The ‘social media-populism nexus’

Social media platforms became a favourite object of study in Latin America in the early years of the 2010s (Siles, Espinoza, & Méndez, 2019). In this context, scholars have focused on the significance of social media in shaping populist practices and discourses. Some authors have seen the rise of such platforms as an opportunity for reinvigorating the populist communications kit that prevailed in the previous decade in Latin America — notably ‘top-down’ styles of communication that hailed presidential figures (Waisbord, 2014). Scholars have coined terms such as technopopulism (De la Torre, 2013) and populism 2.0 to refer to this “social media-populism nexus” (Moffitt, 2019, 30).

It is not uncommon to find mentions in scholarly literature of the role of social media in enabling a ‘new populist era’ (Mudde, 2016, 29). Several features of social media platforms are typically envisioned as opportunities (or, more precisely, ‘affordances’) for populist communication. In these accounts, social media would be ideal for exploiting and empowering populism’s historical penchants. For example, Waisbord and Amado (2017) note that

In principle, Twitter facilitates the kind of horizontal, interactive communication praised by populist rhetoric. It offers a flattened communication structure in contrast to the top — down structure of the legacy media. It is suitable for unmediated exchanges between politicians and citizens.

Waisbord and Amado (2017), p. 1332

As Moffitt (2019, 31) notes, these ideas rely on the premise that social media allow presidents to be ‘in touch with the people’ in a ‘multi-directional’ way. It could also be suggested that social media is ideal for ‘reinforcing in-group mentality against outgroups. . . [and] cementing] homophilic communication and identity-centred communication’ (Waisbord, 2019, 229). It is perhaps for all these reasons that presidents in Latin America typically associated with populism have tended to be more active on social media platforms like Twitter than those who are not (Waisbord & Amado, 2017).

Populist communications on social media are characterised by specific features. Using statistical analysis of Twitter use and content analysis of presidents’tweets in Latin America, Waisbord and Amado (2017) showed that presidents who have adopted this form of communication tend to use Twitter to gain visibility, reinforce presidential figures, comment on a range of issues in a fast manner, ‘throw rhetorical punches at political rivals’, and ‘spread presidential messageswithout tough questions, dissident views, and open exchanges with citizens’ (1342). Farias (2018) also employed content analysis to compare the discourse of both Nicolas Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition on Twitter. She argued that Maduro continued with his predecessors style, using a ‘discursive communications [discourse] predominantly populist [that reflects] an understanding of politics as a zero-sum game’ (89).

The media has been a typical target of populist discourse. Here, social media is seen as an ideal communication outlet because of its independence from ‘the system’, which is typically opposed in populist discourse (De la Torre, 2017). As Waisbord (2019) noted, ‘populism exhibits what communication scholars call ‘the hostile media’ phenomenon — the perception that the media are biased against one’s convictions and ideological preferences’ (224). (The rise of fake news can also be interpreted as an instance of this phenomenon). In the case of Latin America, this can be envisioned as part of the complicated attempts of media reform that unfolded at the turn of the century in the region and continued through the 2010s. Campos-Dominguez (2017) summarises findings of the particularities of populist communication on social media in Latin America: ‘instead of engaging with citizens to exchange views and listen to their ideas, populists have used Twitter to criticize critics, conduct personal battles and get the attention of the media’ (786). For this reason, she concluded that the populist communication style in Latin America is not unlike that in other parts of the world.

Based on these findings, most scholars who have conducted empirical research tend to be cautious about the alleged promises of social media for communicating ‘directly’ with ‘the people’. Waisbord and Amado (2017) concluded that:

The promises of Latin American populism to overhaul the structure and dynamics of public communication ring hollow. Not only populism’s top-down use of Twitter does not fit its grand vision of transforming communicative practices. Also, the way populist presidents use Twitter is not essentially different from the ‘hegemonic’ political communication style they often criticize.

Waisbord and Amado (2017), p. 1342

In a similar manner, Moffitt (2019, 31) considered most ideas associated with the revolutionary potential of social media as analytical ‘traps’ and warned against turning these assumptions into ‘common wisdom’. He argued that these traps operate under a series of confusions: ‘(1) mistaking directness for being “in touch” with “the people”; (2) fetishising the “unmediated” nature of populism; ... (3) assuming that populist online communication is multi-directional and (4) assuming that populist use of social media is relatively uniform’ (Moffitt, 2019, 31). A more generalised conclusion in this body of work is that additional comparative and longitudinal data are needed to establish causal relationships between social media and the rise or spread of populism (Waisbord, 2019).

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