ArticlePDF Available

Populism in the era of Twitter: How social media contextualized new insights into an old phenomenon



With the advent of social media, political communication scholars have systematically revised theories and empirical corollaries revolving media use and democracy at large. Interestingly, in about the same period of time, a reinvigorated political populism trend has taken place across different latitudes in the world. This widespread populist movement has expanded regardless of whether these political systems were established democracies, emerging democracies, or societies immersed in political contexts at peril. This essay serves as the introductory piece to a special issue on populism. First, it highlights the ways in which “populism,” being an old phenomenon, has further transpired into the political realm in the era of social media. Second, the essay seeks to better contextualize what populism is and how it has developed within today’s hybrid media society. Finally, this introduction also lays out the ground to six central theoretical and data-driven papers that encapsulate many of the important issues revolving the phenomenon of populism today.
new media & society
2020, Vol. 22(4) 585 –594
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1461444819893978
Populism in the era of
Twitter: How social media
contextualized new insights
into an old phenomenon
Homero Gil de Zúñiga
University of Salamanca, Spain; Pennsylvania State University, USA
Karolina Koc Michalska
Audencia Business School, France
Andrea Römmele
Hertie School of Governance, Germany
With the advent of social media, political communication scholars have systematically
revised theories and empirical corollaries revolving media use and democracy at large.
Interestingly, in about the same period of time, a reinvigorated political populism
trend has taken place across different latitudes in the world. This widespread populist
movement has expanded regardless of whether these political systems were established
democracies, emerging democracies, or societies immersed in political contexts at
peril. This essay serves as the introductory piece to a special issue on populism. First,
it highlights the ways in which “populism,” being an old phenomenon, has further
transpired into the political realm in the era of social media. Second, the essay seeks to
better contextualize what populism is and how it has developed within today’s hybrid
media society. Finally, this introduction also lays out the ground to six central theoretical
and data-driven papers that encapsulate many of the important issues revolving the
phenomenon of populism today.
Corresponding author:
Homero Gil de Zúñiga, Democracy Research Unit, Political Science, University of Salamanca, Campus
Unamuno s/n, Salamanca 37007, Spain.
893978NMS0010.1177/1461444819893978new media & societyGil de Zúñiga et al.
Introduction to the special issue
586 new media & society 22(4)
democracy, Facebook, populism, social media, Twitter
In this essay, we introduce a set of theoretical and empirical studies delving on populism.
The special volume focuses on how populists actually connect with citizens, what com-
munication strategies they use, and how these differ from communication modes and
styles we know from established candidates/parties. Do populists have their own way of
communicating? How do they shape political discussions in the online and offline world?
And what are the broader implications for future political campaigns, the state of a buoy-
ant public sphere, and for a healthier democracy at large?
Over the past decades, the world has witnessed a growing wave of populism that has
made significant electoral gains across the globe. This populist surge encompasses a
broad ideological spectrum at both sides of the political aisle in the United States
(i.e. progressive and conservative), in Europe and Latin America (right and left), and
elsewhere. Many recent results at national general elections attested this current ten-
dency. For instance, the election of Donald Trump in the United States in 2016, the entry
of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) into the German parliament in 2017, the election
of Sebastian Kurz in 2017 as Austria’s Chancellor, the election of Bolsonaro as Brazil’s
president with more than 50% of the popular vote in 2018, or the many existing populist
forces gaining momentum in referendums and elections across Europe and Latin
American suggest that populism is on the rise. This widespread of populism has also
sparked scholarly attention which has exponentially increased in recent years (De Vreese,
Esser, Aalberg, and Reinemann Stanyer, 2018; Engesser et al., 2017; Kaltwasser, 2015;
Norris and Inglehart, 2019; Wettstein et al., 2019).
What is populism?
Populism as a concept is widely used but also extensively contested (Gidron and
Bonikowski, 2013). In the absence of a solid, holistic, and systematic theory and defini-
tion of populism, the term has loosely been used as a synonym for anti-establishment
narrative (Müller, 2016). Thus, populism may be understood as a set of generally dema-
gogic ideas and as a political communicational strategy. Political populism prospers as
an anti-establishment pursuit led by a charismatic leader, praising the role of “the
people” and aiming to dichotomize the political arena and society into “us, the people,”
versus “them, the elites.” This clear in-group versus out-group (Falk et al., 2012) strategy
may be employed by sharply distinct political parties and their leaders, but it may also be
practiced by different actors (i.e. political institutions, the media, etc.). While there are
several examples of populist leaders,1 there is no overall blueprint for a typical populist
leader.2 “Populist” as a label has rarely been self-attributed or claimed by individuals or
organizations. A notable exception, however, is Le Penn in France who self-proclaimed
to be a populist leader (Stanley, 2008). Overall, the term populism usually originates
from a negative ascription by political opponents or the media (Wettstein et al., 2018).
Gil de Zúñiga et al. 587
The literature on populism broadly suggests three successive waves of this phenomenon:
agrarian populism, Latin American populism, and the new-right populism (Jagers and
Walgrave, 2007). Its first manifestations emerged in Russia and the United States during
the second half of the 19th century. The second wave of populism began in the 1930s in
Latin America, when authoritarian regimes centered on a charismatic leader were estab-
lished in Argentina and Brazil, claiming to be a direct representation of the people, acting
in their best interest and against the establishment (Hennessy, 1969). The third wave is
embodied by the recent rise of populism movements from the 1970s onwards. Established
mainstream parties, especially across Europe and the United States were increasingly
perceived as self-serving and ignorant toward the demands and needs of “the people”
(Gidron and Bonikowski, 2013; Kazin, 1998; Taggart, 2000).
