The New Face of Digital Populism

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Populist parties and movements are now a force to be reckoned with in many Western European countries. These groups are known for their opposition to immigration, their "anti-establishment" views, and their concern for protecting national culture. Their rise in popularity has gone hand-in-hand with the advent of social media, and they are adept at using new technology to amplify their message, recruit, and organize.

The online social media following for many of these parties dwarfs the formal membership, consisting of tens of thousands of sympathizers and supporters. This mélange of virtual and real political activity is the way millions of people—especially young people—relate to politics in the 21st century.

This is the first quantitative investigation into these digital populists, based on over 10,000 survey responses from 12 countries. It includes data on who they are, what they think and what motivates them to shift from virtual to real-world activism. It also provides new insight into how populism — and politics and political engagement more generally — is changing as a result of social media.

The New Face of Digital Populism, a publication of the UK think tank Demos, calls on mainstream politicians to respond to and address concerns over immigration and cultural identity without succumbing to xenophobic solutions. People must be encouraged to become actively involved in political and civic life, whatever their political persuasion—it is important to engage and debate forcefully with these parties and their supporters, not shut them out as beyond the pale.

The Open Society Foundations organized the conference “We Say What You Think: Is populism the Future of European Politics” in November 2011 to discuss the findings with policy makers, journalists and academics.