The Impacts of Modern Day Media on Right-Wing Populism

With the final reading response of the semester, we have come full circle: In Week 2 on Defining Terms, I wrote the following: 

Defined as “a set of ideas focused on a fundamental opposition between the people and the elite,” I believe populism has in part gained prominence due to increased online connectivity. The media landscape today…allows for a broader range of opinions and values. 

Week 11’s readings echoed the above idea that populist parties have utilized online environments to connect and mobilize a broader audience of potential voters. Hatakka notes the rise of right-wing populism in Europe has coincided with online far-right activism. According to Mudde, this is no mere coincidence: today’s media landscape has provided access and coverage for populist politicians that were not formerly available. 

While an engaged populous is good for democracy, there are dangers with the modern day networked society. As indicated by Slavíčková & Zvagulis and Doerr, “new racism” has emerged and consequently facilitated hate speech in the media. Slavíčková & Zvagulis’s study considers how new racism is found in the wording of news stories, including journalistic skewing and the absence of minority voices. Doerr’s take on new racism instead looks at media imaging, specifically arguing how visual devices like political cartoons reinforce anti-immigrant discourse. This likens back to the Matthews article, as he argues European right-wing populist parties such as UKIP, Front National and AfD have used the media to spread anti-immigration messaging, in particular racist messaging against Islam. 

Hate speech is certainly not new to Europe: Göle harkens back to the destruction of the Mostar Bridge— a symbol connecting the Muslim and Christian communities in Bosnia—was strategically shelled as a not so subtle religious statement by Croatian gunman while fighting the Bosnian Muslims. However, the “connective action” online phenomenon described by Hatakka offers much different conditions for media networking as what came before. Now, the internet has eased the ability for people with similar political interests to meet, organize, debate and expand their outreach like never before. 

While increasing online engagement is often positive for society, Freedman argues the current liberal approach to media policy has enabled the far-right to exploit communication systems. Notably, populists have effectively spread political messages based on sentiment over fact. This is important, as Feldmen argued in Week 2 how notes how nationalism morphed into fascism by going beyond politics and building a king of “political religion.” As we see populist leaders have continually played on people’s emotions, Freeman emphasizes the dangers of the policy inaction to mediate racist populist messaging and skewed media environments. 

At the conclusion of the semester, I still believe my words from Week 2, that “under a democratic democracy, we will not see the likes of fascism in the West reborn.” However, after Week 11, I believe the knock-on effects of a run-away media landscape dominated by right-wing, anti-immigrant rhetoric cannot be ignored. 

Regulating Media, Populism in the liberal market

 

Des Freedman in “Populism and media policy failure” argues that media has failed in four ways and that populism continues to be given credence in an unregulated media market. Populist use media to transmits sentiment over fact, Freedman asserts, appealing to the political outsider to send a message. I argue that appealing to the ‘outsider’ is a method of creating and subsequently appealing to the proposed desires of the ‘common people’ that media has produced. This appeal to the ‘common’ is a tactic of Populists, a concept I explored last week.  As Freedman points out, media created with failed regulation has allowed for Populists to transmit sentiment over fact, often appealing to one group rather than the other. Alt-right alternative media carries a message to the ‘common’ people who are not represented by the elitist’s traditional news sources such as the New York Times.

 

The failing of policy regulation of the media industry include:

 

1.       Concentration of ownership

2.       Little to no regulation of social media

3.       Failure to protect the ‘fourth estate’ (investigative journalism)

4.       Failure to protect public service media.

 

These fallings have come to pass under a policy regime that has “vested interests that dominate at any one time; communications policy is a highly political, value-laden, interest-driven field of decision-making. Since the 1980s, this has generally followed ‘the logic of the marketplace’,” wrote Freedman. In this way the economy, specially the liberal marketplace, is a driving factor in shaping the conditions of the media industry allowing Populist to win out by way of market failure. The structuring of the liberal economy to reward the success of some at the loss of others keeps many on the margins. It is in appealing to the those placed on the margins and also those categorized by capitalism that media carries the message of Populists. This appeals to economic anxieties to further unit the ‘common’ under a banner of rhetoric. “one potential solution is regularly proposed,” wrote Freedman,  “an independent public service news media that is strong enough to defy the pressure of both government and market and to serve citizens without fear or favour.”

 

D. Freedman, “Populism and media policy failure” European Journal of Communication

33(6)(2018): 604-618

Playing the victim, or blaming the victim?

