This week’s sources centered on the role of media and its construction of conditions for populist formulation, in particular now with the global network society. I think this week’s focus ties in really well to some of the themes explored last week regarding online conspiracy theories. The network society and social media platforms have changed messaging completely – from who it comes from to how quickly it spreads.
As mentioned in Des Freedman’s “Populism and Media Policy Failure”, media failures have contributed to the rise of populism. This has happened as a result of far-right populist politicians and movements securing high levels of visibility thanks to often complicit media outlets and unregulated digital platforms.
The networked society is different than the legacy media outlets which came before it as it provides a level of interconnectedness that the world has never seen before. Anyone and everyone have access to sharing information online whether it be true or not. Legacy media was much more focused on reputation and providing credible information. Whereas now, big tech companies are more interested in clicks and profit and are not held accountable for the spread of misinformation on their platforms.
As can be seen with populists like Trump or Le Pen, mass media and online platforms give them a platform that would not have had previously which has allowed them to reach more people. Having this platform where your ideologies can reach thousands in a second, paired with the lack of fact-checking online is a dangerous combination.
Based on the Digital Services Act, there are steps being taken in order to combat the spreading of false information to manipulate people. However, I can’t help but think that the online world has become so complex and so fast-paced that no legislation would be enough to keep up with it.
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.
This week’s sources centered on multiculturalism in Europe. Specifically, the readings highlighted how Europe sees cultural pluralism and mass migration as a threat to its national identity. We’ve seen this theme throughout the course – pure “European-ness” is celebrated and anything that does not fit into that identity is seen as lesser-than and as a threat. What even is European-ness? And why does this notion of superiority still exist in today’s age?
Nilüfer Göle’s Decentering Europe, Recentering Islam, points out that Muslims belong to Europe in a variety of ways; as original inhabitants, citizens of Europe, converts, migrants, or political candidates. The visibility of Islamic religion in Europe has become a controversial issue in the last three decades, and it has inspired public expressions of resentment and fear, leading to a legislative politics of prohibiting or excluding the religious symbols and practices of Muslims in many European countries. Muslims in Europe have been subject to “othering” and an “us versus them” mentality. We know based off of our discussions of the Jewish population in WW2 that this kind of discourse is highly troubling and dangerous. El-Tayeb’s writings support this idea of Muslims being portrayed as the Other in Europe by focusing on the positionality of queer Muslims.
Based on the sources this week, it becomes clear that “European” identity is actually based off the idea of exclusion. It’s not about who is a part of it, but who is not. These divisive ideas being spread by both citizens and governments across Europe will continue to polarize the continent and continue the historical mistreatment and neglect of minorities.
The far-right is becoming more attractive during the pandemic. This is being achieved through the spreading conspiracy theories and participating in the rallies and anti-lockdown protests. Since the start of the pandemic, quarantine regimes have seen an increase in mobilization of right-wing extremists, whose ideologies have been gaining traction through the use of alternative media outlets, the spread of Covid conspiracies, and anti-lockdown protests.
How they are spreading their message
Right-wing messages are often shared through social media platforms. These platforms, full of targeted propaganda, are used to connect and gather people together, as well as to advertise and disperse misleading information. They send out messages and conspiracy theories that play on the uncertainty of the pandemic, and people’s fears and insecurities.
The far-right often uses “alternative media” outlets for their publications, in order to distance themselves from established, elite, and political media. The alternative media uses the same facts but interlace their reports with speculation and suggestions of things that could be true. This includes claims that the virus was lab-created and is not as dangerous as other media outlets would like the public to believe. The mistruths they tell are often subtle and seemingly harmless.
There are also connections made between alternative media with other platforms – including Facebook and Youtube – to gain the perception of credibility and attract a dedicated following. Credibility is also obtained when public figures, such as celebrities, play into the conspiracy theories.
