Interview #32: Media Opportunity Structures for Populism

In this interview, Nicole Ernst argues that while Twitter and Facebook are now essential elements of the political sphere, traditional media are not dead an it would be a mistake to overestimate the influence of social media.

On the other hand, social media are definitely a populist paradise (Facebook more than Twitter). Indeed, they allow politicians to create a connection with the people by sharing elements of their private lives, emotions, and feelings. Moreover, they provide a selective exposure that reinforces the populist beliefs of the public, and by criticizing the mainstream media as servants of the ruling elites they create a sense of community.  

Mainstream media give space to populist content generated on social media because populist messages are often controversial, emotion-evoking, dubious, and polarizing. Populist actors also tend to take extreme positions on hotly debated issues, while journalists pay attention to what populist politicians argue on other media channels – especially on social media – and incorporate those arguments into their newspaper articles. This means that populist politicians do not use social media solely to bypass traditional news media but above all to influence the news media agenda with their posts and tweets.

This interview completes a trilogy on the relationship between populism and the media. The first —with Dominique Wirz— on populism and emotions is here, while the second on populist citizens and their media diet —with Anne Schulz— is here.

Enjoy the read.

POP) Let’s start by clarifying the impact of social media on political communication. What we have now, is a hybrid media system where new and old media are intertwined and complementary. So: Who sets the agenda? And what has become of professional gate-keepers? How did political communication change since the advent of social media?

Nicole Ernst) Social media and digital media in general have intensively changed the dynamics of political communication. In a hybrid media system, where old and new media logics intertwine and complement each other, political actors have a huge variety of possible media channels to choose from, to spread their messages and get in contact with their voters. This is especially evident during election campaigns and even Donald Trump himself stated that Twitter helped him win the election.

Facebook and Twitter for example offer politicians the possibility to circumvent professional journalist and allow for a direct and unfiltered communication. Politicians use them to present themselves to the society and their voters and spread their messages. Media actors as well increasingly rely on social media as sources and quote Tweets or Facebook post in their news articles. However, social media is just one out of many communication tools offered to political actors. Traditional news media such as (online) newspaper or television still play a major role and professional gatekeepers are as important as ever. To overestimate the influence of social media nowadays would be a mistake. I believe that Twitter, Facebook and other social or digital media channels are just an additional communication tool that political actors have at their disposal. During election campaigns, social media are important and cannot be neglected, however they are just one channel of the communication portfolio utilized by political actors. Citizens should be aware of this and complement their media diet with additional sources.

POP) Why does populism thrive in a communication sphere shaped by social media? What characteristics of social media constitute the bread and butter of populist discourses?

book pop comm

Keep an eye on this forthcoming book about populist communication.

NE) Generally speaking, social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter follow a “network media logic” with interest-bound and like-minded peer networks. Messages are neither mediated, edited, interpreted nor filtered by professional media actors. Social media are built upon the logic of virality, which compels political actors to communicate primarily those messages that users like, comment, and share within their networks. Crucial opportunity structures make social media a propitious space for populist communication, and the relation between populism and social media have been described as an ‘elective affinity’ because they are an ideal platform for populism.

I argue that six opportunity structures of Facebook and Twitter foster the potential of populist communication and make them particularly well-suited channels of populist communication.

1) They provide direct access to the public without external or journalistic interference. This allows politicians to spread their messages directly and unmediated.

2) Social media offer the possibility of establishing a close and direct connection to the people, which is a crucial element for populism to flourish. Social media make politicians more approachable due to lower barriers of interactions and the possible creation of stronger ties.

3) Social media foster the potential for personalization through targeted and personalized forms of communication. Politicians can shape their own messages, focus on their professional activities and either share insights from their personal lives or reveal their emotions and feelings.

4) Social media can be used to create protected spaces in which one-sided, anecdotal evidence of populist convictions can be accumulated in large quantities and made accessible to followers. The repeated selective exposure to this one-sided information promotes an in-group mentality that populists can use to mobilize their supporters and coordinate political actions.

5) Social media offer the opportunity to connect with specific groups and can create a feeling of community, belonging and recognition among otherwise scattered groups. Within these protected spaces, an aggressive and uncivil tone can be cultivated.

6) Many populist actors consider journalists and traditional mass media to be controlled by the ruling elite. In their view, mainstream political reporting misses the views and interests of the people, is corrupt and systematically denigrates those politicians who would stand up for the true will of the people. Facebook and Twitter allow populist actors to criticize the mainstream media as distorted and unfair and offer an alternative medium to those citizens they have been able to alienate from the traditional media. Taken together, these six opportunity structures render social media an especially convenient instrument for populist communication.

POP) In your research you have another very interesting finding: populism is more present on Facebook than on Twitter. Why do you think this is the case? Which specific features of Facebook might lead to a higher amount of populism? Do you think this will change in the future?

NE) When comparing the two most commonly used social media platforms, Facebook provides a more attractive environment for populist communication than Twitter. First, Facebook offers more reciprocal messages exchanges, which brings users closer together, enhances the quality of interpersonal communication and fosters social capital. Second, Facebook has higher levels of proximity, and the connection between Facebook users is generally more intensive, personal and intimate. Third, due to the different characteristics of users (e.g., age, education, socioeconomic status, and political interest), Twitter has a stronger professional orientation and political actors may consider it less suitable for spreading blunt and emotional appeals. In contrast, Facebook is the platform for ordinary citizens to interact with politicians. Recently this has been confirmed from the audience’s perspective, by showing that populist citizens are more likely to use Facebook as their source of political information, while non-populist citizens use Twitter for information purposes. Finally, Facebook has an advantage in that messages are not limited to a certain number of characters, which gives political actors the opportunity to make their case more effectively and elaborately.