By Daniel Williams

Mainstream media is a catchphrase that has gotten a lot of traction recently. It’s use tries to coalesce a sense of ‘Big News’, similar to Big Pharma or Big Oil. The concept is that there exist a large number of major news media formats and organizations that are intertwined, promoting messaging that benefits all of them through sensationalizing stories, building up dangerous messages, and keeping the general public in the dark by only ever displaying one side of the story.

This is the focus of Populism and media policy failure. In this article, the news is portrayed as having effectively been complicit in the rise of major populist figures. It suggests that structural conditions within news media have effectively established requisite conditions to cause populist figures to use fake news, half-truths and conspiracy theories to fuel their rise.

 

The Relationship Between Journalism and Populism

As right wing populism has become more salient so too has the institution of journalism alongside social media. With this in mind, can we track the role that journalism has played in shaping the development of right wing populism? Moreover, can we distinguish between the role that specific journalists have played from the institution of journalism itself? 

In the case of Czech journalist’s depiction of roma peoples in the media as highlighted by Tess Slavíčková and Peter Zvagulis in their article “Monitoring Anti-Minority Rhetoric in the Czech Print Media: A Critical Discourse Analysis,” the media reported on Roma peoples in very derogatory terms. So much so that the Roma fight was ultimately put out of context. It takes the event out of context and provides fodder for racial tension. But is this reflective of the misgivings of actual journalists or problems in the institution of journalism in a broader sense? We ought to consider that journalists might not actual receive proper training to handle complicated events like the above mentioned. The article does pose this question, but maybe we can take it even further and ask if the institution of journalism itself is entrenched with racism that has not yet been addressed. 

The role of journalism and journalists is at the epicentre of “Populism and media policy failure” by Des Freedman. It addresses the way that the mainstream media affected the results and reactions to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Specifically, there was a shared atmosphere of shock and disbelief in response to the elections. However, these reactions failed to acknowledge the way that the media is often complicit, though not solely responsible for, the rise of right wing populism. The article particularly takes to task media “elites” and liberal news media who fail to represent these issues in a nuanced and diverse way. 

To conclude, while journalists and journalism should not shoulder the blame for the prevalence of right wing populism, it at least needs to be included in the conversation. In doing so, it can become a means with which to contest these movements.

A Tale of Two Parties: Left vs. Right Wing Populism in the 2019 British Election

On November 6, 2019, the 57th Parliament of the United Kingdom (UK) was officially dissolved. With support from the House of Commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party called an early election to take place on December 12, 2019. While the next UK election was scheduled for May 5, 2022, policymakers across the House agreed a general election was required to break the political impasse over Brexit.

Unusual timing notwithstanding, eyes are turned to the 2019 British election as yet another battlefield between left and right wing populism in Europe. On the left, we have Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the so-called “populist wearing a cardigan,” pitted against the aforementioned Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party on the right. 

So what do these two parties—who appear to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum—have in common? For one, both leaders have adopted an increasingly populist tone. Corbyn speaks of “going after the tax dodgers, dodgy landlords, bad bosses, and big polluters, because we know whose side we’re on.” Johnson has been compared to the likes of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Donald Trump in the US, who are “right-wing, conservative, nationalist and authoritarian” political leaders. In the British battle of two populisms, it has become increasingly important for voters to understand the differences (and striking similarities) between the right and left wing iterations of this global phenomenon 

Boriss Johnson, Conservative Party Leader and current Prime Minister of the UK

Scholars have established a minimum definition of the far/radical right based on three central factors: nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. According to this definition, can we therefore categorize Johnson as a far-right leader? Not quite. 

For one, authoritarianism refers to a rules-based society that restricts individual freedoms, dissenting opinions, and an independent judiciary. With a Brexit campaign slogan of “by any means necessary” and a Supreme Court ruling of 11-0 that his suspension of the British Parliament was unlawful, Johnson is certainly not afraid to challenge the rule of law. While this may be a sign that liberal democracy is under attack, populism has been kept in check from morphing to the radical right as a result of the UK’s strong, democratic institutions. Without authoritarian rule, Johnson’s right wing ideology, however provocative, is not radical. 

As for nativism and populism, it’s a bit more complex. It’s no coincidence that the rebirth of populism arrived after the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis led to an economic slump. As a result, both disgruntled workers and traditional right-wing supporters were able to unite for change. Notably, right-wing populism is often held accountable for turning the “us vs. them” populist rhetoric against immigrants. By closing borders and returning to the glories of the nation state, the result has been an “Othering” of foreigners, and in particular immigrants who would put strain on the national services like healthcare. However radical this may seem, the Conservative Party has stopped far short of the kind of racial exclusion that premeditates fascism. 

