Populism as a Communication Style?

The Case of Giorgia Meloni

Joseph Bosonnet 


1. Introduction 

The Fratelli d’Italia party led by Giorgia Meloni has seen a meteoric rise to power in Italy. The recent electoral success of Meloni comes within the context of rising support for populist radical right parties across Europe (De Cleen & Stavrakakis 2017). Meloni’s 2022 election campaign was noted for its strategic use of social media platforms such as Twitter (Kamzin, 2022). This article aims to conceptualise the nature of Meloni’s communication on Twitter. In doing so, two main research questions will be explored: 

  1. Firstly, can ‘populism’ be characterised as a communication style? If so, what elements constitute such a ‘populist communication style’?
  2. Are elements of populist communication style evident in Meloni’s Twitter posts during her 2022 election campaign?

To answer the above, this article will first set out a theoretical framework wherein populism is considered as a communication style. Applying this framework, Meloni’s Twitter feed during the three-month period before the 2022 Italian General Election will be qualitatively analysed using NVIVO software. Drawing upon the results of this qualitative content analysis, it will be argued that Meloni’s communication style on Twitter is populist in nature. To conclude, the article will contextualise the populist communication style of Meloni in Italy within populist far-right movements in Europe. 

2. Theoretical Frameworks: Populism as a communication style

Populism has long featured as a buzz word in academia and media (Jagers and Walgrave 2007). Longstanding debates have existed over the very conceptual meaning of ‘populism’ (Canovan 1999; Mudde 2004; Laclua 2005). The rapid development of social media platforms has opened a new chapter in this debate. Despite differing academic perspectives, it is generally accepted that social media platforms provide a new forum for populism to thrive (Martella & Andretta 2021). Through the process of ‘mediatized populism’, populist actors have adapted their methods of communication through social media (Mazzoleni‬ 2014). There are notable structural differences between traditional and social media sources in terms of informational symmetry (Mazzoleni & Bracciale, 2018). Social media platforms such as Twitter provide populist actors with increasingly direct and unmediated access to the electorate, somewhat bypassing the processes of traditional media outlets (Ernst et al., 2017). 

Continuing on from the above, here populism is considered as a communication style. As a ‘thin-centred ideology’, a focus is thus placed on the content and style of discourse rather than having distinctive ideological features (Mudde 2004, 2007; Laclau 2005). Focusing on the communicative nature of populism; this definition allows for a broad variety of political actors to adopt populist communication (Mazzoleni 2008, 2014). However a loose application of the populism term runs the risk of compromising its usefulness in analysing political figures (Mudde 2017). As such, the emphasis must turn to the degree to which populist communication is present in a given case (Klinger & Koc-Michalska 2022).

To determine the degree of populist communication, Bracciale & Martella’s populism index is adopted (2017). Their framework identifies three key features of a populist communication style:

  1. an ‘attack on the elite’, 
  2. ‘ostracising others’ 
  3. an appeal to the ‘people’. 

These broad conceptual features of populism will allow for a more detailed examination of politicians’ online communication. In other words, questions such as who ‘the people’ constitute and which groups are ostracised can be explored. As Bracciale & Martella’s analysis of Italian parties’ online communication was last conducted in 2017, this article provides the opportunity assesses whether there have been any changes in Meloni’s discourse over the past 5 years. 

3. Qualitative Analysis of Meloni’s Twitter Feed 

Using the above framework, a qualitative analysis of Meloni’s personal Twitter account (@GiorgiaMeloni) was carried out through the use of NVivo software. A random sample of 100 tweets was drawn from the three-month period before the Italian general election (25/06/2022-25/09/2022) Each tweet was manually coded within the populism index set out above to establish whether Meloni’s tweets are populist in their communication style. 

Appeal to the peopleEliteOstracising
Table 1.  Populism Index applied to Giorgia Meloni’s Tweets

i) Appeal to the people 

Firstly, central to conceptualising populism is the idea of appealing people to ‘the people’ (Mudde 2004).  This ‘people’ is rhetorically constructed in a number of ways; from the use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ to terms such as ‘citizens’ (Canovan 1999). However politicians merely making references ‘the people’ is not a new practice nor one necessarily exclusive to populism (Mazzoleni 2008). A broad range of politicians regularly allude to ‘the people’ in their discourse as they seek to relate to the electorate (Jagers and Walgrave 2007). As such, what distinguishes populism from other forms of political communication? Here it is important to emphasise once more the ‘thin nature’ of populism as a concept. The populist construction of ‘the people’ can emerges across diverse ideological sub-categories: from nationality, to social class to cultural cleavages (De Cleen & Stavrakakis 2017). With populism defined as a ‘thin’ concept, other ideologies can be present in populists’ discourse such as nationalism and nativism (Mudde 2004). For instance, in the case of populist radical right parties, ‘the people’ is often constructed on the basis of nationality or ethnicity (De Cleen & Stavrakakis 2017).

Turning to Meloni’s Twitter feed, a majority of her tweets are marked by the element of an ‘appeal to the people’ (71.15%). Given that previous studies consistently characterised Meloni’s discourse as populist, this result was expected (Bracciale & Martella 2018). However there is a slight increase in the rhetoric of ‘the people’ evident in Meloni’s tweets compared to previous studies (Bracciale & Martella 2018). This tentatively offers support for the proposition that populist communication tends to intesify over time (Klinger & Koc-Michalska 2022). This falls in line with an understanding of populist communication as ‘chameleonic’ in nature (Taggart 2000) by increasing in intensity in response to the current political climate (Mudde 2007). Moreover, this suggest that online populist communication is more present during electoral rather than non-electoral periods, as politicians such as Meloni adopt highly personalised messaging to try and connect with voters (Klinger & Koc-Michalska 2022).

