Critical judgement needed

I had mixed feelings will reading the Digital Services Act. To follow up on last week’s readings and discussion, media literacy appears to be the obvious long-term solution to halt the spreading of false information that manipulate people. This would in fact only be a solution to react to a dishonest or sensationalist use of social media by journalists or leaders of (far-right, in this case) movements, instead of fixing the downsides of fast traveling and easy-access information. But since, as mentioned by Freedman, right-wing groups are actually dependent on social medias that give them the visibility needed, it certainly won’t stop writers from molding news to convey provocative assumptions or targeting minority groups (as shown by the story on Roma in Czech Republic reported by the study of Slavíčková and Zvagulis). The tactics employed by those who wish to put forward their political group’s ideas are caught in the wheel of social media, already too big and too fast to hope to keep any control on whatever is thrown in it. The point outlined in Freedman’s article about wanting to minimize regulatory controls show how populist parties rely on social media (it then benefits them that regulations are kept at a minimal degree), but at the same time, those who are opposed to the movement (those targeted by the anti-elite narratives, presumably) actually contribute to the visibility on medias. Online platforms are at the heart of how information is introduced, consumed, and used. In this line of thought, regulations on their content are necessary, in order to complement other solutions to limit the possible negative impacts.

I think that, at first glance, the regulations proposed by the Digital Services Act are rational and well-founded. They appear to be more about not hiding information, so that it would ensure that there is no market dominance, and that costumers and companies are all protected when they navigate on websites. It seems to me that it is evidently predominantly a reaction to the misuses of how web platforms allow to display content, a short-term solution, compared to media literacy courses, for example, as it would directly affect the content, and not the way that the viewer deals with it. But I would be afraid that a guaranty that all the online material on said and said website is reliable would be reassuring, to the point where the viewer feels that he doesn’t need to exert his critical judgement. And since loopholes and other type of tinkering with rules always happen, or grey zones (such as not including the Roma side of the event in a news article, as explained by Slavíčková and Zvagulis) can be exploited, stating that online services are reliable might put judgement to sleep. Maybe adding a disclaimer that despite efforts to provide trusted information, critical judgement is still advised would help? I would think that no regulations will be inclusive or ahead enough to prevent any misuse or hiding of information. It would only be a reaction, a short-term solution until another loophole is found. It is still a good and needed plan, but I believe it has to be combined with a stress on the use of critical judgement whenever people are exposed to information online.

Mainstreaming the Far-Right in Media

By Jackie Howell

Media in all of its forms have played a key role in facilitating the spread of far-right populists’ messages. While media is not the cause of these movements, tabloid media, elite media sources, and social media platforms are responsible for their part in spurring the far-right’s current momentum. These platforms give populists a voice, regardless of the media source’s intentions.  They frame certain narratives that the far-right manipulate to fit within their agendas. Far-right populists can thank the media for their visibility in mainstream news. From tabloid media circulating populists’ ideas to elite media playing a repeated message of outrage and ridicule of far-right leaders and supporters, media has given the far-right the attention they crave most – a direct line to the people.

This week’s readings illustrate how communication is key to spreading the far-right’s anti-immigrant and nationalist rhetoric. Media outlets frame narratives that influence the public’s perception of minorities, as demonstrated in the case against the Roma community in the Czech Republic. The use of tropes in media can manifest harmful stereotypes and emotive terms that evoke hatred toward minorities. Also, mainstream media’s constant repetition of its televised news cycle helps ferment these stereotypes, as repeating news stories increases the media outlet’s target audience.   

In the digital age, social media platforms have become an easy way to spread populist messages. Before social media, far-right leaders relied on in-person rallies, printed manifestos, and organized meetings to spread their agendas. New forms of media are tools that can help spread messages for others to digest regardless of their location. Social media platforms are easily accessible for users of nearly all ages. This allows the far-right to reach their target audience by connecting with users that share, retweet, or post similar messages, creating an online community of far-right supporters.

Social media platforms allow the far-right to spread their culture of conspiracy theories, white nationalism, and anti-elite sentiment. Memes, videos, and blog posts allow the far-right to unite and share ideas, support sister movements, and spread via hashtags and reposts. The far-right can radicalize and influence social media users, and in turn, users can post their manifestos for others to read and copy. For example, eco-terrorists like the El Paso shooter and the Christchurch shooter (and even the mass murderer in Norway) left behind manifestos to provide a mass murder guidebook for others to follow and study.    

