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?
Or is it too late?
What is Populism?
Populism is a political ideology and approach that seeks to represent and cater to the interests and concerns of ordinary people, often emphasizing the divide between the “common folk” and the “élite” or “establishment.”
Populism typically arises from a perception that the existing political and social systems are unresponsive or unfair to the needs of the majority. Populist leaders and movements across the political spectrum, from left-wing to right-wing, often employ emotive rhetoric to galvanize public support.
While populism can give a voice to marginalized groups and drive necessary reforms, it can oversimplify complex issues and, in some cases, lead to the erosion of democratic institutions and values.
Group psychology mixed with aggression, scapegoating, and fear-mongering can result in a dangerous societal cocktail.
The Amplification Hypothesis
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:
The Amplification Hypothesis
It’s common to find that counterarguments strengthen existing beliefs instead of weakening them.
The phenomenon is 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 1Clarkson, 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). 2Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
Establishing common ground and exhibiting empathy demonstrates a genuine understanding of their perspective, fostering trust and openness to your ideas. Conversely, if your objective is to deflect persuasive attempts, a strategic mismatch of attitudes can serve as a powerful countermeasure.
To persuade, align your attitude with the target. Otherwise, you will only act to create resistance.
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
Gasoline on the Fire: The Conversion Theory
Few things make populist supporters angrier than being talked down to by up-and-coming minorities. To populist supporters, such opposition is gasoline on their fire:
The Conversion Theory: The Misrepresented Minority
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. 6Moscovici, 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. 7Chryssochoou, 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.”
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
Fear, Social Media, and Cancel Culture
Social media platforms, which employ algorithms utilizing iterative testing to boost audience engagement, have recently been scrutinised for allegedly promoting content that heightens aggression.
Critics argue that these algorithms, designed to keep users engaged and active on the platforms, inadvertently prioritize messages that provoke strong emotional responses, often inciting anger or hostility.
This phenomenon raises questions about the role and responsibility of social media companies in shaping public discourse and the potential consequences of an increasingly polarized online environment for society at large. Populism plays right into basic media logic using social control and fear. 8Media logic is a collection of theories. An excellent place to start would be Media Logic, Social Control, and Fear by David L. Altheide.
As such, the amplification hypothesis, fueled by conversion theory and social media algorithms, is a strong argument against cancel culture:
In short: We can never fight populism by fighting populists.
The only way is to remove that which fuels their anger.
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 élite. Such actions will grant even one individual enough power to radically shift an entire political narrative.
Populist supporters will readily invest their energies in their champions to do as they please — if nothing else, to “stick it” to the establishment.
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. 9See also Pew Research Institute’s 2018 report on populism.
How To Stand Up To Populism
To mitigate the rise of populism, we must address the concerns of those who feel marginalized or dispossessed by social reform, ensuring that they continue to perceive themselves as culturally relevant:
Progressive politicians must take extra caution in times of social change. Groups that have enjoyed influence never take kindly to losing power and significance.
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PR Resource: Media Logic
Contrary to popular belief, media logic is not one single theory. Instead, it’s a collection of theories about how the medium and its context influence mediated messages.
“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 10Altheide, 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) 11Carpenter, 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:
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) 12Carpenter, E. & McLuhan, M. (1956) The new languages. Chicago Review. 10(1) pp. 46 – 52.
Learn more: Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic
PR Resource: Spiral of Silence
The Spiral of Silence
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 genuine 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
|1||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|
|2||Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.|
|3||See also conversion theory.|
|4||Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.|
|5||See also cognitive dissonance.|
|6||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.|
|7||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.|
|8||Media logic is a collection of theories. An excellent place to start would be Media Logic, Social Control, and Fear by David L. Altheide.|
|9||See also Pew Research Institute’s 2018 report on populism.|
|10||Altheide, D.L. (2016). Media Logic. In The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication, G. Mazzoleni (Ed.).|
|11, 12||Carpenter, E. & McLuhan, M. (1956) The new languages. Chicago Review. 10(1) pp. 46 – 52.|