Tag Archives: populism

Populism and antivaxxing go hand in hand, new study finds

Falling for populist lies is associated with falling for antivaxxer lies — who would have thought?

Tracing back to discredited research, vaccine skepticism is associated with populist researchers. Image credits: Kennedy (2019).

In recent years, the world has witnessed a string of populist politicians rising to power. Archpopulist Donald Trump served as a lightning rod for most of the discussions but elsewhere in the world, other politicians have used similar approaches to climb into power. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are two striking examples, but Europe has had its fair share of populists in recent times.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, Europe is also experiencing its biggest measles outbreaks in over a decade, largely fueled by vaccine reluctance. Researchers suspected a correlation between the two. Populism relies on fueling hate towards experts and the perceived elite, and antivaxxing relies on a similar approach. Lead author Dr. Jonathan Kennedy from Queen Mary University of London, study author, explained:

“It seems likely that scientific populism is driven by similar feelings to political populism, for example, a profound distrust of elites and experts by disenfranchised and marginalised parts of the population.”

“Even where programmes objectively improve the health of targeted populations, they can be viewed with suspicion by communities that do not trust elites and experts. In the case of vaccine hesitancy, distrust is focused on public health experts and pharmaceutical companies that advocate vaccines.”

So along with colleagues, Kennedy analyzed national-level data from 14 European countries, looking at the percentage of people who voted for populist leaders and comparing it to the percentage of people who think vaccines are not important and/or effective.

They found a strong correlation between the two: wherever people would support populists, they would also start to question the effectiveness of vaccines. In this sense, vaccination can serve as a “canary in the coal mine” for future populism. When elected, populist leaders also always tend to push an anti-vaccine agenda. In Italy, the newly elected Five Star Movement (5SM) repeatedly spoke against vaccines — with important results. The Italian Parliament recently passed a law to repeal legislation that makes vaccines compulsory for children enrolling in state schools. Meanwhile, in Italy, MMR vaccination coverage fell from 90% in 2013 to 85% in 2016, a seemingly harmless drop, which resulted in an increase in measles cases from 840 in 2016 to 5000 in 2017.

It seems that the more extreme a party is, the more likely they are to support antivaxxing — regardless of whether they are left or right wing. In Greece, the left-wing SYRIZA government proposed that parents should be able to opt out of vaccinating their children. However, their efforts haven’t been particularly fruitful, as Greek confidence in vaccines has recently been increasing. In France, where several childhood vaccinations have been made mandatory by law, the right-wing Front National have also raised concerns about vaccine safety.

Researchers also note just how much damage a single, blatantly flawed paper can cause. Much of the distrust in vaccinations comes from a paper published by Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield reported that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism. This has not only been repeatedly disproved, but it has since been shown that Wakefield knowingly tampered with the data and subjected children to inhumane treatment — and yet, his echo still lives on.

In the US, Donald Trump has also spoken against vaccines. Although his own experts have disproved his claims, a recent survey has found that 1 in 3 Trump supporters believe vaccines and autism are related. Meanwhile, on the plus side, countries like Portugal, Finland, and Belgium seem to have no affinity towards either populist leaders or antivaxxing.

At the end of the day, parents want what’s best for their children — and lack of vaccinations can and has killed children. Science-based policy strongly recommends vaccination as a way to make children safer and healthier, whereas populism and fear-mongering attempt to scare parents away from vaccination. Hopefully, fear will not be the victor here.

The study ‘Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data’ by Jonathan Kennedy has been published in the European Journal of Public Health. DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckz004


Car-centric suburbs seem to promote right-wing politics and resistance to change

Could suburbs foster right-wing populism? One paper says ‘maybe’.


Image via Pixabay.

Decades’ worth of city-planning decisions may be promoting populism and unsustainable lifestyles, especially in the US, a new paper reports.

Not in my driveway

“As planners kept building suburbs they created scores of new electoral ridings and suburban voters who predictably voted for politicians and policies catering to their lifestyles,” said Pierre Filion, the study’s sole author.

“This translated into increasing automobile dependence, less land devoted to public space, and the continued cycle of building more suburbs”.

Filion analyzed urban planning trends from the end of World War Two up to 2010 outside Toronto, Canada. He also looked at voting patterns in the area over the same timeframe. All in all, he says, it seems that the rise of the car-centric suburb is — at least in part — to blame for the particular political environment we find ourselves mired in right now. In particular, the rise of right-wing populism.

The data suggested to Filion that suburbians’ increasing reliance on automobiles heavily influenced land-use and lifestyle choices among the group. The combination of this dependency on cars and a continued urban sprawl normalized economic and cultural behaviors that promote unsustainable living.