As the course comes to an end, this week’s readings reflect on the most contemporary issue regarding far-right populism: far-right in the digital space. It is fitting that at the beginning of the course, Trump’s Twitter account was suspended, which raises the following questions: how can media and social media platforms prevent the spread of harmful messages? Is it even possible to stop or slow the spread of misinformation, racist propaganda, and far-right memes? As we move further into the digital age, it will be interesting to see how liberal democracies police the digital space without fueling far-right populists’ anti-elite rhetoric.

References

Freedman, D. (2018). Populism and media policy failure. European Journal of Communication, 33(6), 604-618. DOI: 10.1177/0267323118790156

Slavíčková, T., & Zvagulis, P. (2014). Monitoring anti-minority rhetoric in the Czech print media. Journal of Language and Politics, 13(1), 152-170. Doi: 10.1075/jlp.13.1.07sla

von Moltke, J. (2019). The Meme is the Message [lecture video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7e7lSGlSWs

Words Matter: How the Czech Print Media Enabled ‘Othering’ of it’s Nation’s Citizens

By Austin Pellizzer

In this final week of reflections for the Populism and Authoritarianism in Contemporary Europe class, we looked at how both old and new media has shaped national narratives. One prominent example of this is the Tess Slavíčková and Peter Zvaguli article Monitoring Anti-Minority Rhetoric in the Czech Print Media: A Critical Discourse Analysis. In this work, the authors describe how they used analytical steps via AntiMetrics to track hate speech within Czech Print media against its Roma citizens (153). By analyzing three points: 1) hate speech and media, 2) hate speech and public opinion, and 3) hate speech and body politic (153), we see how media outlets can utilize linguistic aspects and recollections of accounts to polarize inter-ethnic conflicts and create a type of ‘othering’ amongst its population (157). However, while this article was able to shed light on a facet of research imperative to understand, three questions regarding this method have come to mind. 

Firstly, with this article coming out in 2014, a year before the migrant/refugee crisis that shook the EU and continent, the authors alluded to the idea that the Czech Republic’s far-right was weak (156). Would this have changed in the wake of the humanitarian events of these past years? Secondly, when measuring this phenomenon of hate speech in national media (152), how did the researchers define the term? Since hate speech continues to be a highly controversial topic, the definition has been one of contention. Thus, it would be beneficial for the reader to get a sense of their measurement of this term and how they came to a clear and definite consensus. Lastly, with the Czech population deeming the ‘other’ to be the Roma population (152), would this ostracizing be now directed to the migrants or both? Considering the many gaps in this article due to the timeline and explanations, it is clear that Slavíčková and Zvaguli’s work would need to be updated to fit this contemporary and ever-changing environment.

Conspiracy Theory No Laughing Matter

This week taking a look at conspiracy theories, my initial thought was that it would just a funny thing to listen and read about. I feel everyone at some point has explored some conspiracy theories from the moon landing to the grassy knoll/ JFK assassination. In all my time reading about these things i had never taken them truly seriously and thought them to be just an exploration of alternative scenarios….for fun. However while watching the short Vice video on Q Anon gaining momentum in Germany, it really started to show how their is a fine line between being slightly curious to it completely taking over a persons psyche. One moment specifically came when a man named Miro was describing the collapse of his marriage, what struck me was the previous notion i had that someone who took these theories for face value might have experienced something that would drive them to follow such a thing but in the case of Miro’s wife, this was not the case. Even a former vegan chef, Atilla Hildemann merged the Q Anon conspiracy with his own animal right morals.

This raises another important issue on how Q Anon conspiracy theory, originally an American phenomenon, has made its way across the Atlantic to Germany where it has the second most followers and will no doubt will spread across Europe. While followers of this are still small in numbers they still appear in the UK and Italy where the pandemic and helped tremendously in gaining followers. While its easy to dismiss such ideas as nonsense, what is important is to not take these followers as just another fringe group. Every day more and more people fall into the mindset of believing such things and to dismiss them means ignoring an ever growing population that could mobilize and create allot of trouble in the future, more so than they already have.

Are conspiracy theories really that surprising?

This first part might diverge from the readings this week to some degree, but it is still related, and it’s been something I’ve been wrestling with in the last year or so. I find a lot of it is frustration of being lied to and manipulated in so many ways by the people they should be trusting have led it them to not trusting anyone. Once you can’t trust anyone and have no reference points for valid truth in your life you end up suspicious about everyone. This results in these kinds of thoughts and impressions of the world around them. People still want truth, even if we live in a world where everyone seemingly makes their own. Once that trust in the truth is breeched though it’s very hard to get back. Also, it’s really not surprising in a world with the way governments and politicians have lied about and misconstrued so many of the major events of our lives that there’s little faith in our systems (as we have seen in this course). This is fairly cynical I will grant that. I am by no means associated or believe in any of these ideas. I just don’t think they actually came out of nowhere. There is a clear association in my mind.