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party Leader

While right-wing populism has taken Europe by storm, UK voters would be wise to give due attention the growing wave of left-wing populism embodied by the Labour Party and Corbyn. Perhaps viewing the success of his European counterparts, Corbyn has shifted Labour farther left and embraced populism by identifying a different us vs. them than Johnson. Corbyn’s Labour Party has instead campaigned against the “established elite” embodied by the Conservatives. 

It is important not to confuse left-wing populism with socialist movements. While building its base from those discouraged from the divide between the have and have-nots, it does not seek to end capitalism or the class conflict.  

Where does this British leave voters? Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair warns the  “populism running riot” has pushed the two main parties to extreme ends of the political spectrum. At the same time, the left and right options available to voters have become more similar today. According to scholars, both right and left-wing populism have followed a similar populist playbook: 

  1. Encouraging an emotional sense of injustice 
  2. Mobilizing the masses 
  3. Transforming the media landscape
  4. Headed by charismatic party leaders

In the case of the UK, the House of Commons is dominated by a two-party system. While contenders like the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats still vie for seats, in reality this leaves the majority of British voters without a moderate option for 10 Downing. The populism embodied by Johnson and Corbyn therefore does not enable meaningful political decision-making by citizens. 

It appears that what began as a movement for “the people” has therefore left the majority of British voters feeling unaccounted for. One saving grace is in order to build a Parliamentary majority, both the Labour and Conservative Party will likely need to form a coalition government. The post-election onus may therefore be left in the hands of the SNP and the Liberal Democrats to real in the populist extremes to provide stable governance for the UK. 

“Populism and Media Failure”

By Alex Wittmann

In the day and age in which we live, mass media and news outlets of a wide degree of sources contribute a great deal to how one sees the world and formulates their own opinions. The Populists of the Far Right have used and exploited mass media in order to advance their movement and gain following. I am in agreeance with the article that unregulated digital media platforms have become the breeding ground for reactionary movements to take hold. The fact that that Liberal media was in shock that Populist movements such as Trump’s election and the UK’s decision to leave the EU shows arrogance on the part of mainstream media and their inability to acknowledge that there are certain structural issues with unregulated platforming that allows for reactionary Right Wing movements to gain traction based on unregulated platforming. Social Media plays a very large role in reactionary movements because the platforming is set up in such a way that anyone can say whatever they want and spread as many lies as they want without the risk of fact checking. There are no limits as to what political ads can be platformed either. In fact, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zukerberg said before a Congressional hearing that Facebook will not stop far right ads and misinformation from circulating, he said that it is up to the viewer to decide what is credible or not. The article calls for a redistributive model that funds grassroot journalism able to cater to a wide range of audiences, separate of political affiliation willing to hold power to account without being held by vested corporate interests. This sounds like a good idea in theory but I believe that Populism will always find a way to get its message across on social media. The people who support such movements are highly passionate and motivated to throw their support behind the Populist cause. If they see any attempt by the media to curb their perceived “free speech,” it could likely result in rebellion far worse than the one in which brought Populist sentiments through the media into power. The process of regulating media must be done carefully.

D. Freedman, “Populism and media policy failure” European Journal of Communication
33(6)(2018): 604-618

The Media Makes the Message

Des Freedman’s Populism and media failure discusses many ways in which media policy allows for far-right populist movements to utilize the platforms for their own benefits. He looks at how big media companies hold a monopoly over different media outlets, how many people who write for medias outlet come from certain economic backgrounds, and he discusses the way in which there is no true independent, bi-partisan media outlet because of elites in-charge that so greatly oppose far-right populist action, which in-turn provides them with a platform for them to utilize. Freedman’s solution to this issue is clear, redistribution of the monopoly.

This solution overall makes sense in terms of policy failure. Social media is used more and more everyday, and information is consumed on a much larger scale that it ever has before. Freedman does say that this rise has increased the way in which far-right populists are given even more room to interact with the people. Though what is interesting is that his analysis is very focused on economic divide. I think that there should be focus on how generational divides affect the way in which policy is made, and how it would affect this solution of redistribution.

Different generation interact and consume media differently. I think it interesting to look at how younger generations use social media and acknowledge the faults in these policies, versus those who are less incline to understand how media can make room for a far-right populist voice.

This is not to say that there is nothing wrong with policy, because there is. But how does generation play in the execution of these policies, or how do different generations of consumers interact and are aware of these faults. If there are not solutions to this policy failure, then how does being aware and understanding these failures while consuming media affect the success of far-right populists use of media? And how does ‘cancel culture’ that is used more by the younger generation fit into how different generations interact with policy failures?

