Does populism go viral? How Italian leaders engage citizens through social media

New article on Populism and Italian leaders by Roberta Bracciale, Massimiliano Andretta and Antonio Martella entitled Does populism go viral? How Italian leaders engage citizens through social media.


This study explores populism in terms of communication while distinguishing between its ideological and stylistic dimensions. We examine the social media communication of the three main Italian political leaders during the last national electoral campaign to underline the differences and similarities in their use of populist communication in terms of ideology and style and assess how it affects Facebook and Twitter engagement. Our analysis shows that the three leaders all adopt populist communication styles but in slightly different ways. In all cases, populist style elements have a stronger impact on online engagement than populist ideology. The main difference between social media seems to be related less to the leaders’ communication elements than to their platform-specific audiences’ positive reactions to populist communication strategies.

Main findings:

  • Results confirmed the relationship between style elements and populist ideology in populist communication (Kriesi, 2018), since their use was significantly higher when the leaders adopted populist references.
  • Populism’s growing leverage in electoral campaigns has much more to do with the use of individualized, personalized, aggressive, and emotional communication strategies than with its thin ideology.
  • Adoption rates and users’ approval of populist ideology affected challenger/extreme leaders and their audiences more strongly than they did incumbents.
  • Populist ideology emerged as the discriminating factor in stylistic element adoption rates, regardless of leader characteristics, but not as the fundamental predictor of online engagement. This behaviour intersects with platform specificity, in addition to the political differences between leaders.

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