The Dark Side of Social Media

Well… it is a dark side if we are talking about right-wing populists’ mobilization. In theory, social media could be used to mobilize other kinds of powerful movements, like the Arab Spring. Dark sides or bright sides aside, this week’s readings offer interesting insight about the more creative ways right-wing populists have spread their ideas and fostered support. Nicole Doerr discussed how visual images are used to garner support. Des Freedman focuses on the populists’ skills in utilizing social media to communicate with supporters. Niko Hatakka outlined some of the drawbacks of using social platforms to promote a party’s or group’s image.

Doerr’s discussion of how imagery was used was particularly interesting. In the EU, there many different languages spoken. If a group, for example a right-wing populist group, wants to have its message reach a transnational audience, images are a good way to transcend language barriers. Additionally, the same image, in this case the black sheep, can be used in different settings or countries. The design of the poster or the caption may be adapted to best suit the environment, but the core symbols stay the same. Using simplified cartoons like the black sheep reinforces Freedman’s summarization that populists are able “to transmit ‘sentiment’ over ‘fact’…to exploit the mainstream media’s appetite for sensationalist stories.” The black sheep is an unfortunately perfect example of how an over-simplified cartoon can unite people across national boundaries, against immigrants.

Freedman’s arguments and reasoning a(C)cur(a)tely pointed out the shortco(m)ings of the media scene, including social media. In addition to the pro(b)lems concent(r)ated ownersh(i)p, one of the most important issues currently is the failure to regulate tech companies. Free(d)man points out that (g)oogl(e) and Facebook ‘not only rule the pl(A)yi(n)g field but (a)re ab(l)e to set the rules of the game as well.” Freedman drew the parallel between lack of regulations here and wh(y) (t)he turnout of the last US elect(i)ons was (c)ostly and question(a)ble. This involved lack of transparency about privacy on social media and that many people did not even know they were being targeted with ads on social media.

I found Hatakka’s arguments interesting because they pointed out the potential drawbacks of populist groups using social platforms. On one hand, social media is a great way to reach ‘new digital foot soldiers’, on the other hand, allowing more people to be actively part of the discussion could lead to ‘decreased message discipline’ and a tainted image. Not only does this argument point out the risks of using social media to mobilize people, it also highlights how important the image and messaging is for the group. Why populism claims to speak for the people, in reality the message needs to be controlled. Social media is a detriment here.

When analyzed together, Doerr, Freedman and Hatakka provide a balanced assessment of the mobilizing and transnational powers of social media, while acknowledging the risks of using social media for populist groups.

The world is not increasingly populated by populists; the world is increasingly structured for (and by) populists

By: PSjoberg

The evolution of media, having completely transformed daily life since the new millennium, is surprisingly and shamefully overlooked as a cause of so much of the 21st century’s political events and developments. Three of this week’s readings – those by Niko Hatakka, Des Freedman, and Nicole Doerr – address this fact, diligently outlining the ways in which modern social media and online platforms directly contribute to the recent wave of right-wing populism in Europe.

Hatakka correctly identifies how right-wing populists, and people who are generally unhappy with the prevailing government in their respective countries, are able to use online forums, like Hommaforum in Finland, to stir up emotional political sentiments among voters. Hatakka also rightly states 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.” This is the crux of the problem: so many observers are refusing to acknowledge that the world’s political landscape and means of political discourse are undergoing a foundational change. This is not simply an issue of new tools or strategies being introduced to politics, it is an issue of the norms of political discourse shifting.

Des Freedman succinctly argues that so little attention is being paid to “the structural conditions and policy frameworks that have facilitated the circulation of clickbait and misinformation.” Populist groups tend to thrive on the spread of misinformation and “click-baity” emotion-driven headlines. What people are continually failing to acknowledge is the fact that modern social media platforms also thrive off this practice, thus creating an ideal partnership between the two: populists and the media.

Nicole Doerr further expands on this general hypothesis by detailing the ways in which right-wing populists are increasingly using visual images and symbols in order to make their message at once more powerful and more international (by softening the obstacle of language barriers).

It is easy to identify the faults of political discourse. What is more difficult is to be able to accurately predict the abuse of media platforms by right-wing populists before they are able to fully muster the technology to their advantage. Tess Slavíčková and Peter Zvagulis attempt exactly this in their study of anti-minority rhetoric in Czech print media. Their article demonstrates the difficulty in identifying what is and is not considered “hate speech” and examples of “new racism.” Slavíčková and Zvagulis demonstrate in their article, perhaps in contrast to their aims, the near impossibility of creating an accurate warning mechanism for right-wing political abuse of the media.


Slavíčková, Tess and Peter Zvagulis. “Monitoring Anti-Minority Rhetoric in the Czech Print Media: A Critical Discourse Analysis.” Journal of Language & Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 152–170.

Hatakka, Niko. “When Logics of Party Politics and Online Activism Collide: The Populist Finns Party’s Identity under Negotiation.” New Media & Society, vol. 19, no. 12, Dec. (2017): 2022–2038.

Freedman, Des. “Populism and media policy failure” European Journal of Communication 33(6)(2018): 604-618.

Doerr, Nicole. “Bridging language barriers, bonding against immigrants: A visual case study of transnational network publics created by far-right activists in Europe” Discourse & Society 28(1) (2017): 3–23.