Disentangling polarisation and civic empowerment in the digital age: The role of filter bubbles and echo chambers in the rise of populism

William H. Dutton and Craig T. Robertson'


The outcomes ot elections and referenda across the world, such as the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the Brexit vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (EU), both in 2016, contributed to a growing sense that there was a rise in populist attitudes that would undermine liberal democratic institutions. This thesis has, in turn, fuelled internet-related theoretical perspectives on what is driving this populist resurgence. One prominent perspective is tied to the role of search engines and social media, along with the algorithms that govern them, to explain why internet users are being trapped in filter bubbles and echo chambers rather than being exposed to the diversity of information necessary for them to draw sound conclusions about what to believe and how to vote.

This chapter examines this explanatory thesis through the analysis of empirical data on internet users in seven developed nations. Gathered in early 2017, our surveys of internet users show that populism is, indeed, prominent as conventionally defined and, in fact, so prominent that it is difficult to view these beliefs and attitudes as extreme or radical in our contemporary digital age. Moreover, we find that those who hold populist beliefs and attitudes are no more likely to be trapped in filter bubbles or echo chambers than are other internet users. Quite the contrary: the opposite is the case. So-called populists are more politically engaged and more actively seek out sources of information about politics. In such ways our findings raise questions about the very meaning of populism and theories about its effects, leading us to speculate on alternative perspectives on populism, such as the rise of a sense ot citizen empowerment and the polarisation of political communication in the digital age.

The following sections review key work on populism, including its operational definition, and how it is connected with dominant perspectives around filter bubbles and echo chambers. We then turn to the methodology' ot our survey research and the survey findings. The concluding sections briefly summarise the findings and speculate on alternative perspectives that are suggested by the patterns of relationships emerging from our analysis. This study questions not only deterministic theories of access to political information but also the very conceptualisation and operational definition of populism in the digital age.

Conceptualising populism

Populism is a term with a number of different meanings and connotations (Kaltwasser 2015). These can range from anti-immigration right-wing populism in Europe (Kaltwasser 2015) to the progressive populism of Bernie Sanders in the United States (Gerbaudo 2018). Clearly, populism can be defined or viewed somewhat differently depending on the political context being considered, underscoring how populist sentiments cut across the political spectrum (Gerbaudo 2018; DeLuca et al. 2012).

To account for these variations in the manifestation of populism, scholars have argued that, at its core, populism is generally characterised by two features: anti-elitism and appeals to ‘the people’ as the just and ultimate authoritative force in a democracy (Canovan 1999; Mudde 2004). Canovan (1999), for instance, has argued for a structural understanding of populism, defining the concept not by its specific contents — e.g. the nationalism of right-wing populism or the anti-capitalism of left-wing populism — but by the structural relationship between its constituent actors: the people and elite (or dominant power structure). A structural definition reduces the concept of populism to its ethos or animus. Fundamentally, in this view, populist rhetoric involves ‘some kind of revolt against the established structure of power in the name of the people’ (Canovan 1999, 3). The populist ethos is anti-elitist and anti-establishment, one which seeks to wrestle power and authority away from a minority and give it to the majority, whether that majority' is from the right or left of politics.

Generally, populists challenge the elite from the view that authority and sovereignty should not rest with a small number of individuals — whether they be political elites, economic elites, academics, or the media — but with the people as a whole. People are the core of a democracy, and the elite ‘threaten the purity and unity of the sovereign people’ (Akkerman et al. 2014, 1327). In light of this, populists often favour direct democracy (Canovan 1999) as an expression of the majority’s preference. Mudde (2004, 543) follows a similar line of reasoning, albeit more pejoratively, arguing that populism is ‘an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people’. Thus, while populism may be seen as a broad worldview with varying manifestations, its core has been characterised by a common feeling of distrust and antipathy towards elites.

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