One Populist Communication Strategy or Many?

2020. March 05. 2:00

The Evidence from Research on Populist Actors' Facebook Posts

Artur Lipiński is a professor at the Faculty of
Political Science and Journalism at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. His research interests include right wing politics 

in Poland, political communication, interpretive methods in political science, populism and
collective memory. He has published articles in "Problems of Post-Communism" and
"Journalism Studies” and book chapters with Palgrave and Routledge.

Artur Lipiński* 

All politicians communicate, but populist politicians communicate in a distinct way. That is probably the most concise description of the assumptions adopted by many researchers working on populist political communication. Using the opportunity provided by the international composition of the DEMOS consortium, we decided not only to study how specific populist communication is, but also internal differences within and across the 14 European countries.

The literature emphasizes two specific aspects of populist political communication: distinct logic of framing the content (for example, frequent references to the people pitted against the elities) and inclination to specific channels of communication. Populist actors find social media platforms to be particularly convenient tools of communication. These give them room for more direct and unmediated communication, bypassing the gatekeeping role of the media and journalists. Social media also contributes to strengthening their image as outsider actors rejecting the official system and its media accused of spreading propaganda.

 To detect communication practices and study the varieties of populism in Europe, we conducted quantitative and qualitative content analysis of Facebook (FB) profiles of two populist actors (leaders and parties).  The detailed codebook contained, among other issues, three main populist strategies of communication: people-centrism, anti-elitism, and criticism of various minority groups (eg. sexual, religious, ethnic, etc.). Our main goal was to quantitatively determine how these strategies varied and to record, through qualitative analysis, elements of communication within national and political culture contexts. Thus, national teams used particular indicators of populist strategies from the codebook as a coding frame needed for selecting, organizing, and hermeneutically interpreting relevant textual passages.

The study brought a few original and interesting results. It allowed us to confirm some of the findings of other researchers. First, the frequency of populist communication strategies on FB was higher in Hungary, Turkey, and Italy. These countries were followed by the UK, Poland, and France. In line with the current literature on populism, political actors resorted to populist messages more frequently during electoral campaigns before the 2019 European Parliamentary elections than in a post-electoral period. In all countries, except Denmark, the Netherlands, and Slovakia, posts published by populist actors during the election period included, on average, more indicators of populist discourse than posts published in the non-election period.

Second, the context of the elections affected not only the presence of elements of populist discourse, but also the use of types of populism (empty, anti-elitist, excluding, and complete). While in the non-election period there was a stronger tendency to express negative (critical) attitudes and opinions toward ‘the elite’ and ‘the others’ without any reference to ‘the people’, in the election period populist political actors tended to frequently reference ‘the people’ in their messages.

Third, with regards to the use of specific populist strategies, the results show similarities as well as clear differences across countries. Whereas in some countries (Turkey and Spain) it was empty populism that prevailed (references to the people only), in others, like France and the UK, populists focused more on a critical attitude toward the elites (the so-called anti-elitist populism). In a group of countries, there was a clear dichotomy between ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ (Hungary, Greece, Italy, and Poland). Although the exclusionary form of populism was less common across the countries under analysis, one can still trace that type of populism in Poland and Turkey during the election period, and in Denmark in the non-election period.

Fourth, contrary to many studies, it turned out that populists did not construe ‘the people’ through references to their achievements or traits. More typical was the strategy to victimize, representing people through their negative experiences—or by posing that their negative situation was the product of out-group actors. Interestingly, such strategy was not circumscribed to Central and Easter European countries: it was frequently the case in countries like Italy or the UK.

The qualitative analysis has clearly shown the second order characteristic of the European Parliamentary Elections. The preoccupation of national actors with various domestic issues and internal party politics indicates that very well. Despite three common building blocks sustaining populist communication, close inspection of the national empirical data has not revealed a single online populist strategy. The national discourses are deeply embedded in the national context with their specific political timing, events, composition of actors, topics, and political cultures. That would suggest that the “variety of populism” approach adopted by DEMOS, which theorizes and explains differences, can result in more interesting results than efforts guided to develop a one-size-fit-all model covering all empirical instances of the phenomenon.

*This blog post stems from results of the DEMOS project, based on a report on "Manifestations of populism: discourse” prepared by Sam Bennett, Artur Lipiński, and Agnieszka Stępińska (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland).