Press Release

Populist Leaders Thrive on Social Media

On average, populist posts trigger 3,000 more reactions than non-populist rivals on Facebook

Budapest, September 27—A new DEMOS H2020 study examining populist leaders and parties’ communication on social media found that populist posts triggers almost 3,000 more reactions and 500 more shares and comments than mainstream political leaders’ publications on Facebook. The preliminary findings confirm that Facebook, Europe's favourite social media platform, has been an effective tool for populist actors to shape public opinion without the help of professional media outlets. (Download the study below.)

To find out how populist topics—including those about minority groups — fare with larger audiences, several project researchers and scholars examined users’ reactions to 130,000 populist actors’ posts circulated on Facebook. Researchers considered posts shared between August 2019 and October 2020 in France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Turkey, and the UK.

The teams found that populist actors’ posts about ethnic minorities such as immigrants, refugees, Roma communities, or Kurds triggered more user engagements such as likes and shares. These posts were more popular than debates about the environment, elections, education, the economy, or COVID-19 on Facebook.

According to Federico Vegetti, professor at the University of Turin who led this research stream, preliminary results reveal how populist actors exploit a more direct form of communication with the public. “Facebook is the most widely used social network site in Europe and evidence, such as in Italy, suggests that mainstream media pick up on politician’s positions by looking into their communication on this platform.”

Reinforcing radical right-wing views online

DEMOS also releases today a study mapping the quality and type of news sources shared in populist actors’ posts on Facebook. The study claims that, in six out of eight European countries, populist actors promote party propaganda and news associated with the right or far right. Political allies and thousands of loyal fan groups’ users share these posts and help the content reach more users.

“Populist actors build strong networks on Facebook which may create echo chambers reinforcing radicalised beliefs for thousands of followers,” Adina Marincea, one leader of the study which involved seven teams of Europe-based DEMOS experts, says. “They do that by choosing media sources that reflect their own political orientation.”

Seventeen populist actors and parties’ content in eight European countries were examined between April 2019, before the European Parliament election, and April 2020. The teams assessed the content shared by Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and other populist figures in Slovakia, Bosnia, Greece, Poland, and the UK.

After analysing 190,000 Facebook posts with links to news sources that populist parties and leaders share, including media outlets, blogs, and fake news sites, the study found that over 50% of Marine le Pen’s posts promoted radical right-wing content such as the French weekly Valeurs Actuelles. About a third of Salvini’s posts included links to right-wing outlets. In Poland, right-wing views comprise over 60% of the links shared by the Confederation party. In the opposite ideological spectrum, Greek and French populist actors were found to promote radical left-wing media sources.

Considering populist pages’ enormous fan base on Facebook – Marine Le Pen has almost 2 million followers on Facebook – populist views spread quickly, finding an ear among users prone to populist attitudes. Pages of political allies and parties, fan groups, and pages attacking populists’ rivals are the chief promoters of these posts, according to the research.

Although the research did not investigate the factuality of populists’ shared content, findings debunk common assumption that populist leaders prefer sharing fake news websites in social media. Instead, European populist actors prefer to promote their agenda by relying on the legitimacy of mainstream news sites or their own political parties, by-passing professional media outlets and entertaining an “anti-system” political strategy.

Download Information

  1. Citizens' reactions to populism in Europe: How do target groups respond to the populist challenge? By Osman Sahin (Glasgow Caledonian University) et al. Download here.
  2. Populism and Social Media: A comparative analysis of populists’ shared content and networks on Facebook. By Adina Marincea (School of Communication and Media, SKAMBA) 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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