Twitter - mini-blogging or messaging service on the internet - has changed the process of communication. In professional communication networks like for example journalism Twitter is an important new source. Twitter brought fundamental change
in professional political communication networks. The classical model of communication of Berelson and Lazersfeld, known as ‘two step flow of communication,’ seems to have lost it predominance to Twitter. Direct communication to the audiences gained in importance. An important issue in discussion about the consequences of Twitter is the idea of equality in the process of communication. Because in principle the technology behind Twitter does not discriminate between users, whether they are politicians, journalists or ordinary citizens. This equality between users lowers the threshold to participate in the process of communication, and therefore it is said Twitter contributes to democracy. With references to the classical study of Jurgen Habermas about the changes in the public sphere, Twitter could enhance the process of democratic decision making and contribute to open public debate.
This technological optimism about Twitter emerged in the nineties of past century when the Internet was still freely developing. However, in the light of recent developments, especially the rise of populism on Twitter, one can have serious doubts. In this study we will analyze the tweets of two Dutch politicians: Geert Wilders (PVV, Party for Freedom) and Thierry Baudet (FvD, Forum for Democracy), Both parties are relatively new in the Dutch political landscape. They both rose because of the resistance against the neo-liberalism that replaced the traditional party system based on religion and ideology.
In the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer, 150 members), Wilders (20) and Baudet(2) are not very prominent. Also, when we look at the twitter connections of all the members of the House, the ‘friends-network’ on Twitter between the members, the position of both is remote. Their position the network, measured by number of connections (in network terminology, the ‘degree score’) is not very high. The politician with the highest number of connections (218) ranks far above Wilders (79) and Baudet(68).
However, if we look outside the friends’ network inside the House of Representatives, that is, we look at the number of followers on Twitter. We see a different picture. Wilders has 814253 followers and Baudet 207290. These are high numbers, comparable to for example the PM Mark Rutte who has 1007141 followers. These high numbers are interesting in the process of direct communication. Both politicians address their audiences directly and try to put sensitive issues on the political agenda or legitimize their policies.
Wilders and Baudet are both specimen of ‘Twitter Populism’, both rely heavily on their direct communication to the public. But there are important differences as well. If we study the content of the tweets of Wilders and Baudet we see the following.
The collected tweets of Baudet had 16000 unique words. The most important words (highest frequency) were:
eu (european union) 224
boeren (farmers) 170
democratie (democracy) 172
immmigratie (immigration) 154
stikstof (nitrogen emissions) 89
Word cloud of the tweets of Baudet.
Looking at Wilders’ tweets we get another impression.
His collected tweets had 8967 unique words. The top words were:
nederland (netherlands) 330
islam (islam) 264
stop islam (stop islam) 133
telegraaf ( De Telegraaf is a right wing newspapers) 152
Both Wilders and Baudet are right wing politicians based on populism. There are important differences. Wilders offers a nationalistic perspective founded on his anti -Islam ideas, which seems to be politically attractive for the lower income classes. Baudet on the other hand argues against the EU and EU policies, like immigration and agriculture policy and environment. This makes gives nationalism more intellectual flavor that is attractive for the higher educated classes. Therefore, I think it is safe to conclude that we have two faces of Twitter populism in the Dutch political landscape.
It seems that an alt-right movement is growing in the Low Countries. Also, when we inspect the process of communication: no two-step flow, but direct communication. Journalists as opinion leaders in the classical model are mistrusted, they are lying, members of a left-wing church, according to the alt-right.
Nevertheless, the idea of opinion leaders has not completely disappeared. The tweets of both populists are re-tweeted. Re-tweeting means re sending a tweet inside your own group of followers, which means amplifying the content of the tweet. One could argue that re tweeting works as a kind of opinion leader and brings back two step flow.
Analyzing the re-tweet count for Wilders and Baudet shows the following. For Wilders RTL (23, a commercial TV station), De Telegraaf(48, newspaper) and Geen Stijl(19, a right wing blog) are the most important opinion leaders on a total of 563(unique re-retweeters). For Baudet Syp Wynia(40, editor at Elsevier, weekly newsmagazine) and right wing intellectuals as Rutger van Noort(90) and Joost Niemuller(80), important opinion leaders on a total of 1811 unique re-tweeters.
The favorite count (followers can mark a tweet as a favorite) is interesting too, because it shows which topics are liked or popular among the followers. For counts above 2000, we found for Baudet that topics like EU, energy and nitrogen emission were most popular. For Wilders we see the same picture; for counts above 5000, Islam and minorities are the leading topics.
The process of communication has become faster, easier, and wider with a lower access threshold. Especially Twitter is showing this trend. On the other hand, opinion leaders keep an important position in the process. In a twitter network re-tweets and favorite counts are important to filter and amplify the message. But one should not underestimate the political effects of direct twitter communication. Twitter could easily open the door for populism, that could be used to legitimize political decisions. A twitter storm in large networks of Wilders and Baudet could put pressure on the democratic process of decision making in the House. The American President Trump has shown how that works; and in the Netherlands we had the fight over a referendum about access of Ukraine to the EU. But Twitter is not the only means of communication. When we analyze the twitter network between representatives and the media, we notice that TV (especially NOS-national broadcaster, and RTL) is a medium of preference for all parties and their members in the House. There is also a large variety of national newspapers and magazines that have the attention of the twittering members of the House. If one only looks from the twitter perspective, the correcting effect of traditional media is underestimated.
Peter Verweij (sociology and philosophy) was lecturer at the School of Journalism at Utrecht. He now works as consultant and trainer in his company D3-M in the field of data journalism focusing on sub-Sahara Africa (http://d3-media.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html) .
This analysis of the tweets of Wilders and Baudet is part of a larger research project highlighting the twitter network of the House of representatives, cabinet and the media. The data for this project were collected from December(2019) to February(2020). In the analysis I used R project for Statistical Computing