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Right-Wing Populism and Social Media in Direct Democratic Campaigns

Sun, September 1, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hilton, Embassy

Abstract

Social media platforms and other kinds of digital technology enable unmediated communication between parties and voters and, potentially, they make it possible for new actors to shape political debates. These tools have been leveraged successfully by right-wing populist parties to set the tone of the political agenda and to campaign in the context of both elections and direct-democratic votes such as the Brexit referendum. Since in most countries referenda are much less frequent than elections, more research has focused on the latter rather than the former. We contribute to correcting this imbalance by studying the case of the "self-determination" referendum held in Switzerland in November 2018, a proposal to give Swiss law precedence over international (and notably European Union) law initiated by the right-wing populist party SVP. First, we collect an original dataset including a comprehensive sample of newspaper articles as well as thousands of social media posts on Twitter and Facebook. Second, we use text-as-data methods to analyze the salience, tone, and framing of the messages of both the populist supporters of the referendum and their anti-populist opponents. The results reveal differences across both actors and platforms and put forward new perspectives on the strategic use of digital media by populist and anti-populist actors.

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