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Effects of Populist Communication

October 25, 2021 @ 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

Speaker: Roman Senninger (University of Aarhus) and Luca Manucci (University of Lisbon)

How populists communicate is often seen as an important element of populist success. Populists are often accused of using emotion, anger, and simplicity to mobilize supporters. Media outlets such as twitter and facebook are seen as optimal venues for populists. The papers this week will address populist communication, examining whether populists communicate differently from non-populist actors and investigating what this means for populist mobilization.

Luca Manucci (University of Lisbon) — Apocalypse Now? How Populists Manufacture Fear on Twitter         

Existing research seems to indicate that populists, compared to mainstream actors, are particularly likely to use negatively charged emotional messages in their communication. Aiming at eliciting an emotional response in the public, populists, it is often argued, perform and trigger a dramatic sense of crisis which can in turn generate consensus for the drastic measures and stances they propose. Yet, evidence in this sense remains relatively limited – both regarding the specific usage of negative emotional appeals and the underpinning role of crisis situations.

In this presentation we will investigate the extent to which populists, both left- and right-wing, use fear cues in their online communication more often than mainstream, non-populist actors. We will propose a novel conceptualization of the different dimensions of fear appeals used by populists, based on “end of the world” narratives. And our paper will treat the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic as a natural experiment to determine whether in the context of a real—and not manufactured crisis, populist and non-populist actors differ in their use of fear.

Roman Senninger (University of Aarhus) How Linguistic Complexity Impacts Citizen Information and Engagement

Public discourse is increasingly concerned with the way how politicians communicate. This is fuelled by a new generation of politicians like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and representatives of populist parties who evidently communicate less sophisticated than mainstream politicians. However, the question whether and how linguistic styles affect citizens is largely unexplored. The presenters will argue that both citizens and politicians might benefit from simple political communication. First, mechanically citizens should have a better chance to understand political positions if political discourse is less sophisticated. Second, linguistic simplicity can function as a heuristic for citizens: it can signal that politicians are amongst `the people’ instead of being part of the `elites’. We test our arguments using a pre-registered three-wave vignette survey experiment in Germany. Our findings show that simple messages (as compared to sophisticated messages) indeed increase citizens’ comprehension of political positions. Moreover, we find that citizens use language sophistication as a heuristic to fill informational gaps about politicians. Politicians who communicate less sophisticated are perceived to have rather modest socioeconomic backgrounds. As a result, the use of simple language can benefit politicians’ claims to belong to the people instead of the elite. Our findings add important new insights to our understanding of the effects of political communication in contemporary democracies.



October 25, 2021
12:30 pm - 1:30 pm