André Haller, Populist Online Communication in:

Benjamin Krämer, Christina Holtz-Bacha (Ed.)

Perspectives on Populism and the Media, page 161 - 180

Avenues for Research

1. Edition 2020, ISBN print: 978-3-8487-5561-5, ISBN online: 978-3-8452-9739-2,

Series: International Studies on Populism, vol. 7

Bibliographic information
Populist Online Communication André Haller The rise of populism in many Western societies is strongly connected to a confrontational political communication style that differs from the issuebased debates of traditional parties. Populist parties and politicians have become a part of media coverage and the political communication research agenda. Besides classical public relations measures, such as press releases and demonstrations, online platforms, especially social network sites, are widely seen as important communicative battlefields in the 21st century. One of the key questions in research on populist communication is how digital infrastructures contribute to the success of populist politicians and movements. This chapter summarizes major findings in the field of populist online communication and particularly focuses on right-wing populism, although many findings are applicable to left-wing populism as well. The text will present theoretical basics of the online practices of populists and empirical findings on the role of digital instruments in populist communication in a comprehensive literature review. At the beginning, populists’ main strategies and tactics in online environments are highlighted. The chapter explains the role of digital communication platforms in the strategies of populist politicians, parties and movements and will then present specific functions of populist online communication. Afterward, populist alternative media is described, and it will be argued that these new actors in the political discourse promote the rise of populist online communication by producing counter-public spheres and re-framing current political topics from a populist standpoint. In addition, studies show that these partisan media are a transnational phenomenon and build strong connections with populist politicians and parties. The next chapter then analyzes the use of online platforms by regular internet users. Results of user-generated populism on social media, as well as different usage patterns are presented. The text closes with an analysis of recent topics in communication and media that are connected to populism. Since digital disinformation, i.e., “fake news,” as well as the role of social bots in online discourses are connected to populist online communication, both are crucial in this chapter. 161 1. Populist Online Communication: Main Strategies and Tactics This chapter discusses the strategies and tactics of populist online communication. After explaining the main functions of the internet for populist actors, a description of the influence of populist media channels, often designated as alternative media, on the internet will be given. The chapter then shifts its focus towards the reception and active production of populist online content by users. 1.1 Strategies of Populist Online Communication In general, political websites fulfill four functions for producers and visitors (Foot & Schneider, 2006). These functionalities of websites can be applied and extended to social network sites of politicians. Contents on websites as well as on social media accounts have the purpose to (1) inform users about political ideologies, topics and political personalities. In mediatized political discourses, this function must be expanded to the strategic role of politicians’ communication for journalism. Tweets, posts and other texts online not only serve to inform followers but also to gain the attention of journalists. Tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram photos are increasingly implemented in journalistic coverage to illustrate individual political statements. Furthermore, journalists use social media content to present more or less valid “statistics” on dominant public opinions regarding certain issues (Beckers & Harder, 2016). The PR function of social media posts is particularly important for populist actors, as their communicative style aims at classic news factors in media. A study on the coverage of the social media posts by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shows that Trump’s aggressive Twitter messages attracted high media coverage (Fürst & Oehmer, 2018). Political online communication furthermore tries to (2) involve and integrate users. Direct communication like chats and replies on discussion boards or comments sections by political actors are useful to get closer to voters. However, these new forms of interaction give users the chance to actively participate in discussions in a dialogic way. Although populist actors rarely take part in online discussions, user engagement is a way to show symbolic support for populist actors (Krämer, 2017). A third function is (3) to provide links to further content. Hyperlinks to videos or press releases are a strategic way to lead users to further political information. The aim of populist online communication is to build a virtual environment of main websites, social media pages and audio-visual sites to distribute a homogeneous ideology separating “the people” from social out- André Haller 162 groups and “corrupt” elites. Particularly in campaign times, but also during legislative periods, political actors try to (4) mobilize users online (e.g., sharing posts, signing a petition) as well as offline (vote for a party, take part in a demonstration, participate in canvassing). In addition, the mobilization function of websites can also be applied to social media platforms where users can show their support through online actions; high engagement numbers, such as likes and shares, contribute to an increased visibility in online discourse. High numbers of followers and social media engagement can furthermore lead to media coverage about the follower power, as a study of the 2016 US presidential election suggests (Fürst & Oehmer, 2018). Classical media use tweets, soundbites and social media posts to illustrate coverage of populist parties and politicians as well as to report on new scandalous content by populists. Recent empirical case studies show transnational connections between populist actors with the aim to mobilize right-wing movements in different countries and to achieve common political goals, such as anti-migration policies or the removal of laws against hate speech. Transnational populist coalitions, furthermore, strategically plan and carry out online activities to influence public opinion, particularly before elections (Davey & Ebner, 2017). Key factors in populist communication are macro-, meso- and micro-level variables which increase or limit the potentials for populists. Situational factors on the macro-level include the state of the economy, migration and other recent crises. Structural factors include historical or cultural developments and characteristics of the political and media system. On the mesolevel, online media are used as information sources and instruments to express demands and opinions that can subsequently influence politicians. On the other hand, the availability of online media leads to an active use of these platforms by populist actors (Reinemann, Aalberg, Esser, Strömbäck, & de Vreese, 2016). Consequently, online media and platforms play a major role in strategic populist communication as well as the news consumption of citizens. Krämer (2017) identifies five functions of online communication that are characteristic of populist communication: Populist Online Communication 163 (1) The construction and preservation of populism’s main idea – a strong relationship between populist leaders and a homogeneous entity (Krämer, 2017, p. 5; Mudde, 2004), often constructed as “the people” or, less focused on classes, “the heartland” (Taggart, 2000, p. 95). The main aim is to separate groups of individuals defined as political and societal elites from the constructed “heartland.” Comparative analyses show that appeals to “the people” are common in many politicians’ social media communication (Engesser, Ernst, Esser, & Büchel, 2017). In online environments, populist leaders mostly use top-down messages to disseminate their concept of antagonism and forego discussions with supporters and critics. The functionalities of social network sites can tighten alleged ties between populist leaders and citizens: Users can express their support through formal manifestations such as shares or likes. Informal expressions of approval can be made in textual or visual form by commenting on the posts of populist players. However, it is likely that operators of populist social media sites sort out critical comments to create the impression of high approval (Krämer, 2017). The strategy is to “invite the whole people to express their identification with the movement by simple, formalized technical means without regard to further differentiation and diverging opinions among the population” (Krämer, 2017, p. 7). Analyses of the German General Election 2017 reveal that these attempts were successful; the right-wing AfD and leftwing Die.Linke received the most formal expressions on their Facebook pages in terms of likes, shares and overall engagement (Haller, 2017; Haller, 2019; Lucht, Udris, & Vogler, 2017). (2) Online exclusion of social outgroups in the populist discourse (Krämer, 2017, p. 7). Both organized (parties, movements) and unorganized (individual users) populist players use online media to draw a distinction between “the heartland” and specific social groups labeled as outgroups. Social outgroups are mainly defined by origin, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, appearances, political attitudes, or cultural preferences. Populists try to connect these groups to deviant or harmful behavior in order to underline their core argument that an antagonistic relationship is existent. Content analyses show that left-wing populists tend to attack economic elites, whereas right-wing politicians build antagonisms towards established media and practice exclusion against social groups (Engesser, Ernst, Esser, & Büchel, 2017). In practice, right-wing populists use websites to refer to “anecdotal evidence” (Krämer, 2017, p. 7), for instance, of negative events such as interactive maps showing alleged or real crime cases involving migrants. Even though this strategy is constitutive for populist communication, the André Haller 164 use of digital media instruments “such as databases and interactive maps seem to provide