Disillusionment with mainstream politics spurs online populist movements across Europe

9 Nov 2011 12:00 PM

Report from British think tank Demos shows young men leading backlash against traditional parties

The largest study of online supporters of populist movements across Europe has identified a new generation of populist activists in 12 European countries, at odds with mainstream politics and determined to counter what they see as an erosion of cultural identity. Demos warns that the rejection of mainstream politics by many young activists means the level of support for these groups is grossly underestimated.

The report The New Face of Digital Populism presents the views of over 10,000 supporters of groups defined by their opposition to immigration, their anti-establishment tendencies and their concern for protecting national and European culture. These include Bloc Identitaire (France), the British National Party (UK), Die Freiheit (Germany), Lega Nord (Italy) and the Danish People’s Party (Denmark). The Demos report is published today at a major conference in Brussels with the Open Society Foundations.

The study argues that online supporters of populist movements represent a new generation of young activists, who far outnumber the formal members of these parties. These activists, largely out of sight of mainstream politicians, represent a growing part of the political landscape. The report warns that the rise of populism across Europe cannot be understood without taking into account these ‘keyboard warriors’ and what drives their political outlook.

The report finds that supporters – who are predominantly men under 30 years old – have high levels of disillusionment with mainstream political institutions and their countries’ justice systems. They have greater trust in the leaders of populist political parties and movements (PPAMs), who are perceived to be more honest, charismatic and outspoken. 

The study also finds that online PPAM activists are more likely to turn out to vote when their greatest concerns are immigration and Islamic extremism.  They are more likely to take part in street protests when motivated by concerns about political corruption.

Findings from the report include:

  • Online supporters are primarily young men: an average of 63 per cent are under 30, and 75 per cent are male.
    Sixty-three per cent of Sweden Democrats supporters are under 21.  Supporters of more established parties – such as the Norwegian Progress Party – tend to be older: 64 per cent of the Norwegian Progress Party are over 30. In no country do females make up more than 36 per cent of online supporters. Even when compared with the national demographics of Facebook users in each country, supporters of national populist groups are younger and more likely to be male.
  • Supporters display low levels of trust in both national and European political institutions compared to national population averages.
    While online supporters have only slightly lower levels of ‘generalised trust’ (trust in other people) than the national average, they are much more distrustful of national and European political institutions. Only 20 per cent of online supporters have trust in their national government (compared to 43 per cent across Europe, according to the European Value Survey); and only 14 per cent have trust in the European Union (compared to 44 per cent overall).
  • Online supporters are slightly more likely to be unemployed.

On average, 14 per cent of the sample are unemployed, compared to an aggregate national average of around 7 per cent. However, given the young age demographic of our sample, this is probably not much higher than average. Thirty per cent of online supporters are students.

  • Online supporters are not just armchair activists: many are party members and voters and they are more likely to demonstrate than the national average. 
    Sixty-seven per cent of online supporters voted for the corresponding political party at the last general or national election, although only 32 per cent define themselves as formal members. Although only a minority report having been involved in protests or demonstrations (26 per cent), this is significantly higher than the EU average of less than 10 per cent.
  • Supporters are motivated by positive identification with the party’s values and the desire to protect national and cultural identity.

Many join or support PPAMs owing to fears that immigration and multiculturalism are destroying national (sometimes European) values and culture. There are high levels of disillusionment with mainstream politics, and greater trust in PPAM leaders, who are perceived to speak their mind. Our research finds little evidence of economic concerns being a driving factor of support, contrary to previous research and common explanations in public discourse.

  • Younger supporters are more likely to cite immigration than older supporters as a reason for joining. 
    Twenty per cent of those aged 16-20 cite immigration as the reason they join or support populist groups, compared to 10 per cent of over 51s.  This is contrary to the common perception that older people tend to be more opposed to immigration. 
  • Compared to national population averages, supporters of PPAMs have low levels of trust in the justice system, but average levels of trust in the police and army.
    Online supporters display shockingly low levels of trust in their countries’ judicial systems.  An average of only 30 per cent trust the justice system, compared to 60 per cent nationally.  However, populist supporters are just as likely to express trust in the police and army as their non-PPAM member compatriots.
  • Online supporters are disgruntled democrats: they overwhelmingly believe that voting matters and disavow violence, but do not believe that politics is an effective way to respond to their concerns. 

On average, only 16 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “it does not matter who you vote for”.  While supporters of street-based groups in the UK and Italy were more likely to express disillusionment with voting, the pattern does not hold in France.  However, only a third of online supporters felt that politics was an effective way to respond to their concerns.  On average, 26 per cent of online supporters agreed that “violence is acceptable if it leads to the right ends”. This result only measures attitudes to violence and does not prove that respondents actually are violent. Because there are no general population baseline figures against which to compare this result, it does not show whether supporters have any more or less violent views than the European public overall.

  • Online supporters display average levels of personal optimism, but very low levels of optimism about their country’s future.
  • Considering their rhetoric and concerns over immigration, crime and the loss of culture, it is surprising that online populist supporters tend to be optimistic when it comes to their own personal lives:  27 per cent thought their lives would improve in the next 12 months compared to a European average of 26 per cent.  However, only 13 per cent of online supporters thought that their country was “on the right track”, compared to an average of 28 per cent across EU countries. 

