Explaining populist impulses in Europe and the United States

From the election of Donald Trump in the Unites States to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to the National Front or National Rally in France, it has been argued that populism has been on the rise in recent years (Gerbaudo 2018). Here we touch on two key explanations for this apparent rise, tied to the internet and social media. Two overlapping perspectives are among the most prominent: the notions of filter bubbles and echo chambers.

Eli Pariser’s (2011) notion of a filter bubble is the idea that the algorithms designed to personalise search and social media tend to feed users results that reflect the interests, location, and topics that internet users have searched for previously. From this perspective, individuals’ past online behaviour shapes future results in ways that lead users to see a less diverse array of information which reinforces their existing views, rather than exposing them to countervailing information.

The idea of an echo chamber is that people have a confirmation bias that leads them to use social media and other sources of information in ways that confirm their pre-existing biases and which connect them with like-minded people (Nickerson 1998; Sunstein 2017). This bias could lead to the creation of relatively homogeneous groups of like-minded individuals with limited viewpoints and one-sided political information (Sunstein 2007, 2017). This social filtering of media choices by individuals, such as whom they follow and friend on social media, could reinforce algorithmic filtering to create a homogeneity bias among media users (Nikolov et al. 2015), populists in particular.

Populists, digital media, and echo chambers

Scholars have argued that the rise of populism cannot be explained by factors of economics, globalisation, or migration alone and that media technologies and systems have an important role to play (Schroeder 2018; Kaltwasser 2015; Postill 2018). In particular, digital media technologies may have provided opportunities for the formation of alternative counter-publics which seek to challenge dominant power structures (Schroeder 2018). Specifically, the idea that the internet has empowered individuals to hold institutions more accountable is a theme across research on the fifth estate (Dutton 2009; Dubois and Dutton 2014).

In a new media context where information flows have been democratised, Nichols (2017) argues that an increased sense of self-belief has been engendered in the public, who now feel better able to independently source news and political information, using it to challenge those in authority. The decline in media authority engendered by communication technologies (Waisbord 2018) and the apparent rise in populist sentiments may be seen as a positive in the sense of the public being empowered by their access to information and networks (Mudde 2004; Dubois and Dutton 2014).

On the other hand, these developments can be seen as a negative if populists find themselves in highly agreeable and potentially radical online echo chambers or filter bubbles (Nichols 2017; Schroeder 2018; Fawzi 2019). Gerbaudo (2018), for instance, argues that an ‘elective affinity’ between populists and social media may have come about because social media platforms suit populists’ needs: they provide spaces where ordinary members of the public can come together to express their own views, support one another, and challenge elites. Once there, Gerbaudo (2018) argues that algorithmic features of social media may operate to provide populist users with content which matches their political dispositions while sheltering them from alternative views. Moreover, such technologies may also enhance connections between like-minded individuals, drawing them into online crowds. The risk here is that individuals may become more extreme within self-selected and algorithmically driven online echo chambers and filter bubbles.

Researchers have pointed out that digital media platforms appeal to populists because of two mutually reinforcing factors: (1) the exclusion of populists from the mainstream and (2) the negative attitude of many populists towards the mainstream media. First, scholars have noted the negative framing of both right- and left-wing populist movements in the mainstream media in Europe and the United States (Decker 2008; Jutel 2016; Esser et al. 2016; DeLuca et al. 2012). Such populist movements have been variously characterised as threats to liberal democracy, civil rights, and social order (Jutel 2016; Esser et al. 2016). In response to negative coverage and attitudes towards them, scholars observe that populist movements have used digital media (e.g. social media, online newspapers) to circumvent themainstream media and spread their own messages (Krämer 2017; Schroeder 2018; Engesser et al. 2017).

As a tool, the internet ‘provides platforms for both organized and ordinary populists to avoid not only journalistic gatekeeping, but also criticism and social control’ (Kramer 2017, 1304). In particular, recent scholarship has noted how the affordances of social media have helped populist movements gain ground and sustain themselves by allowing them to easily communicate ideas, share information, organise, and build support (Schroeder 2018; Krämer 2017; Gerbaudo 2018; Engesser et al. 2017). For populist voters, social media spaces become places to rally and make their voices heard. And for populist politicians, being outside the mainstream media apparatus allows them to be stronger in their language, not having to comply with mass media logics (Engesser et al. 2017). Extreme political parties on both the left and right use social media to voice populist messages more than centrist parties do, attacking the political elite and advocating on behalf of the people (Ernst et al. 2017).

Second, and relatedly, populists tend to view the mainstream media as biased against them (Schroeder 2018; Schulz et al. 2020). Donald Trump, for instance, has railed against the mainstream media, accusing them of fabricating stories and trying to undermine him. In turn, he has made extensive use of his Twitter account to communicate messages to his supporters, often expressing his view that the mainstream press is ‘fake’. Such opposition to the mainstream media may arise from the media’s tendency to exclude or negatively frame populist movements but also because media outlets are seen as powerful influencers in democratic society that are part of an elite minority or political establishment that needs to be attacked or undermined (Gerbaudo 2018; Krämer 2017; Engesser et al. 2017; Schulz et al. 2020; Fawzi 2019).

Both these factors may drive individuals with populist attitudes away from mainstream news sources to alternative media and into politically agreeable online echo chambers (Schulz et al. 2020; Fawzi 2019). Moreover, the ‘aggregation logics’, ‘filter-by-interest’ dynamics, and network effects at play online may create populist filter bubbles whereby users are exposed to attitude-consistent content that is popular with dense networks of like-minded others (Gerbaudo 2018).

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