particular credibility to right-wing populist claims as they purportedly demonstrate that the threats are omnipresent and systematic evidence justifies the fear of outgroups” (Krämer, 2017, p. 8). (3) “Establishing equivalence and elaborating the worldview” (Krämer, 2017, p. 8). It is a strategic problem in populist ideology and communication that right- and left-wing populist parties are often limited to a few political fields due to their programmatic foundations. Populist players, therefore, try to develop their ideological frameworks further towards other political topics by using online communication “to use the same frames to interpret any upcoming event and issue” (Krämer, 2017, p. 8). Thus, the social media posts of populist actors contain fundamental political ideas, such as liberty connected to alleged threats, e.g., immigration and Islam. An elaboration of populist ideology takes place in offline environments, such as conferences and books, but is also conducted on online platforms. Populist parties and politicians are using communication channels strategically and focus on target groups: “As in other social and political movements, right-wing populist actors distinguish their communication according to purpose and audience” (Krämer, 2017, p. 9). In online practice, populists often use typical styles of popular internet communication such as memes or gifs. A great example for the effective use of a meme is “Pepe the Frog,” which was “colonized” (Pelletier-Gagnon & Pérez Trujillo Diniz, 2018) by the US alt-right movement and used during the 2016 US presidential election as a sarcastic symbol (Lobinger, Venema, Krämer, & Benecchi, 2019). (4) “Developing a right-wing populist lifestyle and identity” (Krämer, 2017, p. 10). A further function relates to the potentials of online platforms to strengthen the attitudes and worldviews of users. It is believed that social media algorithms and populist alternative media services can amplify existing political views. Besides manifold news sources, users “seem to increasingly adopt symbols that serve to express their identity” (Krämer, 2017, p. 10). The “Pepe the Frog” meme is an example of a symbolic use of hijacked visuals. Other symbols often connotated are national symbols, such as flags or catchphrases, like the German “Einzelfall” (“single case”) referring sarcastically to crime incidents. Krämer (2017) points towards a possible spillover effect when the appearances of user profiles in social media may become more attractive to others. Online populism, constructed in a social process by populist actors, users and intermediaries with their technological infrastruc- Populist Online Communication 165 tures, may then become an everyday phenomenon and contribute to a normalization of right-wing concepts. There is also evidence that the development and maintenance of a right-wing identity in online communities leads to a transcultural distribution and adoption of these ideologies (Esser, Stępińska, & Hopmann, 2016). (5) Bypassing mass media barriers (Krämer, 2017, p. 11). Krämer (2017, p. 11) describes the evasion of established media by populist online communication as a “meta-function,” which fulfills two further functions. First, populists can communicate directly to users via their internet channels without being filtered by journalists. Populist parties, therefore, not only use classical social network sites but also develop their own media channels as cases in France, Italy, Norway, Great Britain, and Norway illustrate (Esser, Stępińska, & Hopmann, 2016). Second, populist actors’ boycott of “mainstream media” is a symbolic gesture to underline their position against hostile media. Online communication, particularly on social network sites, also brings along practical problems; the power of digital distribution is limited by intermediary platforms such as Facebook, Google or Twitter and their algorithms, which determine the visibility of contents. Although algorithmic distribution offers strategic advantages for populists, e.g., targeting communication in sponsored posts, online platforms may restrict direct communication approaches. The bypass function of online communication is furthermore limited in terms of reach; many traditional media companies have high numbers of followers on social media, which results in a dominant journalistic position in distributing content. In some cases, scandalous online messages by populist actors may become part of the media coverage as its content, mostly on migration or religion, and fits the media logic, in particular “conflict framing” (Esser, Stępińska, & Hopmann, 2016, p. 372). For organizational purposes, online media is used to organize and manage social movements. Populist groups no longer depend on spectacular and staged events to be part of media coverage. Instead, these movements use social media sites to distribute information on new demonstrations or other forms of protest (Krämer, 2017). The findings above show similar usage patterns of online platforms by populist actors and other politicians. However, populist online communication particularly uses social media and symbolic communication to establish populist online lifestyles in order to strengthen the position of populists. This complies with the main populist communication strategy, André Haller 166 which aims at a homogeneous entity of people and argues against elites and social outgroups. 1.2 The Role of Populist Alternative Media As discussed above, most populist movements and politicians share hostile attitudes towards established journalism and large media organizations because they are defined as an integral part of “the elites.” This ideological point of view is deeply rooted in media skepticism, which can be described as a “subjective feeling of alienation and mistrust toward the mainstream news media” (Tsfati, 2003, p. 67). Populist media skepticism is not only limited to feelings “that journalists are not fair or objective […] and they do not always tell the whole story” (Tsfati, 2003, p. 67) – it can also include outright hostility towards established media. The “liar press” shouts of right-wing populist protesters in Germany during the PEGIDA1 rallies illustrate this frontline. Marginalized social groups (or groups considering themselves as marginalized) typically employ different strategies, such as demonstrations or panel discussions, to establish counter-public structures for their demands. In the aftermath of the societal transformations of the 1960s, which were dominantly influenced by leftist movements, many alternative media outlets appeared in Western societies. Alternative media are media projects on the micro- and meso-level of social movements and focus on partisan interests of these groups and individuals (Wimmer, 2013). The aim of these journalistic ventures was to overcome the hegemonic structures of mainstream media and political elites and foster participatory elements in journalism (Beywl & Brombach, 1982; Holtz-Bacha, 2015; Weichler, 1987). An ideological key concept of alternative media producers were the ideas of Gramsci (2012, reprint), who was one of the leading communist activists in fascist Italy. The main concept is that political ideas and ideologies are fundamental to rule and control a society (Bates, 1975). In alternative media concepts, counter-publics are an instrument to fight against hegemonic structures. Alternative media producers use counter-publics to reframe published information by hegemonic players in alternative discourses (Atton, 2015; Krotz, 1998). Partisan media projects on the right side of the political spectrum are visible in public discourse and apply the same concepts as left-wing alter- 1 PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident”) is a right-wing protest movement in Germany. Populist Online Communication 167 native media (see Holt, 2019, in this volume). A study by Holt (2016) shows that these publications must be understood as alternative media because they produce counter-publics for the right-wing sphere and consequently serve similar purposes like left-wing projects. Political communication research underestimated and neglected right-wing media as alternative communication channels for movements and parties (Atton, 2006; Downey & Fenton, 2003), although platforms like Breitbart, The Daily Caller, The Gateway Pundit (US) and PI News, and Compact Magazine (Germany) have a high reach and may have an impact on democratic discourse. Alternative media in the populist sector are particularly operating on the internet. Cheap, efficient and simple ways of production and distribution in online environments fostered the rise of populist media and led to a downfall of printed alternative media (Holtz-Bacha, 2015). Besides easy access and simple ways of distribution, populist alternative media serve various other purposes. In the US, alt-right media are playing a central role in the production of counter-collective memory referring to right-wing ideology (Wasilewski, 2019). A study of Finnish counter-media websites reveals that these platforms offer possibilities for system- and agenda critics as well as for users who search for entertaining content (Noppari, Hiltunen, & Ahva, 2019). Comparative studies discover a transnational exchange of knowledge and mutual financial support by alternative platforms (Davey & Ebner, 2017). Populist platforms on the internet are increasingly influential in political communication and at the same time in ideological and cultural discourses (Nagle, 2017). Recent data on the use and popularity of alternative and partisan news sites from the 2018 Reuters Digital News Report show that major populist sites like Breitbart, Infowars, Daily Caller, The Blaze (all right-wing) and Occupy Democrats (left-wing) are well-known in the US and are also used on a weekly basis. We also observe rather high numbers of weekly users in Sweden, the Czech Republic and Spain (Newman, Fletcher, Kalogeropoulos, Levy, & Nielsen, 2018). In the German context, Storz (2015) showed that a right-wing “full supply” (p. 7), including daily news sites, newsletters, blogs and video channels, is offered to the public. Right-wing populist media in Germany might be successful because they offer topics and actors that are excluded from traditional media, like migration and identity (Storz, 2015). Holt (2018) offers a theoretical approach for the investigation of rightand left-wing alternative media, which is based on Capoccia’s (2002) concept of “anti-systemness” parties. Following the theoretical conception, alternative right-wing media can be distinguished according to “ideological anti-systemness” and “relational anti-systemness” (Holt, 2018, p. 53). Me- André Haller 168 dia services can be characterized as ideological anti-systemness players if they communicate a high level of antagonism towards established media: “Obviously, this represents a quite extreme position and would in relation to media mean a vision of a completely different media system” (Holt, 2018, p. 53). If right-wing alternative media are connected more strongly to the public discourse, they can be defined as relational anti-systemness media. Alternative media, leftist and rightist, can be classified in a 2x2 matrix. Possible positions in the matrix can be: “anti-system alternative media” (ideological and relational anti-systemness), “irrelevant alternative media” (ideological but no relational anti-systemness), “polarizing alternative media” (relational but no ideological anti-systemness), and “not anti-system media” (no anti-systemness) (Holt, 2018, p. 53). In addition to the general use of the internet by populists described above, social-networking attempts between populist politicians and alternative right-wing journalists are visible. Based on findings in the US and Germany, a qualitative study shows strong relationships between political and journalistic players on the right. Favorable interview situations for politicians of the German right-wing populist party AfD, exclusive access to the White House for alternative media, and recruitment of former rightwing journalists as political consultants point at a “symbiotic interdependency” (Haller, 2018) between the alternative-journalistic and right-wing populist sphere. The success of populist alternative media may vary in different national contexts. In most cases, these platforms do not have sufficient resources for journalistic investigations and a broader offline distribution infrastructure. This leads to a paradoxical dependency on media coverage by established journalism (Haller & Holt, 2018). It is obvious that alternative news sites are not as professionalized as larger media companies. However, public attention for these alternative news sites is high, and some of them reach massive numbers of users. It was also shown that there are traces of a symbiotic relationship between partisan and alternative media sites and populist politicians and parties. These sites have to be seen in a broader communicative populist mindset, and they “reflect the wider populist and anti-establishment movements that are sweeping Europe. Many set out to present an alternative to mainstream media, which they see as part of a corporatist or politically correct consensus. For the most part their reach remains limited, but high awareness suggests that their perspectives have been noted by the public and by mainstream media.” (Newman et al., 2018, p. 23). Populist Online Communication 169 1.3 The Reception of Populist Online Communication Populist communication is not limited to politicians and partisan media services but also occurs in the form of user activities on the internet. A plethora of digital platforms, such as social network sites, discussion boards, newsletters, and comments sections of traditional media, leads to miscellaneous opportunities for users interested in politics. In theory, the internet was expected to serve as an emancipatory infrastructure to establish counter-publics and include more people in political discourse (Müller, 2008; Müller & März, 2008). Despite the technological potential of the internet to establish open discussions, participatory elements and a pluralistic variety of issues and opinions, online services struggle with extremism and fanatism (Klein, 2017). In addition to open communication platforms, such as discussion boards, many closed areas like Facebook groups are used to articulate populist ideologies or organize protests (Krämer, 2017). For instance, the German right-wing populist movement PEGIDA was founded by members of a Facebook group and still mobilizes via those platforms. Hameleers (2019) analyzed user-made populism in Dutch Facebook groups by conducting a qualitative content analysis. User messages in the investigated groups are analogous to the findings by Krämer (2017); three out of four communicative patterns refer to the main populist communication strategy (appeal to the people, antagonism to elites and exclusion of outgroups). Hameleers (2019) shows that users (1) express their affiliation to the Dutch people, which is constructed as the leading political principle. In many cases, symbols, such as pictures and videos, are used to strengthen the community of Dutch people. Symbolic content is used to distinguish the ingroup from outgroups by showing positive aspects and relating to “better” past times. The second pattern consists of (2) fundamental distinctions between the ingroup and societal elites. The central narrative is that the will and demands of ordinary people are not represented by political elites who are blamed for acting solely for their own advantages. References to elites are accompanied by angry statements against specific political actors in many posts. Similar to the function of producing a sense of belonging to an ingroup, users often post symbolic content such as cartoons. Hameleers (2019, p. 11) points at possible offenses in user commentaries that sometimes reach “beyond the borders of freedom of speech, shift to hate speech and online incivility.” The communicative (3) exclusion of social outgroups is a third pattern of populist online communication by ordinary users. In the analyzed groups, many users posted excluding content against immigrants and refugees. Culturally-centered statements contain xenophobic attitudes, André Haller 170 whereas economically-centered posts focus on welfare chauvinism. The analysis also shows left-wing opinions aiming at rich citizens and a “culture of greed,” which would be “responsible for augmenting the gap between the ordinary people and the extreme rich minorities” (Hameleers, 2019, p. 11). The contents of the posts contain aggressive and hostile statements that dehumanize foreigners, e.g., by describing them as animals or pollutants. Aside from these results, a fourth pattern of (4) counter-populist posts was identified. Although most of the posts contained populist communication patterns, resistance against these dominating opinions is also visible in the groups. Especially populist assumptions dividing society into in- and outgroups were contested by critics. All in all, the idea of a homogeneous Dutch society is re-produced and re-confirmed in the investigated groups. Online behavior must not be separated from actions in real-life. Populist expressions online “may fuel negative sentiments towards refugees and migrants in real-life and may strengthen people’s opinion that most other Dutch people share these ideas” (Hameleers, 2019, p. 15). The study shows that the main populist communication strategy, i.e., the exclusion of social outgroups like elites and minorities combined with appeals to “the heartland,” is not only produced by populist politicians but also created by normal users in social media environments. It is challenging to analyze these user-made texts, as many social media groups are not open to the public. However, it is likely that a plethora of further online services offer platforms for populist discourses besides the investigated Facebook groups. In the Finnish context, further usage patterns of visitors of counter-media websites were identified (Noppari, Hiltunen & Ahva, 2019). Based on qualitative focused interviews with users, the study shows that people are using populist counter-media sites for different reasons based upon their attitudes towards established media. Three ideal types of populist media users were identified (Noppari, Hiltunen, & Ahva, 2019, p. 29): (1) System skeptics have ideological and even revolutionary attitudes and are likely to engage with populist alternative media and produce their own content on online channels. (2) Agenda critics are less ideologically driven but often share or produce counter-media content. In their worldview, journalism is a crucial instrument for social change, and counter-media websites are corrective tools to expand media agenda. (3) Users who are “casually discontent” often find “legacy media journalism unreliable and lacking in some respects” (Noppari, Hiltunen, & Ahva, 2019, pp. 31-32) and therefore useing alternative online news for entertainment or to satisfy their curiosity. The results indicate a variety of motivations for the reception of populist alternative media and relativize populist online communication. Particu- Populist Online Communication 171 larly, the third group of users is generally open for a dialogue with traditional journalists and, thus, may be integrated in a reasonable exchange of thoughts. 2. The Role of Algorithmic Communication The previous chapter introduced main strategies of populist online communication. The debate about populist communication on the internet is strongly connected to recent communicative phenomena concerning the manipulation of the electorate in different countries. This chapter will, therefore, show the relevance of two main topics in the public debate about populist communication styles: digital disinformation/social bots and political (micro-)targeting. 2.1 Digital Disinformation and Social Network Bots The debate on “fake news” reached a new level after Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election and the success of the Brexit referendum. Discussions about the rise of a “post-factual”/”post-truth” age in political communication emerged. Waisbord (2018, p. 29) assumes a strong connection between post-truth and populist communication: “While populism fulminates against the false ‘truths’ perpetuated by elites, it embraces the notion of ‘popular truth’ as the innate wisdom of ‘the people.’” Against this theoretical background, populist post-truth communication is an expression of collaborative feelings (or feelings that are defined as commonly shared). Varying views on certain political issues are an integral part of democratic societies. However, in populist communication, the alleged “people’s will” is often constructed and accompanied by a fundamental mistrust of elite institutions such as the media. Populist actors often even deny facts to foster mistrust among their followers against social institutions. The term “fake news” is, depending on which political side evaluates it, two-fold; populist politicians often declare unfavorable and critical media coverage “fake.” In that perspective, “fake news” can be described as a “label […] to delegitimize news media” (Egelhofer & Lecheler, 