Techno-Populism: The Youth Electorate in Europe and the Interplay Between Social Media and Populism

Illustration by Ulker Design.

As proven by a 2021 European Parliament Youth survey, which supported that people rely primarily on the web, whether this is social media or online news outlets to be informed for political and societal developments. This ultimately explains why politicians gradually turn to social media – it broadens their electoral base as they attempt to connect to younger voters but has the negative consequence of popularizing populism. 

By Konstantina Kastoriadou

Social media has become integral to our lives, profoundly influencing our political landscape. While its pervasive presence is undeniable, there is often little analysis of how it shapes electoral campaigns, which are increasingly prevalent across Europe. Political advertisements and activities are widely disseminated on social media platforms, subtly and overtly shaping public opinion. This article delves into the complex interplay between contemporary politics and social media, drawing inspiration from Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti’s (2021) work, Techno-populism — The New Logic of Democratic Politics. It explores how this dynamic interaction (sub)consciously affects our political preferences and contributes to rising populist parties and figures globally. 

Almost 400 million people all over Europe were eligible to vote in the 2024 European Elections. Several parties across Europe have tried their best to engage longtime supporters and attract new ones, securing their votes either way, under the light of the pressuring events that have surrounded Europe for the last two years.  However, the most complex war is fought during the pre-electoral period on social media platforms, where parties, party leaders and candidates try to engage the most difficult-to-convince audience – the youth. For years, the younger generations proved challenging to engage with as it was widely believed that they abstained from politics, yet some researchers claim this was never the case. More specifically, they support the idea that the youth has always been politically engaged. Still, this engagement is taking many forms, with one notable case being social media (Del Monte, 2023: 3). According to Flew and Iosifidis (2020), the internet allows social, political or cultural movements to form alliances and communities internationally (For example, BLM, and the equal rights movement), as people now exchange opinions and experiences with other people from across the globe which helps shape opinions about situations and problems that appear in different parts of the world. 

Social media users, as of 2024, were estimated to be roughly around 5.17 billion globally, with the most active users being the youngest generation (Shewale, 2024). The significant number of users and the popularity of some social media platforms decisively reshaped political communication. As proven by a 2021 European Parliament Youth survey, which supported that people rely primarily on the web, whether this is social media or online news outlets to be informed for political and societal developments (Del Monte, 2023: 3). This ultimately explains why politicians gradually turn to social media – it broadens their electoral base as they attempt to connect to younger voters but has the negative consequence of popularizing populism. This turn of events in the political reality is of enormous interest as it shows a dismissal of the traditional political divide of the left/right axis, which now, according to Bickerton & Accetti (2021), was transformed into a dipole between populism and technocracy which are better understood as “modes of political action” rather than solid ideological systems. 

Techno-populism is “the new logic of political action based on the combination of populist and technocratic traits,” somehow like the definition of techno-populism by Lorenzo Castellani, who defines the latter as a “political regime” characterized by “an interaction between global capitalism, technocratic institutions and new polarizing populist political movements” (Bickerton & Accetti, 2021: 18). Techno-populism is also a relatively new phenomenon, as there has been a steadily growing appeal to the concept of the “people” during recent years, that did not exist during the 20th century. Political parties, especially after World War II, had their target group (For example, the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, etc.) and therefore did not appeal to the masses in general. Compared to contemporary politics, more and more politicians claim to represent the people, as in mainstream political parties, there wasn’t a notion of the “people” as we know it, but society consisted of different groups and classes that each party represented (Bickerton & Accetti, 2021: 7).

Many scholars argue that populism is a mainstream phenomenon. Roitman et al. (2023) argue that: “The rise of populist discourses in many countries in the last decades may have been due to changes in political communication.” This argument is strongly supported by data that show the rise of political and party participation on social media platforms. As argued by Bickerton and Accetti (2021: 21), this shift in political communication is an attempt for parties to become more attractive towards the youth, helping themselves to secure more votes, as the sole goal of political competition in all electoral democracies is the rise to power (Accetti & Bickerton, 2021: 21).

A strong case of this trend is presented in the work of Cervi et al., (2021: 269 – 270), who examined the interplay between TikTok and political communication. As a primary example, the Spanish populist parties, Vox and Podemos, seem to have claimed the most significant gains out of the other mainstream established parties, as most of their supporters come from the youngest generation. Podemos is the most followed (191.400 followers) and the most active party on social media, having gathered more than 3.1m likes. The youngest generation represents the bulk of the supporters gathered on the platform.

In Podemos’ case, social media is tightly interwoven into the very existence of the party, as they broadly use it as a means in its political strategy – mobilizing its audience both online and offline (Cervi et al., 2021: 271). Similarly to Podemos is the case of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy. The M5S, undoubtedly classified as a populist party, claims to have an unmediated relationship with the people, especially by utilizing the internet. By accessing the internet and mobilizing the citizens by creating cyberspaces in which they interact with their electoral base, the M5S claims that it can offer more efficient government by utilizing the collective intelligence” it gathers through the web. M5S use the internet to access ordinary citizens’ competence, making the web a means to provide a better quality of public policy. This is described by Accetti and Bickerton (2021) as: techno-populism from below (Bickerton & Accetti, 2021: 4). 

Another case that proves the rising power of social media in politics is the example of Ireland, where the current Prime Minister (Irish term: Taoiseach) of the Fine Gael party, Simon Harris, is characterized as the first TikTok Prime Minister of the country, and coincidently also the youngest leader of the nation, rising to the chair of the party thanks to his TikTok popularity (Pogatchnik, 2024). Such cases can be observed in every established democracy in the Western world – not exclusively by populist leaders but also by the traditionally established parties’ leaders, who try to expand their electoral base to the young electorate. 

Social Media and the New Reality of Politics

As mentioned above, politics have been transformed since the mid-20th century, and society catalyzes this change. Bickerton & Accetti (2021: 35) argue that society is far more complex than in the 20th century when society seemed more homogenized. This complexity makes societal formations more fragile and fluid than they used to be, therefore making the electoral appeal of contestants for office harder than before. Perhaps due to this fragmentation and fragility, it is more effective for political contestants to appeal to emotion and, therefore, adopt post-truth tactics than to rely on the old ways of political communication to secure people’s support. According to data, 97% of world leaders use Twitter, being the first and leading social media platform for political communication (Munoz, Ripolles, 2020).

The importance of social media is also reflected in the enormous sums of money parties have spent advertising on social media during this European Electoral Campaign. Based on Google and Facebook data, such examples are Fidesz with €60.000 spent on one single ad; the separatist Flemish party Vlaams Beelang spent around €50 – 60.000 as well; and Macron’s party seems to have spent approximately €50.000 (Shickler, 2024). However, the most shocking numbers come from Greece, where the governing right-wing party New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία) has spent €192.000 on Google ads alone, while the total amount of spending of the country is €321.800 for 5.753 digital ads (Μπογιόπουλος, 2024a). New Democracy’s spending on Facebook accounts for €31.430, while €17.276 of this was spent on the advertisement of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (Μπογιόπουλος, 2024b). Such amounts show that the presence on social media is now necessary, as parties won’t survive in the new political reality without them since society now prefers to be more active than passive news consumers (Putmans, 2017: 2). 

Post-Truth, Propaganda and Skepticism

Although one use of social media platforms is for advertisement, for most, social media serves primarily as a source of information and the exchange of opinions, which shapes everyday life. Yet, social media has a “dark side” as they are closely linked to the spread of fake news and post-truth politics (Flew & Iosifidis, 2020). Misinformation and post-truth political rhetoric are commonalities and apply firmly to pre-electoral campaigns. The BBC found plenty of misleading content on social media platforms during the pre-electoral campaign in the UK. The content is AI generated (Spring, 2024) and could be passed as accurate, especially by people who are not so familiar with the newly introduced technologies.

Post-truth politics is widely associated with populist parties and personas. According to ECPS’ (n.d.) dictionary of populism, post-truth is: “a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” Taş (2021: 169) further supports that post-truth politics are in fact: “a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact” – therefore minimizing the importance of facts in the process of shaping the public opinion. As social media lacks supervision or strict political guidelines, which is more likely to happen to television, radio or press, communication among peers is loose and emotionally charged, as they mostly share their opinions and experiences. This makes social media the most appropriate medium for “disseminating" meta-truth, affecting politics and everyday life.

In the Western sphere, the truth can be explained – proved scientifically, so the truth is perceived as objective. However, since the 20th century, the perception of truth has changed again taking Nietzsche, or the post-structuralists like Foucault as an example – who highlighted the relevance of truth, making it a subjectivity and therefore contradicting the previous perception of truth as objectivity. Finally, the digital era reshaped the perception of truth, as misinformation and fake news became a common incident in our era (Youvan, 2024: 4). Post-truth, therefore, comes directly in contrast with the primary perception of “the truth” being objective, as it is based on the 20th-century revision on the objectivity of the truth highlighting the subjective nature of it. This, combined with the rise of social media, made people in advanced democracies more skeptical towards democracy and governments and even questioned the integrity of the press industry, which overall is boosted by a generalized discontentment created by the declining quality of life. 

For many political and social analysts, social media is a reason of high significance that democracies are in decline. According to research conducted in 19 countries by the Pew Research Center in 2022, social media seems to be perceived overall as a good thing for democracy, with the exception being the US, where the survey concluded that social media are perceived as a bad thing for democracy with 64%. This trend seemed popular among Republicans and Republican-leaning supporters, as they proved to be the social group more likely to be critical and negative towards social media (Wike et al., 2022). 

Additionally, 84% of the questioned people across the 19 countries believe that social media and the internet made people more accessible to manipulate with false information and/or news. 70% of them support that fake news is the second biggest threat globally, just after climate change. Another interesting finding is that across the 19 countries that participated in the Survey, people agree that social media had a positive impact on people in terms of information about worldwide and domestic events, which is believed to make people good citizens of the world – and work in favor of acceptance of different races and religions. Yet, they find that they contribute negatively to how people talk about politics, finding that 46% of individuals believe social media makes people less civil in the way they talk about politics. Maybe this is related to the fact that 65% support the idea that social media has made people divided on their political opinions (Wike et al., 2022). 

In this framework of division, confusion and growing disappointment are where the populists flourish the most. If we were to hypothesize that fear is constantly generated within our societies, through our everyday lives, then a feeling of powerlessness may occur. According to Müller (2022), fear is a medium for populist leaders, who invoke fear to provoke a revolt against the “corrupt establishment.” However, he finds that fear must not exceed a certain point, for populist leaders do not want their societies to live in fear. If this happens, populist personas will betray their promise of “being better democrats.” Wike et al. (2022) found that social media can affect people’s psychological stance, making them feel less powerless as they grow more informed about international and domestic situations. Maybe here, the fact that social media are a place where people can form alliances and exchange their views and experiences is the most critical factor contributing to a growing feeling of empowerment. 

This empowerment may stem from consumption and people’s identification with populistic agendas promoted on social media, leveraging the dissatisfaction of the masses. As populism is traditionally based on the emotional stance of society, post-truth political rhetoric is the most efficient medium to secure support and broaden their electoral base. This trend has been evident since the 2016 US Presidential election when people seemed to believe and identify more with fake news than facts. As Dan (2023) supports, populism is a force that can change the collective memory and shape peoples’ opinions and ideas, which in this case is the primarily exclusionary right-wing populism stands for identity. It promotes the protection of the mass identity, which is being attacked by various factors such as economic, class, or alternative ethnicity. Hayes defines identity politics as: “a phrase that has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. Rather than organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context” (Heyes, 2020).

Even from the definition, it shows that identity politics is a phenomenon of a strong psychological and emotional background that is the backbone of its very existence (Dan, 2023). Maybe that’s an essential factor that makes people in the Western sphere more critical of social media and democracy. It’s found that nativists are the most skeptical among citizens. Usually, they are dissatisfied with electoral outcomes, regardless of being on the winning or losing end of the electoral process (Kokkonen & Linde, 2022).

Conclusion

Political reality has been drastically transformed over the past years, and populism can be considered both the result and the cause of the new political reality, which depends on the latest technologies for the political actors to secure support from their peers. To this progress and change of political reality, Bickerton & Accetti’s book is a perfect and realistic approach to the new way of political action, as techno-populism seems to be a phenomenon that explains precisely the current state of politics, with people growing dissatisfied with democracy due to the existing economic struggles and with populism, that will not cease. 

This transformation could be the outcome of the “win” of capitalism at the end of the Cold War Era, which established capitalism as the dominant, unchallenged system and gradually made the distinction between left and right irrelevant and outdated. It’s not a coincidence that populist figures have continuously risen and taken over globally since the 2000s. However, the most critical factor lies in this societal transformation of recent years that made society more fragmented and fragile than before, making the electoral appeal of contestants for office harder than it was during the 20th century. 

To the latter, social media are an essential factor, as they shape the opinions and dissatisfaction of the masses because they provide them with the opportunity to have almost complete access to everything. This free flow of information can also justify the rising skepticism of people towards their governments, as nowadays, it is more feasible to identify aberrant and reprehensible actions, such as institutional corruption. Also, with the free flow of experiences and opinions, people grow even more critical of their political, social or economic situation, as they can easily compare their reality with the reality of citizens from different parts of the world and are more susceptible to populistic agendas. Most importantly, on many occasions, social media presents the truth compared to television. In many instances, there is proof that television is under governmental or special interests’ control, contributing to the growth of skepticism inside liberal democracies. 

Politically speaking, this may be a strong reason why social media seem to have such overwhelming approval overall, as people see it as a positive asset for democracy, with the only exception being the US, where mostly the conservatives were more prone to rejecting social media as a beneficial factor for democracy. While people generally agree that social media made them more accepting towards different cultures and races, there is an explicit acknowledgement that social media generates a lot of negative emotions and affects people’s way of expressing political opinions, as there is a consensus that social media makes people politically divided. This could be attributed to the success of populism, which penetrated society, and the accessibility to information provided by the internet. This is the combination that Bickerton & Accetti discussed. In contemporary politics, the fight over political power doesn’t revolve around the traditional divide between right and left, but how the already established political parties with either the left or right use both populism and technocracy to their benefit. 

It’s sensible that people feel vulnerable to fake news, as the populist mode of communication seems to be the predominant one, with post-truth politics spreading steadily over the internet. Their anger and frustration can be amplified or soothed, and due to the structure of social media platforms, they can be controlled and guided in a specific direction. This controlled environment makes a “safer” framework for the contestants to power to survive and adapt. Youth engagement seemed to be the ulterior motive for political personas to turn to the web for promotion. Still, this move is undoubtedly populistic, as it builds rapport with the base, creating the illusion of closeness to the people. However, the youth is committed and politically active, and with all the necessary equipment, they seem ready to claim the change for a better tomorrow. 


 

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