In my view, these are the main reasons why Facebook – at least at the moment – is the more beneficial channel to disseminate populist communication. I believe that there will always be social media channels that are more suitable for populist communication than others, because of their user base, reach or specific features. It will be very interesting to see what effect newer social media channels will have on the overall populism in the media and platforms like Instagram or YouTube that focus more on visual communication might be an interesting addition to the potpourri of possible communication channels used by populist actors.

graudian populism media

Interesting article from The Guardian on populism and social media, from Matteo Salvini to Narendra Modi.

POP) What about old-style TV talk-shows or traditional news media: are they going to disappear? Why do political actors still decide to participate although they could convey their messages directly and without filters via social media?

NE) In my opinion it is a mistake to overestimate the role of social media platforms and I believe that traditional formats like political TV talk shows and news media still will play a crucial role and will not disappear in the near future. We analyzed favorable opportunity structures for populist communication by comparing channel, issue and actor types. Regarding the channel type, talk shows are the media channel that includes the lowest amounts of populist communication, followed by Twitter and Facebook. Surprisingly, political actors have achieved great success in entering the news media with their populist statements. Contrary to our theoretical assumptions and expectations, news media are willing to include populist actors, their issues and their communication repertoires in their news reporting more often than political actors communicate in a populist way via their own social media channel.

There are several possible explanation for that unexpected result. First, populist issues and populist actors meet the selection criteria of traditional news media because their often controversial, emotion-evoking, dubious, and polarizing messages that contain per se high news values. Second, populist actors often take extreme positions on hotly debated issues for which they claim issue ownership and problem-solving competence (e.g., the migration crisis) which results in high news values and media actors even feeling obligated to report about them for reasons of balance. Third, journalists pay very close attention to what populist politicians argue on other media channels – especially on social media – and incorporate those arguments into their newspaper articles.

Crucially, populist politicians do not use social media solely to bypass traditional news media but above all to influence the news media agenda with their posts and tweets – as Trump exemplified in the 2016 presidential election campaign. This influence is even more fertile the more an individual Tweet by a political actor is successful in the network and receives many retweets. Moreover, the news media may only report about populist politicians and their messages to criticize and deconstruct them. We know that most news outlets actively oppose populist actors by negatively evaluating or challenging them. Finally, populist parties are successful in winning elections: their issues are fueled by financial, migration or transnational crises and cannot simply be ignored by media actors, who must fulfill their professional role as an information provider.

I believe that traditional news media and televised talk show formats are highly relevant for political and populist actors. Social media is one communication channel which cannot be neglected, but in my opinion it is just one of many channels politicians and parties use to enter the media arena. Some newer and aspiring parties might focus more on social media in the beginning and communicate especially populist on these direct and low cost platforms. However, their end goal is always to receive the highest amount of attention possible. Hence, they will try to enter the mass media with different communication strategies, with for example influential social media statements, TV appearances, campaign events, interviews, or press releases.

POP) In your research you find that populist discourses are articulated mainly by political actors at the extremes of the political spectrum (both right- and left-wing) and by opposition parties. This is very interesting but hardly surprising, given that it is precisely from this kind of parties that one would expect to hear populist discourses. But isn’t there any instance of mainstream or moderate political actor articulating populist discourses?

NE) We find that right- and left-wing extreme parties, as well as challenger and opposition parties, use more populist communication than moderate, established or governing parties. As you mentioned, this is not very surprising. We also find that all actors use populist communication elements to some extent. Next to characteristics on the party level, we can also show that low status politicians holding a backbencher position within the party, tend to use much more populist communication elements and this especially, when they communicate on Twitter. Our research shows that populist communication flourishes when several discursive opportunity structures come together. For example, populist or extreme political actors tend to use more populist communication elements when they communicate on social media and addressing a political issue with an affinity to populism (e.g. migration or finance crisis). Some politicians from the American Democrats, the Social Democratic Party of Germany or the Green Party of England and Wales scored unexpectedly high during our period of investigation. As we focused on a routine time period in 2015, I expect that newer research with an emphasis on election campaigns (on national or European level) might identify further mainstream or moderate politicians with a high value of populist messages and styles in their communication. Overall, I highlight the importance to study populist communication for a communication-centered perspective and include several opportunity structures, like different channel, party or issue type.


POP) Populism, as the ideological *content* of a certain political communication, is surely widespread. But in which *form* is a populist content normally conveyed? Which *styles* come along with populist messages? Are they more emotional, colloquial, and intimate?

NE) Following recent studies, I argue for a four-folded comprehension of the populist communication logic that actors can use to communicate to the public or their voters.  In our study we investigated style elements attributed to populist actors or populist communication and resulted in the identification of seven style elements that form three major dimensions: negativity, emotionality and sociability. Negativity comprises negativism and crisis rhetoric; emotionality includes emotional tone, absolutism, and patriotism; and sociability is composed of colloquialism and intimization. Although these styles are not exclusively populist by itself, they have a high affinity with populism and populist actors and can be considered expressions of the same communication strategy that can also lead to the use of populist key messages. We showed that there is in fact a strong linkage between the populist ideological content and populist communication styles in the news media and that populist content is the strongest predictor for the prevalence of style elements. Therefore, I believe that it is essential that ideological key messages and stylistic elements must be separated both analytically and empirically.

NicoleErnstNicole Ernst is a post-doctoral research and teaching assistant at the Department of International & Comparative Media Research at the University of Zurich. She wrote her PhD about populist communication in the media by adopting an international and intermedia comparison approach. In her research and teaching, she focuses on populism and digital political communication.

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