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Populism And Civic Engagement – a fine-grained, dynamic, context-sensitive and forward-looking response to negative populist tendencies

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Strengthening democracy in a time of populism

The rise of populist movements has been a key political trend in Europe since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The EU-funded PaCE project has been working to better understand the negative tendencies of populist movements, as well why voters are attracted to them in the first place.

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Through an ambitious programme that took in historical and comparative analysis, the utilisation of machine learning and direct democracy labs with individual groups of citizens, the project PaCE (Populism And Civic Engagement – a fine-grained, dynamic, context-sensitive and forward-looking response to negative populist tendencies) was able to arrive at what project coordinator Bruce Edmonds considers its most important result. “There are significant differences between what constitutes a ‘populist’ party and what constitutes a ‘nativist’ party,” begins the director of the Centre for Policy Modelling at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom. “On the surface they look and sound extremely similar, but they work in different ways.”

Divide and conquer

In short, nativist beliefs can be summarised as the story of the homeland versus outsiders/’others’, whilst populist parties focus on the notion of a small, out-of-touch elite versus ‘ordinary people’. But it doesn’t stop at these core beliefs. Edmonds points out how the two tend to have very different experiences once they achieve political power. “Populists (for example La Lega in Italy) are much more successful and adaptive in government,” he says. “On the other hand, nativists (such as Austria’s Freedom Party) tend not to last long, often implode quickly and/or get mired in scandal.” Whilst getting to the heart of this distinction was important for PaCE, they also wanted to showcase examples of where a populist route could have been taken but was ultimately avoided. “Iceland is a great example of this,” Edmonds explains. “Following their major financial crisis (as part of the wider global financial crisis), Icelandic voters could have easily taken a populist route. Instead, they elected a very liberal government that worked hard to put the public finances back in shape and return the economy to positive growth.”

Studying populism through AI

Alongside getting to the bottom of defining exactly what populist movements are, are not, and their alternatives, PaCE was also very interested in using digital tools to study, monitor and track populist movements in the online realm, especially on social media. “We did a comprehensive manual analysis of many political parties, specifically texts they use to promote their ideas and ideologies, and then this was passed to our Icelandic partners,” says Edmonds. “They then developed machine learning algorithms by using hundreds of keywords taken from this analysis and trained them to recognise these ideas.” This analysis is publicly available via the PaCE dashboard, a tool that allows users to easily follow the stories and narrative topics being discussed by populist movements online. The code that performed the filtering and analysis is freely available for others to use.

Democracy labs in the COVID era

The final piece of the PaCE puzzle was a series of interactive ‘democracy labs’ that were planned to take place in person across several European countries to ascertain how voters truly feel about many of the issues championed by populists and why they may be inclined to vote for populist parties. “COVID-19 forced us to move these online, but we still managed to adapt and carry out some really fruitful public engagement which I’m very proud of,” Edmonds concludes. “Right now, we’re looking at the results of these and summarising them in a way that will be useful for policymakers.”


PaCE, populism, populist movements, nativists, AI, democracy labs, social media, voters

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