What explains the electoral performance of anti-immigration parties across different countries? Bjorn Burscher examines the relationship between news about immigration and crime, and anti-immigration voting in 11 countries. He finds that exposure to these news topics is positively associated with the likelihood to vote for an anti-immigration party.
Anti-immigrant parties exist in many established democracies. Their electoral strength varies over time and across countries. For example, the National Front (FN) in France flourished in the early 1990s but was struggling in the late 1990s. In neighbouring Belgium a party with exactly the same name existed back then, which was always considerably less successful than the French FN. What explains such variation in anti-immigrant parties’ electoral performance?
Existing theories on the electoral performance of anti-immigrant parties include explanations focusing on characteristics of their voters, of the parties themselves, of competing parties, and of the countries in which they operate. These explanations to some extent fail to explain the considerable differences in anti-immigrant parties’ success within countries over time, and across countries.
In the academic literature, very few studies of anti-immigrant voting take the media into account. This is perhaps surprising, as the mass media is a main source of political information for citizens. Not all news media content is theoretically expected to matter for anti-immigrant party voting. The literature on the topic suggests that anti-immigrant party support is affected by the prominence of nationalism, immigration, crime, and ‘anti-politics’ in the news media, the visibility of immigration issues in national newspapers, and their prominence in the news more generally.
To improve our understanding of how news media can affect anti-immigrant voting, in a recent study I (and my co-authors) have investigated the relationship between exposure to news about immigration and crime, and the likelihood to vote for an anti-immigrant party. We have tested this relationship for 13 anti-immigrant parties in 11 countries: the British National Party (BNP, Britain), National Front (FN, France), Northern League (LN, Italy), the Republicans (REP, Germany), National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD, Germany), Sweden Democrats (SD, Sweden), Danish People’s Party (DF, Denmark), Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ, Austria), Flemish Interest (VB, Belgium), National Front (FN, Belgium), Freedom Party (PVV, Netherlands), True Finns (PS, Finland), and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS, Greece).
In our study, we focus on two well-established theories – agenda setting theory and issue ownership theory. Based on a combination of both theories, we expect voters’ exposure to media coverage of immigration and crime issues to increase their probability to vote for an anti-immigrant party. Taken together, the two theories explain how issue-related news can influence anti-immigrant party voting.
Firstly, in accordance with the agenda-setting hypothesis, exposure to issue-related news stories is expected to increase the salience of the topic among voters. Secondly, we need to explain how such increased salience translates into a vote choice for anti-immigrant parties. Therefore, we refer to issue ownership theory, which explains that the exposed voter becomes more likely to vote for a party which is associated with the issue and/or has a reputation of handling the issue. By combining both theories, our research demonstrates that issue visibility plays an important role in explaining how media coverage affects individual-level party preferences.
To study this relationship we use two-wave panel survey data from the 2009 European Election Campaign Study. Representative samples of the electorates of 11 Western European countries were interviewed about one month prior to the June 4-7 2009 elections for the European Parliament, and once again immediately after the elections. Our dependent variable is the (individual-level) likelihood to vote for each of the anti-immigrant parties. To measure this likelihood, vote intentions for each anti-immigrant party are assessed in the surveys.
The key independent variables are individual exposure to immigration and crime-related news between the voter panel waves. In order to compute these values, we combine data from a media content analysis with survey measures of (self-reported) media exposure. The content analysis is carried out on a sample of national news media coverage in the 11 countries mentioned above. In each country the main national evening news broadcasts of the most widely-watched public and commercial television stations are included. Furthermore, two ‘quality’ (i.e. broadsheet) and one tabloid newspaper from each country are analysed. In total, 20,084 news stories have been coded for their primary topic (e.g. immigration, crime, etc.)
In order to assess our hypotheses, we estimate per party a regression model with the second-wave measure of the vote intention for a specific anti-immigrant party (0=no; 1=yes) as the dependent variable, and exposure to immigration-related news as the key independent variable. Also, the first-wave measure of the national vote intention for the specific anti-immigrant party and a set of control variables are added to each model as independent variables. These are variables which are theoretically related to voting for anti-immigrant parties.
The results of our analysis suggests that exposure to news about immigration as well as exposure to news about crime is positively associated with the likelihood to vote for an anti-immigrant party. The relationship between immigration news and anti-immigrant voting is found for 12 of the 13 parties under study.The relationship between crime news and anti-immigrant voting is found for 11 of 13 parties. In all 26 cases the relationship is positive, as expected. We therefore can conclude that exposure to news about immigration as well as exposure to news about crime are positively related to the likelihood to vote for an anti-immigrant party.
With these findings, we strengthen the theoretical foundation of anti-immigrant voting. We demonstrate that when it comes to anti-immigrant parties this foundation concerns the visibility of immigration and crime issues in the news. We go beyond the existing academic literature by studying the relationship between exposure to immigration as well as crime news and voting on the individual level, and by showing that the relation holds for nearly the entire population of relevant anti-immigrant parties in contemporary Western Europe.
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Note: This article originally appeared at our sister site, British Politics and Policy at LSE. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Bjorn Burscher – University of Amsterdam
Bjorn Burscher is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Science at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam. His research interests include political communication, the effects of news, and computational social science. At the moment, he works on the INFINITI project, which develops and enables the exploitation of open source and open standards tools to support semantic search.
So, what is the point of the study, is it suggesting that the media should stop reporting any negative stories about economic migrants trying to smuggle themselves into various countries?
So when people are aware of the problem and threat to their nation, they act to stop it. Sadly for those who see multiculturalism as a religion, they will see this as more reason to hide the true scale of the problem.
@Karl. The point of the story is that the support for anti-immigration policy comes from those who have had little or no contact with immigrants, who reside in areas with very few immigrants, and their ideological position is not derived from real world experience. The driver of anti-immigration views is shown to be anti-immigration rhetoric. The research is not associated with migration flows, but with the presence of and popular reaction to immigrant presence in a society.
By extreme analogy, we might talk about a media-hyped and political fear about invasion from outer space. One political party adopts a position about the need to invest in dealing with military invasion by another species, from another solar system. We have never seen them, but we “know” about them from media reports. The political debate consists of talking about things that have precisely no relation to reality, but strike fear into the hearts of ordinary voters. The media starts to cover this issue, to sell their news. The other political parties also feel obliged to protect their voter base, and develop policies for repelling alien invasions. We end up in the situation where everybody is talking about something of which nobody has any experience, there is no reason to think it exists, yet it dominates the political discourse.
This is the painful actuality of how human beings behave and think. If we were rational, those with experience of immigrants would advise those without. Instead, it is those with extreme views gaining the support of those with no experience and originally no strong views. This is the strength of political propaganda, and the weakness of rationality and direct experience. People believe in things that they have no direct knowledge of — such as magic or witches in the Middle Ages — and interpret indirect evidence to prop up their beliefs. This rapidly becomes a self-reinforcing phenomenon.
Our conclusions? Difficult, since we are talking about human fallibility. Maybe, just making people aware of how easy it is for anyone to be manipulated is a starting point.