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Picture-perfect populism: Tracing the rise of European populist parties on Facebook


Abstract and Figures

This paper presents a longitudinal, structural study where party and citizen activity on Facebook is studied over a ten-year period, outlining the growing importance of audio-visual content for online campaigning purposes – as well as the rise of populist parties on the same platform. The study shows that an overall increased focus on video as a means of communication emerges as especially pertinent for native Facebook functionalities. This could have repercussions for how online political communication messages are fashioned – but also for the dependencies on platforms that are supposedly strengthened as parties make choices regarding where to invest their campaign resources. In terms of citizen engagement, the results indicate the dominance of populist parties, who have strengthened their positions on the studied platform. The dominance of populist actors will likely have repercussions for the algorithmic spread of political messages – as well as for the ways in which political messages are shaped.
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Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
Anders Olof Larsson
Department of Communication
Kristiania University College
This paper presents a longitudinal, structural study where party and citizen activity on
Facebook is studied over a ten-year period, outlining the growing importance of audio-visual
content for online campaigning purposes – as well as the rise of populist parties on the
same platform. The study shows that an overall increased focus on video as a means of
communication emerges as especially pertinent for native Facebook functionalities. This
could have repercussions for how online political communication messages are fashioned –
but also for the dependencies on platforms that are supposedly strengthened as parties
make choices regarding where to invest their campaign resources. In terms of citizen
engagement, the results indicate the dominance of populist parties, who have strengthened
their positions on the studied platform. The dominance of populist actors will likely have
repercussions for the algorithmic spread of political messages – as well as for the ways in
which political messages are shaped.
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
In their seminal 1999 paper, Blumler and Kavanagh outlined what they perceived as “three
distinct ages” (1999: 209) of political communication, identifying the societal characteristics
that had yielded influence over the communicative practices of parties, politicians and
citizens. The authors pointed to changes in the media environment – addressing the shift
from radio to television – as predominantly important influences on how political
communication had been moulded. Later efforts by Blumler has identified a “fourth age of
political communication” (Blumler, 2016; see also Magin et al., 2016), which supposedly
brings about increased contact between political actors and their potential voters by means
of online, interactive media (2016, 29). Even before that update to the suggested typology
of ages, labels like postmodern campaigning (Norris, 2000), permanent campaigning (Elmer
et al., 2012) and interactive campaigning (Chadwick and Stromer-Galley, 2016) had all been
suggested to describe the characteristics and repercussions of the Internet. Thus,
researchers need to more directly take into account the many iterations, versions and
services that have come and gone in the online realm (as suggested by Karpf, 2019).
Building on this, some have suggested that one way forward could be to conceptualize our
current environment as the “era of social media” (Enli, 2017). Such an understanding seems
to integrate well with more general scholarly interest in “platformization” (van Dijck et al.,
2018), where emphasis is placed on the influence exercised by online platforms such as
social media in a variety of societal areas. The study presented here, then, details the
engagement of political parties and citizens as it has evolved on one such platform –
Facebook – during a ten-year period. Based on data from a series of European countries, the
study employs a longitudinal approach to assess the changing structural nature of Facebook
as a tool for political communication. Specifically, given the supposed “rise of populism”
(Moffitt, 2016; Oliver and Rahn, 2016) in comparably recent years, the study differentiates
between how populist and non-populist political actors have made use of the technical
opportunities made available by Facebook – and how such uses have been engaged with by
While the bulk of research into political communication on social media has focused on
Twitter (Jungherr, 2015), comparably few projects have emphasised the platform studied
here - currently the dominant social media platform in Europe (de Best, 2018). During the
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last decade, popularity among online audiences has led to the uptake of Facebook among
political actors in the US (e.g. Kreiss and McGregor, 2017) and in a series of European
countries (e.g. Lilleker et al., 2017). As Facebook was made available to the general public in
2008, we are at the time of this writing (late 2019) at a vantage point to take stock of the
structural, overarching ways in which the service has been employed by political actors -
and how the posts made by such actors have been engaged with by citizens. By detailing the
activities of political parties and the activities of citizens, the study thus provides insights
into the supply as well as into the demand side of digital political communication (e.g. Xenos
et al., 2015; Gibson, 2012) focusing especially on the growth of what is sometimes referred
to as populist political actors (as suggested by Baldwin-Philippi, 2018).
In sum, the study presented here thus makes three contributions to the field of online
political communication. First, as it builds on data from all EU countries, Iceland, Norway
and Switzerland, the study provides unique insights into the history and current situation of
as seen from a European perspective (as suggested by e.g. Dimitrova and Matthes, 2018;
Lilleker et al., 2017). Second, with the adoption of a longitudinal research design (as
suggested by e.g. Kreiss, Lawrence & McGregor, 2017), the study empirically assesses the
rise of audio-visual content as a dominant trend in online campaigning – detailing this
development from supply and demand sides in tandem. Finally, the study features a
comparative aspect, assessing differences pertaining to activities undertaken by populist
political actors and their Facebook audiences in contrast with other actors – non-populist
competitors and their online supporters (as suggested by de Vreese et al., 2018; Engesser et
al., 2017b).
Literature review
This section is divided into two parts, the first of which reviews the use of online audio-
visual technologies by political actors. Given our specific interest in the social media
performance of populist parties in comparison to their non-populist competitors, the
second part of the current section provides a review of the literature regarding the online
status of populist political actors.
Changing features, changing practices?
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While the media formats favoured during the aforementioned ages of political
communication were each largely characterized by distinctive features – radio as an audio
medium, television typically understood as audio-visual – online services such as Facebook
allow for a multitude of ways in which messages can be conveyed. As part of a “hybrid
media system” (Chadwick, 2013) where born-digital actors compete for attention with
legacy media contenders, political campaigns have taken on “technology-intensive” (Kreiss,
2016) forms. Essentially, campaign posts must increasingly be tailored to the varying
features of social media platforms (e.g. Jungherr et al., 2016; Kreiss and McGregor, 2017).
