new media & society
2020, Vol. 22(4) 585 –594
© The Author(s) 2020
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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
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.
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 https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4187-3604
Andrea Römmele https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1862-2513
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”
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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.