How To Fight Populism

Deal with fear and anger before it's too late.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

How do you fight populism?

Populism is brewing in many Western democracies. According to FT Magazine columnist Gillian Tett, we haven’t reached Peak Populism yet.

I’m worried; populism gone rogue rarely ends well.
Is there a way to fight back?

Well, it may be too late—at least this time around.

What is Populism?

‘Populism’ is a derogatory term often used to smear specific political movements.

However, as human beings and political creatures, we all indulge in our fair share of populism. Most of us have, at some point or another, told others precisely what they want to hear—despite knowing that our talking points are at odds with a much more complex truth.

To communicate populistically is to play right into a population’s existing frustrations to amplify their aggression. Being populistic isn’t synonymous with ‘telling lies’—it’s about over-simplifying more complex truths and leaning heavily into one-sidedness.

Populism also plays right into basic media logic using social control and fear. 1Media logic is a collection of theories. An excellent place to start would be Media Logic, Social Control, and Fear by David L. Altheide.

Messages with the ability to amplify aggressions are also favoured by social media algorithms that use iterative testing to maximise audience engagement.

“Making someone angry on the internet” is a common strategy to boost today’s social media algorithms for maximum reach.

Group psychology mixed with equal parts of aggression, scapegoating, and fear-mongering can result in a dangerous cocktail.

History dictates that we should be especially mindful of promoting anger or fear for political ends.

The Amplification Hypothesis

Unfortunately, sensible arguments have little or no effect on populists.

Populistic supporters often comprise people who used to enjoy a culturally relevant position in society but gradually lost it. Trying to eradicate their claims with opposing arguments could even have adverse effects.

Amplification Hypothesis

It’s common to find that counterarguments strengthen existing beliefs instead of weakening them. The harder you “attack” someone with words, the more you convince them of their belief, not yours.

The phenomenon is also known as the amplification hypothesis, where displaying certainty about an attitude when talking with another person increases and hardens that attitude.

“Across experiments, it is demonstrated that increasing attitude certainty strengthens attitudes (e.g., increases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are univalent but weakens attitudes (e.g., decreases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are ambivalent. These results are consistent with the amplification hypothesis.”
Source: A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis 2Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, … Continue reading

How does the amplification hypothesis work?

In a threatening situation or emergency, we resort to the primal (fastest) part of the brain and survival instincts (fight, flight and freeze). 3Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks and Attackers workshop held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.

  • Dichotomous thinking—This thinking style is at the heart of radical movements and fundamentalism. Even people who exercise abstract thinking, logic, reason, and the ability to recognize complex issues can resort to this thinking style when threatened. 4See also conversion theory.
  • Egocentric thinking—People who demonstrate non-egocentric thinking in many areas can also resort to this thinking style under stress. When a target is labelled an enemy, a series of cognitive steps justify violent behaviour and prevent altruism and empathy. 5Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
  • Distorted thinking—we tend to ignore details in our environments that do not support our thinking and beliefs. 6See also cognitive dissonance.

Using an emotional attack on a cognitive attitude will increase resistance, whilst a cognitive attack will be more effective. A logical attack has less impact on an emotional attitude, whilst an emotional argument is more powerful.

Attacking

To persuade, align your attitude with the target. Otherwise, you will only act to create resistance.

Defending

To put off a persuader, mismatch their attitudes. When they are logical, be emotional, and vice versa.

Read also: The Amplification Hypothesis: How To Counter Extreme Positions

The polar opposite of populism is elitism:

Few things make populist supporters angrier than being talked down to by the ruling class. To populist supporters, elite demands are gasoline on the fire. 7See conversion theory; in groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their cause.

Cancel culture doesn’t work, either.

Shoving populistic supporters aside in public discourse only makes their case. Not primarily for being ignored by the elite but because of the painful loss of cultural and social importance.

Most minorities would rally sympathisers by evoking empathy for their cause. Still, populist supporters come from a position of pride—and they won’t kneel to anyone, especially not the elite, begging for inclusion.

The political tool of the populist is pride, not victimhood.

Fear: Cause and Effect

Politicians with a populistic agenda are often blamed for inciting fear and anger in society. Still, fear and anger were already present in the population: otherwise, it wouldn’t have been susceptible to populist propaganda in the first place.

Misplaced pride and frustration within a population is a fertile breeding ground for anyone willing to stand against the elite. Such actions will grant even one individual enough power to shift an entire political narrative radically.

Populist supporters will readily invest their energies in their champions to do as they please—if nothing else, to “stick it” to the elite.

Here’s why:

Populism is not about making people angry. It’s about making people angrier. At their core, populists are angry about something and blame others for their loss of significance. 8See also Pew Research Institute’s 2018 report on populism.

In short: We can never fight populism by fighting populists.
The only way is to remove what fuels their anger.

How To Stand Up To Populism

Populist fury must be dealt with swiftly—and more importantly: early.

The way to counter populism is to address the root cause of fear and anger in a society—and any such actions must be taken immediately when populist messages start gaining momentum.

Progressive politicians must take extra caution when the cultural status is systematically being shifted away from homogenous groups.

