Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures

School of Media and Communication


Lone Sorensen

PhD student

Clothworkers' Building North, Room 1.07

Lone is a PhD student at the School of Media and Communication (SMaC), University of Leeds, on a full University Research scholarship. She is supervised by Dr Katrin Voltmer and Dr Katy Parry and is a member of the Political Communication research group. Lone’s main research interests are in populist political communication, digital media, and the media and democratisation. The provisional title of her PhD is How Populists Communicate: A Democratic Paradox? She is also a research assistant on the EU-funded project Media, Communication and Democratisation (MeCoDEM), and a member of the COST project IS1308 Populist Political Communication.

Lone has an MA in International Communications from SMaC from 2003 and a BA in English linguistics. Since her last stint in the academic world she has been working as a web editor, writer and content manager on large public sector projects in the UK. She has also owned and managed a small eco-lodge in the Malawian rain forest where she lived for five years, setting up her own business and community development projects and experiencing the democratisation process from a rare bottom-up, and occasionally rather muddy, village perspective.


Lone’s professional background is in online communications where she has worked on public sector projects as a writer for the web, web editor, content manager and e-learning consultant. She has also worked in more traditional print publishing in a variety of editorial and production roles. During a five-year career break, she owned and ran an eco-lodge in the Malawian rainforest along with associated community and environmental development projects.

Research Interests

Lone’s main research interests are as follows:

  • Populist political communication, especially in comparative perspective and looking beyond European rightwing populism
  • Political communication on social media
  • Digital research methods, especially qualitative and mixed methods approaches that go beyond single-platform studies
  • Political performance
  • Democratisation and digital media in transitions to democracy


Lone is not teaching this semester. She has previously been a teaching assistant on the modules Communication and Public Opinion (COMM5630) and Introduction to Communication Theory (COMM1970).



  • Sorensen LN (2016) “Populism in Communications Perspective: Concepts, Issues, Evidence”, In: Heinisch R; Holtz-Bacha C; Mazzoleni O (eds.) Handbook on Political Populism. Nomos. (Accepted)

  • Stanyer J, Archetti C, Sorensen L (2016) “The United Kingdom: Hybrid Populisms, Mixed Fortunes, and Unstable Support”, In: Aalberg T; Esser F; Reinemann C; Stromback J; de Vreese C (eds.) Populist Political Communication in Europe. Routledge Research in Communication Studies. New York and London: Routledge.
    DOI: 10.4324/9781315623016, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/106742/

    Author URL [media.leeds.ac.uk]

Research Centres & Groups

Lone is a member and co-convener of the Political Communication Research Group.

External Appointments

Lone is a research assistant on the EU-funded project Media, Communication and Democratisation (MeCoDEM) where she manages the project literature database (a resource also accessible to the public), co-chairs the Early Career Researcher Network, and works on the ICT dimension of the project (Work Package 7).

She is also a working group member and substitute Management Committee member of the COST project IS1308 Populist Political Communication.

PhD Thesis

How Populists Communicate: A Democratic Paradox

My thesis investigates how populists in different democratic environments use social media to communicate with the public. It compares two populist parties: the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – a new, radical and explosive phenomenon in South African politics – and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which gained unprecedented support in the most recent UK general elections. These two cases have emerged from contrasting democratic contexts and pathways to democracy. Yet both parties are responding to a crisis of representation in a liberal democracy, and use similar communication strategies on social media. I investigate two dimensions of the populist message in its claim to represent the public: how populists self-represent and how they represent ‘the people’ in their communications. To do so I analyse:

  • populist leaders’ self-representation in their social media profiles and posts across a variety of social media platforms
  • populist leaders’ and parties’ representations of ‘the people’ in their tweets during the two months leading up to the last general elections in South Africa and the UK

I approach the populist message as a unique response to the challenges of modern mediated political representation. I interrogate this message in the form of the representative claim (Saward, 2006), a plea where the representative presents a certain idea of the people and asks that they subscribe to it. The populist representative claim creatively constructs a uniquely populist idea of ‘the people’, which is not only articulated verbally, but also performed. I consider this performance in the context of a modern media environment with high demands on the visual and the spectacular (Moffitt and Tormey, 2014).