  • Online populist supporters are highly critical of the European Union, with many blaming it for a loss of control over borders and the erosion of cultural identity.
    Compared to European population averages, online populist supporters are far more likely to associate the EU with “not enough control over external borders’ and a ‘loss of cultural identity.” 
  • The shift from online activism to voting is motivated by concerns over immigration and Islamic extremism.
    Supporters who listed immigration as a top concern were 109 per cent more likely to vote for a populist party than those who did not list immigration, while those who listed Islamic extremism as a top concern were 85 per cent more likely to vote for a populist party than those who did not. Women supporters were 52 per cent more likely to vote for populist political parties, when other demographic and attitudinal characteristics were held constant.

  • The shift from online activism to becoming a party member is motivated by concerns over multiculturalism and the belief that politics is an effective way to respond to their concerns.

Supporters who listed multiculturalism as a top concern were 32 per cent more likely formally to join a populist political party than those who did not list it. Supporters who thought that politics was an effective way to respond to their concerns were 42 per cent more likely to be formal members.  Men and women were equally as likely to be a formal member.


  • The shift from online activism to street protesting is motivated by concerns over corruption, and correlated with gender, as well as views on politics and violence.
    Corruption appears to be more of a motivating factor than either immigration or Islamic extremism. Those who cited corruption as a top concern were 38 per cent more likely to demonstrate than those who did not. Men are 16 per cent more likely to participate in a street demonstration. Interestingly, those who think politics is an effective form of redress were 23 per cent more likely to demonstrate, while those who thought that violence was acceptable if it leads to the right outcome were 37 per cent more likely to demonstrate.

Jamie Bartlett, Head of the Violence and Extremism Programme at Demos and author of the report said

“While many European countries have their eyes fixed on their economies, another crisis of confidence is brewing. Young men across Europe, feeling let down by their politicians and traditional parties, are turning their sympathies to populist groups.

“It’s easy to miss this simmering discontent as many sympathisers aren’t official party members, but our investigation exposes the high level of support these groups have across Europe.

“In their eyes, mainstream politics and politicians feel out of touch, uninspiring and distant – incapable of responding to the difficulties they face in their lives on a day-to-day basis.

“The fact this phenomenon extends across Europe should make politicians sit up and listen. It’s not one country, not one group, but a range of diverse movements who share a feeling of fear and helplessness that their culture and identity are being eroded.

“Taking their concerns seriously and restoring confidence in civic institutions must be part of any response to this growing disaffection. Our research shows that online activists who are also involved in voting and demonstrating, or who are members of a political party, tend to be more democratic, have more faith in politics and are more likely to disavow violence.  This is powerful evidence that encouraging more people to be actively involved in political and civic life, whatever their political persuasion, is an important way forward.”

Notes to editors

Demos investigative researchers identified individuals via social media sites over a period of three months, building a data set of over 10,600 populist sympathisers.  Survey replies were used to capture background information about participants, which enabled the targeting of specific groups. By comparing these to a range of specific measures we were able to gather sample sizes that met our strict research criteria.

Surveys were designed in 10 languages and translated by a specialist team.  Questions included:

What is your highest educational qualification?

a. school

b. university/college

c. professional qualification

Have you taken part in a political march, protest, or demonstration in the last six months?

a. yes

b. no

To what extent do you agree with the following statements? disagree entirely/disagree a little/no feelings/agree a little/agree entirely

a. ‘it does not matter who you vote for’

b. ‘politics is an effective way to respond to my concerns’ 

c. ‘violence is acceptable to ensure the right outcome’

d. ‘Country name is on the right track’ 

e. ‘in general, most people cannot be trusted’

Will the next 12 months be better, worse, or the same when it comes to your life in general?

a. better

b. worse

c. the same

In the following list, which are the three most important values for you personally?

a. the rule of law

b. respect for human life

c. human rights

d. individual freedom

e. democracy

f. peace

g. equality

h. security

i. solidarity

j. tolerance

k. religion

l. self-fulfillment

m. respect for other cultures

n. strong government

o. none

p. don’t know 

To what extent do you have trust in the following tend to trust/tend not to trust:

a. The police

b. Trade unions

c. Country name government

d. Political parties

e. European Union

f. Justice and the legal system

g. Mainstream media

h. Army

i. Religious institutions

j. Schools and universities

The survey data presented in this report were collected by targeting sympathisers from the following groups:  Bloc Identitaire (France), the British National Party (UK), Casa Pound (Italy), the Danish People’s Party (Denmark), the English Defence League (UK), the Front National (France), the Dutch Freedom Party (the Netherlands), Die Freiheit (Germany), the Austrian Freedom Party (Austria), the Norwegian Progress Party (Norway), Lega Nord (Italy), the True Finns (Finland), the Sweden Democrats (Sweden), and Vlaams Belang (Belgium). The Jobbik movement in Hungary was also surveyed, but the results are not included in the current data set for reasons of comparability. A report on these data is forthcoming.

The results do not necessarily reflect the views of the official parties or groups mentioned in this paper but rather their sympathisers and broad supporter base. All references in this paper to ‘supporters’ of populist groups refer to our sample of social media supporters.

The New Face of Digital Populism by Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Mark Littler is published by Demos on Monday 7 November 2011. The report and its accompanying data can be downloaded for free from http://www.demos.co.uk

The report is launched at a European conference in Brussels on Monday 7 November 2011 and was funded by the Open Society Foundations.

The New Face of Digital Populism is an interim report from Demos on the initial findings from a large data set about supporters of online populist groups.  Demos will produce further reports and country-specific briefings over the next six months.

The authors are available for comment and interview.

Media contact:

Ralph Scott in London


+44 20 7367 6325

+44 7933770498


Beatrice Karol Burks in Brussels


+44 7929 474938