. With
this in mind, this study opted for an approach that took the actual activity of the page
followers into account (as suggested by Bode and Epstein, 2015; Nielsen and Vaccari, 2013).
By utilizing this approach as described earlier, we could confirm hypotheses two and four
which suggested that right-wing actors across both politics and the media would succeed in
engaging their followers to higher degrees than their more mainstream competitors. For the
political actors under investigation, we have previously pointed to their success in this
regard when attempting to convey urgency and sometimes desperation through their posts
(as seen in Figure Five). Thus, these findings indicate that the supposed authenticity of right-
wingers emerges as a suitable strategy in order to secure follower engagement (Enli, 2017)
especially, it would seem, in relation to the supposedly sleek, professionalized
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
communicative efforts offered by their established, non-right-wing competitors (e.g. Lilleker
and Koc-Michalska, 2012; Zittel, 2009). Similar tendencies can be observed when it comes to
the media actors included in our sample – as the topics and styles of presentation offered by
the hyperpartisan outlets largely overlap with those provided by the right-wing political
parties, the results in Figures Five (mapping out the most popular posts for political actors)
and Six (showing the most popular posts for media actors) emerge as somewhat similar,
fueled by urgency in tone and largely related to themes of immigration.
The patterns of engagement uncovered here appear to challenge the aforementioned
structure found in relation to followership. Such breaks from tradition have been anticipated
for both studied fields previously – albeit in different ways. For political actors, comparably
early work was “relentlessly upbeat” (Barnett, 1997: 194) regarding the role of the Internet
to empower disillusioned citizens to participate in political processes (e.g. Coleman, 2005;
Castells, 2001; Olsson, 2016). For the media sector, while journalists and other media
professionals have expressed skepticism towards online audience contributions (Larsson,
2012), and while audience members have been similarly skeptical towards taking on roles as
“prosumers” (Toffler, 1980), “pro-ams” (Leadbeater et al., 2004) or “produsers” (Bruns,
2010), rhetorical figures similar to the ones identified within the political sphere can be
found also here. Indeed, journalism was to turn from a “from a lecture into a conversation
with citizens and encourage citizens to participate in the different stages of the editorial
news-making process(Paulussen et al., 2007: 137) with the Internet supposedly ushering in
an era of collaborative journalism (e.g. Gillmor, 2004). The findings reported in the study at
hand instead appear to challenge “the utopian rhetoric that surrounds new media
technologies” (Papacharissi, 2002: 9). The results show how online media are being used to
further perspectives that cannot be said to emphasize or contribute to constructive,
egalitarian discussion adhering to the often idealized Habermasian principles of public
deliberation. Indeed, while a series of studies have discussed audience engagement in terms
of its positive aspects (e.g. Al-Rawi, 2016; Olsson, 2016), the tendencies uncovered here
appear to fall in line with the movement found in current popular as well as academic
debate to frame online technologies as causes of societal problems (e.g. Gardine, Mansfield,
Anderson et al, 206; George, 2016) rather than as offering opportunities for fruitful debate
and deliberation. For the 2018 Swedish elections, then, the results presented here indicate
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
the dominance of such forces wishing to obstruct rather than contribute to discourse. Future
studies, detailing the online activities of political and media actors during elections held in
other countries, could be a suitable step forward in determining the relative influence of
right-wingers during political events in different contexts.
The results presented here are thus reminiscent of what Quandt (2018) has labeled “dark
participation”, an assemblage of activities that “range from misinformation and hate
campaigns to individual trolling and cyberbullying” (2018:40) and that appears to have risen
in tandem with the increased popularity of the right-wing and hyperpartisan actors studied
here. While the activities of right-wing actors have typically been described along the lines of
trolling or by their utilization of memes (e.g. Davey and Ebner, 2017; Hawley, 2017), the
present study suggests that these actors are also savvy exploiters of the various algorithms
and logics that guide and explain visibility on platforms such as the one under investigation
here (Van Dijck and Poell, 2013; Klinger and Svensson, 2015). Utilizing emotional and
sometimes aggressive styles, right-wing actors succeed in gaining user engagement by
means of hate speech and the purveying of fake news, which in turn is likely to increase the
visibility of these posts even further. As the algorithms guiding social media tend to give us
more of the same type of content that we already consumed, and as actors across both
studied sectors appear to become more and more focused on the ways in which their
content can fit with the algorithmic structures of services like these (e.g. García-Perdomo et
al., 2017; Trilling et al., 2017; Kreiss and McGregor, 2017), scholars, professionals, policy
makers and others with vested interests in the sectors under scrutiny should monitor these
developments closely. This is not to suggest that mainstream media actors would turn
hyperpartisan overnight, or that mainstream political actors would undertake similar
transformations – but rather a reminder that as socio-technological influences have
previously yielded influence over both sectors (e.g. Bird, 1998; Esser, 1999; Blumler and
Kavanagh, 1999), we would be wise to expect similar repercussions also in our current
This study has limitations that must be acknowledged. First, the types of engagement
studied here are not necessarily undertaken in support of specific posts – comments to a
post can and are used to express not only encouragement, but also dissidence. Given what
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
we know about the rather opaque algorithms guiding visibility on Facebook, comments are
nevertheless likely to increase the visibility of Page content simply by being posted. As the
current study design did not take the contents of comments into account, future research
might find it useful to detail the content and sentiment of engagement varieties such as
comments to higher degrees. Given recent restrictions in Facebook API access, however,
such endeavors might prove to be very difficult if not impossible to undertake. Second, while
the visibility and indeed spread of Facebook posts can be expected to be dependent to a
substantial part on user engagement, we must also take into account the opaqueness of the
processes building up to an individual post being seen or indeed not seen (e.g. Driscoll and
Walker, 2014). Page owners can pay in order to make their posts more visible, and the
algorithms employed by Facebook make their own decisions about visibility and executes
them without information about these processes and in what instances they were employed
being available to the general public, let alone to researchers. As paid advertising in social
media is growing ever more common within the political sector (Kreiss and McGregor, 2017)
as well as elsewhere, future research efforts will hopefully be able to gauge the influence of
such factors in relation to the types of engagement that was studied here.