My thesis moves beyond existing knowledge in the following respects:

  • It compares populism across regions, contexts and subtypes of populism and, in doing so, avoids the traps of Western-centric studies that often entangle the concept of populism with local political and cultural factors.
  • It develops an integrated conceptual framework of populist communication and political representation and verifies this empirically.
  • It brings social media onto the populism research agenda and contributes both to the theoretical development of populism’s relationship to the wider media ecology and to empirical approaches to studying populism on social media.
  • It provides methodological innovation in the form of a new qualitative framework for the analysis of political performance, drawing up an analytical scheme applicable to social media data.

My two cases – UKIP and the EFF – are responding to crises of representation that have grown out of different democratic contexts. The recent transition to democracy in South Africa in 1994 brought about a more descriptive mode of representation (Pitkin, 1967), to allow the black majority to feel represented by politicians with a similar identity to their own. The focus on resemblance, rather than responsiveness, however, has brought about a crisis where citizens feel betrayed by their representatives, who are not responding to their needs. The EFF rally this ‘economically oppressed’ black majority. In the UK, in contrast, a more active form of representation was bred through a long and slow process of democratic development and bureaucratisation. The focus on action rather than resemblance manifests itself in a crisis where citizens feel removed from the political elite and unable to identify with, or feel understood by, their representatives. UKIP gives voice to the common man who feels unable to connect with the distant elite.

Though these crises take different forms, both can be perceived as crises of communication. In both countries, the crises are set in a changing media environment, which sees public participation in politics moving to the periphery, and moving online (Brants and Voltmer, 2011, pp. 8–9). Where mainstream politicians struggle to negotiate the demands of modern mediated representation – and fail to both listen to and communicate with the public in a language they identify with – populist parties occupy the margins of the political arena and satisfy the public’s demands on and for communication. As a result, populists’ success is growing in very different democratic contexts around the world. Such contexts shape the populist message, which offers an alternative mode of political representation and conception of democracy. But what exactly populists mean by ‘representation’, and who the people are that they claim to represent, often remains ambiguous.

Social media, meanwhile, provides a unique environment for expressions of anti-media populism, attempts at controlling the media ecology, and populists’ own conceptions of who they represent and why. I approach social media as a strategic tool that populists may use to circumvent and interact with traditional media coverage, but a tool that simultaneously shapes the populist message in the act of mediation. In this sense, the medium is part of the message: populists utilise social media affordances and cyber-utopic ideology to answer the challenges of modern mediated representation. Taken together, populism’s lack of pluralism (Mudde, 2004), self-representation as ‘of the people’, and their strategic and ambiguous construction of ‘the people’ enable populists to utilise the affordances and perceived emancipatory values of social media in a uniquely populist representative claim. In its response to contextual democratic challenges, this claim thus contains an inherent and strategically constructed democratic paradox.

Brants, K., Voltmer, K. (Eds.), 2011. Political communication in postmodern democracy : challenging the primacy of politics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
Moffitt, B., Tormey, S., 2014. Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style. Polit Stud 62, 381–397. doi:10.1111/1467-9248.12032
Mudde, C., 2004. The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition 39, 542–563.
Saward, M., 2006. The Representative Claim. Contemporary Political Theory 5, 297–318. doi:http://0-dx.doi.org.wam.leeds.ac.uk/10.1057/palgrave.cpt.9300234

Professional Practice

Lone has presented her research at the following external conferences and workshops:

  • Populist forms of polarisation. Participant in roundtable on the theme of Polarisation. Media and Conflict: International Perspectives, international workshop for early career researchers, funded jointly by the MeCoDEM and INFOCORE projects, University of Leeds, 6 September 2016.
  • Representing the people: Populists on social media. ICA pre-conference, Fukuoka, Japan, 9 June 2016.
  • A communications approach to populism. PhD Symposium, School of Media and Communication Studies, University of Leeds, 21 March 2016.
  • Populists on social media: democracy for whom? Political Studies Association Media and Democracy conference, Chester, 5-6 November 2015.
  • Mediatised Transitions: Democratisation in an Age of Media Abundance, presentation to the MeCoDEM project meeting, University of Oxford, 17-20 June 2015 (co-presented with Prof. Katrin Voltmer)
  • How populists communicate: A democratic paradox? Presentation to the populist political communication think tank for early career researchers, COST IS1308, Zurich, January 2015.

Lone also recently initiated and organised a departmental PhD symposium (21 March 2016) with Ysabel Gerrard and an international Early Career Researchers’ workshop on Media and Conflict: International Perspectives (6 Sept 2016) with Charlotte Elliott and funded by the EU FW7-funded projects MeCoDEM and INFOCOR.

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