Populism in the hybrid media system

In this article, Niko Hatakka presents the idea that the hybridization of the media system affects populism as a political logic to the point that it makes it less likely to constitute a corrective for democracy. This is the case because, even though populist movements do not have to be anti-pluralist or illiberal, the hybrid media system will make them appear like they are. As he claims in his book, media systems of the 21st century are hybrid: the access to the public sphere has become more inclusive and horizontal, allowing more people to get involved in defining how we should view the world. But what does it mean for the articulation of “the people” when anybody can speak or be perceived to speak in the name of “the people”? 

If we want to understand the form and trajectory of populist mobilizations in the current media environment, we must connect different theoretical approaches used in populism research. The ideational, populism-as-style and political communication approaches explain “what populism is” and “how populism is done”. But in order to understand “what populism actually ends up doing”, we need to combine these approaches with something else.


The so called Laclauian approach sees populism as a political logic that can unify various groups and individuals into imagined alliances – or chains of equivalence – that can eventually constitute “a people”. A people that can strive to change the status quo. This theory illuminates the discursive processes of how populist ideas are communicated and connected to particular political movements, i.e. the part where populism becomes flesh via the discursive articulation of “the people” and its relationship with “the elites”. This is why the approaches that regard populism as style and as communication are useful as they suggest that there cannot be populist ideas without their discursive construction. But only when connected to the discourse theoretical approach, the mainstream approaches can illustrate what kinds of political forces are actually mobilized by populist messages in the current media system.

Research on the relationship of populism and media needs to be more dynamic

Our heuristic models on the relationship between populism and media are very much set in the age of traditional non-hybrid media. And when it comes to the role of the internet for populism, the literature often either ignores online communication entirely or attributes to it an excessive responsibility for the rise of populist movements. Especially in the time of much discourse about “fake news” and “post truth”, there is a tendency to understand social media as a kind of mind-control-machinery. However, these kinds of narratives simplistically represent populism as a technological phenomenon. Social media definitely allow populist actors to emancipate themselves form the traditional media actors, but our understanding of the relationship of media and populism has yet to be updated to accommodate the idea of online media not only as a means of bypassing gatekeepers but as an integral part of the media system. I suggest that populist political communication in the hybrid media system can be understood as:

1) Media populism: Mainstream media communicate populist ideas independently of political actors;

2) Populist communication bypassing gatekeepers: Populists communicating populist ideas independently of the mainstream media;

3) Populist re-mediation of media content: Media content re-mediated by populists to communicate populist ideas;

4) Journalistic amplification of populist communication: Mainstream media covering populist communication and simultaneously participating in its dissemination;

5) Civic amplification of populist communication: Political opponents and activists discussing populist communication and simultaneously disseminating it via online and mainstream media;

6) Resistance backlash: Populist communicators feeding on the mainstream media’s and political opponents’ mediated criticism of populist political communication in order to communicate populist ideas and style.

I argue that populist political communication should not only be understood as the transmission and diffusion of populist ideas but as a discursive struggle involving both proponents and opponents. The focus must be shifted from the contents and salience of mediated populist political communication itself, to how populist communication is transformed after several stages of interaction between the original message, the media system, and the public.

This means that to understand how populist communication affects populist movements’ in terms of their form, trajectory, and chances of challenging hegemony, we have to look at how political organizations, journalists, and citizen activists interact with populist communication. This can be visualized for example like this…

hatakka figure

The hybridization of the media system affects not only what kind of populist ideas are being communicated (and how), but also what kinds of movements will be mobilized by a populist logic. Therefore we must update our understanding of the role of the media in diffusing populist political communication to accommodate not only online communication but also reciprocal interactivity between different actors involved in the communication system. Therefore, a distinction must be made between what populists are trying to communicate and what their communication actually articulates after the communication has gone through a series of discursive negotiations in the public sphere.

Outcomes of media hybridity for the contents of populist movements


Populist political communication in the 21st century should be regarded as technologically, organizationally, ideologically and stylistically hybrid. By making the most controversial acts of populist communication more salient, the media system intensifies their political use. And this can lead to their further normalization as the hegemonic mode of discourse through which a movement’s populism is articulated, especially taking in consideration that for populist leaders it is cost-effective to remain confrontational or even openly hostile towards criticism. In fact, the logic of the contemporary media environment might hinder the chances of populist movements’ to become legitimate channels for the institutionalization of unmet societal demands.

Even though theoretically populist movements do not have to be anti-pluralist or illiberal, the hybrid media system will make them appear like they are. And unless populist movements consolidate antagonism as a key feature in their communications, external and internal mediated scrutiny is likely to cripple them by starting to disintegrate their idea of “who the people are”. This explains why the populist logic is less likely to constitute a corrective for democracy in the hybrid media system.

Hatakka 500x750

Niko Hatakka (DSocSci) is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Parliamentary Studies at the University of Turku. He is also a Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. Currently Niko does research on the mainstreaming of populism in and out of parliamentary politics, and on populist radical right party organizations and party activism.

For a more detailed explanation of the argument, please download the open access version here: “Populism in the Hybrid Media System: Populist Radical Right Online Counterpublic Interacting with Journalism, Party Politics, and Citizen Activism”.

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