Although this recent wave has typically been associated with radical right-wing
movements, populism may be now also distributed within the ideological spectrum. Be
it ideologically connected to the right or the left, populism is rather linked to the level of
radicalism of the party or candidate (Rooduijn and Akkerman, 2017). On one hand, right-
wing populism commonly identifies with topics such as immigration, taxes, crime, and
nationalism (Taggart, 2000). On the contrary, radical left movements initially focused on
pre-USSR collapse, criticizing capitalism and neoliberalism, and progressively transi-
tioned to include a broader scope of social topics (March and Mudde, 2005). Previous
work argues that populism is a direct response to liberal democracies neglecting the
founding idea of popular sovereignty, offering the analogy of a “drunken guest at a din-
ner party” blurting out the inconvenient truths that highlight the distance between regular
citizens and the politics, and institutions that govern them (Huber and Schimpf, 2016:
103). In any case, populism and populists’ parties and elected figures have become a
central part of contemporary politics (Moffitt and Tormey, 2014).
Populism in the era of Twitter
Some scholars warned about how online communication ecosystems could open the
door not only to polarizing or uncivil messages (Coe et al., 2014; Lawrence et al., 2010;
Rains et al., 2017; Wu, 2013) but also to populist messages (Bobba and Legnante, 2017;
Schroeder, 2018). In the days of a hybrid media system with pervasive social media
interactions intertwined with professional journalism (Bruns, 2018; Chadwick, 2017),
populism has thrived (Wells et al., 2016). It is important to stress that populism as a thin
ideology (Ernst et al., 2017), core strategy to influence the public (Mazzoleni, 2014),
and as an extreme left-/right-wing leadership-dependent phenomenon (Mudde and
Kaltwasser, 2014; Van der Brug and Mughan, 2007) has remained constant and unal-
tered. However, social media has inflicted and sustained a pivotal playing role in the way
populists’ campaigns are carried out and the ways political actors communicate and
directly engage with the electorate. First, social media provides “low cost” communica-
tion opportunities (Bennett, 2012) and potential for broad and rapid dissemination of
messages (Ratkiewicz et al., 2011). Ernst et al. (2017) talk about the virality effect.
Accordingly, political leaders may not be able to solely achieve their goal by having
588 new media & society 22(4)
social media access in one or many platforms, but rather by increasing their reliance on
strong interconnected networks of citizens that by commenting, promoting, and discuss-
ing their original messages, directly participate in the profound dissemination of these
populist ideas. Prior research has also identified that for a message to become viral, it has
to incorporate certain elements such as emotional attachment, novel and surprising infor-
mation, fuel passive broadcasting, and seek message personalization (Aral and Walker,
2011; Hong et al., 2011). All features are deeply exploited by populists’ politicians. The
more direct, unmediated, outrageous, polarizing, shocking, and emotional the message
is, the more chances of becoming viral and populistically effective. It is a victory for
populists’ politicians at the expense of debilitating a civil, constructive, and rational pub-
lic sphere. Informative public affair facts and the pursuit of a common goal in society
may thus become irrelevant.
When truth becomes irrelevant
In recent years, we have witnessed political discourses and debates in which facts have
lost their meaning as benchmarks for evaluations and decisions, and became a flexible
tool to reinforce certain worldviews (Maurer and Reinemann, 2006; Ryan and Gamson,
2006). As an exemplary token, let us select a photo used in flyers about domestic security
distributed by the far-right party AfD in Germany. The original picture was taken in
Athens during a riot and shows a protestor hitting a police officer with a stick. The edited
picture showed the protester with a logo-badge from the German Antifa, an anti-fascist
network. It was an obvious fake. When asked for a clarification, an AfD spokesman
claimed that a fake photo would not change the fact that the security situation in Germany
was getting worse and that, captured in the photo or not, it is obvious who is responsible
for the rise of violence in the country. Evidence and facts are now seemingly irrelevant
and have turned out to be something adjustable to a political cause. The former Princeton
University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt (2009) calls this bullshit. A lie can be
answered with evidence, which forces the liar to revise or withdraw former statements.
Bullshit cuts out unwelcome facts: evidence that supports the message is true, evidence
that hinders it is false (Frankfurt, 2009). The principle of truth loses its relevance, and
this is paramount for democracies. At the heart of democracy is the debate, the discourse
about political alternatives based on facts, despite ideological differences. When citizens
and politicians do not engage in a fact-driven discourse any more, democracy is at peril.
