Why Scandals are vital in Populist Communication

shengen nein

SVP poster against Schengen, 2006. Security and freedom would get lost if Switzerland remains in the Schengen area.

Today Dr. André Haller explores a peculiar populist communication strategy: self-scandalization. While he keeps updating POP about the controversial positions of the anti-Muslim group PEGIDA, he also explains us how populist parties and movement create, exploits and take advantage of manufactured political scandals.

smash troika.jpg

A wall in Athens. January 2016.

The latest rise of right-wing populist movements in Europe is connected to current political conflicts like the debt crisis in Greece and the refugee situation in Europe. Both issues have in common that they are highly controversial and are discussed in an emotional way. Populists often pursue the communicative strategy to scandalize such political conflicts or to use scandalous situations for their own political goals. At least three different types of scandals which can be the basis for populist communication can be identified:

  • Original scandals. Established politicians or parties are involved in such a type of scandal. People are scandalized because they understand that the mainstream parties – or part of them – transgressed values and/or broke legal norms. In such cases, populists attack the establishment and frame the scandal as a defeat of the political system.
  • Scandal atmosphere. It often arises during crisis situations. Scholars agree that populism needs and exploits grievances, either real or perceived. Crises can lead to public conflicts with two or more “camps” communicating their political beliefs. This kind of communicative situations provides to populism a perfect opportunity to build the typical, anti-establishment “us Vs them” rhetoric. Populist players try to emotionalize the discussion in order to produce the feeling of a pervasive political scandal. The current discussion about refugees in Germany is an example for that strategy. Populist movements like PEGIDA claim that mainstream politicians use the ongoing influx of refugees to harm the nation and its citizens.
  • Intentional self-scandalization. Here, scandals can arise from intentional violations of values/taboos by political players (see the recommended paper for a short and practical introduction of the concept). Scandals can be defined as intentional actions when the transgression is repeated and/or strengthened by the scandalized player. An example is the Black Sheep poster of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in 2007:
black sheep

Campaign poster of the SVP (version of 2015), see http://www.ausschaffungsinitiative.ch for further information on the campaign.

The campaign’s goal was to promote a referendum for the deportation of “criminal” migrants. The “Black Sheep” is not only a metaphorical reference to a community’s maverick, but also to a racial code. After the release of the initiative and the campaign posters there has been vibrant discussions in Switzerland as well as in other countries about the style of campaigning and the political goal itself. The conflict escalated and when SVP supporters held a rally in Bern they were attacked by left-wing activists. SVP won the national election in 2007 and collected enough signatures for the referendum. In 2010, 53 per cent of the voters supported the proposal.

The strategy of intentional self-scandalization pursues several communicative goals. First, provocative actions attract attention of journalists and voters. Second, if the transgression is successful (“scandalous”), media publicity is produced. In a next step there can be a public conflict about the transgression and/or the political issue. During the public debate the electorate is divided into supporters or opponents of the self-scandalizer. As we could see in the SVP case, the party was successful in the mobilization of supporters (the SELECTS study of 2007 showed that the SVP mobilized best; see http://forscenter.ch/fr/our-surveys/selects/data-and-documentation/selects-2007).

svp postersThe deliberate fabrication of scandals is a common communicative strategy of populist politicians. They start a vicious circle by propagating controversial political messages, which in turn provoke a reaction in the media. This creates the conditions for setting the agenda of the public debate around the issue which provoked scandalization. This, in turn, gives visibility to the position of the party, and the circle starts again with new controversial messages. How journalists could or should react to such deliberate provocations? Any answer to this question must consider the fact that a public discussion about the “transgression” provides even more publicity to the party which created the scandal.

(To be continued…)


Tony Webster. Donald Trump Backyard Portrait Sign. A photograph of 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump in a residential backyard near Jordan Creek Parkway and Cody Drive in West Des Moines, Iowa, with lights and security cameras.

Recommended literature:

Haller, André (2015). “How to deal with the Black Sheep? An evaluation of journalists’ reactions towards intentional self-scandalization by politicians”. In: Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies, 4:3 (2015), S. 435-451, doi: 10.1386/ajms.4.3.435_1.             URL: http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Article,id=20621/ 

André HallerDr. André Haller works at the Institute for Communication Science of the Bamberg University, Germany. His research interests include self-scandalization in the media, electoral campaign communication, and data driven journalism. He writes for POP about PEGIDA and populist communication strategies.

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