Such features – like being able to provide various forms of posts - not only vary between the
many platforms available, but also within specific platforms over time. Indeed, the ways in
which Facebook posts can be constructed have changed considerably since the platform
was popularized in 2008.
While the use of images has been connected with electioneering for a several decades
(Strömbäck, 2007), the steadily rising importance of visual content in the digital age has
been pointed to by scholars from several lines of study including political communication
(e.g. Russmann and Svensson, 2017; Dimitrova and Matthes, 2018). Visual and audiovisual
content is often seen as particularly salient and thus “spreadable” between online users
(Jenkins et al., 2013), leading campaign managers to deem such content “extremely
important” (Magin et al., 2016:1708). Related to the study at hand, Ceccobelli and co-
authors (2020) have recently pointed out that the “formal nature” of posts “may predict
modes of interaction with them” (2020: 9). In other words, we might expect social media
content to vary in popularity not only in terms of its content – but also in terms its formal,
structural characteristics, like audio-visual adornments. Indeed, as technological
developments like improved broadband penetration and high-speed mobile internet access
have made it possible for online Europeans to consume audio-visual content to increasingly
higher extents (Vaccari, 2012), so has Facebook diversified the ways in which images and
videos can be uploaded to the platform. For parties on the campaign trail, then, one of the
most important affordances offered by Facebook is the facility to build a network of
supporters (e.g. Kreiss et al., 2017) – for instance, by means of hosting a Facebook page
such as those studied here. Drawing on the above reasoning, one way to mobilize such a
network would be to increase the utilization of audio-visual content in party communication
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on Facebook. Given the previously mentioned spreadable nature of such content, it seems
likely that supporter engagement – expressed as the reactions, likes, comments and shares
left in relation to a specific post – will be more plentiful in relation to audio-visual content
than in relation to other types of posts. Moreover, featuring audio-visual content on
political party Facebook posts is not only likely to lead to more engagement. Indeed, such
increased engagement is likely to inform the algorithms utilized by Facebook, which in turn
will boost the overall visibility of the post (e.g. Bucher, 2012). Increased visibility, then,
carries with it the possibility for more attention and as a result, an expanded network of
followers. Based on this, we formulate our first three hypotheses as follows:
H1: Use of visual and audio-visual content by political actors will increase during the
studied time period.
H2: Use of textual content by political actors will decrease during the studied time
H3: Audience engagement will be more plentiful in relation to visual and audio-visual
content than in relation to textual content.
While there are several services that allow for users to upload audio-visual content,
YouTube is the service that is perhaps most associated with such formats – both in general
(Burgess and Green, 2018) as well as in specific relation to political communication practices
(e.g. Carlson and Strandberg, 2008; Towner and Dulio, 2011). While YouTube has enjoyed
immense popularity, the launch of so-called ‘native’ Facebook videos – in essence, the
ability for Facebook users to upload videos directly to Facebook – appears to have given
YouTube and other, similar services a considerable challenge (Koetsier, 2017). Indeed, by
posting videos directly to Facebook instead of going through non-native services which are
then linked to the specified platform, political actors can gain considerable insights into
usage data and view statistics – insights that would have been harder to come by had they
chosen another channel for audio-visual dissemination (e.g. Kreiss and McGregor, 2017).
Given the advantages of native over what we can refer to as non-native audio-visual
formats, our fourth and fifth hypotheses are formulated as follows:
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H4: Use of native audio-visual formats by political actors will increase during the
studied time period.
H5: Use of non-native audio-visual formats by political actors will decrease during
the studied time period.
Populists on the rise
There are many ways to define what ‘populism’ means in a given political context.
Regardless if we approach populism as a style of political communication (Jagers and
Walgrave, 2007), as a ‘thin’ ideology (Mudde, 2004) or as a political strategy (Weyland,
2001), the parties labeled as such are often described as going beyond what is considered
standard protocol for parliamentary affairs, and they frequently brand themselves as
ideologically marginalized when compared to supposed mainstream elites (Larsson, 2017).
Thus, populist actors will utilize online platforms such as Facebook to “uncontestedly
articulate their ideology and spread their messages” (e.g. Engesser et al., 2017b), avoiding
the gatekeepers who supposedly would have dismissed their contributions to mainstream
media outlets (Mudde, 2004). Populist parties have indeed been described as “internet-
fuelled” (Mosca et al., 2015) and of spearheading “populism 2.0” (Gerbaudo, 2014)
rationales of political campaigning. Such labels suggest differing modes of online
prioritization when compared to their non-populist competitors (Gibson et al., 2008). While
inconclusive findings regarding the influence of political ideology on the online performance
of parties have been reported (Vergeer and Hermans, 2013; Gulati and Williams, 2013),
studies have nevertheless indicated that populist parties – regardless of placement on a
traditional left-right ideological scale – enjoy higher amounts of popularity online (e.g.
Engesser et al., 2017b). Certainly, populist actors have been pointed as especially authentic
(Enli, 2017) – a quality that is likely related to their success in maintaining closer ties to “the
people” (Jagers and Walgrave, 2007) by utilizing online media (Mosca et al., 2015).
Moreover, populist actors tend to draw on rhetorical techniques such as emotionalization
(Hameleers et al., 2017) and negative campaigning (Nai, 2018) – campaigning maneuvers
that could be expected to resonate well with the general tendency for negative content to
be especially salient (Lau, 1982).Based on this, we expect comparably higher degrees of
Facebook engagement – likes, reactions, comments and shares – to the posts made
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available by populist actors in comparison to posts made by non-populist parties. Our final
hypothesis thus reads as follows:
H6: Facebook engagement will be more plentiful in relation to populist parties in
comparison with their non-populist competitors.
