Press release

High-Speed Internet Helps Populist Parties

A WZB study demonstrates a causal link between the expansion of broadband internet and the electoral success of two populist parties

The spread of broadband internet and the electoral success of populist parties are closely related, researchers Max Schaub of the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) and Davide Morisi (Collegio Carlo Alberto) show in a study focusing on the AfD in Germany and the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy.

The study demonstrates that it is possible to draw a causal link between the expansion of broadband communications and the electoral successes of the two parties. The availability of high-speed internet connections has helped the AfD and the M5S to reach and mobilize voters, especially young ones. In areas of Germany and Italy that before 2017 had only limited access to broadband internet, the AfD and the Five Star Movement enjoy lower electoral support on both the national and the regional level.

The authors argue that populist parties profit from online media more strongly than established parties. Communicating online allows the populists to circumvent gatekeepers in the traditional media that otherwise often criticize their messages. It also makes it possible for populist politicians to speak ‘directly to the people’, i.e. to establish the direct connection to their voters that, they claim, other politicians are lacking. And it allows them to rely on borderline truths and unverified content that would otherwise not receive much coverage in the mainstream media.

The expansion of high-speed internet, they stress, is a structural change that has expanded communication options in a way that disproportionately favors populist and other anti-establishment parties. As such, the advantage populists have gained with the spread of broadband internet is likely to persist.

The German part of the study relies on data from the TÜV Rheinland and the German Longitudinal Election Study (GLES), and the Italian part on data from Infratel and the Italian National Election Studies (ITANES).