Really a European Populist Zeitgeist? How populists used Facebook posts and ads for campaigning across 11 countries in the European Election Campaign 2019

Authors: Hassler, J., Magin, M., Russmann, U., Jackson, D., Fenoll, V., Larsson, A., Lilleker, D., Veneti, A. and Balaban, D.

Conference: Workshop on European Elections 2019

Dates: 30 January 2020


The rise of ‘populist parties’ in Europe was one of the most discussed issues in the realm of the European Elections 2019. As "thin-centered ideology" (Mudde, 2004), populism is not subject to coherence or strict operationalization. Rather, this "constitutive ambiguity" (Mény & Surel, 2002) opens possibilities for exploring how populism is carried out and what possibilities and limitations digital technologies offer. Since some authors (e.g., Baldwin-Philippi, 2018; Engesser et al., 2017) argue that social networking sites like Facebook offer "opportunity structures" to apply the idea of populism and communicate it with diverse strategies, we would like to test that hypothesis with the study of 13,989 Facebook-posts and a sample of ads from political parties from eleven European countries. First, we analyse which parties use populist language and if it is becoming a widely adopted style of political argumentation. Second, we look at the forms of populist style arguments and its use by parties in different contexts. Third, in order to gauge impact, we assess whether populist content as a whole, or in certain forms, get more shares and likes than non-populist content. Finally, we reveal differences between populist and non-populist communication regarding how political actors utilize Facebook, e.g. to what extent parties use public Facebook posts versus targeted ads. Data was collected during the 2019 European parliamentary election four weeks prior to election date in each country, is currently being coded and will be analysed prior to the workshop. Preliminary findings suggest that right-wing populist parties clearly set themselves apart from other party campaigns (with nation specific topics; blaming elites; references to cultural others) and reach a much larger audience by organic posts. Paid posts are more frequently used by traditional parties. Considering these and other findings, the presentation will discuss the role of Facebook for the "technological performance of populism" (Baldwin-Philippi, 2018).

Source: Manual