Data collection
Data was collected by means of CrowdTangle, a service which offers full historical access to
Facebook Page posts (Garmur et al., 2019; Larsson, 2019). It is reminiscent of Netvizz
(Rieder, 2013) – a previously available similar service – in that it offers the textual
representation of posts in combination with meta-data (such as timestamps, likes,
comments, shares and reactions) for each post. Given our focus on the use of Facebook by
European populist and non-populist parties, all Facebook Page posts made by each party
that was represented in the national parliaments of all European Union member states
(with the addition of Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) at the end of 2018 were collected for
the preceding ten-year period. This process of data collection yielded a total of 1 194 567
posts that where posted by 225 parties from January 1, 2008 to December 31, 2018 –
effectively capturing ten years of activity.
Data analysis
The parties were classified as either populist or non-populist. This was done by utilizing
typologies suggested previous scholarship (e.g. Rooduijn, 2019), especially the work of
Wilke and co-authors (2019). In their Pew Research Center report, the authors employed
measures from three sources – ratings from the 2017 Chapel Hill Expert Survey (Polk et al.,
2017; Bakker et al., 2019), the populism party scale developed by Inglehart and Norris
(2016) and the PopuList, which provides an overview of European populist parties based on
expert consultancy from a series of countries throughout the region (Rooduijn et al., 2019).
While the three identified efforts differ slightly from each other with regards to how
populism is defined, they all nevertheless emphasize “the ‘pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt
elite’” variety of framing political viewpoints suggested by Mudde (2004). Inspired by the
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aforementioned report penned by Wilke and co-authors (2019), the supplementary material
provided with the current study features a table that identifies all included parties. As
evident from the table featured in this material, we identified a total of 225 parties out of
which 48 were classified as populist. It is worth noting that certain parties that did enjoy
comparably larger amounts of media attention – such as UKIP in the United Kingdom – did
not enjoy parliamentary representation in the way necessary to be included in the study at
hand. Nevertheless, the argument is made here that the outline of parties provided in the
supplementary table provides us with a representative spectrum of European populist
parties that have yielded influence in their respective countries.
The analyses are divided into results pertaining to the supply side (showing activity
undertaken by parties) and demand side (showing engagement undertaken by Facebook
users in relation to party activity). There are many ways that users of specific social media
services can engage with content – and these ways keep changing in an ever-developing
process (Driscoll and Walker, 2014). While Facebook has continuously changed the ways in
which audience engagement with posts can be fashioned, at the time of data collection for
the study at hand, the platform offered its users to engage with posts by means of liking,
commenting, sharing and reacting. This latter category is sometimes understood as a
diversification of the ‘like’ functionality (see Larsson, 2018) – the ‘thumbs-up’ variety of
“lightweight acts of communication” (Hayes et al., 2016: 172). Remembering that different
modes of social media engagement can mean “many different things to many different
people” (Lampinen, 2015: 1), we should be wary to interpret a heart or a laughing reaction
at face value. In the interest of analytical clarity, these different ways of engaging with
Facebook posts will be analyzed separately in order to provide insights into any differing use
patterns (as suggested by e.g. Helsper and Gerber, 2012). Given the often highly skewed
distributions of social media data (e.g. Hanusch and Bruns, 2016) – a valid characteristic for
the data collected for the study at hand as well – we compare medians of engagement in
relation to posts made by populists and non-populists. Furthermore, non-parametric Mann-
Whitney U tests are used to assess the statistical significance of the uncovered differences.
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Starting with results pertaining to the supply side – the posts provided by the political
parties during the studied ten-year period – Figure One provides a year-to-year overview of
the types of posts made by these actors, differentiating between populists and non-
First, for text-based content, the Status variety – referring to a post featuring text only –
appears to reach its high point in 2013 (8626 posts for non-populist parties and 3967 posts
for their populist competitors), after which the lines denoting such activity show a declining
trajectory. A different path is evident when one considers the prominent positions of the
lines representing the Link variety of posts. The corresponding lines presented in Figure One
could be characterized as indicating a popular, yet plateaued, form of activity. Such a
feature is indicative of the important role that linking to other online sources has held since
the “time when digital campaigning was largely confined to Web sites” (Jungherr, 2016:
359) and apparently continues to have in the hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2013). For
populist parties, the line depicting this type of activity seems to be in a slight decline
towards the end of the studied period.
Second, for audio-visual content, the steady rise characterizing the lines representing posts
featuring Photos are most likely related to the increased ease with which such content could
be captured and distributed by using mobile devices during the studied period (e.g. Ling,
2004). Besides this more general impact on society, researchers have indeed pointed to the
imperative role of social media in addition to mobile devices as catalysts for the increased
use of audio-visual content in political communication (e.g. Veneti et al., 2019) – findings
that are mirrored in the results presented for photo posts presented in Figure One.
Such findings are also partly reflected in the lines depicting posts featuring the different
varieties of video available on Facebook – native, native live and non-native. Specifically,
while the native varieties emerge in Figure One on clear ascending trajectories for populist
and non-populist actors alike, a descending tendency can be noted for posts featuring non-
native videos.
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The results presented in Figure One indicated differences between native and non-native
audio-visual contents – supporting our fourth hypothesis (suggesting that use of native
audio-visual formats by political actors would increase during the studied time period) and
fifth hypothesis (stating that use of non-native audio-visual formats by political actors would
decrease). Regardless of whether posts were native or non-native, the lines featured in
Figure One indicated an over-time increase in visual and audio-visual content while text-
based varieties tended to decrease or plateau during the studied time period. With these
results in mind, our first hypothesis (predicting that use of visual and audio-visual content
by political actors would increase) as well as second hypothesis (suggesting that use of
textual content by political actors would decrease during the studied time period) were
both supported.
