Dr Lone Sorensen – written evidence (DAD0067)

Key points and recommendations:

  1. Digital media are often used symbolically by political actors, populists in particular. Governments need to pay attention to this as symbolic uses of digital media are often surreptitious and respond directly to the ways in which most people engage with politics.
  2. In its populist form, digital symbolic action enhances the status of authenticity in democratic politics at the expense of factual truth. Political representatives need to invest in a rebalancing of factual and authentic forms of truth.
  3. Digital media communications are not stand-alone messages but form part of broader assemblages that together convey meaning to an audience. Governments should therefore not consider or respond to uses of digital media in isolation from political actors other modes of expression.


This submission presents evidence and conclusions from several academic studies conducted into British and South African populist parties’ use of social media and the use of social media for purposes of democratic listening. It chiefly responds to the following question raised by the Committee:

To what extent do you think that there are those who are using social media to attempt to undermine trust in the democratic process and in democratic institutions; and what might be the best ways to combat this and strengthen faith in democracy?

The studies that this submission relies on are largely (but not exclusively) qualitative and theory-building. Their evidence is therefore not easily presented in tables or figures and mainly summarised, relying on a few brief examples. The data and full analyses of the original studies are available upon request.

  1. Paying attention to symbolic uses of digital media
  1. Citizens increasingly engage with politics through the symbolic rather than concrete and manifest struggles over resources between opposing interest groups. This also applies to digital politics. Political organizations, such as Spanish Podemos, The Brexit Party and the Momentum movement, borrow digital communication strategies from social movements. They mobilize on social media by performing symbolic acts aimed at generating emotion and constructing community. They ascribe the technical infrastructure of digital media and the actions it affords – multi-way communications, mass publishing, and so on – with meaning by tapping into the ways in which these technologies are imagined as, for example, democratic, non-hierarchical and anti-elitist. These imagined capabilities of technology in turn shape political practice.
  2. The symbolic use of digital media in politics is not a concern in itself. But we need to pay attention to it when it is used surreptitiously. This is the case with populist parties that use social media platforms to deliver an anti-elitist message as a means to power. Such a message is consistent with the imaginaries of social media and thereby enhances the sender’s authenticity. For instance, when UKIP used the hashtag #PeoplesArmy on social media in the lead-up to Brexit, they associated their goal of leaving the EU with notions of democracy, revolution and people power. These ideas have become inherent in the very platforms of communication through their perceived role in political events such as the Arab Spring.
  3. Surreptitious uses of digital imaginaries can be highly emotionally engaging but often manifest themselves in polarising discourse that undermines public efficacy and trust in democratic processes and institutions. When used by populist actors, such digital symbolic action constructs a new and essentialist cleavage in the political spectrum that cuts across left and right and on a moral basis establishes populists as the only true political representatives.
  4. Most academic research and government policy address digital media as material tools used to achieve a specific goal. However, evidence from in-depth study in both the UK and South Africa, along with many anecdotal examples ranging from Trump to Zelenskiy in Ukraine, suggests that the symbolic uses of digital media are by far the more concerning (see Sorensen, forthcoming). Awareness of the polarising and essentialist functions of populist digital communication should inform responses to attempts to undermine efficacy and trust in democratic institutions. Such awareness should also inform modes of democratic listening that serve to enhance efficacy rather than undermine it. Political representatives may need to beat populists at their own game by engaging in symbolic digital action that is founded upon honest intent and followed up by substantial action. Examples include engaged, broad and in-depth listening via social media (see detailed suggestions and evidence relating to South Africa in Sorensen et al., 2019) and educational campaigns that themselves tap into the expository imaginaries of social media by revealing the instrumental usage of these by populists.

