Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | November 8, 2011

Launch of Demos report on Digital Populism

Professor Hilary Pilkington, University of Warwick, on the report from UK think tank Demos on Digital Populism, launched in Brussels this week. In this blog, she shows how the work in this report links to the research objectives of the MYPLACE project.

For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE

 

A major new report on the rise of populist parties and movements was published yesterday by the leading UK think tank Demos.  See: Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell, Mark Littler (2011) The New Face of Digital Populism, London: Demos, 07.11.2011. Available electronically at: http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/thenewfaceofdigitalpopulism

The report is the result of substantive empirical research into the scale and nature of online support for ‘populist parties and movements’ in eleven countries of Europe (UK, France, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Belgium).

The research is quantitative; it is based on over 10,000 survey responses to a questionnaire targeted at Facebook supporters of a total of 14 ‘populist’ movements and parties. Open questions on motivations for supporting parties provide some additional textual data. 

The report includes a number of key findings that speak directly to the question of the factors shaping receptivity to populist political agendas at the heart of the MYPLACE project. These include:

  • Digital activism ‘is the way millions of people — especially young people — relate to politics in the twenty-first century.’ (p.16). This conclusion is based on evidence from the research that online supporters of populist movements are younger (even taking the relative youth of Facebook users into account): 63 per cent of populist party and movement supporters are under 30, compared with 51 per cent of Facebook users overall (p.36).
  • ‘Online supporters are primarily young men: an average of 63 percent are under 30, and 75 per cent are male.’ (p.18) The heightened support for populist movements among young men holds true even when the national demographics of Facebook users in each country are taken into account. This confirms numerous other studies that show gender is a key driver in influencing political and civic participation (see, for example: Nestlé Family Monitor (2003) Young People’s Attitudes Towards Politics, Nestle Family Monitor no. 16 accessed electronically at: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Archive/Polls/nfm16.pdf; Brooks, R. (2009) ‘Young people and political participation: An analysis of European Union policies’, Sociological Research Online, 14(1); Garland, J. and Treadwell, J. (2011) ‘Masculinity, Marginalization and Violence: A Case Study of the English Defence League’, British Journal of Criminology, 51(4): 621-34; Pilkington, H., Omel’chenko, E. and Garifzianova, A. (2010), Russia’s Skinheads: Exploring and Rethinking Subcultural Lives, London and New York: Routledge.) and points to the importance of the commitment within MYPLACE to addressing the fact that gender remains a relatively under-reported factor in the discussion of rise of extremism of all kinds.  
  • ‘Supporters are motivated by positive identification with the party’s values and the desire to protect national and cultural identity.’ (p.19) Significantly, these fears about the cultural impact of  immigration and multiculturalism appear to be more important factors driving support than economic issues, confirming previous studies calling into doubt the socio-economic homogeneity (‘working-class’) of support for populist movements.
  • ‘Younger supporters are more likely to cite immigration than older supporters as a reason for joining.’ (p.19) The authors report that 20 per cent of those aged 16-20 cite immigration as the reason they join or support populist groups, compared with 10 per cent of over 50s. This confirms the importance identified in the early reports for MYPLACE of the redundancy of old binaries (left versus right, racism versus anti-racism, liberal versus statist) in understanding the political positioning of many young people. The implication is that we might have to begin to take seriously – rather than write off as ideological incoherence – anti-racist but also anti-immigration political positions.
  • ‘the vast majority of respondents support PPAMs [Populist Parties and Movements] because they identify with their policy offerings rather than because they desire to shock or protest’ (p.55) Although on average 13 per cent of respondents expressed disillusionment with mainstream political parties and organisations, an average of 38 per cent registered broad ideological agreement with the values, principles or aims of their respective organisation and many identified specific policy goals of the party or movement as a reason for joining.

The report also implicitly alerts us to a number of as yet unanswered questions that are central to the MYPLACE research agenda. These include:

  • How does support for populist parties in Eastern, Central Eastern and Southern Eastern Europe compare to that in the Northern and Western countries of Europe considered in the Demos report?
  • How do we explain difference and variation? Although the report concludes that identification with party values is more important than economic motivations for supporting movements, the salience of this motivational factor varies widely across the movements. Thus, while on average 38 per cent of respondents cited ‘value alignment’ reasons for supporting movements, the proportion of respondents citing such reasons ranged from 81 per cent of Norwegian Progress Party respondents to 15 per cent of both English Defence League (EDL) and British National Party (BNP) respondents (p.45). This suggests the importance of setting research in national and local context as well as providing comparative analysis.
  • What is the relationship between online and offline political activism? The report’s strapline is: ‘The rise of populism in Europe can be traced through online behaviour’. But can it?

Answering this question requires us to be able to determine the quality as well as the scale of the support for populist movements. One of the key findings of the Demos research is indeed that there is a strong link between online support and offline activism. Thus the authors conclude ‘Online supporters are not just armchair activists (p.18). 67 per cent of online supporters of political parties, for example, voted for the party at the last general or national election. However, less than a third (32 per cent) of online supporters defined themselves as formal members of those parties (p.18); the British National Party, for example has over 80,000 Facebook supporters but less than 15,000 members (p.33). Moreover, only a quarter (26 per cent) of online supporters reported having been involved in protests or demonstrations (although this figure is nonetheless significantly higher than the EU average, which is under 10 per cent) (ibid). This finding indicates the need for caution in assessing the significance of online political activism. As the authors of the report indicate, social media provide a new means of expressing political affiliation but the strength and longevity of that affiliation needs careful evaluation. This echoes the conclusion of another major European research project investigating civic activism among young people. The CivicWeb project concluded that young people who are active online are also active offline’ and thus that the internet civic sphere is best viewed not as a replacement for but a complement to offline civic and political action (Banaji, C., Buckingham, D., van Zoonen, L. and Hirzalla, F.  (2009) Civic Web Report: Synthesis of Results and Policy Outcomes, available electronically at: www.civicweb.eu, p.63.

This confirms the importance for MYPLACE of exploiting its integrated, multi-method research design to interrogate the relationship between online and offline civic and political activism.

This report is part of a series of major reports under Demos’s ‘Violence and Extremism’ programme. For more publications under this programme see:  http://www.demos.co.uk/violenceandextremism

Please note Demos reports are published under Creative Commons. If you download or distribute the report further please abide by the terms of the Demos licence as outlined in the report and ensure that the authors and Demos (http://www.demos.co.uk ) are properly credited.


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