Social reform must go hand-in-hand with helping its “losers” to re-align themselves.

We can only undermine the fury of populistic supporters by convincing them that they are and will continue to be socially and culturally relevant.

  • Politically address existing fears and anger early on. You don’t have to agree, but keeping their democratic concerns outside of the agenda will only breed more fear and anger.
  • Don’t deprive large parts of the population of their cultural relevance, and don’t censor their rights to be heard—at least not for too long.
  • If you must distribute power away from large groups in the population, make sure to embed their transition with social reforms and continuous dialogue.
  • If you fail on the above and populist politicians, gain real political momentum—hope they won’t tear the nation apart and make sure to do better next time.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

PR Resource: Media Logic

Media Logic

Contrary to popular belief, media logic is not one single theory. Instead, it’s a collection of theories about how mediated messages are influenced by the medium and its context.

“The dominant processes, established routines, and standardized formats which frame and shape the production of mass-media content, especially its representation or construction of reality, and its manufacture of news. Media logic intersects with commercial logic and political logic—confluences associated with such phenomena as tabloidization and the mediatization of politics. Media logic exists wherever mediation exists. It contributes to the shaping of social order in modern post-industrial cultures.”
Source: A Dictionary of Media and Communication

Media logic is a rhetorical/critical approach to PR. The theories often describe how the media shapes minds and is used to establish power structures.

“Media logic is defined as a form of communication, and the process through which media transmit and communicate information. The logic and guidelines become taken for granted, often institutionalized, and inform social interaction. A basic principle is that media, information technologies, and communication formats can affect events and social activities.”
Source: Media Logic 9Altheide, D.L. (2016). Media Logic. In The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication, G. Mazzoleni (Ed.).

For example, a national newspaper should ideally produce news reports from all parts of the country—that’s how it should work.

However, due to commercial imperatives, new distribution models, and changes in consumer behaviours, the newspaper might lean towards producing journalism closer to where the reporters work, where most paying readers live and rely more heavily on click-baiting.

“The position and size of articles on the front page is determined by interest and importance, not content. Unrelated reports […] are juxtaposed; time and space are destroyed and the here and now are presented as a single Gestalt. […] Such a format lends itself to simultaneity, not chronology or lineality. Items abstracted from a total situation are not arranged in causal sequence, but presented in association, as raw experience.”
Source: The New Languages (1956) 10Carpenter, E. & McLuhan, M. (1956) The new languages. Chicago Review. 10(1) pp. 46-52.

One way to illustrate this discrepancy is to consider three central aspects of media; production, distribution, and media use:

Media logic.
The dimensions of media logic (Esser 2013:173).

As technology shifts to digital and news cycles become shorter, journalists might begin to favour news stories that journalists can produce faster and faster.

“[…] each communication channel codifies reality differently and thereby influences, to a surprising degree, the content of the message communicated.”
Source: The New Languages (1956) 11Carpenter, E. & McLuhan, M. (1956) The new languages. Chicago Review. 10(1) pp. 46-52.

Read more: Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic

PR Resource: Conversion Theory

Conversion Theory

The disproportional power of minorities is known as the conversion theory.

How does it work?

The social cost of holding a different view than the majority is high. This increased cost explains why minorities often hold their opinions more firmly. It takes determination to go against the norm. 12Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.

In contrast, many majority members don’t hold their opinions so firmly. They might belong to the majority for no other reason than that everyone else seems to be. 13Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.

“In groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their own cause. This is because many majority group members are not strong believers in its cause. They may be simply going along because it seems easier or that there is no real alternative. They may also have become disillusioned with the group purpose, process, or leadership and are seeking a viable alternative.”
Source: changingminds.org

According to conversion theory, while majorities often claim normative social influence, minorities strive for ethical high ground.

Given the power of normative social influence, minorities must stick together in tight-knit groups that can verbalise the same message repeatedly.

Read also: Conversion Theory: The Disproportionate Influence of Minorities

PR Resource: Spiral of Silence

The Spiral of Silence

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann - Spiral of Silence - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Professor Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916-2010).

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isolation due to peer exclusion will pressure publics to silence their opinions.

Rather than risking social isolation, many choose silence over expressing their true opinions.

“To the individual, not isolating himself is more important than his own judgement. […] This is the point where the individual is vulnerable; this is where social groups can punish him for failing to toe the line.”
— Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann

As the dominant coalition gets to stand unopposed, they push the confines of what’s acceptable down a narrower and narrower funnel (see also the opinion corridor).

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
— Noam Chomsky

Read also: The Spiral of Silence

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Media logic is a collection of theories. An excellent place to start would be Media Logic, Social Control, and Fear by David L. Altheide.
2 Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 810–825. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013192
3 Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks and Attackers workshop held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
4 See also conversion theory.
5 Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
6 See also cognitive dissonance.
7 See conversion theory; in groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their cause.
8 See also Pew Research Institute’s 2018 report on populism.
9 Altheide, D.L. (2016). Media Logic. In The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication, G. Mazzoleni (Ed.).
10, 11 Carpenter, E. & McLuhan, M. (1956) The new languages. Chicago Review. 10(1) pp. 46-52.
12 Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.
13 Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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