B.              Rebalancing authentic and factual forms of truth

  1. There is a relationship between digital technologies and new and emerging forms of truth. An increasingly popular form of truth values sincerity and authenticity above factual correctness. It is founded on claims to personal honesty and integrity, a consistency between communication and belief rather than between communication and external reality. This authenticity, certainly when harboured by right-wing and populist hosts, naturally grates with liberalism’s insistence on holding certain aspects of human nature in check – such as othering, disregarding or dismissing the needs and rights of minority groups, fairness in the rule of law.
  2. Authentic truth is communicated by illiberal and populist actors through a disruptive form of communication that breaches the established norms of political speech and behaviour. Social media imaginaries lend themselves to disruptive performances that seek to shock the liberal establishment. Populists’ digital symbolic actions accuse establishment media and politicians of misrepresenting reality and thereby undermining the foundation of democratic representation. As we see it with Donald Trump’s use of Twitter, so did UKIP’s use of social media symbolically undermine legacy media and political institutions while delivering the same message in their content: “The British political class and our media are guilty of double standards” (@Nigel_Farage, 30 Jan 2017); “When it comes to political bias it’s obvious to most that metropolitan and establishment backgrounds of so many BBC journalists is a problem” (@UKIP, 3 May 2015); “Politics in Britain has become a cartel…We need fundamental change to reconnect politics with the public #VoteUKIP #peoplesarmy”  (@UKIP, 3 May 2015).
  3. Through digital symbolic action, UKIP in one sweep undermined public feelings of efficacy and positioned themselves as authentic truth-tellers. The Brexit Party and Leave.eu are now following up with smoother performances. As Farage claimed in a tweet after a provocative speech in the European Parliament in support of Trump’s new “democratic” immigration measures, “Just gave both barrels to the unelected EU commission. These guys have a problem with the truth.” (@Nigel_Farage, 1 Feb 2017). The type of truth that Farage was talking about is not evidence-based fact. It is concerned with being true to oneself. Claiming legitimacy on the basis of sincerity and authenticity is core to Farage’s and other populists’ self-representation and has been a frequent message by Farage since the beginnings of his UKIP leadership: “the people's army has not been carefully engineered by an imaginative press office” (Farage in the Daily Express, 4 Jul 2014).
  4. Authenticity is what modern elites, with their supposed acts of deception and hollow rhetoric, lack, and is given as the reason why they are on the wrong side of the dividing line between Us and Them in populist claims. When populists denounce the elite as strategic orators, they engage in an act of exposure that undermines the elite’s performance of authenticity. Authentic performances require apparent consistency between frontstage and backstage behaviour for if a politician’s private persona is revealed to contradict his or her public performance, authenticity is undermined. For their own part, populist actors have the perfect solution to the demand for authentic performance under the limelight of ever-watching cameras. Rather than seeking to hide their backstage behaviour, they proudly showcase their dirty linen in public by disrupting institutional norms. Populists’ famous bad manners, political incorrectness and ability to talk like ordinary people are weapons in the fight against demands for constant visibility and the consequent fragility of authentic representation.
  5. Social media are well suited tools for this purpose. They allow populists to naturally comply with platforms’ norms of intimacy, informality and pithy humour while performing their backstage behaviour. Complying with social media norms naturally grates with and disrupts institutional norms. Social media thereby enable populists consistent self-representation as authentic disrupters in a media environment that makes consistency an increasingly challenging demand. Unlike establishment politicians, populists can present an authentic front that appears at once intimate, spontaneous and honest to the populist’s own disruptive persona.
  6.                            Honesty, character and trust are no doubt lacking in the representative relationship between elites and people in the UK. These qualities are increasingly also lacking in our relationship to media that pursue commercial objectives rather than the public interest. Populists have a point. Yet one of these two types of truth – authentic and scientific – at the expense of the other poses a danger to liberal democracy. We need evidence-based information as well as honest politicians to make representative democracy work. Anti-populism is therefore also a reactionary and not a progressive response to populism. It neglects to address the social and political fault lines that give rise to populism in the first place and to acknowledge in a substantive way citizens’ very valid reasons for voting for populists. One of these reasons indeed appears to reside in feelings of inefficacy based on the lack of authentic representation by elite representatives and of reliable information by the media. The appropriate response would therefore be to look for common ground, to acknowledge the need for the coexistence of both authentic and scientific truth in the democratic representative relationship. This in turn has deep implications for politicians’ professional practice of political communication, which currently iron out any traces of authenticity before their on-stage performances.