Having presented results for the supply side of Facebook activity, we now move on to the
results pertaining to the demand side – the ways in which the engagement functionalities
likes, comments, shares and reactions have been employed by Facebook users in relation to
posts made by the political actors under scrutiny. Figure Two provides the median for each
engagement type per post and year for the studied time period.
While the lines featured in Figure Two provide us with some insights regarding the differing
patterns of engagement enjoyed by populists (lower half of Figure Two) and non-populists
(upper half) respectively, a series of Mann-Whitney U tests were used in order to test for
the statistical significance of the uncovered median differences between the two types of
actors per year and type of engagement.
Employing the aforementioned tests, significant median differences between the two types
of actors emerged for likes, comments and shares (p < .000 for all three) for all years,
indicating pronounced degrees of engagement in relation to populist party posts in
comparison to their non-populist competitors. For the remainder of engagement varieties,
the medians for Love, Wow and Haha all emerged as higher for populist actors throughout
the 2014-2018 period (p < .000 for all). From 2015 and onwards, all remaining engagement
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medians – save for those reported in relation to Thankful – were significantly higher for
populist parties when compared to non-populist parties (p < .000 for all). All other median
differences were non-significant following their corresponding Mann-Whitney U tests.
As such, the lines featured in Figure Two suggest a clear dominance of populist parties over
their non-populist competitors when it comes to Facebook user engagement. This
interpretation appears as especially valid if we focus our attention on what is roughly the
latter half of the studied period - a range of years that largely coincide with the “rise of
populism” (Moffitt, 2016; Oliver and Rahn, 2016) in a series of European countries. The
results in Figure Two, then, clearly reflect such changes in terms of political engagement in
the broader European context. Based on these findings, we can support our sixth
hypothesis, which stated that Facebook engagement would be more plentiful in relation to
populist parties in comparison to their non-populist competitors.
Continuing with our exploration of the demand side of Facebook activities, we finally turn to
look at the ways in which Facebook users have engaged with different types of posts as
provided by political parties during the studied period.
Much like for Figure Two, a series of Mann-Whitney U tests were utilized to assess the
statistical significance of the median differences uncovered between populist and non-
populist actors. For the thankful variety of engagement, none of the median differences
uncovered emerged as significant. For likes, shares and comments, the differences between
populists and non-populists presented in Figure Three emerged as significant for all types of
posts (p < .000 across all varieties), further strengthening the previously uncovered
dominance of populist actors with regards to enticing Facebook engagement. For the status,
link and non-native video types of posts, none of the other median differences emerged as
significant from each other. For photo posts, the median for populists was found to be
significantly higher than that reported for non-populists (p < .000). For the two remaining
post types – native video and native live video – all median differences emerged as
significant (p < .000).
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Besides further documenting the online dominance of populist parties, the results
presented in Figure Three also show how Facebook user engagement was undertaken to
higher extents in relation to posts featuring visual and audio-visual content – especially,
then, for the native varieties as posted by populist actors. Indeed, for native video and
native live video posts, we can note that the populist actors in the study at hand emerge as
more successful than their non-populist competitors with regards to engaging their
audience by means of reactions varieties such as Angry and Love. This result, then, could be
seen as related to the emotional tenor with which populist actors have been known to
express themselves (Hameleers et al., 2017; Wodak, 2015). Interestingly, Figure Three
further indicates that posts featuring either of the two native video formats emerged as
more engaged with than posts featuring photos. This result should be seen in the light of
previous findings, where visual content was found to be more shared than audio-visual
varieties (Magin et al., 2016). Perhaps as a result of the increased technical capacities on
both the supply- and the demand side of online political communication alluded to earlier,
the results suggest that native should now be the preferred format to employ in order to
maximize engagement. Of course, this raises issues regarding multiple possible
repercussions of such prioritizations – for instance, the supposed dependencies on
platforms that might be strengthened with increased use of native functionalites. For now,
we can conclude that the results presented in Figure Three showed how audio-visual
content reached higher levels of engagement for populists and non-populists alike. Thus, we
can confirm our third hypothesis, which stated that audience engagement would be more
plentiful in relation to visual and audio-visual content than in relation to textual content.
Reflecting the often-repeated need for political communication researchers interested in
online media to compare practices and prioritizations of political actors as well as citizens
across different platforms (e.g. Bene, 2017; Kreiss et al., 2017; Bruns and Moon, 2018; van
Atteveldt and Peng, 2018), Karpf (2019) suggests the need for the researchers to move
beyond the “awkward habit of painting all digital tools with the same broad brushstrokes”
(2019: 4). While this is suitable advice to colleagues in any sub-field within communication
research, the results presented here suggests that comparisons across time within the same
platform can provide useful insights into the continually developing characteristics of
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communication - political or otherwise. Granted, historical data from online platforms are
notoriously and, it would seem, increasingly difficult to come by (e.g. Bruns, 2019; Bruns
and Burgess, 2012; Felt, 2016) – but some interesting initiatives exist that could come in
handy when researchers attempt to draw on historical data in order to comprehend and
discuss current situations (e.g. Halavais, 2019; Puschmann, 2019; Brügger and Laursen,
2018). The approach demonstrated here can hopefully serve as inspiration or indeed as a
starting point for future explorations inside or outside the field of political communication.