 

Colours and Symbols: How Cartoons Are Not That Innocent

It would be lying to assert that political cartoons are just there to relieve the public from difficult topics or moments but when it reaches a transnational level, we are forced to admit that their power can be dangerous. Using humoristic drawings to send a xenophobic message is the tool that ethno-nationalists have utilize to gather more partisans for their political agendas. Cartoons are an easy way to transmit an underlined message and the “black sheep” example that started to circulate in Switzerland in 2007 is no stranger to this method of reaching a massive crowd nationally and transnationally.

Nicole Doerr wrote an interesting study on the use of the “black sheep” cartoon and how its distribution and adaptation in Germany and Italy illustrate the power of visual media. In the article, the author states that the dichotomy of colours is one part of the controversy and that the written text adds a stronger signification especially when it is translated in another language or for another country. Associating the visual and verbal messages, she demonstrates that the ambiguity of the colour choice helps carrying the ideas of former fascist discourses in Italy or Germany.

Would the cartoon have the same effect if the chosen colours or the animals would have been different ? The idea of the black sheep is not racial in its general context: the difference within a group is not always based on race. However, the deliberate choice by the SVD ( Swiss People’s Party) to use this analogy makes it racial.

Once copied in Germany and Italy, the message takes a meaning that reflects the preoccupations of the country’s political agenda . The semiotic translation has gained a higher level of controversy in the fact that it encompasses the anti-immigration, xenophobic rhetoric used by respective far-right parties. Based on a possible bond that exists between these three countries, the text contains words that appeal to a nationalistic and more radical discourse about immigration.

How far can cartoonists go in their representation of actual problems ? The Netherlands and France have dearly paid for representing images that should not have been drawn. Knowing the massive role that visual media carries out and the absence of censorship in the press in many countries, the representation of tragic situations in a cartoonish manner is benefitting transnational far-right parties who then can capture the attention of an emotional public in a more or less subtle way.

Work cited :

N. Doerr, “Bridging language barriers, bonding against immigrants: A visual case study of transnational network publics created by far-right activists in Europe” Discourse & Society 28(1) (2017): 3–23.

The Populist Playbook on Media Coverage

Populist movements have demonstrated the ability to navigate and influence their messages across both mainstream media and social media. This week’s readings showcased a wide range of the methods being used by these populist movements. I have tried to categorize the readings into three main methods used by populists: capitalize on the mainstream media’s complicity, ability to shape the narrative, and exploitation of social media and unregulated digital platforms. These methods have resulted in populists being able to “to transmit ‘sentiment’ over ‘fact’, to use ‘authentic’ language, to make full use of social media and to exploit the mainstream media’s appetite for sensationalist stories” (Freedman).

Capitalize on mainstream media’s complicity

In Populism and media policy failure, Des Freedman argues that populist leaders and movements have been able to exploit mainstream media’s lack of attention around “the structural conditions and policy frameworks that have facilitated the circulation of clickbait and misinformation”. The article by Slavickova & Zvagulis also points to complicity in print media. In their review of Czech print media, they found that there are problems of contextualization and otherization of minorities, framing that overstates (and contributes to) racial tension in the Czech Republic.

Ability to shape the narrative in news cycles

In a similar vein as Freedman, Hatakka argues that “populists’ strategies of provoking the media into prolonged coverage of their scandalous actions can be regarded to grant them agenda-setting and framing power by providing visibility and political weight”. What I find particularly interesting in populist movements ability to shape the narrative is the idea that there is no real losing over media coverage. By this I mean, populists employ sensationalist claims in order to gain extensive media coverage. however, when this does not work, due to the mainstream media boycotting coverage of populist movements, these groups are able to rally their base by claiming that this is proof that the mainstream media are ‘corrupt’. In the end, populists are either able to be seen by a larger public or are able to rally their base, both of which I see as a win for the populists.

Exploiting Social Media and Unregulated Digital Platforms

Lastly, the populist’s ability to effectively use social media and unregulated digital platforms (such as HommaForum) has resulted in electoral gains. Hatakka references the works of Lance Bennett and Alexander Sergber, who put forward the idea that “digital communication technologies have provided not only new tools for political organization, but a whole new logic to political identity formation and group formation.” Viewing social media and alternative digital platforms in this light, it is easy to see how populists’ groups have used these platforms to create their groups identities.


Until the mainstream media and conventional political parties are able to adapt to newer digital platforms, I believe that populists movements will be able to gain more support. What is worrying to me though is the risk that politics on digital platforms will never achieve a positive outlook for politics, rather it will at a minimum remain an echo chamber of ideas, at worse we will see further divergence between parties with no hope to bridge to other groups.

Far Right Exploitation of Media

By Absalom Sink

The core questions around which this week’s readings revolve are:

  1. How does social media construct particular conditions for populist formations?
  2. How is networked society different from what came before?

To try to answer these questions, I’ll lean on three of the readings in particular: Niko Hatakka’s “When Logics of Party Politics and Online Activism Collide”, Des Freedman’s “Populism and Media Policy Failure”, and Nicole Doerr’s Bridging Language Barriers, Bonding Against Immigrants”.

Doerr’s article focuses on the use of visual imagery by the far-right to transcend linguistic and national boundaries to create transnational linkages between groups and individuals and mobilize support and solidarity. As her example, she uses the Swiss People’s Party’s “Black Sheep” poster from 2007 and the subsequent adoption of its imagery first by the far-right, fascist-descended Lega Nord and later by Germany’s Neo-Nazi NPD. With each subsequent iteration after the first, the imagery is adapted to a new local or national context, but the core symbolism—the black sheep being kicked out by a trio of white sheep, originally a visual metaphor for the expulsion of “criminal” foreigners after their prison sentences are concluded—remains the same. By the time the image trickles down to grassroots NPD supporters, they have modified the message by multiplying the black sheep (such that they outnumber the white sheep), while adding peritext that harkens back to the Nazi party, and calls for the expulsion not just of the “criminal other” but their entire kin networks (ie. families) as well. Here, memetic transmission via social media—blogs, in particular—is key to the spread imagery, and crucially does not rely on mutual linguistic intelligibility. Even lacking the peritext of the original poster, the visual shorthand of the image suffices to grant it tremendous cultural currency across a loose and shifting network of far-right groups and individuals.

For his part, Freedman focuses on the presence, or rather absence, of government. He lists a quartet of policy failures that are crucial to the rise of far-right populism and its coopting of media, and which are rooted in a blind liberal faith in the “logic of the marketplace”. Essentially, the neoliberal preference for a laissez-faire approach to regulation in which market forces alone determine the direction of media and communications evolution has resulted in the concentration of media ownership, the failure to check a tech industry driven purely by profit motive, failure to safeguard the “fourth estate” that is investigative journalism, and the gutting of public service media both by budget cuts and elite capture. Essentially, Freedman argues that the rise of far-right populists has been tied to their ability to exploit the above four policy failures, and compounded by lawmakers’ unwillingness to enact appropriate legislation. The second of the four enumerated failures is particularly pertinent to our questions this week; certainly traditional media is a factor in far-right radicalization, but the openness, low barrier to entry, and almost complete lack of oversight in social media by Big Tech means that any sufficiently motivated individual has access to a soapbox, and the means to reach like-minded individuals.

Finally, Hatakka’s article focuses on the early years of the previously “centre-left populist” Finns Party ideological capture by a more radical right through their alliance with the anti-immigration Hommaforum, and its subsequent ideological drift to a position more in line with European radical-right groups. His argument hinges on the very real difference between old-school “collective action”, and what has been termed the “connective action” made possible by online discourse. In contrast to traditional activist networks, “connective action networks rely on self-motivated sharing of personalized ideas, plans, images, and resources” in online settings. Taking action is thus not part of a “collective identity”, as it might once have been, but an individual act of self-expression, a completely different paradigm. Hatakka portrays the quasi-alliance between the party and the forum as something of a ‘deal with the devil’ for the party’s founder, Timo Soini. On the one hand, access to the large, politically engaged and well-educated user base of the forum helped propel the party to a historic highpoint in the 2011 parliamentary election, taking 19% of the vote and the seats. On the other, anti-immigrant messaging on the forum and outside of it—including by new candidates for the Finns Party, chosen from the forum’s user base—led to increased media scrutiny for the party and a series of minor scandals for Soini to deal with, as the party message strayed further and further from its previous economic core. The piece is even more worrying in light of events that came after the article’s publication: Soini resigned as party leader in 2017, and Jussi Halla-aho—the man whose blog formed Hommaforum’s anti-immigrant nucleus—became party leader and brought the party within a single seat of winning a plurality in the 2019 parliamentary election. In a sense, Hatakka’s article is a cautionary tale about engagement with new media that befits the current political climate.

Works Cited:

Doerr, Nicole. “Bridging language barriers, bonding against immigrants: A visual case study of transnational network publics created by far-right activists in Europe.” Discourse & Society 28, no.1 (2017): 3-23.

Freedman, Des. “Populism and media policy failure” European Journal of Communication 33, no.6 (2018): 604-618

Hatakka, Niko. “When Logics of Party Politics and Online Activism Collide: The Populist Finns Party’s Identity under Negotiation.” New Media & Society 19, no. 12, (Dec. 2017): 2022-2038.