C.              Attending to communicative assemblages

  1.                            Digital media are often researched and addressed through policy as if they existed independently of other types of media and public engagement. To address populist and other political actors undermining of trust in the democratic process and in democratic institutions, it would be important to be aware of the role that digital media play in broader communication repertoires.
  2.                            Evidence from my comparative study of the UK and South Africa shows that the interplay between digital media, live disruptive action (such as provocations and breaches of protocol in democratic institutions) and legacy media engagement is key to populists’ construction of an essentialist and polarising cleavage in the political spectrum. However, the specific role played by social media depends on the nature of the event that it is used to promote.
  3.                            In the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in 2016, UKIP made entrepreneurial use of the new media environment in ways that built up and complemented live disruptions aimed at broadcast audiences. Farage took to Twitter to warn that “Sparks will fly” (@Nigel_Farage, 4 Apr 2017) in a build-up of tension before a provocative EP speech on the UK’s triggering of Article 50 that commenced her exit from the EU. UKIP’s mediated build-up to individual speeches, however, was much less elaborate than in other cases, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters(EFF) disruption of the State of the Nation Address in South Africa in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The reason for this is the low-key status of European Parliamentary sessions as live media events. In the EFF’s case, there is evidence of a clear synergy between digital and live symbolic action: Figure 1 shows public engagement with the EFF’s tweets during disruptive moments of their live performance in parliament, which was broadcast live on public TV.
  4.                            Unlike the EFF, UKIP chiefly tweeted after, not during, their live performances. Most of their tweets directed attention to other communications, such as YouTube videos of Farage’s speeches, Facebook posts, press releases and columns in the press, rather than to live moments. Their audience was legacy media, not a live broadcast audience. Yet their tweets still formed an integral part of UKIP’s overall message as they supplemented, commented on and interpreted UKIP’s live symbolic action after the event. In fact, the tweets often spelled out and enhanced the symbolism of UKIP’s disruptive performances, such as when UKIP explicitly pointed out their character of protest – “@Nigel_Farage leads UKIP MEPs in a protest against the European Parliament at the opening of its new session” (@UKIP, 1 Jul 2014) – laboured the metaphor of their turned backs – “UKIP MEPs turn their backs on the EU flag as the EU anthem played” (@UKIP, 1 Jul 2014) – or insisted that such symbolic action was indeed rather disruptive (@UKIP, 1 Jul 2014). Such tweets fed a particular interpretation of UKIP’s live performances to the media, who often picked it up (Sorensen, 2018).
  5.                            For UKIP, Twitter was not a means of usurping the role of mainstream media but rather of addressing it. The usual political struggle over who gets their message across then became a battle of who could walk the tightrope of legitimacy and norm-breaking in the most creative way to attract the attention of legacy media. UKIP used social media to enhance the impression of spectacle by making their norm-breaking more explicit in a mediation setting where such behaviour was more acceptable: speaking in informal, polarising and often shocking language is the norm on social media but is reprimanded in the European Parliament. And conforming to the everyday norms of social media platforms simultaneously enhances the authenticity of the populist communicator.
  6.                            Looking at digital media messages by populist actors in isolation would miss their function of enhancing, distilling and framing other symbolic actions. Social media form part of a broader repertoire that as a whole has far more concerning effects upon a polarised society, public feelings of efficacy and citizens’ relationships to their political representatives.  I therefore recommend that the Committee not observe or respond to uses of digital media in isolation from political actors’ other modes of expression, and that they take account of the types of events of which social media communications form part.

Sources of detailed evidence:

Sorensen, L., 2018. Populist Communication in Comparative Perspective: Ideology, Performance, Mediation (PhD thesis). University of Leeds, Leeds, UK.

Sorensen, L., forthcoming. Performing Populist Representation: A Communication Approach for Established and Transitional Democracies. Palgrave.

Sorensen, L., Ford, H., Al-Saqaf, W., Bosch, T., Voltmer, K., 2019. Dialogue of the Deaf: Listening on Twitter and Democratic Responsiveness during the 2015 South African State of the Nation Address, in: Voltmer, K. et al (Eds.), Contested Transitions: Media, Communication and the Struggle for Democratic Change. Palgrave, Basingstoke.




FIGURE 1: Tweets per minute during the SONA, 12 February 2015 (local time) (only journalists and public figures have been identified by their Twitter account names for ethical reasons) (Source: Sorensen, forthcoming)