Volume research highlights
The research included in this current Special Issue proposes a set of theoretical and data-
driven papers that encapsulate many of the important issues revolving the phenomenon
of “populism” today. It starts with a theoretical manuscript by Gibson and Roemmele
(2019) developing the concept of the fourth era of political campaigning emerging
within the Western democracies. Following this theoretical piece, this volume includes
four empirically based studies depicting some of the key elements showcased in the
fourth campaigning era. Jacob et al. (2020) look at the role of social media platforms,
specifically Facebook and Twitter, in shaping populist communication strategies. Bucy
Gil de Zúñiga et al. 589
et al. (2020) focus on the populist styles of communication employed by candidates and
the responses they induce on social media. Wells et al. (2020) seek to understand the
relationship between populists and traditional media. Finally, Boulianne et al. (2020)
investigate the propensity of voters to turn toward populist candidates due to their usage
of offline and online media, social media, and the possible echo chamber effects. The
Special Issue concludes as it started, with a theoretical essay by Bimber and Gil de
Zúñiga (2020) that centers on the challenges brought upon by the development of social
media and some populist communication strategies to the existence of the public sphere
within democratic regimes.
Gibson and Roemmele (2020) offer a stimulating proposition that illustrates tangible
deep transformations of previous, post-modern, types of campaigning as they shifted into
a new stage. This new campaign era includes indirect systematic ways of communication
with the constituencies, and it is chiefly based on a two-step model. It intensively
employs the in-house technological infrastructure as political parties amass and curate
large amounts of data, openly available in social media.
Accordingly, modern political campaigning allows the proliferation of extensive data-
bases for psychometrical profiling of the voters and micro-targeting, but also leaves an
open space for cyber-attacks from the opposition, and beyond. Depending on how those
elements are curated and handled by parties or candidates, campaigns may turn toward
two distinct directions: “scientific” or “subversive.” Based on the same principles—data-
driven, using virtual networks and high level of personalization—these two campaign
types differ in content, procedures, and goals. The former tends to align much more with
a traditional format of political campaigning. “Subversive” campaigning, on the other
hand, seeks to recognize the recent success of populist movements in Western democra-
cies. Subversive mode focuses on the role of strong leader, often outsider to mainstream
politics, whose actions are funneled by data and “the views of the people.” Yet, its per-
sonality and behavior may become erratic, overpowering and seemingly spontaneous.
Such a guru-like leadership requires specific staff members, where loyalty may be more
relevant than field expertise, and strong ideological orientations are well received over a
more nuanced and balanced view of traditional political advisors. From the communica-
tion perspective, subversive campaigning engages ad hoc messages, often intended at
misinformation and polarization of the voters, turning them emotionally against the
opposition or intentionally demobilizing them. Social media, as network-based and
direct communication tools, is tuned in as a machine against the establishment and tradi-
tional media reporting.
Jacobs et al.’s (2020) study explores the different communication strategies adopted
and employed by populist and non-populist Members of Parliament in Austria, The
Netherlands, and Sweden. They argue these strategies are also platform dependent as
they theorize the existence of two distinct practices in social media. On Twitter,
@name&shame messages are to pressure journalists to increase media coverage. On
Facebook, posts by politicians are to activate anger among followers by engaging a
sense of injustice and cultural backlash. Counterintuitively, the study finds that MPs
representing populist parties are in general less likely to have a social media account.
Yet, their employment of @name&shame strategy is three times higher than non- populist
politicians. Similarly, their postings on Facebook are substantially more geared at
590 new media & society 22(4)
eliciting anger-based reactions. Thus, through emotions, they try to attract more attention
to their messages and further engage the electorate.
Bucy et al. (2020) offer a case study analysis of the first 2016 presidential debate
between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump seeking to understand how the specific styles
of populist discourse generate real-time reactions on Twitter. These scholars focus on the
transgressive communication style represented by Trump, violating the normative bound-
aries, openly displaying frustration and anger. This populist style is operationalized by
emotionalization, simplification, and negativity estimated within verbal, tonal, and non-
verbal communication. The paper shares with New Media & Society readers an original
extensive coding schema. The results are intuitive; however, the intensity of the effects
may come as a surprise. Trump employed anger or threat almost along his entire dis-
course, especially nonverbal facial expressions. The current president of the United States
added defiance visual cues and gestures in about more than half of his speaking time. He
engaged more vigorously into personal attacks, blaming others of hostile interruptions.
His populist style discourse stimulated those viewers who second screened the debate via
Twitter (to learn more about second screening or dual screening; see, for instance, Gil de
Zúñiga and Liu, 2017; Gil de Zúñiga, García-Perdomo, and McGregor, 2015; Vaccari
et al., 2015). The tweet flow was faster and more persistent in time for Trump’s interven-
tions than for those of Clinton, and all visual populist indicators facilitated the online
responses more rapidly than any other populist features (i.e. tonal or verbal).
Wells et al.’s (2020) study, similar to Jacobs et al.’s (2020), seeks to depict paramount
communication strategy features of the main candidates in US 2016 primary elections.
The authors pay special attention to two of the most populist candidates, Trump and
Sanders, and how they attract attention from diverse media outlets. The research, theo-
retically grounded in attention economy framework, delves into how disaggregated
media outlets in America covered candidates, and how those candidates employed
diverse techniques (i.e. events and social media) to attract media interest. Findings are
mixed, although tend to be more consistent for Republican candidates. For instance,
Trump benefits from retweets, special events like debates, and the relative strong stand-
ing garnished in public opinion polls to bust biased interest of mainstream professional
media. Interestingly, Sanders kept pace with Trump in the number of retweets, yet he did
not receive similar media coverage. These results do not entirely lend support to consist-
ent effects of populists’ messages and strategies, and leave room for future research to
further understand the unbalanced interest and attentiveness of the contemporary media
ecology toward left- and right-wing populism. Finally, and perhaps contrary to popular
belief, the study reveals a planned and strategic usage of Twitter by Trump as he tweeted
relatively more intensively when media attention to his rhetoric declined.