Now, to the readings this week. One part that stood out to me in the Politico article concerning Q-anon and the Vice interview were this idea that people who feel not in control of their lives or that they’re losing the “familiar” around them are typically adherents or susceptible to these conspiracy theories. I found this interesting…but also a bit like they were gaslighting people as well. My main idea concerning this was the fact that they target out of work people due to the coronavirus. I feel like the fact that these people question the government (and fairly extremely I will admit) makes sense. Also, they take it to the extreme, way farther than I am comfortable with, but how else can they respond to this? People have lost their livelihoods, homes etc. all in the name of public safety but then have to watch government officials keep collecting their paychecks and big businesses having their most profitable year to date. The wealth gap this year has grown enormously. How else can you see that if not a conspiracy at the very top? And then for these wealthy academics to say they’re “far-fetched” or “People FEEL like they’re losing control over their lives”. There is nobody FEELING like they lost control over their lives, they ARE losing control over their lives.

Conspiracy in the Digital Age

The QAnon conspiracy theory originated in the United States and was initially a phenomenon that was unique to American politics. However, its popularity has spread overseas in recent years, and its tenets have especially been co-opted by populists and right-wing provocateurs in Europe. The best explanation for this is the increasingly overarching nature of conspiracy theories and the belief in secret government plots. As mentioned in Scott’s article, the concept of a “deep state” has transcended borders and can be interpreted in different ways. The relatively ambiguous and vague nature of the QAnon posts has been captivating for many people, who have directed its “anti-elite” rhetoric to their own governments and politicians. The necessity of transnational cooperation to address to COVID-19 pandemic has only added fuel to the conspiracy theories, whose adherents see coordinated lockdowns and other shared strategies among countries as proof that a “shadow government” indeed exists.

The Kalmar article discussed the tendency of populists to use “dog whistles” to implicitly communicate certain conspiratorial positions. In this case, some Hungarian far-right nationalists identify George Soros as being solely responsible for the recent influx of Muslim migrants into Europe. Although the position of these groups on the migrant crisis is openly Islamophobic, its anti-Semitism is masked behind criticism of the Jewish Soros. The intention here is to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, while still hinting that Jews are weaponizing an immigration crisis to the detriment of native Europeans. These tactics are hardly new to such groups, but they have become especially dangerous in an age of information overload and the fast proliferation of fake news.

The strategic trading of foes

The Holocaust has become, effectively, shorthand for evil – which has given antisemitism, at least in the Western political context, an inimitable stench in politics. It has created something of a third rail in politics, a rule of thumb: to be antisemitic, is to be profoundly racist.

But, more troublingly, the inverse logic is also applied sometimes: to be racist is to be antisemitic; and to not be antisemitic is to not be racist.

As Ivan Kalmar describes, this has allowed for something of a compromise in the far-right: make a show of supporting at least a few Jewish figures, and use that as a shield against accusations of racism/Islamophobia when they target Muslims. Supporting Israel here allows those far-right parties to show support for a Jewish polity, and be recognized for it by Israeli leadership under Benjamin Netanyahu; and also use their ‘support for Israel’s right to exist’ to justify harsher policies against Muslims cast as existential enemies of Israel.

This whitewashing dynamic ties into the European Union’s own raison d’être: preventing a new Holocaust and such crimes against humanity has becoming the public justification for the Union’s existence, easier to sell to the public than a mere engine for economic integration. To do that, though, the Holocaust has been positioned as the darkest stain on the history of Europe – worse than the Great War, than Napoleonic Wars, than the Thirty Years’ War. Nothing less would properly explain why a European Union was coming into being only now, rather than after the destruction of those years.

By making the Holocaust such an exceptional event, though, the European Union allows for that exculpatory dynamic I describe in the first paragraph – and by making Holocaustic recognition a rite of passage for candidate countries, it installs in them early on the logical bases to make that intolerant trade-off.

Ironically, though, there is another dynamic at play in those countries, which might actually weaken the logic of the Holocaust as a uniquely evil event. Namely, these countries have long pushed for recognition of the Soviet occupation as an equivalent, if not a worse, trauma. The occupation lasted longer, they say; invaded the lives of its denizens more deeply, probed them more invasively; and killed more overall.

