🔮 Social media: populists’ partners in crime

Social media play a key role in amplifying populist messages. The resulting misinformation, political polarisation, and the proliferation of hate speech, pose tough challenges for democracy. Laura Jacobs steps into the populist echo chamber

In 2022, several populist parties rose to power across Europe. In Italy, it was Giorgia Meloni's government led by Fratelli d’Italia. And in Sweden, the populist Sweden Democrats support a centre-right minority government. Yet, legitimisation by mainstream parties is only one reason for the growing normalisation of populist parties. We should not overlook the role of social media in the process of mainstreaming populism. Populism's success, at least in part, is down to its omnipresence on social media.

Social media platforms as allies of populism

Populist parties have quickly harnessed the power of social media, integrating them fully into their political communication toolkit. In this regard, social media platforms are populist actors' key allies, providing requirements that resonate closely with populist objectives.

Social media offer unmediated access to a broad audience, bypassing the gatekeeping role of traditional news and journalists. They offer unprecedented opportunities to mobilise support, to interact directly with supporters, and to shape public opinion. They facilitate personalised discourses and emotional appeals. Finally, social media permit microtargeting: using algorithms to reach very specific audience demographics. Populist parties have adapted well to this new digital environment, fully exploiting the opportunities it affords.

Social media offer unmediated access to a broad audience, bypassing the gatekeeping role of traditional news and journalists

As ‘early adopters’, populists have invested astronomical sums of money in their social media accounts and online advertising. Populist communication is closely guided in content and style by populists’ goals. From a political communication perspective, the methods for spreading populist ideology are crucial. Populist communication combines populism’s key content elements (people-centrism, anti-elitism) with distinctive stylistic elements. Simplification, personalised discourse and emotional appeals are all common ingredients.

How the media mainstreams populism

To understand how populism goes mainstream, we must examine how populist ideology spreads. First, populist actors reach a broad audience via social media, amplifying their message. Messages that go viral tend to be picked up by traditional news media and circulated yet further. The content and style of populist actors and their messages are considered newsworthy — and this encourages sharing. Often, therefore, populist actors and their preferred issues tend to be highly salient on the public and media agenda.

Populist actors' social media messages that go viral tend to be picked up by traditional news media and circulated yet further, amplifying their message

For instance, radical right-wing populist parties typically own the immigration issue. Visibility of this issue correlates positively with electoral support for parties that own these issues.

Challenges ahead

Several challenges for the quality of democracy lie ahead. First, social media facilitates the spread of dis- or misinformation (intentional and unintentional misleading content) by political actors. Social media platforms can be a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation. The flourishing of false messages risks eroding media trust, harming citizens’ capacity to make well-informed decisions.

Trust in traditional news is indeed on the decline. A growing number of citizens consume their daily news via social media. This runs parallel to the rise of alternative news media. The formation of alternative media ecosystems gives populist leaders complete control over their narratives, allowing them to shape public opinion. Factchecking and debunking messages (such as the work done by factcheck.org) might work only under conducive conditions.

Second, algorithms typically prioritise content people are likely to interact with. This risks producing echo chambers in which citizens receive only messaging that reflects and reinforces their existing beliefs. Since populist messages tend to be sensational, algorithms might disproportionally reward and spread them. Moreover, microtargeting allows political actors to tailor their messages to specific groups in order to maximise their effects. Such reinforcement of people's pre-existing beliefs risks polarising politics yet further, and threatening democracy.

Third, hate speech by political actors on social media platforms is a huge problem. How to counteract it remains the subject of fierce debate. Social media facilitate free expression and exchange of ideas and opinions. Still, the line between where free speech ends and hate speech begins is difficult to draw. Regulation of hate speech and insulting content remains a tough task for social media platforms and governments. Typically, populist parties tend to rely on freedom of speech to justify their rhetoric. Nevertheless, hate speech can erode social cohesion, undermine democratic norms and jeopardise minority rights.

Media mainstreaming of populism: no myth

So, the potentially detrimental effects of social media are clear. But no short-term solutions are in sight. Government regulation and self-censorship raise ethical questions. Moreover, practical obstacles limit their effectiveness. Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter and newly introduced policies (including the return of Donald Trump) all add to the uncertainty.

Scholars and governments recognise the potential detrimental effects of social media. Yet no short-term solutions are in sight

Notwithstanding these difficulties, to gain an in-depth understanding of mainstreaming, scholars must examine the factors that create a fertile breeding ground for populism. The foundational blog piece in this series debunked three myths about populism. Alongside this, political scientists must identify the factors which expedite populism's spread. Social media play a key role in helping populism go mainstream. That, for sure, is no myth.

Second in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 over the coming weeks and months to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Laura Jacobs
Laura Jacobs
FRS-FNRS Chargée de recherches, Université Libre de Bruxelles / University of Antwerp

Laura's research interests include anti-immigration party support, voting behaviour, populism and media effects.

She tweets @LCJacobs89

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