Social media, context collapse and the future of data-driven populism

Click to download


During the last decades populism has become a mainstream ideology in Western democracies (Mudde, 2004; 2016). At the same time, the popularisation of digital platforms has facilitated the process of political communication while social networks have become one of the preferred communicative tools for political populists to spread their messages.

Drawing on the idea that computational technologies allow a particular performance of populism (Baldwin-Philippi, 2019), this paper aims to foster a better theoretical understanding of how innovation in communication technologies contribute to the success of populism. It is argued that the characteristics of populism (a focus on ‘the people’, technological savviness and chameleonism) allow it to overcome most of the obstacles put in place by digital networks. In particular,populism is in an ideal situation to deal with the phenomena of context collapse in social media (Boyd; Marwick, 2011). Finally, it is argued that in the era of personalized politics (Bennett, 2012), populists can make use of real-time data-driven techniques to develop successful communicative strategies addressed to mass audiences in order to construct the populist self in the image and likeness of the people. This form of populism is called data-driven populism.


Social media; Computational politics; Populism; Populist communication; Context collapse; Datafication; Microtargeting; Big data; Political communication


In the last two decades, populism has become a mainstream political ideology in Western democracies (Mudde, 2004; Rooduijn, 2014b; Casero-Ripollés; Sintes-Olivella; Franch, 2017). Although populism has existed since the 19th century (Mazzoleni, 2014), it is precisely now that right-wing populist parties have achieved great popularity and electoral success in many European countries such as Italy, France and Austria (Mouffe, 2005), and more recently in Spain, Hungary, the UK and Brazil (Climent-Sanjuan; Montané-Goetzemberger, 2020; Shein, 2020; Putzel, 2020; Mudde, 2016; Alonso-Muñoz; Casero-Ripollés, 2018). Scholars have been analysing populist discourse for decades and have observed its roots in the emergence of mass societies which for some authors has given rise to populist democracies (Taggart, 2000). According to Kornhauser (1959), the mass media are the cause, and not only the effect, of the rise of populism. Research has stressed the close relationship between media development and the rise and consolidation of populist forces. For instance, it has been said that the evolution of the media industry has provided an ideal environment for the growth of populism (Mudde, 2004). For Mazzoleni (2003) it compels researchers to analyse mass media properties to completely understand populism and populist discourses. Moreover, the evolution of media technologies and the popularization of social media have helped populism to develop itself free from many of the constraints of traditional mass media. In particular, social media have allowed populist parties to bypass media institutions and traditional gatekeepers (Engesser; Ernst; Esser; Büchel, 2017a) and have given it the possibility to communicate with citizens without mediation. Since the logics of mass media and network media are completely different in terms of production, distribution or media usage (Klinger; Svensson, 2015), it may be argued that with social media, populism has entered a new stage.

The aim of this paper is to theoretically link two of the most well-known concepts of social networks communication, i.e., context collapse and imagined audiences, with the characteristics of populism and its technological performance (Baldwin-Philippi, 2019). It is argued that the often chameleonic, changeable and malleable nature of populist discourse (Taggart, 2000) finds its perfect environment in social media. On the other hand, in a context of disintermediated communication in which politicians have become responsible for their interactions with massive audiences (Bennett, 2012), populists can take advantage of real-time data-driven strategies to shape their messages and the way they represent themselves online by drawing on the shared characteristics of their audiences.


Scholars in political science hold that the frontiers between left and right have been blurred in Western democracies in the last decades (Mouffe, 2005). This context, in which differences between traditional parties weaken, combined with situations of crisis (Müller, 2016), are said to be a fertile ground for the emergence of so-called populist movements (Taggart, 2000; Mouffe, 2005). Populist discourse is an upward trend in the whole spectrum of political parties in Western countries and, for many scholars, it has become mainstream (Rooduijn, 2014a, Mudde, 2004). However, it expresses itself in a very fragmented way (Engesser; Ernst; Esser; Büchel, 2017a) and its characteristics are variable across countries and political cultures.

