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ECPR Futures Lab 2020

Involuntary Media Populism – How German Mainstream Media Inadvertently Facilitate Populist Movements by Evoking Fear and Anger

Experimental Design
Kimon Kieslich
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Kimon Kieslich
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Frank Marcinkowski
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf

Populist movements and parties are on the rise all over Europe (Kriesi et al., 2008). This even applies to Germany, which for a long time had no successful populist aspirations (Decker, 2016). Besides a multitude of differences, populist parties share a number of remarkable similarities. These include some typical elements of populist worldview as well as a specific style of communication which has been termed the 'populist communication style’ (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007). Like any other political movement, populists depend on media to communicate effectively with potential followers. Based on a partial convergence of professional news media logic and populist communication style, populists enjoy great attention from traditional news media (Esser, Stepińska, & Hopmann, 2016). The term media populism is used to indicate a more or less ‘involuntary complicity’ (Mazzoleni, 2008) between news media and populist communication that guarantees populists and their messages a high degree of social visibility. Based on existing evidence, this applies more to tabloid media and infotainment con-tent in commercial television than to upmarket media outlets and news programs (Mazzoleni, 2008).
However, we claim that there might be a high degree of equivalence of effects even without a great convergence of populist and journalistic communication styles. This applies above all to one of the most urgent goals of populist communication, namely the generation of fear and furor. Right-wing populist communication is said to be aimed at creating fear (Wodak, 2015) so that frightened citizens are ready to follow the simple solutions of populists. In the current situation of Europe, this concerns above all the general fear of too much migration and especially the fear of a growing influence of so-called political Islam in the host societies. We argue that far from following a populist communication style even quality media might stipulate fear of migration and ‘Islamism’, simply by covering those issues in their regular news programs. This leads to the question, whether style makes a difference, or, in other words, whether populist communication triggers stronger feelings of fear than journalistic news coverage. The second question is, whether fear actually increases the willingness to support populist movements or parties within the audience.
To compare the effects of populistic communication and public service broadcaster news coverage, we conducted two experiments with a total of 379 German subjects. Original press releases from the right-wing populist party AfD and news reports from the two German public services broadcaster ARD and ZDF on the same topics (migration and Islam) served as stimulus material. Fear and other discrete emotions were measured as dependent variables, as well as willingness to support populist’s aspirations directed against Islamic influence and migration. The results show: Firstly, German public service broadcasters trigger equal amounts of fear and furor as populist movements in reporting about migration and the Islam in Germany. Secondly, frightened and angry citizens both show greater willingness to support populistic demands. Thus, our results indicate that public service broadcasters may facilitate populist success as they evoke the same emotional reactions as direct populist communication.
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