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ECPR Futures Lab 2020

A Populist Stronghold? Differences Within and Between Mainstream and Populist Parties on Facebook

Political Parties
Social Media
Big Data
Niels Spierings
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Linn Sandberg
Universitetet i Bergen
Kristof Jacobs
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Niels Spierings
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

Social media have emerged as important platforms for voter mobilization, either directly or indirectly. Campaigning on Facebook in particular has the advantage of monitoring responses and providing direct feedback on the content posted. Politicians and users simultaneously post messages at the intersection of a two-sided communication where supply and demand side influences each other. This shift in campaigning might normalize party competition or provide advantages for some actors.

In this paper, we argue that Facebook is likely to induce differences between parties and within them. While most of the equalization-normalization literature focuses on differences between mainstream parties, recent studies suggest social media to be especially fit for one type of party family, populist radical right parties. However, so far, no study has examined to what extent mainstream parties and populist radical right parties differ in terms of Facebook use, while previous research mainly focused on Twitter. Our paper aims to fill these gaps by theorizing these relationships and conducting a comparative study of three countries: Netherlands, Sweden, and Austria.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we find that political actors from populist radical right parties seem to be less active on Facebook. Our analyses point to the centralized party structure of populist radical right parties concentrating power in the leadership as part of the explanations for this. Populist party leaders indeed seem to make use of Facebook for reaching out to their community, but rather few of these parties’ elected parliamentarians use Facebook. However, once on Facebook, the populist party leaders seem to politicize these communities' feelings of indignation. Our results indicate it is specifically feelings of outrage that differentiate the populist actor’s emotional engagement: the posts on their Facebook pages most strikingly trigger angry responses above all.
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