The Populist Playbook on Media Coverage

Populist movements have demonstrated the ability to navigate and influence their messages across both mainstream media and social media. This week’s readings showcased a wide range of the methods being used by these populist movements. I have tried to categorize the readings into three main methods used by populists: capitalize on the mainstream media’s complicity, ability to shape the narrative, and exploitation of social media and unregulated digital platforms. These methods have resulted in populists being able to “to transmit ‘sentiment’ over ‘fact’, to use ‘authentic’ language, to make full use of social media and to exploit the mainstream media’s appetite for sensationalist stories” (Freedman).

Capitalize on mainstream media’s complicity

In Populism and media policy failure, Des Freedman argues that populist leaders and movements have been able to exploit mainstream media’s lack of attention around “the structural conditions and policy frameworks that have facilitated the circulation of clickbait and misinformation”. The article by Slavickova & Zvagulis also points to complicity in print media. In their review of Czech print media, they found that there are problems of contextualization and otherization of minorities, framing that overstates (and contributes to) racial tension in the Czech Republic.

Ability to shape the narrative in news cycles

In a similar vein as Freedman, Hatakka argues that “populists’ strategies of provoking the media into prolonged coverage of their scandalous actions can be regarded to grant them agenda-setting and framing power by providing visibility and political weight”. What I find particularly interesting in populist movements ability to shape the narrative is the idea that there is no real losing over media coverage. By this I mean, populists employ sensationalist claims in order to gain extensive media coverage. however, when this does not work, due to the mainstream media boycotting coverage of populist movements, these groups are able to rally their base by claiming that this is proof that the mainstream media are ‘corrupt’. In the end, populists are either able to be seen by a larger public or are able to rally their base, both of which I see as a win for the populists.

Exploiting Social Media and Unregulated Digital Platforms

Lastly, the populist’s ability to effectively use social media and unregulated digital platforms (such as HommaForum) has resulted in electoral gains. Hatakka references the works of Lance Bennett and Alexander Sergber, who put forward the idea that “digital communication technologies have provided not only new tools for political organization, but a whole new logic to political identity formation and group formation.” Viewing social media and alternative digital platforms in this light, it is easy to see how populists’ groups have used these platforms to create their groups identities.


Until the mainstream media and conventional political parties are able to adapt to newer digital platforms, I believe that populists movements will be able to gain more support. What is worrying to me though is the risk that politics on digital platforms will never achieve a positive outlook for politics, rather it will at a minimum remain an echo chamber of ideas, at worse we will see further divergence between parties with no hope to bridge to other groups.

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