Boulianne et al.’s (2019) research challenges a commonly argued claim that social
media helps to bypass traditional media (for a discussion of changing gatekeeping prac-
tices, see Coddington and Holton, 2014), eliciting efficient mobilization of right-wing
populist parties’ voters. Specially, they concentrate on the concept of echo chambers
and the extent to which closing within similar views offline and online brings support
for populism. The article is based on an original representative survey data set collected
in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These authors found little evi-
dence for the impact of social media use, or any other media, on the propensity to vote
Gil de Zúñiga et al. 591
right-wing populists. Similarly, they do not confirm the hypothesis about the creation of
online echo chambers, measured through political discussion networks that receive
homogeneous information. On the contrary, they found a consistent offline homogene-
ous discussion network pattern (i.e. those similar in race, ethnicity, and social class)
revolving the right-wing populist vote, particularly in France and the United Kingdom.
Finally, the Special Issue concludes by showcasing some of the most pressing issues
in today’s democracy upstretched by all recent technological changes, contributing to the
unedited public sphere. In this theoretical account, Bimber and Gil de Zúñiga (2019)
offer new perspectives and directions revolving the relation between political actors and
their employment of social media affordances. They draw on a “false beliefs paradigm,”
and lay out three epistemic features on how current digital technology and social media
ecosystems are concentrating on (1) obscuring the provenance of information, (2) facili-
tating deception about authorship, and (3) securing the manipulation of social signals.
Systematically, the essay explains how these three epistemic problems tend to guarantee
people’s disability to discern what is true and what is not in the flow of political com-
munication through mass media channels, as well as through social media tools. The
article highlights the importance of future research in clarifying how epistemic chal-
lenges brought by social media may affect the exercising of democracy and the transfor-
mation of public spheres within the “post-truth politics” era. In doing so, the authors
attempt to map out some of these potential research lines and suggest some remedies
geared toward fostering healthier democracies.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article: The authors would like to thank the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for
their financial support.
Homero Gil de Zúñiga
Andrea Römmele
1. As mentioned earlier, Vargas, Peron, Ibarra, and Estenssoro, in the Latin American context,
have strongly influenced the image of the charismatic, rhetorically well-versed “demagogue”
that often is associated with the image of a for populist leaders.
2. Despite the absence of an overall definition, scholars like Mudde and Kaltwasser (2017)
identify different manifestations of this phenomenon such as the “charismatic strongman,”
the “vox populi,” or the voice of the pure people.
Aral S and Walker D (2011) Creating social contagion through viral product design: a randomized
trial of peer influence in networks. Management Science 57(9): 1623–1639.
Bennett WL (2012) The personalization of politics: political identity, social media, and changing
patterns of participation. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
644(1): 20–39.
592 new media & society 22(4)
Bimber B and Gil de Zúñiga H (2020) The unedited public sphere. New Media & Society 22(4):
Bobba G and Legnante G (2017) A breeding ground for populist political communication. In:
Aalberg T, Esser F, Reinemann C, et al. (eds) Populist Political Communication in Europe.
New York: Routledge, pp. 221–234.
Boulianne S, Koc-Michalska K and Bimber B (2020) Right-wing populism, social media and echo
chambers in western democracies. New Media & Society 22(4): 683–699.
Bruns A (2018) Gatewatching and News Curation: Journalism, Social Media, and the Public
Sphere. New York: Peter Lang.
Bucy EP, Foley JM, Lukito J, et al. (2020). Performing populism: Trump’s transgressive debate
style and the dynamics of Twitter response. New Media & Society 22(4): 634–658.
Chadwick A (2017) The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power. Oxford: Oxford University
Coddington M and Holton AE (2014) When the gates swing open: examining network gatekeeping
in a social media setting. Mass Communication and Society 17(2): 236–257.
Coe K, Kenski K and Rains SA (2014) Online and uncivil? Patterns and determinants of incivility
in newspaper website comments. Journal of Communication 64(4): 658–679.
De Vreese CH, Esser F, Aalberg T, et al. (2018) Populism as an expression of political commu-
nication content and style: a new perspective. The International Journal of Press/Politics
23(4): 423–438.
Engesser S, Ernst N, Esser F, et al. (2017) Populism and social media: how politicians spread a
fragmented ideology. Information, communication & society 20(8): 1109–1126.
Ernst N, Engesser S, Büchel F, et al. (2017) Extreme parties and populism: an analysis of
Facebook and Twitter across six countries. Information, Communication & Society 20(9):
Falk EB, Spunt RP and Lieberman MD (2012) Ascribing beliefs to ingroup and outgroup politi-
cal candidates: neural correlates of perspective-taking, issue importance and days until the
election. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367(1589):
Frankfurt HG (2009) On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gibson R and Roemmele A (2020) Scientific and subversive: the two faces of the 4th phase of
political campaigning. New Media & Society 22(4): 595–610.
Gidron N and Bonikowski B (2013) Varieties of populism: literature review and research agenda.
Weatherhead Working Paper Series no. 13-0004. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
Gil de Zúñiga H and Liu JH (2017) Second screening politics in the social media sphere: advanc-
ing research on dual screen use in political communication with evidence from 20 countries.
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 61(2): 193–219.
Gil de Zúñiga H, García-Perdomo V and McGregor S (2015) What is second screening? Exploring
motivations of second screen use and its effects on online political participation. Journal of
Communication 65(5): 793–815.
Hennessy A (1969) Populism: Its Natural Consequences. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson.
Hong L, Dan O and Davison BD (2011). Predicting popular messages in Twitter. In: Proceedings
of the 20th international conference companion on world wide web, Hyderbad, India, 28
March–1 April, pp. 57–58. New York: ACM.
Huber RA and Schimpf CH (2016) A drunken guest in Europe? The influence of populist radical
right parties on democratic quality. Zeitschrift Für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft 10(2):
Jacobs K, Sandberg LAC and Spierings N. (2020). Twitter and Facebook: populists’ double-
barreled gun? New Media & Society 22(4): 611–633.
Gil de Zúñiga et al. 593
Jagers J and Walgrave S (2007) Populism as political communication style: an empirical study
of political parties' discourse in Belgium. European Journal of Political Research 463(3):
Kaltwasser CR (2015) Explaining the emergence of populism in Europe and the Americas. In: de
La Torre C (ed.) The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives. Lexington, KY:
University Press of Kentucky, pp. 189–227.
Kazin M (1998) The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Lawrence E, Sides J and Farrell H (2010) Self-segregation or deliberation? Blog readership, par-
ticipation, and polarization in American politics. Perspectives on Politics 8(1): 141–157.
March L and Mudde C (2005) What’s left of the radical left? The European radical left after 1989:
decline and mutation. Comparative European Politics 2005(23–49): 3.
Maurer M and Reinemann C (2006) Learning versus knowing: effects of misinformation in televised
debates. Communication Research 33(6): 489–506.
Mazzoleni G (2014) Mediatization and political populism. In: Esser F and Strömbäck J (eds)
Mediatization of Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 42–56.
Moffitt B and Tormey S (2014) Rethinking populism: politics, mediatisation and political style.
Political Studies 62(2): 381–397.
Mudde C and Kaltwasser CR (2014) Populism and Political Leadership. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Mudde C and Kaltwasser CR (2017) Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Müller JW (2016) What Is Populism? Pennsylvania, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Norris P and Inglehart R (2019) Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rains SA, Kenski K, Coe K, et al. (2017) Incivility and political identity on the internet: inter-
group factors as predictors of incivility in discussions of news online. Journal of Computer-
Mediated Communication 22(4): 163–178.
Ratkiewicz J, Conover MD, Meiss M, et al. (2011). Detecting and tracking political abuse in social
media. In: Proceedings of the Fifth International AAAI conference on weblogs and social
media, Barcelona, 17–21 July.
Rooduijn M and Akkerman T (2017) Flank attacks: populism and left-right radicalism in Western
Europe. Party Politics 23(3): 193–204.
Ryan C and Gamson WA (2006) The art of reframing political debates. Contexts 5(1): 13–18.
Schroeder R (2018) Social Theory After the Internet. London: University College London Press.
Stanley B (2008) The thin ideology of populism. Journal of Political Ideologies 13(1): 95–110.
Taggart P (2000) Populism: Concepts in the Social Sciences. Buckingham, PA: Open University
Vaccari C, Chadwick A and O'Loughlin B (2015) Dual screening the political: media events,
social media, and citizen engagement. Journal of Communication 65(6): 1041–1061.
Van der Brug W and Mughan A (2007) Charisma, leader effects and support for right-wing popu-
list parties. Party Politics 13(1): 29–51.
Wells C, Shah D, Lukito J, et al. (2020) Trump, Twitter, and news media responsiveness: a media
systems approach. New Media & Society 22(4): 659–682.
Wells C, Shah DV, Pevehouse JC, et al. (2016) How Trump drove coverage to the nomination:
hybrid media campaigning. Political Communication 33(4): 669–676.
Wettstein M, Esser F, Schulz A, et al. (2018) News media as gatekeepers, critics, and initiators
of populist communication: how journalists in ten countries deal with the populist challenge.
The International Journal of Press/politics 23(4): 476–495.
594 new media & society 22(4)
Wettstein M, Schulz A, Steenbergen M, et al. (2019) Measuring populism across nations: testing
for measurement invariance of an inventory of populist attitudes. International Journal of
Public Opinion Research. Epub ahead of print 3 August 2019. DOI: 10.1093/ijpor/edz018.
Wu AX (2013) Ideological polarization over a China-as-superpower mindset: an exploratory
charting of belief systems among Chinese Internet users, 2008-2011. International Journal of
Communication 8: 2243–2272.
Author biographies
Homero Gil de Zúñiga (PhD in Politics at Universidad Europea de Madrid and PhD in Mass
Communication at University of Wisconsin – Madison) is distinguished research professor at
University of Salamanca where he directs the Democracy Research Unit (DRU), Media Effects
professor at Pennsylvania State University, and research fellow at Universidad Diego Portales,
Chile. His research addresses the influence of new technologies and digital media over people’s
daily lives, as well as the effect of such use on the overall democratic process.
Karolina Koc Michalska (PhD, Silesia University) is professor at Audencia Business School and
associated researcher at CEVIPOF Sciences-Po Paris, France. Her research focuses on the strate-
gies of political actors in the online environment and citizens’ political engagement. She employs
a comparative approach focusing on US and European countries.
Andrea Römmele is dean for Executive Education and professor for Political Communication at
the Hertie School in Berlin, Germany. Her research interests lie in the field of comparative parties,
party communication and social media. She has been a Fulbright distinguished chair at the
University of California in Santa Barbara, US and is a frequent commentator in German politics in
the media and news.
... In this context, social media pose epistemic challenges that could affect the functioning of democracies and lead to a transformation of the public sphere. Today's digital technology and social media ecosystems focus on blurring the sources of information, enabling deception regarding authorship, and ensuring the manipulation of social signals (Gil, Koc & Römmele, 2020). ...
Full-text available
In recent years we have witnessed a resurgence of populism, which has relied on the virality of social networks to deepen its roots in society and spread its ideas. This paper analyses the populist strategies used by all parties to viralise their messages in the online environment, regardless of ideology. The present research has also examined the possible existence of complementary strategies used by the parties’ organisational profiles and those of their leaders. To this end, a content analysis has been carried out regarding the publications made on Twitter during the 2019 election campaign. The posts have been delimited to those made by the parties and candidates that attained the highest percentage of representation in the Congress of Deputies, which include the PSOE, PP, Vox, and Unidas Podemos. The findings show that all the parties under study resorted to this type of strategy. The parties closest to centre of the political spectrum, both right and left, used mostly a populist strategy aimed predominantly at attacking their adversaries, while Vox and Unidas Podemos articulated their discourse beyond this argument, with Vox appealing to the emotions of the nation and Podemos positioning itself as the peoples’ advocate. Furthermore, a complementary strategy used by both the parties and their leaders has been identified, which fosters the expansion of these kinds of populist ideas.
... By integrating these theoretical perspectives, the analysis of electability, capacity, and campaign resources gains depth and nuance. Democratic theory contextualizes the electoral process within the broader democratic framework, while political marketing provides insights into candidate strategies and communication (Gastil & Black, 2007) (Esser & Strömbäck, 2013) (Gil de Zúñiga et al., 2020). Public opinion theory offers insights into voter decision-making and the effects of campaign efforts (Hillygus & Jackman, 2003) (Nincic, 1992). ...
Full-text available
This research delves into the multifaceted landscape of electoral success by examining the intertwined influences of electability, capacity, and campaign resources on the performance of public officials from the Democracy party. By adopting a multidimensional approach, this study seeks to contribute to the understanding of how these factors interact and shape candidates' outcomes in general elections. Through a combination of quantitative analysis and qualitative insights, this research uncovers intriguing patterns in the electoral arena. Likability emerges as a powerful driver of voter choices, showcasing a robust positive correlation between candidates' likability scores and their electoral success. This underscores the significance of personal connection and emotional resonance in swaying voter decisions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the study finds no significant correlation between candidate capacity attributes and electoral outcomes. While capacity remains valued, its impact appears contingent on its alignment with other factors such as likability and strategic resource allocation. This challenges traditional notions of experience as the primary determiner of electoral victory. The research further reveals a moderate positive correlation between effective campaign resource allocation and electoral success. Candidates who judiciously allocate resources, particularly in media coverage and social media engagement, tend to achieve better outcomes. This highlights the strategic importance of resource optimization in influencing voter perceptions and preferences. These findings provide a nuanced understanding of the complex interplay between electability, capacity, and campaign resources in the context of the Democracy party's electoral campaigns. The implications extend to strategic decision-making for the party, as well as contributing to the broader discourse on electoral dynamics and democratic representation. Looking ahead, this research suggests avenues for further exploration, inviting future studies to consider cross-cultural comparisons, technology's role, and the evolving nature of voter behavior in shaping electoral outcomes
American style representative democracies that place a strong emphasis on individual freedom and capital have grown in popularity around the world during the so-called “American century”. Liberal/neoliberal democracy’s future appears hazy (with a chance of thunderstorms or tornadoes). Numerous international observers from all political spheres—activists, commentators, citizens, and academics documented the decline of democratic institutions, civil liberties, and norms alongside the startling rise and unexpected success of authoritarian populism, specifically its cultural and socioeconomic modalities. Trump built on a singular career at the intersections of money, media, and impunity to amass wealth and profit, through monetization of his impeachment trials, flirtations with autocrats (Putin) and White Nationalists, inciting insurrection, and numerous civil and criminal charges, most recently interfering with voters’ rights to illegally remain president. Convincing a lot of the rather naive Americans that the 2020 U.S. Presidential election was taken or “stolen” from the just President and concealing his affluence, promising to remove the corrupt political establishment and its swamp. Trump urges people who are now unable to live the “American dream” to increase their entitlement while making (racialized. feminist. or LGBTQ) scapegoats out of them by using fiery speech., dissident appeals, and plebiscite-style links. In order to achieve this goal of sowing seeds of mistrust, suspicion, and resentment, Trump repeatedly used Twitter (now rebranded “X” by Elon Musk) as a weapon to blame-mock ‘others’ and held campaign rallies during his presidency in order to maximize “entertainment/spectacle” while concealing how he made money from the position. Racial injustice and its script, which includes segregation, economic and educational disparities, and the dehumanization of “others,” continue to draw sharp divisions in American political worldviews. Populism is harmful in democracies everywhere. However, it can be the pharmakon of democracy but we need intensive education to ‘diagnose’ and resist lying politicians and “mind-manipulators.”
