Populism and social media: how politicians spread a fragmented ideology

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Populism is a relevant but contested concept in political communication research. It has been well-researched in political manifestos and the mass media. The present study focuses on another part of the hybrid media system and explores how politicians in four countries (AT, CH, IT, UK) use Facebook and Twitter for populist purposes. Five key elements of populism are derived from the literature: emphasizing the sovereignty of the people, advocating for the people, attacking the elite, ostracizing others, and invoking the ‘heartland’. A qualitative text analysis reveals that populism manifests itself in a fragmented form on social media. Populist statements can be found across countries, parties, and politicians’ status levels. While a broad range of politicians advocate for the people, attacks on the economic elite are preferred by left-wing populists. Attacks on the media elite and ostracism of others, however, are predominantly conducted by right-wing speakers. Overall, the paper provides an in-depth analysis of populism on social media. It shows that social media give the populist actors the freedom to articulate their ideology and spread their messages. The paper also contributes to a refined conceptualization and measurement of populism in future studies.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1109-1126
JournalInformation Communication and Society
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 5 Nov 2015


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