Press Release

Dissatisfied with Politics, Populist Voters Disseminate Controversial Language on Social Media

New DEMOS research looked into why citizens agree with populists

Budapest, May 5—Supporters of populist parties are more likely to copy populist language – the type that includes attacks on other political groups and minorities – in comments to populists’ posts on social media. This is one of the key takeaways of DEMOS's new research. Combining different scientific approaches, the study looked at citizens' reactions to populism in several European countries.

Released for download today, the research also found that men are more likely than women and citizens of other genders to believe that an achievement for a migrant living in their country represents a loss for them, something called 'zero-sum beliefs'. In general, European citizens also distrust politicians – no matter if their votes go to mainstream politicians or populists. 

The conclusions advance our understanding of how populism influences citizens' behaviour and why populist narratives appeal to large segments of society.

They also confirm preliminary data of an earlier DEMOS research, which found that populists' tendency to voice controversial opinions about minority or vulnerable groups on Facebook contributes to making hate speech go viral.

Behind the research were scientific teams from Glasgow Caledonian University (UK), University of Turin (IT), University of Lorraine (FR), University of Barcelona (SP), and Adam Mickiewicz University (PL). They employed three different scientific methods across European countries to find out why citizens agree with populists.

Researchers interviewed 81 people in Turkey, Spain, France, United Kingdom, and Poland. They found deep political divides that are linked to populist narratives.

For example, citizens identifying with the right-wing party VOX, in Spain, are not only dissatisfied with politics. They also believe Spain has become more unequal and unjust, favouring policies towards what they deem 'criminals, illegal migrants, and unemployed'. On the other side of the arena, supporters of the Spanish left-wing party PODEMOS see VOX supporters as a danger to Spain’s democracy.

Populist message travels far and wide on Facebook

Social media, exploited by populist politicians, have helped spread controversial ideas that deepen that divide. DEMOS’s scholars performed a statistical analysis on 30,000 Facebook posts shared by political actors, mainstream or populists, as well as users’ comments. They considered posts published between March and July 2021 in France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and the UK.  

Findings show that populists exert greater influence on users’ behaviour than other politicians do. When populist politicians use populist language in their posts, citizens are more likely to copy that language in their reactions. 

Populist language divides society between the pure people, which populists claim to protect, and imagined threats, which populists oftentimes associate with minorities and vulnerable groups. It also targets political, media, or cultural elites. But when mainstream politicians use that language in their posts, followers are less likely to reproduce it.

 “Populist politicians carry a major part of the responsibility for the increasing dose of controversial language used in political discussions taking place on social media,” Federico Vegetti (University of Turin) who contributed to the analysis, explains. 

These findings complement a previous DEMOS analysis on populist communication on social media, which found that populists gather more reactions and comments such as likes and shares than mainstream politicians do.

Citizens see migrants as a threat

To investigate citizens’ reactions to populist ideas, the DEMOS research teams surveyed 2,105 people in five European countries (the UK, France, Spain, Italy, and Poland) as part of an online experiment.

Participants were given realistic looking newspaper articles. These included stories about educated Syrian migrants looking for better opportunities in Europe, migration to countries affected by pandemic-related economic problems, or had neutrally sounding information about migration.

The goal was to evaluate the link between zero-sum beliefs, ‘a gain for them is a loss for us’, and support for populist parties. Despite differences between countries, zero-sum beliefs emerged as key predictors of populist attitudes, agreement with populist politicians, and intention to vote for a populist party.

The results confirm assumptions from the scientific community because anti-immigration rhetoric in the guise of zero-bum beliefs is often connected with right-wing populist parties’ messages. 

 “Despite that, our findings suggest that exposure to bad environment and the presence of perceived enemies in society can activate resource-protection attitudes among citizens,” Giuliano Bobba (University of Turin), who participated in the study, claims. “This could sway voters to support populist politicians, who are in turn happy to reinforce such perceptions.”

Download Information

  • Why do People Agree with Populists? A Comparative Study on Attitudes and Social Media Use (2022). By Osman Sahin (Glasgow Caledonian University) et al. Download here.

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DEMOS — Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe — is a three-year collaborative research project with 15 consortium members across Europe. DEMOS is funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 framework programme. The project, which kicked off in December 2018, has two chief objectives: better understand populism by investigating under-researched trends in existing scientific literature and contribute to addressing the challenge of populism through innovative and action research. Read more about DEMOS here.

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