Populist communication and strategic behaviour on Twitter
Darius, Philipp David
Background While earlier studies on the German right-wing populist party AfD on Twitter have noted a very high frequency of the party’s hashtag use, there is a lack of understanding if this expresses support or opposition to the party. Thus, the aim of this research is to discover strategic expressions of retweeting and political hashtag use of German parties and shed light on the use of the AfD hashtag and the success of populist parties on social media in general. Methods To investigate strategic retweeting behaviour and hashtag use among a large sample (n=173,216) of collected Tweets that used political party hashtags, the study uses a network approach to visualise and analyse the retweet networks pertaining to these hashtags. Findings The analysis of the AfD retweet network finds two highly polarized clusters of users that barely retweet each other. One strongly politically aligned cluster is dominated by AfD politicians and thus identified as a support cluster, whereas the other cluster is opposed to the AfD. Furthermore, the AfD support cluster occurs also in the other party networks, which indicates strategic hashtag use by AfD politicians and supporters. Conclusion The study finds convincing evidence to support the thesis that AfD supporters and officials use their own party hashtag, but also the hashtags of other parties strategically. Moreover, the findings strongly suggest strategic retweeting behaviour and hashtag use and suggest that this represents a social media strategy of the AfD. This could encourage further research to also merge the study of populism on social media with existing research on political polarization and political campaigning on Twitter that have not been applied to populist parties.