Framing populist campaigns in the age of social media : a study of news coverage of Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro




Wilkerson, Heloisa Aruth Sturm

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This study examines social media discourse of populist candidates as well as news coverage of the 2016 U.S. and 2018 Brazil presidential elections, with a focus on the extent to which social media have influenced how political stories are covered. Donald Trump in the U.S. and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil are two of the most recent examples of candidates who successfully embraced right-wing populism and were able to capitalize on their social media exposure rather than relying on traditional news channels. A mixed-method comparative approach combining content analysis of election news coverage and social media as well as interviews with Brazilian journalists was adopted to (a) examine the frames, issues, and sources employed by journalists in their work, (b) analyze the extent to which social media was used in news coverage as a representation of public opinion, (c) examine candidates’ social media discourse, and (d) explore factors influencing media production as well as how journalists used social media in their reporting. This research adopted the theoretical framework of framing, hierarchy of influences, and the theory of affective intelligence, in order to shed light on audience engagement and influences on journalism production across two countries during presidential elections, contributing to the growing field of comparative media studies. Findings indicate that news outlets from both countries focused on the use of strategic frames, and similar patterns were found in terms of personalization and attacks. However, U.S. media was more likely to adopt the interpretative frame and to refer to horse-race frames and sensationalism, whereas Brazilian media employed target frames more often. Results also reveal that the social media rhetoric of populist candidates examined in this study was very similar in their frequency of attacks, sensationalism, and appeals to anger and enthusiasm, with little discussion of substantive issues of public concern. However, these strategies did not resonate with their audiences, nor with the media, in the same way. By combining a U.S./European theoretical framework and a Latin American system, this dissertation ultimately contributes to the growing body of research on news coverage of presidential elections in non-Western contexts.


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