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Session 06: Panel "Populism and the Media"
Thursday, 07/Sep/2017:
10:30am - 11:30am

Session Chair: Tobias Rothmund
Location: Room CIV 260

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Populism and the Media

Chair(s): Tobias Rothmund (University of Koblenz-Landau)

2016 has seen two extraordinary political events, the so-called Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America. In retrospective, journalists and scientists argue that both incidents confirm the hypothesis that populist political communication is on the rise. But what exactly is populism?

Some consensus has evolved to conceptualize populism as a thin-centered ideology. This conceptualization is based on two assumptions. First, populist ideology is characterized by some core beliefs that center around the idea of an antagonist relation between the people and the elites (i.e. corrupt elites, the pure people, the general will, Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012). Second, populism does not exist as an isolated belief system but comes in combination with other ideologies such as (neo-) liberalism, socialism or right-wing conservatism.

In the present symposium, we focus on the relation between populism and the media. More precisely, we aim to showcase how the phenomenon of populism entails research questions that can be addressed by media psychology and communication research. Based on classical communication models, we focus mainly on the following questions: How do populist parties communicate their ideas? How do political laypersons perceive and integrate populist messages? What research methods are best suited to investigate populist communication through mass media?

In the first presentation, Schemer and colleagues focus on the political communication of populist ideas by means of news media. They content-analyzed populist messages and investigated media effects of their dissemination on populist attitudes in four European countries. Rothmund and Azevedo investigated right-wing populism in the US and in Germany. They used Latent Class Analyses to identify a right-wing populist belief system and they provide evidence that mistrust in the media is linked to right-wing populism in both countries. Schmitt et al. content analyzed right-wing and Islamic extremist Internet videos for populist argumentation. They found that extremist propaganda entails various elements of populist language and discuss these findings in the light of how democratic discourses can be conducted online. Finally, Maier et al. developed an implicit measure of populist attitudes. They present data from a representative online survey using an Implicit Association Tests (IAT, Greenwald et al., 1998) as a measure for populist attitudes.

Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. (2012). Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary populism: Comparing contemporary Europe and Latin America. Government and Opposition, 48(02), 147-174. doi:10.1017/gov.2012.11


Presentations of the Symposium


The Impact of Mediated Populism on Populist Attitudes

Christian Schemer1, Philipp Müller1, Martin Wettstein2, Anne Schulz2, Dominique Wirz2, Werner Wirth2
1University of Mainz, 2University of Zurich

Many democratic countries have recently experienced a rise in populist parties and populist political communication (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012). Increasingly, scholars have focused on the role that the news media play for the diffusion of populist ideas and support for populist political actors (for an overview, see Aalberg, Esser, Reinemann, Strömbäck & de Vreese, 2017). The present research studies the impact of populist messages in the news media on populist attitudes in the public of four European metropolitan regions (Berlin, Paris, London, Zurich). Based on a combination of a content analysis of populist statements in news stories (N = 7,119 news stories) and a two-wave panel public opinion survey (N = 2,338) we show that the impact of frequent exposure to populist statements in the news on populist attitudes is contingent on prior populist convictions. Specifically, in Berlin and Paris frequency of exposure to populist communication in the news decreased populist attitudes among people who scored low on prior populist attitudes. Audience members with high prior populist attitudes are not affected by populism in the media. In Zurich, frequent exposure to populist communication in the news polarized populist attitudes of people who score high on populist attitudes. Their low-populist counterparts were not affected by populist statements in the news. Thus, with the exception of London, populist communication in the news can polarize at least one half of the audience in their populist attitudes in the course of one single year.

Aalberg, T., Esser, F., Reinemann, C., Strömbäck, J., & de Vreese, C. H. (Eds.). (2017). Populist Political Communication in Europe. New York: Routledge.

Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (Eds.). (2012). Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Mistrust in the Media and Right-Wing Populist Ideology - Empirical analyses from the US and Germany

Tobias Rothmund1, Flávio Azevedo2
1University of Koblenz-Landau, 2University of Cologne

In recent years there has been a rise of right-wing populist parties and political leaders in the US and in Europe that combine populist political communication with national protectionist policy positions (e.g., Golder, 2016). These parties often oppose liberal mass media and raise doubts about the credibility of mainstream mass media. For example, recently the President of the United States of America declared “war” on media (e.g., Farhi, 2017). However, there is still limited evidence regarding the relation between right-wing populist attitudes in laypersons and their trust in the media. In the present research we aimed to address this research gap. We assessed right-wing populist attitudes in the U.S. (N = 1,536) and in Germany (N = 1,196) using three measures, namely populism, right-wing authoritarianism and national protectionism. Latent class analyses revealed that 32% of the US sample and 35% of the German sample report a coherent right-wing populist ideology with high values on all three dimensions.

Right-wing populist ideology predicted voting intention for right-wing populist candidates such as Donald Trump in the U.S. and for right-wing populist parties such as the AfD in Germany. Further analyses revealed substantial correlations with conspiracy beliefs (+), traditionalist values (+), universalist values (-) and formal education (-). In regard to the present research question, we found that in the US and in Germany people with right-wing populist attitudes reported lower trust in the media compared to other citizens. This finding supports the assumption that critical communication of populist parties about mainstream media is reflected in low trust in the media in political laypersons with right-wing populist attitudes. We discuss theoretical models of this relation.