An attractive option for people
As the pandemic ensues and people are under strict rules – as vitally important as the guidelines are – people are continuing to lose faith in the government; especially business owners and workers who are financially and mentally suffering due to the prolonged lock-downs and enforced curfews. Other people are finding the restrictions oppressive and an inhibitor of their normal lives that they desperately long to go back to. People are upset and the far-right preys on this, with the desire to cultivate hatred and mistrust amongst people’s views of the democratic system and its political leaders.
The extremist groups who are encouraging, hijacking, and establishing protests are able to use violence as a way to promote their ideology and gain media attention. They portray themselves as activists that are hands-on and are involved with and act for the people; they refuse to step down, instead they fight for what they believe in. This was shown during the protests in Vienna where Neo-Nazi militants “refused to disband and blocked traffic.”
The European demonstrators encouraged breaking rules – including businesses, saying that they should open “in the spirit of civil disobedience.” However, this is ironic, far-right demonstrators encouraging businesses such as restaurants to break the rules. They want to gain favour of the public but if they are encouraging people to break the rules, how do they expect a committed following of people who will listen to them and comply with their rules and desires for the country.
Historical Imagery and Comparisons
Aside from social media platforms and violence, the far-right extremists use symbols and specific imagery to get attention and spread their ideology. In Belgium, like many European countries, the government is advising mass vaccinations in order to lift lockdown measures. In opposition of this, however, the far-right “used an image of Auschwitz in its campaign against public health measures and vaccinations.” The repurposing and editing of an Auschwitz image was used as a symbol of government control in a time when it was advertised that the government knew what they were doing. Using historical imagery, in combination with social media, accelerates their message and gains them a mass following. Other brandished images are a nod to the Reichsbürger movement – a movement that “rejects the legitimacy of the modern German state.”
Lastly, the anti-lockdown riot in Berlin saw comparisons to the Reichstag fire in 1933 – that was used as a way to consolidate power and target communities, allowing the Nazi regime to rise in Germany. Decades later, the right-wing extremists took over the riots in order to storm the Reichstags (government) building. This is important to note as they want to overthrow the current democracy system in favour of a far-right regime, and are using Covid-19 as means to an end.
While right-wing extremists are actively participating in riots, they are attracting large numbers of people with their ideologies. They spread conspiracies and prey upon people’s fears that are a result of tensions with the uncertainty of the pandemic, and the response and measures put in place by the government.
This week’s sources allowed us to take a look at both the historical and contemporary appeal of the far-right to women. I’ve had the chance to take other courses centered on Europe during the twentieth century in which I’ve previously learned about the Nazi regime and fascist ideologies. However, I had always felt like there was a gap in my knowledge as none of these courses explicitly covered the role of women. This week’s readings provided a fascinating perspective and challenged my expectations of women’s involvement in the Nazi movement.
Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields provided a foundational understanding of why and how women participated in the Nazi movement. One early female activist recounted the political awakening of women to the Nazi movement, in which she said “women could not remain uninvolved in this struggle, for it was their future too, and the future of their children” (p.20). During this time period, women were beginning to gain greater independence – they had a youthful energy and aspirations for a better life. They supported Hitler and contributed to his rise in power as they believed it would be benefitting their nation – in turn, these women aided in committing atrocious crimes.
It was interesting to read the Guardian article afterwards, From Le Pen to Alice Weidel: how the European far-right sets its sights on women, as it showed commonalities of what interests’ women in the far-right today. Although not the entire reason, one of the contemporary appeals for women to the far-right is the fact that they “feel left behind”. It’s incredibly fascinating to see women gravitate to groups which are or once were dominated by patriarchal ideology in order to further their own aspirations. All in all, I think this week’s sources all provided an intriguing look at the critical role women play in conflict and populist movements.
The sources we explored this week set the foundation for some key terms which will follow us throughout the rest of our course. Given my basic understanding of fascism and populism, this week’s readings provided greater insight into some of the complex terms and concepts associated with these ideologies.