Even if there is no consensus on the definition of populism, many scholars have strived to discern the common traits of the diverse forms of populism. The centrality of a charismatic leader and the appeal to ‘the people’ against the ideological and economic elites, are some of the most common ones (Canovan, 1999). Differently, others, such as Elster (2020), hold that it is not possible to set out the “real” or “true” meaning of populism, nor to discover it through conceptual probes. Elster focuses on psychological attitudes and political programmes that define six types of populism: Lake Wobegon populism, short-termism, Trumpism, the attraction of simple solutions, responses to inequality, and direct democracy (Elster, 2020).

Populism has been widely considered to be a thin (Engesser; Ernst; Esser; Büchel, 2017b) and chameleonic political position (Taggart, 2000) and as a space created by post-industrial societies for less ideological parties that can combine diverse types of ideology (Mudde, 2004). It is framed as a political strategy aimed at constructing hegemony and power. Laclau and Mouffe are two of the most relevant theorists of populism in recent years. They pointed out the importance of the populist discourse, which is often ambiguous and fluctuating (Laclau, 2005) and always based on the construction of “the people” by bringing together multiple social demands (Laclau; Mouffe, 1987). The malleability of this concept of “the people”, that can make reference to the (lower) social class, or appeal to the whole citizenship of a nation, is determinant in the construction of populist movements and hegemonies (Geffroy, 1989; Ruiz Sanjuán, 2019). According to Müller‘s (Müller, 2016) Seven Theses on Populism, populism is the permanent shadow of representative politics, given that there is always the possibility to speak in name of the “real people” facing powerful elites. Precisely, the symbolic representation of these real people allows populists to deduce the “correct” political position to adopt. Moreover, he considers populist actors to be anti-pluralist more than anti-elitist, and not necessarily favourable to a more participatory closer politics.

Others put the focus in distinguishing between right and left-wing populisms. In particular, Fraser (2017: 282), distinguishes into “reactionary or “progressive” populist movements. According to her, populist movements are the consequence of a generalised rejection of the political establishments and both of the two types advocate for citizens’ protection facing the problems that arise from globalisation and neoliberalism (Fraser, 2017). However, the main difference between the two stems from the fact that, while the first one explains these problems from an individualistic perspective and focuses on identifying and blaming culprits, often among minorities, the other puts the emphasis on the reversion of structural inequities and the need for social protection as means for emancipation.

When it comes to identifying the boundaries of populism, scholars have usually drawn on the basic elements of the populist discourse. Populist discourse is said to be simplistic and emotionally knotted (Taggart, 2000). It tries to reduce the complexity of reality (Engesser; Ernst; Esser; Büchel, 2017a), and it is, in general, ambiguous and malleable. Contrary to more ideologized parties with a dogmatic character, populist discourse is adjustable and adaptable (Rooduijn; de Lange; van der Brug, 2014; Taggart, 2000). A majority of the studies on populist communication make use of content analysis to define what populism is. The general conclusions are that populist communication is centred on ‘common people’ and their traditional values and norms —the ‘master frame’ (Jagers; Walgrave, 2007), the heartland that becomes an imagined community that excludes the extreme (Taggart, 2000)—, and opposes ‘the elite’. Mouffe (2005) also considers populism as an archaic form of identification that draws on the need for its followers to be a part of a community, the mythical construction of the heartland (Mudde, 2004), since they may feel alienated, excluded or insecure (Reinemann, Carsten; Aalberg, Toril; Esser, Frank; Strömbäck, Jesper; de Vreese, Claes H. 2016). In particular, right and far-right populist discourses deal with anti-immigration (Alonso-Muñoz; Casero-Ripollés, 2018), anti-Islam, anti-EU, or anti-anything connected to a corrupt elite or a minority group that challenges common values or is opposed to the interest of an imagined homogeneous group of individuals. Finally, populist discourses also add narratives of crisis (Reinemann, Carsten; Aalberg, Toril; Esser, Frank; Strömbäck, Jesper; de Vreese, Claes H. 2016; Taggart, 2000). In sum, as proposed by Rooduijn (2014a), the common factors of populist discourse worldwide are; the central position of ‘the people’, criticism of elites, the consideration of ‘the people’ as a homogeneous entity and the existence of crisis.

Populism and Social Media

Scholars have also evinced the intimate link between populism and the development of mass media technologies. From a radically deterministic approach, Kornhauser (1959) considers populism as cause and effect within mass media society. In a similar vein, Mazzoleni (2007) asserts that it is precisely media complicity that has propitiated the presence of populist movements in the media. For the author, populist politicians are charismatic, master media strategists and adapt their discourse to the demands of commercial mass media and audiences. Their emotional treatment of social reality and their yielding to popular tastes and to the satisfaction of the audience make populists appealing for the mass media (Mazzoleni, 2007).


Full article · Access and download



Aalberg, Toril; de Vreese, Claes H. (2016). “Introduction: Comprehending populist political communication”. Populist Political Communication in Europe, pp.3-11.

Alonso-Muñoz, Laura; Casero-Ripollés, Andreu (2018). “Communication of European populist leaders on Twitter: Agenda setting and the ‘more is less’ effect”. El profesional de la información, v. 27, n. 6, pp. 1193-1202.

Álvarez, R. Michael (2016). Computational Social Science. Discovery and Prediction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baldwin-Philippi, Jessica (2019). “The technological performance of populism”. New Media & Society, v. 21, n. 2, pp. 376-397.

Barocas, Solon (2012). “The price of precision: Voter microtargeting and its potential harms to the democratic process”. In Proceedings of the First Edition Workshop on Politics, Elections and Data, pp. 31-36.

Beam, Michael A.; Child, Jeffrey T.; Hutchens, Myiah J.; Hmielowski, Jay D. (2017). “Context collapse and privacy management: Diversity in Facebook friends increases online news reading and sharing”. New Media & Society, v. 20, n. 7, pp. 2296-2314.

Bell, Jeffrey (1992). Populism and elitism. Washington DC: Regnery Gateway.

Bennett, W. Lance (2012). “The Personalization of Politics: Political Identity, Social Media, and Changing Patterns of Participation”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Bimber, Bruce (1998). “The Internet and Political Transformation: Populism, Community, and Accelerated Pluralism”. Polity, v.31, n. 1, pp. 133-160.

boyd, danah (2008). “Taken out of context: American teen sociality in networked publics”. PhD thesis.

boyd, danah (2011). “Social network sites as networked publics: affordances, dynamics, and implications”. In: Papacharissi, Zizi (ed.) A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 39-58.

Boyd, Danah; Marwick, Alice (2011). “Social steganography: privacy in networked publics”. Presentation given at 61st annual ICA conference, Boston, MA, 26-30 May. Accessed from

Bracciale, Roberta; Martella, Antonio (2017). “Define the populist political communication style: the case of Italian political leaders on Twitter”. Information Communication and Society, v. 20, n. 9, pp. 1310-1329.

Brake, David R. (2009). “As if nobody’s reading?: The imagined audience and socio-technical biases in personal blogging practice in the UK”. PhD thesis accessed from  

Cammaerts, Bart (2012). “Protest logics and the mediation opportunity structure”. European Journal of Communication, v. 27, n. 2, pp. 117–134. DOI: 10.1177/ 0267323112441007

Canovan, Margaret (1999). “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy”. Political Studies, v. 47, n. 1, pp. 2.26.

Casero-Ripollés, Andreu; Sintes-Olivella, Marçal; Franch, Pere (2017). “The Populist Political Communication Style in Action: Podemos’s Issues and Functions on Twitter During the 2016 Spanish General Election”.       American Behavioral Scientist, v. 61, n. 9, pp. 986-1001.

Clemens, John (1983). Polls, Politics and Populism. Hampshire, England: Gower Publishing Company.

Climent Sanjuan, Victor; Montané Goetzemberger, Miriam (2020). “The far-right populist parties in Spain: A comparative sociological analysis”. Izquierdas, v. 49, pp. 910-931.

Couldry, Nick; Yu, Jun (2018). “Deconstructing datafication’s brave new world”. New Media & Society, v. 20, n. 12, pp. 4473-4491.

Davis, Jenny L.; Jurgenson, Nathan (2014). “Context collapse: Theorizing context collusions and collisions”. Information Communication and Society, v. 17, n. 4, pp. 476-485.

Duguay, Stefanie (2016). “’He has a way gayer Facebook than I do’: Investigating sexual identity disclosure and context collapse on a social networking site”. New Media & Society, v. 18, n. 6, pp. 891-907.

Dutton, Willliam H.; Reisdorf , Bianca; Dubois, Elisabeth; Blank, Grant (2017). “Social Shaping of the Politics of Internet Search and Networking: Moving Beyond Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Fake News”. Quello Center Working Paper No. 2944191. pp. 1-26. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2944191.

Elster, Jon (2020). “Some notes on ‘Populism’”. Philosophy and Social Criticism, v. 46, n. 5, pp. 591-600.

Engesser, Sven; Ernst, Nicole; Esser, Frank; Büchel, Florin (2017a). “Populism and social media: how politicians spread a fragmented ideology”. Information Communication and Society, v. 20, n. 8, pp. 1109-1126.

Engesser, Sven; Ernst, Nicole; Esser, Frank; Büchel, Florin (2017b). “Extreme parties and populism: an analysis of Facebook and Twitter across six countries”. Information Communication and Society, v. 20, n. 9, pp. 1347-1364.

Enli, Gunn (2017). “Twitter as arena for the authentic outsider: Exploring the social media campaigns of Trump and Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election”. European cournal of communication, v. 32, n. 1, pp. 50-61. bitstream/handle/10852/55266/2/Twitter_as_arena_for_the_authentic_outsi.pdf

Enli, Gunn; Skogerbø, Eli (2013). “Personalized campaigns in party-centred politics: Twitter and Facebook as arenas for political communication”. Information, communication & society, v. 16, n. 5, pp. 757-774. 1369118X.2013.782330

Espinosa, Paul (1982). “The audience in the text: Ethnographic observations of a Hollywood story conference”. Media, Culture & Society, v. 4, n. 1, pp.  77-86.

Fraser, Nancy (2017). “Progressive Neoliberalism versus Reactionary Populism: A Choice that Feminists Should Refuse”. NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, v. 24, n. 4, pp. 281-284. doi: 10.1080/08038740.2016.1278263

Gainous, Jason; Wagner, Kevin M. (2014). Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gamson, William A.; Wolfsfeld, G. (1993). “Movements and media as interacting systems”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol 528, Citizens, Protest, and Democracy, pp. 114–127.

Geffroy, Annie (1989). “Le peuple selon Robespierre”, in: AA. VV.: Permanences de la Révolution : pour un autre bicentenaire, Montreuil: La Brèche-PEC, pp. 179-193

Gerbaudo, Paolo (2014). “Populism 2.0: social media activism, the generic Internet user and interactive direct democracy”, in: Trottier, D, Fuchs, C (eds) Social Media, Politics and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in the Age of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. New York: Routledge, pp. 67–87

Goffman, Erving (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin Books.

Gold, Dave (2017, February 9). “Data-driven” campaigns are killing the democratic party. POLITICO Magazine. Retrieved from  

Groshek, Jacob; Koc-Michalska, Karolina (2017) “Helping populism win? Social media use, filter bubbles, and support for populist presidential candidates in the 2016 US election campaign. Information”. Communication & Society, v. 20, p. 1389–1407.

Halavais, Alexander (2015). “Bigger sociological imaginations: Framing big social data theory and methods”. Information, Communication & Society, v. 18, n. 5, pp.  583-594.

Halpern, Sue (2017). “How He Used Facebook to Win”. The New York Review of Books.

Hersh, Eitan D. (2015). Hacking the electorate: How campaigns perceive voters. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Hogan, Bernie (2010). “The Presentation of Self in the Age of Social Media: Distinguishing Performances and Exhibitions Online”. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, v. 30, n. 6, pp.  377-386.

Issenberg, Sasha (2012). The victory lab. The secret science of winning campaigns. New York: Crown

Jagers, Jan; Walgrave, Stefaan (2007). “Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium”. European Journal of Political Research, v. 46, n. 3, pp.  319-345.

Kabanov, Yury; Karyagin, Maryagin (2018). “Data-Driven Authoritarianism: Non-democracies and Big Data”. In: Alexandrov, Daniel A.; Boukhanovsky Alexander V.; Chugunov Andrei V.; Kabanov Yury; Koltsova Olessia (eds) Digital Transformation and Global Society. DTGS 2018. Communications in Computer and Information Science, vol 858.

Klinger, Ulrike; Svensson, Jakob (2015). “The emergence of network media logic in political communication: A theoretical approach”. New Media and Society, v. 17, n. 8, pp. 1241-1257.

Kornhauser, William (1959). The Politics of Mass Society. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press.

Kosinski, Michal; Stillwell, David; Graepel, Tore (2013). “Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, v. 110, n. 15, p. 5802-5805. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1218772110

Krämer, Benjamin (2017). “Populist online practices: the function of the Internet in right-wing populism”. Information Communication and Society, v. 20, n. 9, pp.  1293-1309.

Kreis, Ramona. 2017. “The ‘Tweet Politics’ of President Trump”. Journal of Language and Politics, v. 16, n. 4, p. 607–18.

Laclau, Ernesto (2005). La razón populista. Buenos Aires, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Laclau, Ernesto; Mouffe, Chantal (1987). Hegemonía y estrategia socialista. Hacia una radicalización de la democracia. Madrid: Siglo XXI.

Litt, Eden (2012). “Knock, Knock. Who’s There? The Imagined Audience”. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, v. 56, n. 3, pp.  330-345.

Litt, Eden; Hargittai, Eszter (2016). “The Imagined Audience on Social Network Sites”. Social Media and Society, v. 2, n. 1.

Marwick, Alice E.; boyd, danah (2011). “I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience”. New Media and Society, v. 13, n. 1, pp.  114-133.

Mayer, Vicki (2016). “The Places Where Audience Studies and Production Studies Meet”. Television and New Media, v. 17, n. 8, pp.  706-718.

Mazzoleni, Gianpietro (2003). “The media and the growth of neo-populism in contemporary democracies”. In G. Mazzoleni, J. Stewart and B. Horsfield (eds) The Media and Neo-Populism: A Contemporary Comparative Analysis. London: Praeger, pp. 1-21.

Mazzoleni, Gianpietro (2007). “Populism and the media”. In Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy. Springer, pp. 49-64.

Mazzoleni, Gianpietro (2014). “Mediatization and political populism”. In: Esser, F. and Strömbäck, J. (eds). Mediatization of Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 42-56.

McAdam, Doug (1982). Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Meyer, David S.; Minkoff, Debra C. (2004). “Conceptualizing political opportunity”. Social Forces, v. 82, n. 4, pp. 1457–1492.

Meyrowitz, Joshua (1985). No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mouffe, Chantal (2005) On the political. Thinking in action. London and New York: Routledge.

Mudde, Cas (2016). “Europe’s populist surge: A long time in the making”. Foreign affairs, n. 95, pp. 25–30.

Mudde, Cas (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist”. Government and Opposition, v. 39, n. 4,pp.  542-563.

Müller, Jan-Werner (2016). What is populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Plesner, Ursula (2012). “When Citizens Matter in the Mass Mediation of Science: The Role of Imagined Audiences in Multidirectional Communication Processes”. In Louise Phillips; Anabela Carvalho; Julie Doyle (Eds.), Citizen Voices: Performing Public Participation in Science and Environment Communication, pp. 21-46. Bristol: Intellect. European Communication Research and Education Association Series.

Putzel, James (2020). “The ‘Populist’ Right Challenge to Neoliberalism: Social Policy between a Rock and a Hard Place”. Development and Change, v.  51, n. 2, pp.  418-441.

Reinemann, Carsten; Aalberg, Toril; Esser, Frank; Strömbäck, Jesper; de Vreese, Claes H. (2016). “Populist political communication: Toward a model of its causes, forms, and effects”. In Torial Aalberg; Frank Esser; Carten Reinamann; Jesper Strömbäck; Claes H. de Vreese (eds.) Populist Political Communication in Europe, pp. 12-25.

Rooduijn, Matthijs (2014a). “The mesmerizing message: The diffusion of populism in public debates in western European media”. Political Studies, v. 62, n. 4, pp.  726-744.

Rooduijn, Matthijs (2014b). “The nucleus of populism: In search of the lowest common denominator”. Government and Opposition, v. 49, pp. 573-599.

Rooduijn, Matthijs; de Lange, Sarah L.; van der Brug, Wouter (2014) “A populist Zeitgeist? Programmatic contagion by populist parties in Western Europe”. Party Politics, v. 20, n. 4, pp.  563-575.

Ross, Philippe (2011). “Is there an expertise of production? The case of new media producers”. New Media & Society, v. 13, n. 6, pp. 912-928.

Ross, Philippe (2014). “Were producers and audiences ever separate? conceptualizing media production as social situation”. Television and New Media, v.  15, n. 2, pp.  157-174.

Ruíz Sanjuan, César (2019). Perspectivas del populismo. Cenaltes Ediciones: Viña del Mar.

Shein, Sergey (2020). “The role of conservatism in the development of right-wing populism in Europe: The UK case”. World Economy and International Relations, v. 64, n. 2, pp.  34-41.

Sibona, Christopher (2014). “Unfriending on Facebook: Context collapse and unfriending behaviors”. In Proceedings of the Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, pp. 1676-1685.

Stieglitz, Stefan; Dang-Xuan, Linh (2013). “Social media and political communication: a social media analytics framework”. Social Network Analysis and Mining, v. 3, n. 4, pp.  1277-1291.

Suárez-Gonzalo, Sara (2018). “Your likes, your vote? Big personal data exploitation and media manipulation in the US presidential election campaign of Donald Trump in 2016”. Quaderns del CAC, v. 21, n. July 2018, pp. 25-33.

Suiter, Jane; Culloty, Eileen; Greene, Derek; Siapera, Eugenia (2018). “Hybrid media and populist currents in Ireland’s 2016 General Election”. European Journal of Communication, v. 33, n. 4, pp. 396-412.

Taggart, Paul (2000). Populism. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Tarrow, Sidney (1994). Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, John B. (1995). The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media. Cambridge, UK. Polity.

Tufekci, Zeynep (2014). “Big questions for social media big data: Representativeness, validity and other methodological pitfalls”. Proceedings of the 8th Intl AAAI Conference on weblogs and social media.

Veletsianos, George; Kimmons, Royce (2016). “Scholars in an increasingly open and digital world: How do education professors and students use Twitter?”. Internet and Higher Education, v. 30, pp. 1-10.

Veletsianos, George; Shaw, Ashley (2018). “Scholars in an increasingly open and digital world: imagined audiences and their impact on scholars’ online participation”. Learning, Media and Technology, v. 43, n. 1, pp. 17-30.

Vitak, Jessica (2012). “The Impact of Context Collapse and Privacy on Social Network Site Disclosures”. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, v. 56, n. 4, pp.  451-470.

Wahlström, Mattias; Peterson, Abby (2006). “Between the State and the Market: Expanding the Concept of ‘Political Opportunity Structure.’” Acta Sociologica, v. 49, n. 4, pp. 363–377.

Wilkers John; Casas Andreu (2017). “Large-Scale Computerized Text Analysis in Political Science: Opportunities and Challenges”. Annual Review of Political Science, v. 20, n. 1, pp.  529-544.