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N of
Party Leader
Right-Wing Party
Right-Wing Party Leader
Table One. Political and media actors included in the study.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
Figure One. Average Facebook page followers per post during the studied period.
Error bars indicate 95 % confidence intervals.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
Figure Two. Average reactions engagement undertaken per follower.
Error bars indicate 95 % confidence intervals.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
Figure Three. Average commenting engagment undertaken per follower.
Error bars indicate 95 % confidence intervals.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
Figure Four. Average sharing engagement undertaken per follower.
Error bars indicate 95 % confidence intervals.
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
Figure Five. Most engaged with posts for political actors.
0K 1K 2K 3K 4K 5K 6K 7K 8K 9K 10K 11K 12K 13K 14K 15K
Afs: "This video showing cars set on
fire in Gothenburg was removed
from Facebook - SHARE SHARE
Order Afs ballots here [link to www]"
S: See and share our
campaign movie
Sd: Making fun of the S
minister of finance
Sd: Party leader
suggests to
immigrants: "When in
Rome, do as the
romans do" (Video)
Afs: "Immigrants rioting
during our town hall in
Uddevalla - SHARE
that everyone can see
Sweden is falling
apart!" (Video) S: Party leader's final
speech before election
day (Video)
Afs: "This immigrant
spat on party leader
during town hall - share
image to show that this
behaviour is not
acceptable in SE"
Sd: "We choose the
welfare state over
mass immigration
#SD2018" (Picture) Sd: Video - 'Ordinary
people' making fun of
anti-Sd celebrities
S: "We will give
parents more time to
spend with their
children" (Picture)
Sd: "Here is the party
leader statement that
was rejected the PSB"
S: Post-election "Thank
you for your confidence
in us" (Picture)
Restaurant we booked
for election night has
canceled! Tell them
what you think about
this - [provides phone,
e-mail, location, Fb
page]" (Picture)
Sd: Party leader live
report from the
campaign (Video)
Sd: Live from party
leader speech in
Karlstad (Video)
Sd: Party leader casts
his vote (Video)
Sd: Party leader live
report from the
campaign (Video)
S: Live party leader
speech day before
election day (Video)
Sd: Party leader live
report from the
campaign - interviewed
at site of car burning
S: Party leader speech
during election night
Accepted version paper to be published in New Media & Society
Figure Six. Most engaged with posts for media actors.
0K 1K 2K 3K 4K 5K 6K 7K 8K 9K 10K 11K 12K 13K
Politikfakta: "War zone
in the middle east? No,
Frölunda square in
Gothenburg" (Picture)
Samhällsnytt: "The
safety disappeared" -
small-town citizens
discuss repercussions
of immigration (Video,
former SD politican as
Politikfakta: Expressing
support for SD,
satirizing other parties
Aftonbladet: Police
sketch of suspected
rapist (Link)
photography of
suspected rapist (Link)
Politikfakta: "The
Social democrats used
to be anti-immigration
w regards to
Expressen: Celebrating
National Dog Day
Expressen: Swedish
wrestler Frank
Andersson has passed
Expressen: Celebrating
Lefthanders Day -
"Study shows
lefthanders are smarter
- do you agree?" (Link).
Expressen: MP
suggestion to tax
parking spaces (Link)
Aftonbladet: MP
suggestion to tax
parking spaces (Link)
Aftonbladet: Dream job
for cat lovers - do you
know the perfect
applicant? (Link)
Aftonbladet: Study
shows older siblings
worse drivers than
younger - "Tag
someone who needs to
read this study" (Link)
Expressen: Live
stream of party leader
debate (Video)
Expressen: Election
night live coverage
"Sleepyheads die
earlier - do you know
someone who should
read this?" (Link)
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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