Populist politicians set the tone on European social media, research by DW and partner news organizations shows. Here is how we found out.
In February, we created a random sample of 320 politicians – 40 men and 40 women from France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. In addition, each journalist selected 10 prominent politicians — five men and five women — representing the full political spectrum.
We chose politicians whose Facebook and Twitter pages were public, making the posts accessible via an API (a third-party application). We collected comments for the four-week period from February 21 to March 21, 2018. Finally, we looked at only those politicians who received at least 50 comments in the first three weeks of the study. In addition, we capped the number of comments rated for each politician at 330. We used a random sampling to select comments from the feeds of those politicians who had received more than 330.
In France, Germany and Italy we surveyed the comments of 40 randomly chosen politicians – 20 men and 20 women — in addition to the 10 selected by the journalists. In Switzerland, we rated the comments of only 30 government officials (20 random + 10 selected) – with an equal number of men and women — because so few were active. In all countries we reviewed a range of political parties.
We then rated more than 40,000 random comments. We based our rating system on the one devised by Article 19, an NGO dedicated to free speech on the internet. We gave a "1" to comments that were rude. The comment had to be offensive to earn a "2," and it needed to border on illegal hate speech to be rated "3."
We discovered differences in online behavior among the politicians of the various countries. In France, nearly all our sampled politicians were active on social media and there were no signs of a preference for Facebook over Twitter or the opposite. Facebook was the go-to platform for German politicians.
Italian politicians, on the other hand, were the most interactive with their public, with several receiving more than 100,000 comments in three weeks. They tended to favor Twitter. The Swiss were the most conservative — 14 politicians were not active on any social media platform; a further 30 had only private Facebook accounts.