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Bipolar populism? The use of anti-elitism and people-centrism by Swiss parties on social media

Social media have changed politics. The days of politicians being almost entirely dependent on professional journalists to distribute their messages to the wider public are over. In hybrid media systems, where new and old media are increasingly intertwined and complement each other (Chadwick 2013; Kübler and Kriesi 2017), politicians can choose from a variety of communication channels to achieve their goals. Twitter and Facebook, in particular, provide political actors with unfiltered access to the public and allow politicians to communicate directly with their voters (Esser et al. 2017; Golbeck et al. 2010; Jacobs and Spierings 2016). These opportunities allow populist politicians such as Beppe Grillo or Geert Wilders to spread their messages to their voters without any journalistic intervention. In sum, social media are particularly well-suited as channels of populist communication (Ernst et al. 2017a): They provide direct access to the public without external interference; they offer the possibility of establishing a close and direct connection to the people; they foster the potential for targeted, personalized forms of communication; and they can create a feeling of community, belonging and recognition among otherwise scattered groups (see also Engesser et al. 2017b). Against this backdrop, it is obvious that the National Center of Competence in Research on ‘Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century’ (NCCR Democracy) decided to examine the relation between populism and social media in more detail. The introductory text to this debate section (by Kübler and Kriesi 2017) has already established the wider context and explained the relationship between mediatization, globalization and the populist response. Of particular interest for this article are the new opportunities provided by new media to political actors. In a previous publication, we have demonstrated – by way of qualitative analysis – how populist actors craft their messages when spreading aspects of their ideology via the media (see Engesser et al. 2017a). In another six-country quantitative analysis, we established that, compared with centrist parties, extreme and opposition parties are more populist on social media and that they use Facebook more often than Twitter for populist communication, at least outside of election campaign periods (Ernst et al. 2017a). The present article expands on these earlier NCCR publications and seeks to demonstrate that parties at both fringes of the political spectrum are more inclined than mainstream political parties to use populist communication on social media. The specific affinity of extreme parties for populist communication has already been documented by other scholars who analyzed party manifestos (Rooduijn and Akkerman 2017; Steenbergen and Weber 2015), press releases (Bernhard 2016) and interviews with parliamentarians (Landerer 2014). We advance the existing literature by extending the validity of this pattern to social media. We focus our analysis on two dimensions of populism – people-centrism and anti-elitism – and explore how often these dimensions are addressed by left-wing and right-wing parties in their respective online communication repertoires. We will utilize a dataset that includes information on a wide range of parties from five Western democracies, and, after a brief comparative overview, will focus on the exemplary case of Switzerland. We will investigate, in-depth, how five major Swiss parties use populist communication and whether they prefer people-centrism or anti-elitism in their messages on Facebook and Twitter.

Project Number IP 8: Populism and the news media
Author(s) Ernst, Nicole; Sven Engesser & Frank Esser
Series/Publication Swiss Political Science Review 23(3)
Year 2017
Pages 253–261
URL http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spsr.12264/full
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