Farhi, P. (2017, January 26). Trump's 'war' with the media (and the facts) forces journalists to question their role. Retrieved March 07, 2017, from

Golder, M. (2016). Far right parties in europe. Annual Review of Political Science, 19, 477-497.


The populist language of extremism: A content analysis of right-wing and Islamic extremist Internet videos

Josephine B. Schmitt1, Diana Rieger2, Sindyan Qasem3, Julia Winkler2, Julian Ernst1, Hans-Joachim Roth1, Peter Vorderer2, Gary Bente1
1University of Cologne, 2University of Mannheim,

The rise of populist parties from the extreme right in Western Europe has provoked a growing interest in their communication strategies. The core concept of populism is the people: Populists rhetorically separate society into “two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure [oppressed] people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’“ (Mudde, 2004, p. 543). They claim to create a common identity in the people and to represent the opinion of the masses. Moreover, they capture topics that evoke strong emotions and put a strong emphasis on their seemingly ideology-free argumentation. By means of conspiracy theories, they try to explain the power structures of the elites, they moralize the discourse, e.g., through an emphasis on “true” vs. “false” statements and immorality, and conjure crisis and demise (Priester, 2012). Nevertheless, populism “does not possess ‘the same level of intellectual refinement and consistency’ as, for example, socialism or liberalism“, as so-called thin-centered ideology populism can be combined with other political ideologies (e.g., nationalism; Mudde, 2004, p. 544).

Therefore, it seems plausible to assume that we may identify populist communication strategies also in extremist propaganda. The odds in stumbling over extremist material online are high. In particular, right-wing and Islamic extremist groups take advantage of the Internet in order to reach a global mass audience. Their goal is to appear serious, citizen-oriented and to communicate with a high level of integrity; further, they aim to provoke strong emotions, mainly fear, in their audiences and to take up positions from ‘mainstream’ discourses. In order to get an understanding of how extremists are successful in recruiting sympathizers or supporters, it is important to study the language through which they convey their messages.

The current study aimed at testing in what way extremists make use of populist communication strategies in order to appear like a usual part of democratic discourse. A quantitative and qualitative content analysis on N = 55 right-wing and Islamic extremist videos (published on selected YouTube-channels between 27th June and 21st August 2016) revealed that extremist propaganda entails various elements of populist language (e.g. creating an out-group, using conspiracy theories to explain the oppression of the in-group, clear distinctions of “true vs. false”, legitimization of the common people by providing them with a sense of “significance”). The results of this content analysis will be discussed in light of democratic discourses happening in the Internet. Moreover, they shed light on the strategies of extremist communicators and foreshadow means to counter such extremist online advertising.

Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39, 541–563.

Priester, K. (2012): Rechter und linker Populismus: Annäherung an ein Chamäleon. Campus Verlag, 2012.


Development of Implicit Measures for Populist Attitudes

Michaela Maier1, Silke Adam2, Erik Tillman3, Manfred Schmitt1, Ines Vogel1, Clara Christner1, Patricia Braun1
1University of Koblenz-Landau, 2University of Bern, 3DePaul University Chicago

Populist radical-right parties have been extremely successful in regional, national and supranational elections during the last years, also gaining a lot of scholarly attention lately. However, most attention so far has been given to citizens’ party preferences and voting behavior, while research on the development and structure of populist radical-right attitudes still is in its infancy. However, first promising studies deal with the structure of populist attitudes in the explicit realm (e.g. Akkerman et al. 2014; Hawkins et al., 2012; Schulz, 2016), and some suggest that populist radical-right attitudes are a latent construct with the three dimensions nationalism, authoritarianism and populism (Rooduijn, 2014; Rothmund et al., 2017). However, building on so-called two-process-models which propose that attitudes are represented, on the one hand, as propositional evaluations of objects that are deliberately accessible through self-reflection (explicit attitudes), and, on the other hand, as automatic associations of objects and valences that are not intentionally formed and often unconscious (implicit attitudes), we suggest to also conceptualize populist radical-right attitudes in the implicit realm and, as a first step, to develop and test an implicit measure for populist attitudes. We believe that such an approach is especially promising for two reasons: First, research has shown the great relevance of implicit conceptualizations of attitudes towards foreigners and minorities (e.g. Arendt, 2012, 2013a, Arendt & Northup, 2015) which should be closely related to populist attitudes. And second, research has shown that implicit attitudes have great predictive power in contexts in which voicing respective attitudes explicitly is considered as socially undesirable (e.g., Maier et al., 2014), which – according to recent polls – for populist attitudes is still the case in Germany (e.g., Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, February 2017).

In this paper, we therefore report about the development of an implicit measure for populist attitudes using so-called Implicit Association Tests (IAT, Greenwald et al., 1998) which will be tested in a representative online survey.

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