Voter Mobilization in the Echo Chamber: Broadband Diffusion, Internet Use and the Rise of Populism in Europe


Can the diffusion of broadband internet contribute to explaining the recent success of populist parties in Europe? Populists cultivate an anti-elitist communication style, which, they claim, directly connects them with ordinary people. The internet therefore appears to be the perfect tool for populist leaders. In this study, we show that this intuition holds up to rigorous empirical testing. Building on data from the latest national election in Italy and five regional elections in Germany, we find a positive correlation at the individual level between internet use and voting for the populist parties Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. We address the issue of causality using an instrumental variable strategy. Instrumenting internet use with broadband coverage at the municipality level, we demonstrate that internet use causally increases votes for populist parties. We explore heterogeneity in our sample to test for three mechanisms that theoretically link internet use to populist voting. Our tests show that broadband internet allows populists to effectively activate pre-existing political attitudes in the electorate.