For the results presented here, we turn first to the supply side – the activity undertaken by
the political parties themselves. While previous research has pointed to the often careful
approaches of political actors with regards to their use of what is perhaps the chief
characteristic of the Internet – interactivity (e.g. Larsson, 2013; Koc-Michalska et al., 2016),
the findings presented here suggest that for the structural aspects of online communication,
European political parties appear to have developed along similar trajectories. Taking the
differences of scale into account, the lines featured in Figure One largely appears to follow
similar patterns over the studied years, signalling similar prioritizations across both types of
parties. Thus, the “ten-year lag period between introduction […] and acceptance and
routinization” identified by King in the early 1980s (King, 1982) with regards to
governmental adoption of technology appears to have given way to rapidly developing
processes of technology utilization – at least in relation to the platform and the
functionalities under scrutiny here. Given the reported similar patterns of post type use, the
results emanating from our supply side analyses gives further support the “ongoing
deideologization” (Schweitzer, 2008: 460) that has been identified in relation to party use of
a series of web campaigning platforms, techniques and practices (e.g. Gulati and Williams,
2013; Vergeer and Hermans, 2013; Kalsnes, 2016; Lilleker et al., 2011). Such a perspective
suggests increased similarities of party online prioritizations – here, what type of posts they
utilize - regardless of ideological starting points. Indeed, such ideological differences
appears to have been a more important explanatory factor for online prioritizations during
previous iterations of the Internet (e.g. Gibson, 2004; Druckman et al., 2007; Vaccari, 2008).
These tendencies could be seen as a continuation of what Mancini (1999) has described as
the homogenization of electioneering. Granted, while the content provided by populist
actors has been labelled as de-professionalised (Enli, 2017; Tenscher, 2013), the
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prioritizations made by party organizations with regards to the structural aspects of
Facebook campaigning as studied here appear as increasingly similar and professionalized
(Strömbäck, 2007; Lisi, 2013).
Differing quite significantly from the supply side of our study, the demand side of our results
did show clear differences between the two studied types of political actors. Regardless if
analyses were performed on engagement levels per year (as shown in Figure Two) or per
post type (as detailed in Figure Three), measurements of likes, comments, shares and
reactions emerged on more pronounced levels for parties classified as populist when
compared to other parties. The results presented here thus shows that during the studied
time period, populist actors strengthened their dominance over their non-populist
competitors on a year-by-year basis. While the former type of parties may not be as
prevailing in the legacy media featured in their respective home countries, their Facebook
prowess says something about their ability to maintain a “close connection to the people”
(Ernst et al., 2017: 1351). Although the research design for the study at hand did not allow
for the inclusion of detailed analyses of post contents, we can nevertheless consider the
possibility that the uncovered success of populist actors would be related to the ways in
which they shape their messages on the platform. Indeed, previous research has indicated
that populists tend to express themselves differently from non-populists, utilizing themes
including – but not limited to – the sovereignty of the people (e.g. Engesser, Fawzi and
Larsson, 2017a; Oliver and Rahn, 2016), attacks on diverse forms of societal elites (e.g. de
Vreese et al., 2018; Mudde, 2004), invoking images and ideas of the ‘heartland’ (e.g. Aalberg
et al., 2017) and pitting various forms of in- and out groups against each other (e.g.
Rooduijn, 2019; Nai, 2018; Hameleers et al., 2017). As such, the results presented here
provide a contrast to the sometimes utopian, often Habermasian visions of online political
activities frequently found in previous work similar to that presented here. Instead, the
success of populists shown here is reminiscent of tendencies labelled by Quandt as “dark
participation” (2018), where actors engage in “misinformation and hate campaigns” (2018:
40) rather than in what could be considered as more constructive and positive endeavours.
While the concept of dark participation emanates from journalism studies, similar
tendencies have been found within the political realm (e.g. Moffitt, 2016) and have indeed
been identified in more general online settings as well (Rainie et. al., 2017). As such, the
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results presented here appear to tie in with what must be considered as unfortunate
developments arising in a series of societal spheres.
Taken together, the results from the supply and demand side suggests a situation where
over the studied years, Facebook has gained in importance as a campaigning tool. For
example, while non-native audio-visual posts were shown to be a on a clear downward
trajectory in terms of party use, the opposite trend was evident for the native varieties of
such posts. Relatedly, the latter categories of post types emerged as the most successful in
terms of gaining user engagement for populist as well as non-populist actors. Given the
aforementioned increasingly professionalized nature of political organizations and indeed
campaigns, the findings presented here are likely to have been reached by many of the
parties included here – and the study at hand seems to indicate with what the data
essentially tells them. As discussed in the introduction, media formats have yielded
influence over political communication previously, and it thus seems likely that the
uncovered popularity of short, often stylized, sometimes live, audio-visual offerings will lead
to an increase in such content while more text-based varieties of posts appear probable to
continue to decline. As such, the tendencies uncovered here could have interesting
repercussions in terms of future stylistics and campaign prioritizations of political actors
regardless of their ideological starting points.
Drawing on the work of Kreiss and co-authors (Kreiss and McGregor, 2017; Kreiss et al.,
2017; Kreiss, 2016), our findings raise questions regarding what repercussions such a focus
on native functionalities might have in the long run in terms of platform dependencies.
Viewed purely from a campaign perspective, the parties studied here appear to be
demonstrating what could perhaps be referred to as algorithm awareness – adapting the
formats of their online offerings to fit with the structures that influence visibility on
Facebook. Seen from a normative, democratic perspective, however, such prioritizations are
likely to lead parties into dependencies of platforms that are owned by foreign interests and
over which they largely do not have editorial or indeed other forms of control that might be
necessary. Social media firms are “active agents in political processes” (Kreiss and
McGregor, 2017: 19), and by enjoying the power of platforms such as Facebook, political
actors appear to be investing their campaigning resources into a service that can change -
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
and indeed has changed - its regulations, APIs and algorithms at its own whim. Based on the
results discussed here, future research efforts are encouraged to provide cross-country
accounts for how these processes play out in relation to particular political and context-
specific traditions – and how political actors are handling the challenges of algorithmic
adaptation and of balancing the short- and long-term advantages and disadvantages
discussed above.