Even more insightful are the ideological sub-dimensions upon which ‘the people’ is constructed throughout Meloni’s tweets (Table 2). A large proportion of Meloni’s references to ‘the people’ are made on the basis of nationality or ethnicity (51.42%). Here it is important to recognise that this sense of Italian nationhood is rhetorically constructed as an “imaginary community” rather than an actual reality (Anderson 1983). In a similar manner, appeals are made by Meloni to ‘the people’ on a cultural basis. Over a quarter of these tweets make some reference to cultural dimension such as religion or cultural traditions (28.57%).

Sample tweet: “For Fratelli d’Italia, culture and traditions will always remain the main pillars on which our history and our political path rests” – Meloni (June 26 2022)

Chart, bar chart

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Table 2. Appeal to the People in Meloni’s Tweets: Frequency of Ideological Sub-Categories

ii) Anti-Establishment Rhetoric 

Secondly, populist communication is characterised by anti-establishment rhetoric wherein an us/them dichotomy is created between the ‘ordinary people’ and the ‘elite’ (Canovan 1999). The construction of this ‘elite’ can be diverse in nature: from the dominant political actors, the media or even supranational organisations (Taggart 2000). Blame for the issues faced by the electorate is often attributed to these elites in populist communication (Jagers and Walgrave 2007).

Criticism of the elite is similarly present across Meloni’s tweets (48.07%). This attack on the ‘elite’ materialised itself in various forms: from a criticism of the left-wing government of Mario Draghi to the supranational power of the European Union (Bracciale et al 2021) Meloni’s tweets are heavily critical of the technocratic government led by Mario Draghi; emphasising the democratic deficit between the electorate and the unelected political elites. The political elites are blamed for a wide range of issues; from the handling of the COVID-19 crisis to unemployment rates (Bracciale et al 2021).

In response to the technocratic government, Meloni in her tweets stresses the importance of regaining the peoples’ sovereignty in politics. Here, the nodal point regularly articulated by Meloni is one of the ‘people as the underdog’, pitted in a power struggle against the ‘technocratic elite’ (De Cleen and Stavrakakis 2017).

Sample tweet: “25 September will be an opportunity to say enough to governments from above and to return popular sovereignty to Italy. #VotaFDI” – Meloni (August 10 2022).

iii) ‘Ostracising others’ 

The final element of the populist communication style is the ‘ostracising of others’. The involves the creation of a ‘common enemy’ through the exclusion of out-groups as threats or burdens to ‘the people’ (Jagers and Walgrave). In this negative light, outgroups are presented as dangerous to ‘the people’ (Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2008). Just over half of Meloni’s tweets involve an ‘ostracising of others’ (51.92%). Meloni mainly constructs an in/out dichotomy between native insiders and immigrant outsiders (De Cleen et al, 2017). Secondary signifiers such as religion are central to this dichotomy; inward migration is repeatedly presented as a ‘threat’ to the Italian nation.

Sample tweet: ‘Our coasts are constantly assaulted by illegal immigration and from the Viminale everything is silent. Italy cannot afford such an incompetent minister’ – Meloni (11 July 2022)

References to in/out groups by Meloni are based on secondary signifiers such as national identity, language and religion (De Cleen and Stavrakakis 2017). In her tweets, Meloni frames the outgroup of migrants as a cultural threat to the traditions of the ingroup of the Italian people:

Sample tweet: “Everything that defines us is under attack: the family, the homeland, religious freedom are under threat. At this time the challenge is to defend identity, across the board and in all the forms in which it manifests itself” –  Meloni (July 19 2022)

A sense of fear is evoked by Meloni’s tweets here; these messages frame migrants as an imminent threat to Italian society (Klinger & Koc-Michalska 2022). Social media platforms such as Twitter are especially conducive to such populist evocations of fear by allowing instantaneous reactions to news stories. An earlier example of this is found in Meloni’s reaction on Twitter to a terrorist attack in Indonesia:

“Bloody attack in the Catholic cathedral in #Makassar in #Indonesia. It seems that Islamist terrorists struck again this time. Precisely today, on #PalmsDay, we reiterate our closeness to persecuted Christians around the world.” – Meloni (March 2021)

Such news events provide populists with the opportunity to identify a ‘common enemy’ which ‘threatens’ the sense of nationhood (Mudde 2017). The evocation of fear is linked with high levels of engagement and reaction on social media (Bracciale & Mazzoleni, 2018). In Meloni’s case, her cyclic rhetorical attacks on social media towards immigrants and refugees are certainly characteristic of populist radical right parties (De Cleen and Stavrakakis 2017).

4. Conclusion

All three elements of the populist communication style are present in the Twitter feed of Meloni in the three-month period before the 2022 General Election. The qualitative analysis of Meloni’s tweets has highlighted her rhetorical construction of ‘the people’ primarily on the basis of nationality and culture. Following this, it is clear that Meloni ostracised out groups such as migrants as ‘dangerous others’. Whilst less present than the other elements, anti-establishment messaging towards the political elite of Draghi’s government is also evident in Meloni’s tweets. The case of Meloni’s ‘mediatised populism’ on Twitter is one of many in the European context; with similar patterns of populist communication emerging in other countries such as Hungary and the Netherlands (Ernst 2017). Nevertheless, the electoral success of Meloni demonstrates the tangible impact of populist communication on social media. 

Joe Bosonnet is a student of law and political science at Trinity College Dublin with a particular interest in populism and environmental politics. After his Erasmus year at the University of Helsinki, he hopes to continue his studies in environmental law. 


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