2019, p. 2). On the other hand, strategic communicators, such as politicians, parties or alternative media sites, intentionally produce disinformation, which can be defined as a genre (Egelhofer & Lecheler, 2019). In addition to the po- André Haller 172 litical relevance of disinformation, the term “fake news” can also be applied to humorous and satirical content (Tandoc, Lim, & Ling, 2018). Online environments offer “fertile conditions” (Waisbord, 2018, p. 31) for populist actors to spread disinformation because of a fragmented highchoice media landscape and technological opportunities and effects such as filter bubbles. Social media platforms, in particular, allow a fast and simple reception of information by users. In the 2016 US presidential election, fake information on the internet and its impact were analyzed by Allcott and Gentzkow (2017). Although social media were a central but not the most important information source for Americans, fake news stories favoring Donald Trump were disseminated 30 million times on Facebook. The study also reveals that people tend to believe fake news stories when the content favors preferred candidates. Strong and segregated ideological social networks strengthen the likelihood of believing these stories (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). The ongoing discussion on digital disinformation and measures against it may lead to contrary effects. Results of a study by van Duyn and Collier (2019) indicate that elite discourses on fake news may favor media distrust and the dissemination of fake news messages. Thus, research as well as the public debate on disinformation, especially in campaign times, should be well-balanced in terms of effects and functionalities. A further phenomenon in political communication is the use of social bots, i.e., software that simulates human online behavior such as sharing posts, creating new texts or even interacting with human users. Although online bots are mostly used for non-ideological purposes, they are also programmed for strategic political communication. These bots often operate in social network sites because of the high user numbers and try to influence the public agenda or simulate support for specific politicians and parties (Ferrara, Varol, Davis, Menczer, & Flammini, 2014). Although no widespread activity of bots was recognized, there are indications that bots were particularly implemented and used by right-wing actors in the case of the German National Election 2017 (Neudert, 2017; Pfaffenberger, Adrian, & Heinrich, 2019). Before the US election 2016, Bessi and Ferrara (2016) showed that tweets supporting Trump were posted more often than tweets favoring Clinton, and this could lead to a biased evaluation of the candidates due to false sentiments in online environments. A higher number of tweets may contribute to a higher visibility of a candidate. However, social media is only one part of the integrated communication plans of a campaign. Hence, the described effects could be overestimated. Concerning the Brexit campaign, Bastos and Mercea (2017) revealed a bot network comprising 13,493 profiles that tweeted mainly information favoring the Populist Online Communication 173 Brexit. The authors highlight that botnets could be repurposed in other campaigns for manipulation. These examples show that social network bots may be an effective instrument in political communication strategies of populists, particularly during campaign times. 2.2 Political (Micro-)Targeting A further topic discussed in communication and political research as well as in the broader public are techniques using data about voters. During and after the 2016 US presidential election, possible data breaches on Facebook were at the center of the debate. The consulting firm Cambridge Analytica claimed that it used psychological data on millions of US citizens to send out pinpoint messages to voters. It remains unclear which data was processed, how accurate the Cambridge Analytica models were, and what effects psychometrical targeting can have. Political microtargeting (PMT) has been widely used in modern democracies for many years. The underlying concept of PMT is to identify auspicious groups of voters and individual voters as target groups in the campaigns. PMT is “a strategic process which is geared towards addressing persuadable or mobilizable voters with tailor-made messages while ignoring others” (Kruschinski & Haller, 2017, p. 2). Target messages are, after the statistical processes of modeling (Castleman, 2016) and clustering, sent out by using door-to-door campaigning (Nielsen, 2012), personalized phone calls, and sponsored advertising on online platforms. The fact that some voters are excluded from campaign information is, ironically, analogous to one of the central strategies of populist politicians, the exclusion of social groups from public debate and participation (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007). It is self-explanatory that all parties running a professionalized campaign use PMT strategies. From a strategic point, PMT is of great importance for populist parties for the following reasons: (1) PMT helps to bypass journalistic filters both in offline as well as in online campaign activities. Detailed data on voters help populist campaigns target promising households in