Algorithmic populism

Algorithmic populism refers to  a new manifestation and form of populism in the digital age.

Algorithmic populism

Algorithmic populism, Maly (2018a, b & c) argues, is not only constructed in a (mediatized) communicative relation between journalists, politicians and academics, but also in the relation to citizens, activists and computational agency.

Populism always exists in the synchrony between ‘(digital) media and politics’. In the age of digitalization, Maly argues, the affordances and the algorithmic nature of web 2.0 should be taken on board in the study of populism.  In the digital age, political discourses are only to a small extent produced by politicians. Millions of citizens, activists and even algorithms (re)produce political discourses (Maly, 2018a). That is why it does not suffice to look at the input and why attention for the uptake is at least as important. Maly defines algorithmic populism as a digitally mediatized chronotopic communicative and discursive relation.

Social media have thus become political battle fields. The configuration of these media make it crucial for a wannabe populist to not only build up his or her audience, but populists also need to make sure that their posts generate retweets, shares and likes. Without interaction, the  populist will never be able to make the populist claim.

The populist has to produce ‘popular posts’. Being a populist without online followers is a contradiction in terms. Politicians, and  populists in particular thus have to build a large audience if they want to claim to be speaking in name of the people. And each post needs to reach an audience that actively supports or at least interacts with the mediatized voice, so that the algorithms push it into relevance. Producing such posts is clearly not only a matter of content, it is also about knowledge about the medium itself and the algorithms and affordances that organize the distribution of posts.

The algorithms of these media have agency (Tufekci, 2015), they ‘select and prioritize content by algorithmically translating user activity into ‘most relevant’ or ‘trending’ to pics.’ (Van Poel & Van Dijck, 2014). This process is partially algorithmically constructed. In Facebook for instance we see that the number of interactions, and especially shares will make your post more visible on the News Feeds of your followers (Maly & Beekmans, 2018).

In Twitter, we see that the more interaction (likes, comments and retweets) a tweet generates, the more chance it will have to  be featured as a Twitter Highlight and thus the higher the chance that Twitter will make this highlight visible to potential new audiences (Twitter, 2018). The likes, retweets and shares are thus not only important in creating the perception of popularity; it is also algorithmically important to reach out to an ever-larger audience.

This opens up space for a whole new form of activism, algorithmic activism. 


Maly, I. (2018a). Nieuw Rechts. Berchem: Epo.

Maly, I. (2018b).  Populism as a mediatized communicative relation: The birth of algorithmic populism. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, nr213. 

Maly, I. (2018c). Algorithmic populism and Algorithmic activism. Diggit Magazine. 

Maly, I. & Beekmans, I. (2018). Research report: analyzing Facebook's Guidelines for  publishers. Diggit Magazine.

Tufekci, Z. (2015). Algorithmic harms beyond Facebook and Google: Emergent challenges of computational agency. COLO. TECH. L.J., 2015 (vol13.) 

Twitter, (2018). Highlights. Twitter.

Poell, T., & van Dijck, J. (2014). Social Media and Journalistic Independence. In J. Bennett, & N. Strange (Eds.), Media independence: working with freedom or working for free? (pp. 182-201). (Routledge research in cultural and media studies; No. 69). New York: Routledge