Of course, there are problems with this narrative, not least of which is the attempt to refocus attention not on the Jewish victim, the ‘Other’, but rather on those victims from the ethnic cores of the Soviet Republics and satellites. In that sense, amending the narrative to equate Holocaustic and Soviet crimes – as the European Union has done, to some degree, by explicitly recognizing both on August 23, the ‘Black Ribbon Day’ also known as ‘the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism’ – may not help the ethnic nationalism driving the far-right to exclude Muslims. In fact, it might make things worse, by weakening the logic that leads these groups to tolerate Jewish communities (at least openly – their actions may speak differently).

But, at least, it might also strip away the thin veil hiding the intolerance of these groups, and might force them back out of the mainstream in those countries where they have managed to crawl onto the main stage.

Conspiracy Theories: Diffusion or Accumulation

Lucas Lang

This week’s readings examined the role of conspiracy theory in influencing the radical right. Conspiracy theory is a complicated element of society. It is typically an indicator of mistrust directed either at groups, classes, or individuals who are deemed to be a threat to society. The readings examined what could be examined as two very different versions of the use of conspiracy theory. One version they examined was conspiracy propagated by government. The example focused upon was from Hungary and observed the Fidesz party’s use of conspiracy surrounding George Soros. The party depicted him as being the propagator of not only Hungary, but also many of Europe’s “problems”, such as multiculturalism, immigration, and cultural decay. Through utilizing this rhetoric, the party is able to portray itself as being the people’s protector against the threats that it creates. By diffusing these ideas to the citizenry, they can create support. The second version examined was conspiracies propagated by the people. These theories tend to be suspicious of governments and the establishment. They are often spread by word of mouth and though external sources. While some conspiracy theories are exchanged in closed groups, others have become so popular that political parties have formed and adopted their beliefs in order to appeal to greater groups of people. In this second version, it is therefore the accumulation of belief within the people which is adopted by the government.

Ironically, part of the reason that conspiracy theories spread so well is that they are often given credit due to persecution. When theories are actively denied or repressed, adherents to the conspiracies will often interpret repression as evidence that they were correct and are being persecuted to prevent the truth from being spread, thus increasing outsiders curiosity.

The Populist Playbook

By: Andreea Gustin

This week centered on conspiracy theories and how they have become a part of the populist playbook in Europe. The last few weeks of the course, we’ve look at themes that have had transnational aspects. This week’s theme is no different as can be seen with Mark Scott’s article, QAnon goes European, which details how QAnon crossed the Atlantic and has become a part of protest, populist and conspiracy groups in Europe. 

It was interesting to see how this American conspiracy theory has integrated into different areas and groups within Europe and how social media and the network society has played a role in QAnon increasingly making their way into the existing online communities and protest movements across the continent. This new interconnectedness we are seeing as a result of the global network society and social media platforms has made it easier for conspiracy groups to spread information like wild fire and to target many different kinds of individuals and groups that they might not have otherwise reached. 

This is a very fitting time to talk about the role of conspiracy theories. As we’re navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been spending a lot more of their time online, as discussed in the Scott article, and it’s led people to come across a lot of disinformation, anti-vaccine content and other conspiracy content. I don’t necessarily believe that people spending more time online is automatically making them fall for conspiracy theory traps, but I do think that the new complexities of fake online sources and conspiracy theories have made them harder to spot now-a-days than it was traditionally. Foreign and unpredictable situations like the current pandemic make a perfect breeding ground for conspiracies. 

Conspiracy Theories in Europe

Sara Dix

The spread of conspiracy theories has become a major influence in spreading disinformation, particularly as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The QAnon conspiracy, while maintained in the fringes throughout Europe, it has taken a strong hold in Germany as described in the YouTube video about TV Chef, Attila Hildmann, and briefly in Mark Scott’s QAnon goes European article. Aside from QAnon, Ivan Kalmar focuses on the utilization of conspiracy theories and the “Soros Plot” by Orban and his Fidesz party in Hungary.

In general, there are a variety of conspiracy theories that have attracted people from various groups such as the Yellow Jacket movement in France, the anti-vaccine community in Italy, and Brexit followers in Britain. The main conspiracy theory that has grown recently in Europe is QAnon; a theory that blends anti-government, anti-lockdown, and anti-Semitic rhetoric with the unfounded belief that the global elite is running a vast pedophile ring. But the main reason that this conspiracy has spread is due to the coronavirus crisis.

While this conspiracy began in the US, it has become a problem in Europe, particularly Germany. I found it interesting how many Germans found themselves believing the QAnon conspiracy because Germany was not as effected by Covid-19. They were able to handle the coronavirus more effectively than other places through lockdowns. I’m also not surprised that conspiracy theorists are negatively impacted both economically and emotionally as conspiracies do appear to be extremely unsound by those who did not fall into the conspiracy trap.