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This paper studies the alleged spread of populism through social media by analysing how different issues (Unemployment, Economy, European Union) are addressed on Facebook and Twitter by different types of users (citizens, politicians, interest groups, news media outlets, etc.) in three countries: France, Portugal, and Spain. The rationale behind the choice of these three countries signals the intention of studying cases with different types of populist politicians and political parties, which also have different levels of electoral success.
The methodological approach is based on a mixed methods approach that includes digital methods, content analysis (human and automated) of user-generated content and network analysis. On the one hand, the paper examines the prevalence of populist rhetoric through specific elements that have been linked to populism in extant literature, namely: reference to ‘the people’ and/or expression of closeness and belonging to the people; anti-elitism (addressed to any type of elite); anti-system and anti-establishment; division between “us and them”; other expressions of dichotomous views (e.g., good vs. bad, right vs. wrong; evil vs. pure, etc.); blame frame; and other expressions of blame shifting and scapegoating. On the other hand, it studies the character and tone of online political speech and messages, by checking the prevalence of hate and insult, political antagonism, or praise. The paper finally links these analyses with political polarisation by examining how polarised users and the communities to which they belong are in these three countries. It therefore investigates whether social media are polarising positions and disseminating populist agendas and approaches to problems (e.g. over-simplification of issues and problems, etc.) and the specific characteristics of users and communities most commonly associated with populism.
This paper is part of the ongoing research project ‘Politics, Policy and Populism in the New Media’ (2015-2020) that was awarded funding by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (Reference: IF/01451/2014/CP1239/CT0004).