People whose livelihoods and recreation opportunities rely directly on cars will (understandably) be less willing to accept changes to the status quo — i.e. changes that would disproportionately impact them relative to the rest of society. It’s not only about comfort and convenience, Filion explains: these people rely on their cars to go to work. This also makes them less likely to vote for tighter regulations on cars or be willing to phase them out.

“This contributes to a sense of having their values attacked, and could explain some of the waves of right-wing populism in North America,” he adds. “A careful look at the results of the recent mid-term elections in the United States shows the clear ideological division between urban and suburban areas.”

In effect, this nudges suburbanites to resist calls for change which — even if they’d be beneficial for the planet/economy/society at large — would impact them personally.

“It’s something we saw in 2016 as well as the most recent election in Ontario, Canada,” Filion notes.

Illustration of a self-sustaining satellite city outside the Chinese city of Chengdu. Credit: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

Illustration of a self-sustaining satellite city outside the Chinese city of Chengdu. Credit: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

Suburbs are far from a necessity. A few years ago, Chicago-based architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill showed that even huge cities can get away without building suburbs as we know them — city planning is key. The duo designed a self-sustainable satellite city, the Chengdu Tianfu District Great City, to focus on pedestrians and do away with cars. The distance between any two points in the city is no longer than a 15-minute walk, so there’s no real reason to use cars, and all that free space is dedicated to green areas, instead. The project itself looks quite pretty, and I’d definitely go visit if I ever get the chance.

So what do you think? Are suburbs the bee’s knees, or just overall pretty bad? Let us know in the comments below.

The paper “Enduring Features of the North American Suburb: Built Form, Automobile Orientation, Suburban Culture and Political Mobilization” has been published in the journal Urban Planning.


Brexit and Trump’s nomination were caused by a ‘sleeping’ community neuroticism

The latest US presidential election and the Brexit popular vote in the UK brought out the worst in voters — anxiety, anger and fear, a new study shows.


Image credits Gerd Altmann.

A lot of factors influence our political views, but research has shown that the best indicator of how people cast their vote are the Big Five personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. For example, past studies have shown that low openness and high conscientiousness are good indicators of conservative political views.

However, as many people around the world can undoubtedly attest, 2016 was a strange and daunting year, politics-wise. The results of two events in particular — the US presidential election, and the Brexit referendum in the UK — took the world unawares. Both nations share deep democratic roots, and yet citizens from both were eager to back campaigns built on thinly-veiled populist themes — themes such as fear, lost pride, and loss aversion. The results were so shocking and so unexpected, an international team of researchers reports, because these votes weren’t dictated by the usual traits that govern our political choices; these elections harkened to anxiety, anger, and fear — traits from the domain of neuroticism.

Fear is the path to the dark side

“The models traditionally used for predicting and explaining political behavior did not capture an essential factor that influenced people’s voting decisions in 2016,” says lead author Martin Obschonka, a psychologist and associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

“We propose a kind of ‘sleeper effect.’ Under normal conditions these traits have no influence, but in certain circumstances, widespread anxiety and fear in a region have the potential to profoundly impact the geopolitical landscape.”

The study pooled data obtained from 417,217 British and 3,167,041 United States participants. The researchers used this information to estimate regional levels of fear, anxiety, and anger. Later, they compared these estimates against traits generally associated with political orientation (most notably openness and conscientiousness) in a bid to measure the relationship between regional psychology and voting behavior. Regions were country-level in the U.S. and on the level of local authority districts in the U.K.

The team reports finding a correlation between higher levels of anxiety and fear in a region and the percentage of voters in favor of Brexit or Trump. An even stronger correlation between the two was identified when expanding the search to include the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney was the Republican candidate — the 50 U.S. counties with the highest levels of fear and anxiety had an average 9% increase in Republican votes from 2012 to 2016, while the lowest 50 showed only a 2% shift. The effect was visible in the U.K. as well — the top 50 districts, by fear and anxiety levels, showed an average 60% vote in favor of Brexit, while the lowest 50 districts showing only 46% support.

“This finding supports our initial suspicion that the regions highest on neuroticism are particularly receptive to political campaigns that emphasize danger and loss and that previous campaigns have not tapped into these themes as strongly as we saw in 2016,” said co-author Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin.

Other factors considered in the analysis were an area’s industrial heritage, current economic conditions, its traditional political attitudes, racial composition, and its levels of education. In the U.K., both rural and industrial regions correlated to higher levels of anxiety, fear, and greater support for Brexit. In the U.S., the same traits were linked to higher support for Trump in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and the Midwest “Rust Belt”.

Areas with higher population density, higher earnings, higher overall levels of education, and those who scored higher on the openness traits were likely to vote against Trump or the Brexit. Conscientiousness showed very little to no correlation with voting patterns, be they for or against the campaigns.

“Much as the consequences of a region’s fearful or anxious tendencies may remain hidden until certain conditions are met, there may be other regional characteristics that have the potential to influence geopolitical events but the necessary conditions have not yet materialized,” Gosling said.

The paper “Fear, Populism, and the Geopolitical Landscape: The ‘Sleeper Effect’ of Neurotic Personality Traits on Regional Voting Behavior in the 2016 Brexit and Trump Elections” has been published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Entertainment television might be partly to blame for the rise of populist politicians

Even if you’re not paying much attention to global politics, it’s quite obvious that we’re witnessing the rise of a new generation of populist politicians. I don’t want to give any names *cough* but it’s definitely a worrying trend, with complex causes and consequences which are hard to foresee. A new intriguing study reports that at least some of that trend can be blamed on low-quality television, believe it or not.

TV makes you dumb

Image via Pixabay.

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London investigated the effect of entertainment television in Italy over the last 30 years, specifically focusing on the phased introduction of Silvio Berlusconi’s commercial TV network Mediaset. Silvio Berlusconi is a media tycoon who also served as prime minister in four different governments in Italy, being widely regarded as one of the most populist politicians in Europe’s recent history. They compared areas in which Mediaset was introduced to areas in which it wasn’t.

What they found is that people who watched Mediaset previous to 1985 (when they only featured light entertainment) were more likely to vote for populist politicians — not just Berlusconi’s party, but others with a similar rhetoric. After that, they started with news, and the bias became even more pronounced. But it gets even more interesting: people who were exposed to the entertainment television as children fared worse at cognitive tests as adults.

“Our results suggest that individuals exposed to entertainment TV as children are less cognitively sophisticated and less socio-politically engaged as adults, and ultimately more vulnerable to Berlusconi’s populist rhetoric.”

The effect was much more pronounced for the less-educated — high school dropouts exposed to entertainment TV voted three percentage points more for Berlusconi’s party than high school dropouts not exposed to it. A similar, even stronger trend was reported in the elder population. For people over 55, exposure to said programs led to 10 percent more support. After being exposed to entertainment from the television, the elderly were much more likely to watch the news on the same channel — news which often times feature biased reports. The entertainment was the “gateway drug” to the hardcore bias in the news.

“Older people, on the other hand, appear to have been hooked by the light entertainment Mediaset provided and were later exposed to biased news content on the same channels.”

Researchers also controlled for local measures of education and economic activity, and they analyzed data that pre-dates their study to show that this is not part of some pre-existing trend.

Complex issues, complex causes

Of course, this is simply a correlation, and no causation has been established (it would be extremely difficult to connect such things in a cause-effect relationship), but it does seem that television — especially entertainment television — has a big impact on people’s political options. Basically, TV can become a breeding ground for misleading, populist opinions to be spread to the world.

“Our results suggest that entertainment content can influence political attitudes, creating a fertile ground for the spread of populist messages. It’s the first major study to investigate the political effect of exposure among voters to a diet of ‘light’ entertainment. The results are timely as the United States adjusts to the Presidency of Donald Trump.”

Trump or no Trump, this is a disturbing trend and one which will no doubt be exploited by power-hungry populists. It’s clear by now that the newly elected US president is a symptom of a much wider issue with manipulation. Berlusconi’s leadership was disastrous for Italy, and you’d think the world has learned from that time; after all, the similarities between Trump and Berlusconi are obvious. Both are businessmen (though Berlusconi is much more successful and didn’t go bankrupt 4 times like Trump did). Both came as outsiders to the whole political scene and used this to their advantage, promising to change the face of politics — “drain the swamp,” as Trump likes to put it. They represent the triumph of image over reality, of alternative facts versus… you know, facts. The thing is, you may get rid of Berlusconi, but a Trump will pop up in a few years time. People might realize that Trump is a house of cards, but someone else will pop up. Pretty much the only defense against populism is education.

Populism can affect all sides of the political spectrum and all countries — I dare you to name one country without prominent populist rhetoric — and there’s not much we can do about that. Also, it’s very common that a specific television (or even several) back up that rhetoric. What we can do is pay attention to our sources of information and entertainment, double check things. You know, spend a little more time before drawing a conclusion. We like to chug information like there’s no tomorrow, but that often comes at the sake of quality and makes us much more prone to manipulation. If there’s anything that this study teaches us is that when you’re dealing with a biased television, nothing is harmless — not even entertainment.

Source: Queen Mary University of London.