How To Fight Populism

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

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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?

Here goes:

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 harder you attack someone verbally, the more you con­vince them of their belief, not yours.

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.

  • 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. 3See also con­ver­sion the­ory.
  • Egocentric think­ing. People who demon­strate non-ego­centric think­ing in many areas can also use this think­ing style under stress. When a tar­get is labelled an enemy, cog­nit­ive steps jus­ti­fy viol­ent beha­viour and pre­vent altru­ism and empathy. 4Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
  • Distorted think­ing. We tend to ignore details in our envir­on­ments that do not sup­port our think­ing and beliefs. 5See also cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance.

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.”
Source: chan​ging​minds​.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

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:

  • Cancelling pop­u­list­ic sup­port­ers in pub­lic dis­course only serves to build their momentum.

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.

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. 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:

  • Populism is countered by address­ing the root cause of soci­et­al fear and anger before the ideo­logy can take root. 

Progressive politi­cians must take extra cau­tion in times of social change. Groups that have enjoyed influ­ence nev­er take kindly to los­ing power and significance.

  • Acknowledge. Proactively engage with the under­ly­ing fears and frus­tra­tions of mar­gin­al­ised groups. While agree­ing with their per­spect­ives is unne­ces­sary, it is cru­cial to acknow­ledge their demo­crat­ic con­cerns and incor­por­ate them into the broad­er policy agenda, lest these sen­ti­ments fester and amplify.
  • Include. Avoid ali­en­at­ing sig­ni­fic­ant seg­ments of soci­ety by under­min­ing their cul­tur­al rel­ev­ance or sup­press­ing their voices. It is essen­tial to foster an inclus­ive envir­on­ment that pro­motes open dia­logue and respect for diverse view­points, even when dis­agree­ments arise.
  • Listen. If it becomes neces­sary to redis­trib­ute power away from siz­able pop­u­la­tion groups, care­fully nav­ig­ate this trans­ition by imple­ment­ing social reforms and main­tain­ing ongo­ing com­mu­nic­a­tion. Such an approach can help to alle­vi­ate con­cerns and foster a sense of shared progress.
  • Learn. If pop­u­list politi­cians gain sub­stan­tial polit­ic­al trac­tion, remain vigil­ant to the poten­tial risks they pose to nation­al unity. Reflect on the les­sons learned from these situ­ations and strive to improve upon past mis­takes to address the root causes of pop­u­lism in the future more effectively.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

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 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:

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) 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 - 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 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/​1​0​.​1​0​3​7​/​a​0​0​1​3​192
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.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
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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