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One Platform, Many Strategies: Populism on Facebook During the European Elections

Elections
Populism
Campaign
Qualitative
Social Media
Domestic Politics
Euroscepticism
European Parliament
Sam Bennett
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland
Sam Bennett
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland
Artur Lipinski
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan
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Abstract

This paper presents selected findings from the DEMOS (Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe) H2020 project, specifically: on the usage of Facebook (FB) by populist actors in Europe. It offers a qualitative analysis of FB posts collected over two data collection periods – before and after European Parliamentary elections in 2019. Research on Social Media (SM) and populism is relatively new, with the first major publication coming only in 2011 (Bartlett et al.) and the link between SM and populist politics is a growing focus of both academic study and popular interest (e.g the Guardian’s recent articles). There is a common line of thought that populist actors, in particular right-wing populists have harnessed the power of Web 2.0 more successfully than other political actors of different hues. As Moffit (2017, 30) argues, the generally accepted narrative is that 1) Populists have used SM to circumvent mainstream media to directly connect with ‘the people’, 2) SM “plays into” populism’s “revolt against expertise and ‘the elite’”, and 3) that these two processes have led to electoral success for populist actors. However, the reality of the social media/populism synergy is much more nuanced. Whilst avoiding the trap of finding a causal relationship between Populists’ SM usage and electoral success though, it is clear that there is an “elective affinity” between populism and Web 2.0 (Gerbaudo 2018). This is evidenced in the way that Facebook was used in campaigns for the European Parliament in 2019. The paper first briefly presents the European and national contexts that provide the backdrop to the research. It then moves to a discussion of how FB was used a tool of political communication by populist actors in the analysed countries. From here, the paper moves to an exposition of the type of language used with regards to the three main elements of populist communication, namely: ‘the people’, ‘elites’, and ‘others’ Firstly, the research found that no, one online populist strategy exists. The frequency, tone and topic of social media usage by populist actors differs from country to country, actor to actor, and over time. National contexts (elections, campaign traditions, social media usage) also impact these strategies. As such, we need to countenance against grand pronouncements of an one-size-fits-all approach to theorising online populism, and instead move decisively towards understanding nationally-specific, online populist strategies. Secondly, whilst there is a relatively stable ‘set’ of elements of populist rhetoric, the degree to which they are deployed (frequency) and combined (i.e. empty or total populism) vary greatly from country to country and actor to actor, as do the subjects and objects of these discursive strategies, none more so than the differences between left, and right-wing populist actors. The findings point to a ‘weak’ Europeanisation, with European elections acting as second order elections, and politicians acting nationally rather than as Europeans. Concluding our paper, we suggest that it would be more correct to talk about the rise in “populisms” in Europe, rather than populism per se.