Full-text available
La proliferación de movimientos nacionalistas y nativistas en todo el mundo ha aprovechado el importante impacto de las redes sociales, especialmente en Twitter. En el caso de Estados Unidos, Donald Trump, primero como candidato y luego como presidente, mantuvo un uso activo de Twitter para difundir sus opiniones sobre la migración y los migrantes. Este artículo analiza los temas y las implicaciones políticas de sus tweets desde la victoria electoral de Trump hasta el final del segundo año de su presidencia. Las suposiciones de los autores son que la retórica de Trump explotó un sentimiento colectivo en contra de la migración y de aquellos que respaldaban opiniones para proteger a las comunidades de migrantes. Los hallazgos muestran que algunos temas fueron retuiteados masivamente, alimentando la percepción de que la mayoría de los estadounidenses estaban en contra de las comunidades de migrantes y de quienes las protegían. Realizamos un análisis de contenido de los tweets enviados por el Sr. Trump como presidente durante la primera mitad de su mandato. Utilizamos la cuenta personal de Twitter de Trump, @realDonaldTrump. Trump, como presidente, continuó utilizando su cuenta personal como instrumento de política y medios de comunicación políticos en lugar de utilizar la cuenta oficial que tradicionalmente todos los presidentes han utilizado, @POTUS. Dado que Trump se postuló en una plataforma nativista, examinamos sus tweets con fuertes sentimientos negativos hacia los migrantes y la inmigración en general
The use of geolocation data by political campaigns is often the subject of media concern. Research has investigated the role of data in and use by political campaigns, but less attention has been paid to digital political strategists largely responsible for decisions behind the assemblage and mining of voter databases to deliver micro-targeted messages on behalf of political campaigns. In this study, we conducted interviews with 14 leading industry professionals in the United States to examine the common scenarios and associated concerns of using geolocation data to target voters. Our findings reveal that geolocation data are an important asset in political campaigns, but their value is contingent on additional factors. Concerns regarding geolocation data, as interviewees suggested, may at times be influenced more by the popular media narratives than the true reality of data, their scope, and associated capabilities. Our results point to geolocation data’s greatest usefulness to campaigns not in their own right, but when data are paired with other insights about voters’ behaviors. Ultimately, the lack of industry regulation reveals discrepancies in best practices and raises concerns over the potential misuse of geolocation data in the political space.
Full-text available
Social media becomes the fastest communication medium of the era and had a deep impact on the attitudes of the users. Apart from the negative impacts of social media, it has potential to play an important role in exposing climate change that losses the resilience of the ecosystem of our planet, the daily life of human beings and other species. These impacts have been widely discussed on mainstream media. However, the role of social media, being a diverse media in nature, has been widely unexplored. This research is based on the premise that the social media, being a major source of inspiration and a triggering tool, enables the climate change activists around the world to fight for climate change and avoid its severe impacts. The study is qualitative in nature. In this study, the researcher explored the role of social media and how it makes trends of the tweets by the celebrities in Pakistan to initiate debates to fight climate change. The purposive sampling technique was adopted to analyze the tweets of four social media celebrities that initiate debates and mobilize environmental activist to build pressure on the policymakers for revising environmental policies and quick action to mitigate the environment losses during 2019 to 2021. The researcher conducted a survey from twitter users, adopting purposive sampling to explore the impacts of celebrities' tweets about climate change. The results proves that celebrities are more concerned with climate changes as compare to politicians. Further, INGO's and social activists are also taking keen interest to bring change on individual level.
Full-text available
The paper aims to evaluate the potential of social media in shaping civic and electoral behavior by analyzing several civic protest movements as well as the role of social networks in the last legislative elections held in Romania in December 2020. It examines both sides of social media, namely its use for organizing and supporting civic movements, and its use as a tool for the accession of a far right populist party to the Parliament. The selected cases demonstrate that social networks are a catalyst for civil society movements pillared by people who are demanding to have their share in the political process and a tool for maximizing the votes of a new populist party. Social media acts as a breeding ground for a vibrant civil society. Through social networks people connect with each other, organize themselves and discover the feeling of "togetherness". Civil society thus becomes an actor that politicians must take into account in the decision-making process, as the civic movements presented here demonstrate. The problems that arise are the way social media is used and the social responsibility of social platforms. The good side of social media, as platforms for organizing and mobilizing people for right causes that support democracy, citizens' rights, the anti-corruption fight, is often diminished by its dark side, which means fake news, manipulation or even incitement to hatred and violence. The social responsibility requires finding a balance between the freedom of expression, one of the greatest gains of modern democracies, and the need to reduce misinformation and manipulation that take place on digital channels.
Full-text available
In recent years, politicians and political parties have increasingly adopted various social media as political communication platforms. While the research on the topic has provided valuable knowledge about politicians’ use of these platforms and the immediate effects, the literature has mainly studied the usage in isolation from their broader communication with citizens. This article provides an overview of the emerging literature that examines politicians’ social media usage in a broader context. Through a scoping review of 49 studies published between 2008 and November 2022, the study identifies three main themes and seven subthemes in the literature and calls for more research to build more robust knowledge across different study contexts. In particular, the review emphasises a need for more longitudinal and qualitative perspectives to assess how politicians navigate between competing media logics in a hybrid media environment, how the new reality impacts them, and whether it alters their communication with citizens over time.
Full-text available
Social media are said to be a core driver of populists’ current success. Yet, our knowledge of how populist politicians use social media is limited. We argue that they can use Twitter and Facebook, politically the most important platforms, as a “double-barreled gun,” each serving a different target. Based on the architecture of the platforms and the populist ideology, we expect that Twitter is used to name and shame journalists publicly, Facebook to activate anger among citizens. Both types of use are examined by studying the Members of Parliament (MPs) of Austria, The Netherlands, and Sweden. We collected 9852 tweets for the 475 MPs on Twitter and 10,355 Facebook posts from the 287 MPs with a Facebook Page. Using negative binomial regression and content analyses, we find that populists seem eager to activate anger. They are not more likely to @-mention media accounts, but “shame” them roughly three times more often.
Full-text available
The health of democratic public spheres is challenged by the circulation of falsehoods. These epistemic problems are connected to social media and they raise a classic problem of how to understand the role of technology in political developments. We discuss three sets of technological affordances of social media that facilitate the spread of false beliefs: obscuring the provenance of information, facilitating deception about authorship, and providing for manipulation of social signals. We argue that these do not make social media a “cause” of problems with falsehoods, but explanations of epistemic problems should account for social media to understand the timing and widespread occurrence of epistemic problems. We argue that “the marketplace of ideas” cannot be adequate as a remedy for these problems, which require epistemic editing by the press.
How populists engage with media of various types, and are treated by those media, are questions of international interest. In the United States, Donald Trump stands out for both his populism-inflected campaign style and his success at attracting media attention. This article examines how interactions between candidate communications, social media, partisan media, and news media combined to shape attention to Trump, Clinton, Cruz, and Sanders during the 2015–2016 American presidential primary elections. We identify six major components of the American media system and measure candidates’ efforts to gain attention from them. Our results demonstrate that social media activity, in the form of retweets of candidate posts, provided a significant boost to news media coverage of Trump, but no comparable boost for other candidates. Furthermore, Trump tweeted more at times when he had recently garnered less of a relative advantage in news attention, suggesting he strategically used Twitter to trigger coverage.
Many observers are concerned that echo chamber effects in digital media are contributing to the polarization of publics and, in some places, to the rise of right-wing populism. This study employs survey data collected in France, the United Kingdom and the United States (1500 respondents in each country) from April to May 2017. Overall, we do not find evidence that online/social media explain support for right-wing populist candidates and parties. Instead, in the United States, use of online media decreases support for right-wing populism. Looking specifically at echo chamber measures, we find offline discussion with those who are similar in race, ethnicity and class positively correlates with support for populist candidates and parties in the United Kingdom and France. The findings challenge claims about the role of social media and the rise of populism.
This article sets out the case that democracies are now entering a fourth phase of “data-driven” political campaigning. Building on the existing campaigns literature, we identify several key shifts in practice that define the new phase, namely: (1) an organizational and strategic dependency on digital technology and “big data,” (2) a reliance on networked communication, (3) the individualized micro-targeting of campaign messages, and (4) the internationalization of the campaign sphere. Departing from prior studies, we also argue that the new phase is distinguished, by a bifurcation, into two variants—the scientific and the subversive. While sharing a common core, these two modes differ, in that the former retains a commitment to the normative goals of campaigning, that is, to mobilize and inform voters, while the latter explicitly rejects and subverts these aims, focusing instead on demobilization and the spread of misinformation. Both are presented as abstract or “ideal” types, although we do point out how features of each have appeared in recent election campaigns by mainstream and populist parties. We conclude by discussing the implications of these trends for the long-term future health of democracy.
Populism, as many have observed, is a communication phenomenon as much as a coherent ideology whose mass appeal stems from the fiery articulation of core positions, notably hostility toward “others,” bias against elites in favor of “the people,” and the transgressive delivery of those messages. Yet much of what we know about populist communication is based on analysis of candidate pronouncements, the verbal message conveyed at political events and over social media, rather than transgressive performances—the visual and tonal markers of outrage—that give populism its distinctive flair. The present study addresses this gap in the literature by using detailed verbal, tonal, and nonverbal coding of the first US presidential debate of 2016 between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to show how Trump’s transgressive style—his violation of normative boundaries, particularly those related to protocol and politeness, and open displays of frustration and anger—can be operationalized from a communication standpoint and used in statistical modeling to predict the volume of Twitter response to both candidates during the debate. Our findings support the view that Trump’s norm-violating transgressive style, a type of political performance, resonated with viewers significantly more than Clinton’s more controlled approach and garnered Trump substantial second-screen attention.
The rising voter support for populist parties in Western Democracies in recent years has incited academic interest in populist voters and attitudes connected to the voting propensity of populist actors. In line of this research, numerous scales to measure populist attitudes among voters have been proposed. In most cases, however, the measurement of populist attitudes was tailored to specific countries and its applicability to cross-national research on populism was not assessed. This article uses a cross-national survey to assess the measurement invariance, reliability, and validity of a deductively developed inventory for populist attitudes. The findings suggest that there is a common attitudinal base to left- and right-wing populism which may be measured reliably and invariantly across nations.
Cambridge Core - Political Sociology - Cultural Backlash - by Pippa Norris