Finally, while this study has provided important insights into the overtime online growth of
populist parties, it has limitations that need to be addressed. For instance, future work
should study the ebb and flow of what can perhaps be referred to as different functional
aspects (e.g. Wirth and Kolb, 2004) of posts, tracing the supposedly ever-changing ways in
which parties have used Facebook to inform, mobilize or interact (e.g. Lilleker et al., 2011)
with their followers. Similarly with regards to post contents, as “visuals are key to our
understanding of the persuasive power of social media” (Dimitrova & Matthes, 2018: 336),
more detailed explorations of such content would be in line with suggestions from previous
research (e.g. Porten-Cheé et al., 2018, Russmann & Svensson, 2017; Veneti, Jackson &
Lilleker, 2019), and could also help shed light on how the successful rhetorical devices used
by populists might start to be utilized also by non-populist actors (as suggested by Larsson,
2019; Blumler and Kavanagh, 1999). Future scholarship might also find it useful to feature
other types of comparative designs – paying closer attention to differences between
countries and indeed parties of different sizes, as well as detailing any differences between
the activities undertaken by populists to the right and to the left of the political spectrum.
Similarly, future research might find it suitable to employ large-scale text analysis methods
to compare common political rhetorical devices across the many countries, languages and
ideological persuasions that undoubtedly need to be included in cross-national comparative
efforts (Interesting opportunities are available for these types of efforts, e.g. Benoit et al.,
2018; Wijffels, 2019). Such efforts are likely to further illuminate the supposedly differing
rhetorical and visual strategies employed by political parties online.
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
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Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
Figure One. Type of post per year for populists (lower half) and non-populists (upper half).
N of posts, logarithmic scales shown.
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
43911 50539
7766 6811
8626 7350 5560
1272 1844
35407 45561
2999 5767
7764 8391
312 315
16887 32570
4980 6284
43733 47291
48773 52256
60308 61225 59132
360 441
896 915 1228
4067 6750
8852 10425 11443 10241 12558
Type of post per year
Native Live Video
Native Video
Non-native Video
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
Figure Two. Median type of engagement per year and post for populists (lower half) and
non-populists (upper half).
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
00 0 00 0
13 26
28 28
00 00
0 0
Median engagement per year
Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society
Figure Three. Median type of engagement per type of post for populists (right-hand side)
and non-populist (left-hand side).
Non-populist Populist
0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700
Non-native Video
Native Video
Native Live Video
Median engagement per type of post
... In sum, while populist parties appear to prioritize Facebook (Kalsnes, 2016), Instagram appears as less important for them. While patterns of Facebook party use has been found to be rather similar for both types of parties (Larsson, 2020), previous research suggests rather dissimilar usage patterns when differentiating between populist and non-populist political parties. In line with the research reviewed above, our first hypothesis reads as follows: ...
... While previous scholarship has indicated a late start on social media for the former of the two types of parties (e.g. Larsson, 2020), the latter half of the 2010s brought with it the rise of populist party popularity identified in a series of countries not only in Europe but across the globe (Moffitt, 2016; Oliver and Rahn, Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society 2016). This observation mirrors the findings of Gil de Zúñiga and co-authors (2020) who suggested "a reinvigorated political populism trend has taken place across different latitudes in the world" (2020: 585) during latter years. ...
... Nahon and Hemsley, 2013;Klinger and Svensson, 2015) Paper accepted for publication in New Media & Society supposedly builds on its "spreadable" (Jenkins et al., 2013) and "emotionally rousing" (Rieder et al., 2015: 12) qualities, making the online provision of photos and perhaps especially videos a top priority for political actors on the campaign trail (e.g. . A study similar to the one presented here indicated that on Facebook, political party posts featuring videos were indeed more engaged with than posts that did not showcase such content (Larsson, 2020). With the popularity of audio-visual content in mind, our third and final hypothesis reads as follows: ...
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Featuring a longitudinal, structural study of European party and citizen activity on Instagram between 2012 and 2018, this paper outlines the overarching changes in the ways that Instagram has been employed for political party communication. Differentiating between populist and non-populist political parties, the results indicate that much like for other platforms such as Facebook, the former category of parties enjoy higher amounts of citizen engagement than their non-populist competitors. Detailing the uses of different types of posts by the two types of political actors, the study provides insights into how political parties have adopted and used Instagram from 2012 and onwards.
... 27)) by analyzing the role of functional communication strategies and actors' affiliation with a populist party on citizens' engagement with content posted online. Addressing Larsson's (2022) call for more research, this study also analyzes the differences between populist actors of different political positions (left-or rightwing) concerning the usage of functional communication strategies (e.g., mobilization, campaign information, and interaction) on Facebook as well as on the level of user engagement that they trigger. ...
... Besides the importance of these engagement metrics for candidates and their communication consultants in assessing campaign performance, they could be important predictors of various modes of citizen participation in democratic processes. From this perspective, Larsson (2022) indicated that the interaction of users with politicians on Facebook is a form of direct representation that enables voters to interact with political representatives. Moreover, engagement in political activities on Facebook can positively impact users' offline political engagement (Conroy, Feezell, & Guerrero, 2012). ...
... For example, the Austrian FPÖ has its own TV-/video-studio (Author, 2021), the Sweden Democrats use visuals to share more private moments than non-populist parties (Ekman and Widholm, 2017), while populists such as Trump have privileged patriotic symbols in their visual campaigning strategy (Muñoz and Towner, 2017). Given the visual cultures that prevail on such platforms (Larsson, 2020), social media has been central to these debates. Indeed, some have argued that there are 'mutual affordances' between populism and social media that have facilitated the rise of populism in many Western democracies (Hopster, 2020). ...
... Further, images can transmit messages that are easier to understand than verbal messages (Graber, 1996), they are able to cut down complex political issues into oversimplified visual messages (Zelizer, 2010), and hence, they might be highly useful tools of populist simplification. Indeed, Larsson (2020) finds that compared with non-populist parties, populists could achieve higher user engagement on Facebook with their visual posts. ...