In recent years following the Trump presidency and all that came with it, many of us have seen the word “fascism” come up in regards to the American political climate. The article, “What We Don’t Understand About Fascism” by Victoria De Grazia, effectively showcased how contemporary events relate to the challenges and tragedies of the historic past. She argues that the problem facing America is not fascism itself, but rather a “crisis of a kind that historic fascism invented itself to address, in the most awful ways”. This week we also read the works of Moyn and Gordon’s which both aim to contextualize fascism and populism. Similar to De Grazia, both Moyn and Gordon discuss the use of comparisons of the past to contemporary situations, although their works point out some issues with comparing modern events to the past.
This reading made me reflect on the fact that many of us attempt to understand modern issues by applying the lens of the past. They say history repeats itself, however, there needs to be greater understanding of how these ideologies change and how the meaning of these concepts develops over time. Today we can see ideologies like fascism and populism being used as labels to modern issues, however, modern issues can differ from those of the past and can lead to new consequences not outlined by history.
The theme of this week’s readings focused primarily on the terminology of populism and fascism. With a few of the readings, the main focus was on the comparison of fascism to the modern day and why this may not be the most effective strategy to address current events. In the United States specifically, the comparison of the republican party (or rather this specific version of it) and especially soon to be former president Donald Trump has become to the historic days of fascist regimes (Italy’s Mussolini) has become rather “fashionable”. De Grazia, Moyn and Gordon all argue (to differing degrees) that the constant comparisons may in fact actually dilute and even to some degree even insult the “actual fascism” that was present in the past. Moyn and Gordon argue with a broader approach, that the trend of comparing current events (regardless of their degree of horror and general disapproval), may in fact serve to be counter intuitive to a certain extent.
With regards to Moyn’s analysis, I am inclined to both agree and disagree with his opinion. Specifically, I concur with his overall message that the main objective with comparisons to the past need to take into consideration not only the context of what occurred, but also examine the weight with which these comparisons should be taken into account. As Moyn states, “charging fascism does nothing on its own. Only building an alternative to the present does…” and hence the idea that simply drawing the comparison between Donald Trump and fascism without actually providing context for why specifically the comparison is being made and furthermore what should be done about it, needs to be readdressed.
As a final note, I also agree with De Grazia’s main point which I feel was the fact that once again, another “trendy” term (this time being fascism) is in a sense not being fully appreciated, due to many of those using the term, not fully appreciating its weight. As a question going forward, I wonder if perhaps these analogies to historic events would become more useful and meaningful by first ensuring that the definition of the term (fascism in this case) is fully understood by the audience (whether it be a specific person, or the general public). Furthermore, I postulate if perhaps it would be worth while to always follow up said comparison with more actionable concepts
Onwards to populism briefly and here I found the DEMOS study to be quite surprising (at least to my less historically experienced eyes) in that they were able to divide up the different movements into four distinct types of populism. In addition, these types were all over the political spectrum, from the far left and right, to in-between, which surprised me as I figured based on the limited definition of populism (essentially charging a “the people” vs “the elite” anti-establishment mentality), that the specific ideology of populism was fairly rigid (which of course is not the case). I also do not completely understand the significant difference between the illiberal compared with the anti-establishment populist movements. In particular, I wonder about the “radical democratic appeal” that the authors charge is present mainly in the anti-establishment movement yet lacking in the illiberal movements. I also wonder how the use of “conspiratory explanations” with the illiberal charges is also not strongly reflected in the anti-establishment movements.
The core questions around which this week’s readings revolve are:
How does social media construct particular conditions for populist formations?
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.
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.
becoming a tiresome cliché, isn’t it? Almost as tiresome as the cliché from a
few years ago: that of a ‘rising tide of far-right populism’ in Europe. And
while that old number is still getting plenty of play, it seems like every month there’s
a handful of new articles and op-eds pontificating on whether the ‘populist tide’
has peaked and begun to ebb.
is when we try to use events like these to extrapolate out over the whole of
Europe. In fact, just framing it as the populist right is problematic.
