Populist parties are the political groupings of the 21st century. Insurgents who get social media right can make big gains. But not all succeed.

populist
A supporter of Change UK party holds a poster advertising for voting in the European election in London, 14 May 2019 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

By Malcolm Davidson

Keep it simple, stupid.

One of the most striking things about European politics in recent years has been the rise of populism. Populism has spawned new parties on both the left and right.

In Germany, there is the Alternative for Deutschland (AFD) on the far right. In Spain, Podemos on the left. There’s the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy. And, perhaps most striking, the new Brexit Party in Britain.

All of these parties have burst on to the political scene and rapidly built themselves big followings from virtually nothing.

These are the parties of the 21st century: media-savvy insurgent groups led by people who like to portray themselves as anti-establishment outsiders. Their leaders draw large numbers of devoted followers who have typically been recruited online.

The ones that get it right can make big gains. Not all succeed, however, as was demonstrated in the May elections for the European Parliament. With citizens in the European Union’s 28 member states eligible to vote, the elections were the biggest democratic exercise in the world outside India.

Contrasting political upstarts

Britain’s Brexit Party was a big winner in the EU election. The party was founded in April by Nigel Farage, who claims the grouping has since gained more than 100,000 supporters.

The party took 32% of the vote with a simple message: Britain must not betray its 2016 referendum decision to leave the European Union or it will face humiliation.

Another new political grouping, Change UK, failed. Formed by defectors from Britain’s ruling Conservative Party and opposition Labour Party, Change UK campaigned for a second referendum on the country’s EU membership. It fought a lacklustre campaign that failed to make a big impact on social media and gained just 3.4% of the vote.

The two parties’ social media strategies contrasted starkly. An analysis by digital agency 89Up showed the Brexit Party generated only 13% of political party posts on Facebook and Twitter during the European Parliament campaign, yet generated 51% of social media shares.

The campaign stuck to simple, emotional messages.

By comparison, Change UK spent more than £100,000 ($125,000) on Facebook advertisements — five times more than the Brexit Party. But it garnered barely 1% of social media shares.

Farage’s strategy, which took lessons from his friend U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was simple. And it provides pointers for other insurgent political movements.

“The Brexit Party’s posts were far more direct and emotionally charged, compelling supporters to save democracy, support Brexit, or help Britain avoid humiliation,” London-based 89Up said.

Farage’s campaign was overwhelmingly negative and stuck to a handful of simple messages aimed largely at older Britons. It never tried to articulate a policy platform. And its Facebook posts were an average of 19 words.

Change UK’s messaging was much more complex. It suggested that voting for the party would lead to a second referendum and the chance to overturn the country’s Brexit decision. Its Facebook posts were an average of 71 words.

The age of hyperleadership

There have always been demagogic leaders that dominate politics. But London-based academic Paolo Gerbaudo has identified a new breed of what he calls “hyperleadership.”

In his book The Digital Party, Gerbaudo describes the sort of people who lead these parties — reactionary nationalists like Farage and Trump. But they also include people like Pablo Iglesias, the charismatic left-wing leader of Spain’s Podemos movement.

To succeed, hyperleaders need a “superbase” of tens of thousands of staunch followers recruited through easy online registration. Hyperleaders are not forced down the route of joining a traditional party with district branches and bureaucracy.

The superbase is mobilised by its members recognising themselves as part of a movement, often angry and alienated. The superbase identifies with a strong, charismatic leader who outshines the often more technocratic leaders of traditional politics.

The reality may be different.

Gerbaudo’s job description for a hyperleader includes a gift for communication, an impression of authenticity and a down-to-earth approach. The hyperleader avoids complex language and presents themselves as a common individual who lives like their supporters.

The reality may be very different. Billionaire Trump and former commodities trader Farage are both from privileged backgrounds. But they are very good at tapping into the fears and concerns of their superbase.

“This is seen in the function played by hyperleaders as social media storytellers constantly engaging and galvanising their base of support,” Gerbaudo writes. “At a time marked by profound suspicion towards collective organisations, the persona of the hyperleader provides at least a temporary solution to the failure of collective identification.”

So the lessons of recent elections are clear: Keep the message simple and succinct, talk to the concerns of your superbase, generate detailed databases of current and potential supporters and master the algorithms that drive your campaign on social media.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Do upstart parties hold the keys to the political future through their mastery of social media and huge followings?
  2. How do traditional political parties fight back? Is social media key?
  3. What happens to a single-issue group like the Brexit Party once its reason to exist is no longer relevant?

Malcolm Davidson worked for four decades as a journalist in Europe, Asia and Australasia. He served as correspondent with Reuters in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines, and reported widely from other parts of Asia. He also worked in Brussels and most recently was the London-based editor of Reuters’s Front Page multimedia news service.