Augmenting polarization via social media? A comparative analysis of Trump’s and Wilders’ online populist communication and the electorate’s interpretations surrounding the elections

  • Michael HameleersEmail author
Original Article


Social network sites may have contributed to the global electoral success of populism in important ways. Drawing on the technological affordances of social media, politicians are enabled to directly communicate populist discourse via Twitter by constructing a pervasive societal divide between the “good” people and “corrupt” elites. Such Tweets may resonate with the reality constructions of receivers—who are also enabled to communicate populist discourse online. To understand the intersections of the supply- and demand-sides of populist discourse in the U.S. and Europe, this paper draws on extensive comparative qualitative content analyses of Trump’s and Wilders’ Tweets (N = 2681) and the electorates’ discourse on Facebook (N = 657). The results provide important insights into the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion at play in populist discourse and the affordances of social media in shaping populist and polarized discourse among politicians and the electorate at election times.


Polarization Populism Social identity theory Social media Partisanship Technological affordances 


  1. Bartlett, J., J. Birdwell, and M. Littler. 2011. The new face of digital populism. London: Demos.Google Scholar
  2. Bossetta, M. 2018. The digital architectures of social media: comparing political campaigning on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat in the 2016 U.S. Election. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 95 (3): 471–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bracciale, R., and A. Martella. 2017. Define the populist political communication style: the case of Italian political leaders on Twitter. Information, Communication & Society 20 (9): 1310–1329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Canovan, M. 1999. Trust the people! Populism and the two faces of democracy. Political Studies 47: 2–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Elchardus, M., and B. Spruyt. 2016. Populism, persistent republicanism and declinism: an empirical analysis of populism as a thin ideology. Government and Opposition 51 (1): 111–133. Scholar
  6. Ellison, N.B., and D. Boyd. 2013. Sociality through social network sites. In The Oxford handbook of Internet, ed. W.H. Dutton, 151–172. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Engesser, S., N. Fawzi, and A.O. Larsson. 2017a. Populist online communication: introduction to the special issue. Information, Communication & Society 20 (9): 1279–1292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Engesser, S., N. Ernst, F. Esser, and F. Büchel. 2017b. Populism and social media: how politicians spread a fragmented ideology. Information, Communication & Society 20 (8): 1109–1126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Glaser, B.G., and A.L. Strauss. 1967. The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.Google Scholar
  10. Greene, S. 1999. Understanding party identification: a social identity approach. Political Psychology 20 (2): 393–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hameleers, M., L. Bos, and C.H. de Vreese. 2018. Selective exposure to populist communication: how attitudinal congruence drives the effects of populist attributions of blame. Journal of Communication 68 (1): 51–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hampton, K.N. 2016. Persistent and pervasive community: new communication technologies and the future of community. American Behavioral Scientist 60 (1): 101–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Iyengar, S., G. Sood, and Y. Lelkes. 2012. Affect, not ideology: a social identity perspective on polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly 76 (3): 405–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Jagers, J., and S. Walgrave. 2007. Populism as political communication style: an empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium. European Journal of Political Research 46 (3): 319–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Judis, J.B. 2016. Us versus them: the birth of populism. The Guardian. Accessed 13 Oct 2016.
  16. Klinger, U., and J. Svensson. 2014. The emergence of network media logic in political communication: a theoretical approach. New Media & Society 17 (8): 1241–1257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Mazzoleni, G., J. Stewart, and B. Horsfield. 2003. The media and neo-populism: a contemporary comparative analysis. Westport, CT: Praeger.Google Scholar
  18. Mudde, C. 2004. The populist zeitgeist. Government and Opposition 39: 542–564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Mudde, C., and C. Rovira Kaltwasser. 2017. Populism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Rooduijn, M., S.L. de Lange, and W. van der Brug. 2014. A populist Zeitgeist? Programmatic contagion by populist parties in Western Europe. Party Politics 20 (4): 563–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Suler, J. 2004. The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychology & Behavior 7 (3): 321–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Stier, S., L. Posch, A. Bleier, and M. Strohmaier. 2017. When populists become popular: comparing Facebook use by the right-wing movement Pegida and German political parties. Information, Communication and Society 20 (9): 1365–1388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Taggart, P. 2004. Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe. Journal of Political Ideologies 9 (3): 269–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Tajfel, H. 1978. Social categorization, social identity, and social comparisons. In Differentiation between social groups, ed. H. Tajfel. London: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  25. Tajfel, H., and J.C. Turner. 1986. The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In Psychology of Intergroup Relations, ed. S. Worchel and L.W. Austin. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.Google Scholar
  26. Van Kessel, S., and R. Castelein. 2006. Shifting the blame populist politicians’ use of Twitter as a tool of opposition. Journal of Contemporary European Research 12 (2): 559–614.Google Scholar
  27. Waisbord, S., and A. Amado. 2017. Populist communication by digital means: presidential Twitter in Latin America. Information, Communication & Society 20 (9): 1330–1346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR)University of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations