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Media and the ‘Populist Moment’

A Special Issue edited by Anastasia Kavada, published by Media, Culture and Society

References to populism have suffused the media coverage of recent political events. From the election of Donald Trump to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Podemos and the Five Star Movement, populism is set forth as the common denominator that explains the appeal of a disparate set of politicians and political formations. Populism has also become, quite predictably, a fervently debated topic within academic research. Many of these debates focus on the role of the media in this ‘populist moment’ and particularly in the circulation of populist discourses and fake news, in the emergence of a new type of computational propaganda, as well as in fuelling ‘people power’ and grassroots sovereignty.

Still, debates on the relationship between media and populism, and indeed on whether a ‘populism moment’ is actually upon us, are not yet settled. The fact that populism is a vague and slippery concept, which becomes invested with contradictory meanings in different political and national contexts as well as academic schools of thought, does not help in this regard. On the one hand, populism can refer to demagogy and propaganda, to manipulating the people in support of leaders and policies that are presented as if they are serving the interests of the many. Populism also creates unity by bringing people together against a common enemy. Thus, in its darker manifestations, populism can include the ‘othering’ and repression of specific ethnic, religious or political groups. On the other hand, populism can also be defined in more positive terms, as an effective strategy of uniting the people for progressive social change.

In his provocative essay for this special Crosscurrents section, Paolo Gerbaudo considers populism also in this more positive light by drawing on the work of Laclau (2005) and particularly on his view of populism as ‘a political logic that involves an appeal to the entirety of the political community against a common enemy, and in particular against unresponsive political elites’. Gerbaudo critically interrogates the ‘elective affinity’ between social media and populism. Built with commercial interests in mind, ‘social media are channels that have slipped from the hands of their creators’ – large corporations such as Facebook and Twitter – and are now also employed by right- and left-wing populist formations to decry the failures of the liberal establishment. In this context, Gerbaudo argues, social media can serve both as the people’s voice – by facilitating the expression and consolidation of popular opinion – and as the people’s rally – by bringing together individuals who are disengaged from traditional political structures and organizations.

Written as a direct response to Gerbaudo’s analysis, John Postill’s essay widens the vista by considering a broader range of the factors that lead to populism, of the forms that populism can take, of the countries where it manifests, as well as of the media and modes of communication that facilitate it. Postill suggests that populism emerges not only as a reaction to economic conditions but also as an effect of identitarian and existential struggles. He further notes that in addition to left- and right-wing populism, we should also consider populism of the centrist kind as represented by Emanuel Macron in France, Albert Rivera in Spain and Joko Widodo in Indonesia. Populism can further manifest in religious forms, such as in the strain of neo-conservative populism that ‘has been on the rise globally since the 1970s, especially in the Muslim world, but also in Christian-majority countries across Africa and the Americas […], as well as among Hindus in India, and Buddhists in Burma’. And while social media may indeed display an elective affinity to populism, their role should be considered in the context of a wider communication ecology or a hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2013) in which social media overlap and interconnect with traditional broadcast media and physical spaces of gathering.

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen’s piece for this special section broadens our view of populism even further, by turning our attention to the emotions associated with populism. Analysing the media coverage of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Wahl-Jorgensen suggests that the ascent of Trump reflects ‘a shift towards an emotional regime of “angry populism”’ – ‘a rhetoric which seeks broad appeal through the deliberate expression of anger’ and collective grievances. Wahl-Jorgensen demonstrates how this results in ‘a journalistic narrative that understands anger as central to political life’, where anger can either be directed to specific targets or assume a more diffuse form, as a general structure of feeling characterizing a specific era. Wahl-Jorgensen’s essay makes a persuasive case for taking emotion seriously as an object of enquiry in political communication and media studies. In this sense, anger should be seen not only as a destructive force but also as having a productive effect in civic life by helping the development of solidarity and the mobilization of collective action.

In the final piece for this special Crosscurrents section, Christian Fuchs challenges the received wisdom around populism and the rise of Donald Trump. He argues that instead of using the vague and imprecise notion of populism, scholars should study the politics of Donald Trump within the framework of right-wing authoritarianism. To construct this framework, Fuchs draws on writings of the Frankfurt School and related authors who sought to understand authoritarianism in an era when fascism and Nazism were on the ascendance. Based on these writings, Fuchs identifies four key characteristics of authoritarianism: (a) authoritarian leadership, (b) nationalism, (c) the friend–enemy scheme and (d) patriarchy and militarism. For Fuchs, the rhetoric of Donald Trump on social media platforms, and Twitter in particular, can be analysed based on these four categories. Fuchs concludes by outlining the various ways in which the media can be used to counter the threat of right-wing authoritarianism and to advance left-wing politics.

Taken together, these four essays present a robust debate on the meaning of populism and the application of the concept, as well as on the contours of the populist (or authoritarian?) wave that has come to define contemporary politics. The four authors also provoke us to think critically about the role that the media can play in these ‘populist times’ – from social media as the people’s voice and rally to their use for advancing right-wing authoritarian discourses, from the complexities of the hybrid media system to the representation of angry populism in journalistic narratives. Hopefully, these four essays will trigger further debates that will help us elucidate this ‘populist moment’ and devise thoughtful responses to the interesting times that we are currently living in.


Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash 

Anastasia Kavada


Anastasia Kavada is a Reader in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster. She is Co-Leader of the Arts, Communication and Culture Research Community (ACC), and Co-leader of the MA in Media, Campaigning and Social Change. Her research focuses on the links between online tools and decentralized organising practices, democratic decision-making, and the development of solidarity among participants in collective action. Her work has appeared in a variety of edited books and academic journals, including Media, Culture & Society and Information, Communication & Society. She is currently working on a monograph with the provisional title ‘Experiments in Democracy: Digital Communication and Social Movements’.


17 May 2018
Published By
Media, Culture and Society
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