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Along with the recent boom in support of populist movements in Europe, social media seems to be the ideal place for their interaction with the public. While Facebook has been thoroughly explored for populist campaigning, there is still scarce research on visual aspects of their communication. Analysing the 2019 European Parliament campaign, this study seeks to determine the distinct characteristics of a populist visual communication style and its differences in relation to the non-populist parties. Applying quantitative content analysis to the images ( N = 997) posted on Facebook by political parties from 28 countries enabled us to show that there is a predominance of similarities in both communication styles. Although populists demonstrated a higher propensity to depict their leader and use national symbols, these were exceptions to the overwhelming evidence of uniformity in campaigning methods. Hence, we argue that despite evidence of textual visibility, populist communication does not explicitly manifest through images.
... Los partidos y sus líderes utilizan esta red para difundir contenido sobre su agenda, propuestas programáticas y actividades de campaña, así como para movilizar el voto (López-Meri, Marcos-García & Casero-Ripollés, 2020; Marcos-García, Viounnikoff-Benet & Casero-Ripollés, 2020). Los políticos europeos populistas, por ejemplo, han aumentado progresivamente el impacto de su discurso durante los últimos 10 años (Larsson, 2020). Sin embargo, esta comunidad es mucho mejor valorada como herramienta por los políticos locales que por los de ámbito nacional (Larsson & Skogerbø, 2018), que no suelen aprovechar la posibilidad de interacción con la ciudadanía y utilizan la red para distribuir su mensaje de forma masiva (López-Meri, Magin et al., 2017;Marcos-García, Viounnikoff-Benet & Casero-Ripollés, 2020;Ross, Fountaine & Comrie, 2015). ...
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This work studies the electoral use of the blogosphere, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by the Spanish politicians during the last decade. The objective is to verify the evolution of their presence in these channels, both in a simple and multiplatform way, as well as their activity and popularity in each of them. The research applies a quantitative analysis to a corpus formed by the leaders of the lists of candidates to the Congress of Deputies presented in all the electoral districts by the parties with the highest voting expectations in the General Elections of November 2011 (PP and PSOE), December 2015 (PP, PSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos) and April 2019 (PSOE, PP, Ciudadanos, Unidas Podemos and Vox). The results show the fall of blogs, the decline of Facebook, the generalization of Twitter and the progressive popularization of Instagram as platforms for political communication in elections. They also show that the digital adaptation of the politicians is still incomplete, with the majority of candidates updating one or no social media channels, as opposed to those publishing in two or three of them.
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Perhaps more than any other online social-networking platform, Instagram facilitates the construction and management of public image, serving as a potentially effective tool for political actors; nevertheless, it remains relatively understudied among digital communication strategies. In this article, I investigate the platform’s use by far-right populist politicians, turning to Santiago Abascal of Spain as a case study. Performing detailed analysis on a corpus of Abascal’s most popular posts determined by their “engagement rate,” I expose the gendered mode of self-presentation that resonates with Abascal’s public. In the second part of the article, I consider an equivalent corpus from President Pedro Sánchez, one of Abascal’s main political rivals at the time of writing. This comparative juxtaposition illustrates stark differences in approaches to social media and underscores how effective particular performances of masculinity can be for populist politicians. Ultimately, I aim to shed insight on the specific ways that Instagram serves far-right political projects, both in Spain and beyond.
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This investigation aimed to analyze perceptions and impacts of media narratives about intimate partner femicide (IPF) starting from the discourses of support/intervention professionals, that work closely with intimate partner violence (IPV) victims, concretely, Criminal Police Professionals and Victims Support Technicians. The data collection was realized through semi structured interviews with 25 professionals in a national level, 11 females and 14 males, with an average age of 42 years old (SD=7.05). The discourses emerged from the thematic analysis, underlined the sensationalism proliferation that characterizes these narratives, warning for its copycat potential in intimate partner violence perpetrators, as well as potentially inhibits victims seeking help and also promotes a skewed IPF social construction. Based on the participants representations, media coverage for IPF recommendations were listed, highlighting the importance in defining accuracy as the foundation of media coverage. Also was underscored the urge in training and specialize journalists in gender violence as well as the need of a positive approach, emphasizing cases of women who survived IPF attempts and women who overcame their victimization processes. The representations shared by the participants converged with the national report from the Group of Experts on Action Against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, that monitors the Istanbul Convention execution, pointing out the need in standardizing knowledge and procedures, regarding gender violence, acknowledging that media coverage varies according to beliefs, training level, and personal interests of journalists (Grevio, 2019). Therefore, it is recognized the urgency in promoting an ethically compromised journalism, adding to an effective regulation and a critical, conscious and reflexive media consumption-critical media literacy. Resumo A presente investigação teve com objetivo analisar as perceções e impactos das narrativas mediáticas do femicídio na intimidade a partir das representações de profissionais que intervêm com vítimas, nomeadamente Órgãos de Polícia Criminal e Técnicos/as de Apoio à Vítima. A recolha dos dados realizou-se através de entrevistas semi-estruturadas a 25 profissionais a nível nacional, 11 do sexo feminino e 14 do sexo masculino, com uma média de idades de 42 anos (SD=7.05). Da análise temática realizada emergiram discursos que sublinham a proliferação do sensacionalismo que reveste estas narrativas, alertando para o seu potencial mimético nas pessoas agressoras, assim como a inibição do pedido de ajuda junto de vítimas e a construção social enviesada do femicídio na intimidade. Assentes nas representações dos/as entrevistados/as, foram listadas recomendações para a cobertura noticiosa deste crime, destacando-se a urgência em definir o rigor jornalístico como matriz subjacente à produção noticiosa. Também evidenciada a necessidade em formar e especializar jornalistas na temática e recomendada ainda uma abordagem positiva, relevando-se antes casos de mulheres que sobreviveram e casos de superação do histórico de vitimação. As perceções e impactos problematizados pelos/as participantes vão de encontro ao relatório nacional de acompanhamento do grupo de peritos/as independentes para avaliação da execução da Convenção de Istambul, que assinala a necessidade em uniformizar conhecimentos e procedimentos, reconhecendo que a cobertura mediática varia em função das crenças, nível de formação e interesses pessoais dos/as jornalistas (Grevio, 2019). Percebe-se assim a imprescindibilidade no respeito pelos princípios éticos e deontológicos da comunicação, à qual deve associar-se uma regulação robusta e um consumo mediático crítico, reflexivo e consciente-literacia crítica mediática.
Receiving Facebook post engagement – such as likes, comments and shares – is crucial in order to succeed online, perhaps especially for political actors. However, online engagement can also be hazardous, as it potentially strips the original poster of control over their messages. Previous work has shown that political actors have been rather unwilling to encourage interaction from their online supporters. However, research has also indicated a need to assess the influence of Facebook in this regard. Building on the theory of controlled interactivity, the study presented here details what is referred to as Facebook engagement strategies among Norwegian political parties on Facebook between 2009 and 2019. Combining quantitative and qualitative approaches in order to compare party and follower activity in relation to the aforementioned engagement varieties, the main findings indicate that parties and followers do not necessarily seek to interact at the same time. Furthermore, tendencies towards gamification, where parties direct user attention towards online quizzes and raffles instead of towards deliberation and political discussion, can be discerned.
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The PopuList offers academics and journalists an overview of populist, far right, far left and Eurosceptic parties in Europe since 1989. The PopuList is supported by the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies, The Guardian, and the ECPR Standing Group on Extremism and Democracy. The PopuList dataset has been used in numerous publications in academic journals and public media. It may be found here:
Individuals all over the world can use Airbnb to rent an apartment in a foreign city, check Coursera to find a course on statistics, join PatientsLikeMe to exchange information about one’s disease, hail a cab using Uber, or read the news through Facebook’s Instant Articles. In The Platform Society, Van Dijck, Poell, and De Waal offer a comprehensive analysis of a connective world where platforms have penetrated the heart of societies—disrupting markets and labor relations, transforming social and civic practices, and affecting democratic processes. The Platform Society analyzes intense struggles between competing ideological systems and contesting societal actors—market, government, and civil society—asking who is or should be responsible for anchoring public values and the common good in a platform society. Public values include, of course, privacy, accuracy, safety, and security; but they also pertain to broader societal effects, such as fairness, accessibility, democratic control, and accountability. Such values are the very stakes in the struggle over the platformization of societies around the globe. The Platform Society highlights how these struggles play out in four private and public sectors: news, urban transport, health, and education. Some of these conflicts highlight local dimensions, for instance, fights over regulation between individual platforms and city councils, while others address the geopolitical level where power clashes between global markets and (supra-)national governments take place.
By considering the Facebook activity of 52 party leaders during national election campaigns held in 18 Western democracies that went to the polls between 2013 and 2017, we study users’ engagement with popularization and with populist leaders. Applying negative binomial hierarchical models on original data of party leaders’ Facebook pages, we find that elements of popularization in leaders’ posts are associated with an increase in users’ acknowledgement (number of likes), decreases in redistribution (number of shares), while they do not affect discursive interactions (number of comments). Our research also shows that, irrespective of their content, messages published by populist leaders are more capable of increasing both acknowledgement and redistribution, while they do not generate more comments than those published by non-populists. Finally, we find that when populist leaders adopt popularization as a communicative style, they do not achieve any extra gain vis-a-vis non-populist actors.
This article confronts some of the difficulties that temporality poses for the study of digital politics. Where previous articles have discussed the unique methodological challenges for digital politics research – centrally, that we face ceteris paribus problems when attempting to study how people use a medium that is itself still being developed – this article addresses the underlying subject of temporality itself. It offers two distinct provocations. First, it discusses what we are ignoring when we discuss Internet politics in terms of an overarching “digital age” or “digital era.” Conceptualizing a uniform digital age in contraposition to previous media regimes is an easy heuristic crutch, but it comes at the cost of rendering key features of the sociotechnical system invisible. Second, the article distinguishes temporal rhythm from the more common concepts of linear and cyclical time. Particularly in the areas of contentious politics and media politics – areas that are central to the topics covered in this special issue – some of the core changes in institutional processes can be understood as a breakdown of routinized temporal processes. The article then offers suggestions for how digital politics scholars can better incorporate temporal concepts into our research.
Political elections see several actors rise to the fore in order to influence and inform voters. Increasingly, such processes take place on social media like Facebook, where media outlets and politicians alike utilize seek promote their respective agenda. Given the recent rise of so-called hyperpartisan media—often described as purveyors of “fake news”—and populist right-wing parties across a series of western contexts, this study details the degree to which these novel actors succeed in overtaking their more mainstream or indeed established competitors when it comes to audience engagement on the mentioned platform. 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. 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.
Current models of data access in social media research offer clear benefits, but are also fraught in a number of ways, including by posing risks to user privacy, being constrained in terms of reliability and reproducibility of results, and incentivizing questionable and in some cases unethical research practices. I argue that partnerships between academics and industry represent one potential option for improving this situation. While no panacea, such arrangements may be able to contribute to a more rules-based and less anarchic situation in social media research, placing greater emphasis on preserving user privacy and the reproducibility of results, rather than mainly on compiling large data sets. Due to a number of recent shifts, not just in research, but in the public discourse surrounding social media platforms and user data, we are entering an era of increased institutionalization and standardization in the study of online communication. This new environment appears poised to replace the ‘Wild West of social media research’ that we have witnessed in the past, in which academics compile huge troughs of data with few constraints, not always acting in the public’s best interest.