Citizens’ reactions to populism in Europe: how do target groups respond to the populist challenge?

Osman Sahin*, Federico Vegetti, Umut Korkut, Giuliano Bobba, Moreno Mancosu, Antonella Seddone, Agnieszka Stępińska, Samuel Bennett, Artur Lipiński , Dimitri Sotiropoulos, Manos Tsatsanis, Alexia Mitsikostas, Zsuzsanna Árendás, Vera Messing, Nicolas Hubé, Martin Baloge

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Working paper

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In this working paper, we explore the reactions of target groups to populist discourse through focus groups in five European countries and perform a quantitative analysis of Facebook data in eight European countries. We demonstrate the ways in which populist discourse and policies affect target groups including migrants, ethnic or religious minorities, academics, and LGBTIQ+ groups. Focus groups revealed that organized religion is an agent of populist movements. The Catholic Church in Poland and the Greek Orthodox Church legitimize and disseminate populist discourses. We also find that vulnerable groups complain about mainstreaming of hate language in their countries. The rise of populist movements and these movements’ eagerness to express controversial opinion on issues including immigration, homosexuality and political liberalism caused certain groups examined in this paper to appropriate these opinions and voice them in everyday life. Vulnerable groups, in an attempt to counterpoise the populist challenge in their countries, have developed four main strategies: i) creating echo chambers, ii) self-censorship, iii) migration, and iv) active resistance. Echo chambers enable members of vulnerable groups to avoid what they deem unnecessary and potentially unpleasant encounters with supporters of populist movements. It provides them with a comfort zone where they can express opinion more freely. Self-censorship, similar to echo chambers, helps target groups to stay under the radar of populist movements and their supporters. Those defending migration state that the process in their countries is irreversible and migrating to another country is the only way out. Finally, some participants argued that rather than conceding defeat, they actively resist through civil society organizations, street protests, and openly display their identity to fight off populism. Analysis of Facebook data revealed information about the ways in which populist parties and leaders communicate on social media and how the public perceives their communication. Populists use an anti-elitist language more frequently than mainstream political actors. Turkey and Hungary are exception to the rule, because in both countries populist governments have been in office for a long time. Second, populist actors in all countries but Poland and Turkey talk about immigration more. In Germany, France and the UK, populist actors frequently discuss EU-related issues. We also found that populists in Germany, France, Italy and the UK talk more about ‘democracy and legitimacy’ than mainstream parties do whilst populists talk about these issues less than mainstream parties do in Greece, Hungary and Turkey. Analysis also suggests that populist actors’ Facebook posts obtain more reactions, shares, and comments than mainstream political actors’. Anti-elitist language in social media posts produces more reactions, shares, and comments. Posts with references to religious minorities trigger fewer reactions from the users while posts making references to ethnic minorities, including immigrants or asylum seekers, as well as country-specific minorities like Roma in Hungary or Kurds in Turkey, trigger more reactions, and these posts are shared more. Finally, we find that posts referring to ‘immigration’ trigger more reactions and shares and produce more discussion than other issues. In the final section of this working paper, we conclude with a short discussion on policy options.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2021


  • populism
  • focus group interviews
  • social media analysis
  • text analysis
  • European citizens
  • social media
  • Facebook

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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