their canvassing and telephone campaigns and avoid “useless” visits. In online environments, PMT is used to carry out tailor-made posts to auspicious users who are likely to vote for the party or can be mobilized. Contrary to classical PR work, sponsored advertisements are more effective than other communication measures. Specific target groups, such as younger persons, can be targeted directly by populist campaign headquarters. Consequently, data-based targeting could lead to a “confirmation of right-wing populist worldviews due to automated selective exposure to ide- André Haller 174 ologically consistent content” (Krämer, 2017, p. 13). (2) The use of PMT in sponsored posts on social media fits the attention-centered usage patterns on these platforms. (3) PMT is, compared to classical advertising in mass media such as television and newspapers, cheap and efficient. This is an advantage, especially for smaller and new parties arising from populist movements. Populist parties might use political online targeting to reduce campaign costs and, at the same time, enhance the effectivity of their messages. The discussion on disinformation on the internet and data-based targeting efforts shows that both phenomena are strongly connected. Emotionaldesigned fake messages, which are distributed with the help of algorithms, may increase polarization (Bakir & McStay, 2018). Hence, further research should focus on the role of data-driven microtargeting in the online toolkit of populist movements and politicians. 3. Conclusion This chapter showed major functionalities and effects of populist online communication and recent digital phenomena linked to populist communication. Populist actors, politicians, and parties as well as social movements, use online platforms to construct and maintain a symbolic relationship between populist leaders and a homogeneous entity (“the people”). This connection is fueled on the content level by communicating main political issues such as immigration or crime or by introducing and reframing other topics referring to alleged misconduct by elites and social outgroups. Populist online communication furthermore excludes social outgroups and tries to establish a virtual populist lifestyle, primarily by producing and distributing symbolic texts like memes or video clips. A further function is the production of counter-public spheres to bypass traditional media, for example, by addressing users directly. It was also illustrated that populist alternative media is produced to build up counter-public structures, especially for core voters and sympathizers. Empirical data shows that alternative online media incorporate media skepticism and media criticism as well as anti-system ideologies in far-right spheres. Right-wing media producers construct alternative populist frames of recent political topics and try to establish counter-collective memories in inner-cultural discourses. There are close bonds between populist online media and populist actors. 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This volume assembles a wide range of perspectives on populism and the media, bringing together various disciplinary and theoretical approaches, authors and examples from different continents and a wide range of topical issues. The chapters discuss the contexts of populist communication, communication by populist actors, different types of populist messages (populist communication in traditional and new media, populist criticism of the media, populist discourses related to different topics, etc.), the effects and consequences of populist communication, populist media policy and anti-populist discourses. The contributions synthesise existing research on this subject, propose new approaches to it or present new findings on the relationship between populism and the media. With contibutions by Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz


Der Band vereint ein breites Spektrum von Perspektiven auf das Thema Populismus und Medien. Er bringt verschiedene fachliche und theoretische Ansätze, Beitragende und Beispiele von mehreren Kontinenten und ein breites Spektrum aktueller Themen und Herausforderungen zusammen. Die Kapitel behandeln den Kontext populistischer Kommunikation, Kommunikation durch populistische Akteure, verschiedene Typen populistischer Botschaften (populistische Kommunikation in traditionellen und neuen Medien, populistische Medienkritik, populistische Diskurse zu verschiedenen Themen), Wirkungen und Konsequenzen populistischer Kommunikation, populistische Medienpolitik, aber auch antipopulistische Diskurse. Die Beiträge systematisieren vorhandene Forschung, schlagen neue Ansätze vor oder präsentieren neue Befunde zum Verhältnis von Populismus und Medien. Mit Beiträgen von Caroline Avila, Eleonora Benecchi, Florin Büchel, Donatella Campus, María Esperanza Casullo, Nicoleta Corbu, Ann Crigler, Benjamin De Cleen, Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, Nayla Fawzi, Jana Goyvaerts, André Haller, Kristoffer Holt, Christina Holtz-Bacha, Marion Just, Philip Kitzberger, Magdalena Klingler, Benjamin Krämer, Katharina Lobinger, Philipp Müller, Elena Negrea-Busuioc, Carsten Reinemann, Christian Schemer, Anne Schulz, Christian Schwarzenegger, Torgeir Uberg Nærland, Rebecca Venema, Anna Wagner, Martin Wettstein, Werner Wirth, Dominique Stefanie Wirz