Certainly, there are transnational connections between
populist movements/parties, but there is no single, monolithic populism. These groups cooperate to
the extent that it’s practical. But if, say, Germany’s AfD were to suddenly
founder, it’s a fair bet that the Swiss Peoples’ Party and the RN and the
Sweden Democrats—far-right populists, all—would let them sink before risking
their own positions. By lumping all these groups together when declaring that
the ‘populist tide is receding’, we massively oversimply a complex
transnational political situation.
oversimplifying things, there’s also the worry that such statements might make
voters complacent; believing the threat to be behind them, voters might have
less impetus to vote. The problem is a number of far-right populist parties in
Europe still have fairly robust polling numbers. Germany’s AfD has held steady
at 13-14% in the national polls for two years, while in Thuringia’s state
election last month it came second, with over 23% of the vote. In France, Marine Le Pen’s RN is
actually leading the presidential poll, hovering around 28%. Even in Austria, where the ‘Ibiza affair’ saw
the FPÖ drop by 10% in the last election, they picked up enough seats that they were able to maintain
their coalition government with the winning ÖVP. How can we claim that
far-right populism has peaked when a party like the ‘formerly’ fascist Sweden
Democrats are poised to become the biggest party
in their country,
and could conceivably with the 2022 election?
My point in
all of this is simply that journalists and political observers alike should be
wary of making sweeping declarations on the state of far-right populism. Europe
is bigger and more diverse than we sometimes recognize; when we’re talking
about an entire continent, it’s worth remembering that high tide happens at
different times in Helsinki, Finland and Cadiz, Spain. The same goes for the
metaphorical tide. While populism might ebb in one region, it can still be in
flood in another.
Two weeks ago, we read
and discussed the rise of the Nouvelle Droite (ND), first in France, and then
in a broader, pan-European context. Crucial to the formulation of the ND was
its retreat from the political arena into the realm of culture, the realm of “metapolitics”.
Seeing in the protests of 1968 the sway that the Left held over cultural
institutions—particularly institutions of higher education—far right figures led
by Alain de Benoist ostensibly abandoned politics and moved instead to open up
cultural space in which later generations of Far Right thinkers and politicians
might act; they appropriated from the Left Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, and
worked to sow the seeds of a counterhegemonic bloc.
From this week’s
readings, I would argue that the experiment is something of a qualified
success. Certainly, most of today’s so-called Radical Right1 have
not taken up de Benoist’s neopagan ritualism. And the populist, self-described “democratic”
nature of Radical Right movements is inherently contrary to the ND’s
anti-democratic, elitist formulation. But as the readings make clear, there are
crucial threads linking the ND and the Radical Right. Chief among them is ethnopluralism.
As Ina Schmidt explains, “Ethnopluralism is an ideology of the far right, which
is no longer directed against foreign ethnicities, but rather against
cultures—understood as being irrevocably connected with certain values,
practices, and habits.” Essentially, it is a form of cultural racism, as opposed
to the biological racism of yore, popular with fascists. By shifting the focus
of their xenophobia from “race” to “culture”, Radical Right groups avoid the
charge of racism and open ideological space between themselves and fascist
forebears. It’s the ideological sleight of hand that lets Islamophobes respond
to charges of racism with the stock sentence “Islam isn’t a race!” And as we’ll
recall from Tamir Bar-On’s article, it is the same semantic shift that de Benoist
and his followers made in the 1980s, moving from biological racism to the anti-multicultural
“Europe of a Hundred Flags”.
It does not really
matter that groups like Pegida or the Front National don’t adhere entirely to
the roadmap laid down by the ND. Remember, the goal of the ND was simply to create
the cultural space in which Far Right ideals might be taken once more into the
political sphere—ideals like the abandonment of liberal democracy, and at least
since the 1980s, of ethnopluralism over multiculturalism. By achieving broader
cultural acceptance, as evinced by de Benoist’s Prix de l’essai from l’Académie
Française and glowing coverage in Telos, the ND was able to open that
political space it desired. It now needed political actors to take up the
mantle. As both Zack Beauchamp—in his interview with our old friend Cas Mudde—and
Pietro Castelli Gattinara show, a series of events in 2015 would provide the
spark for an explosion of Radical Right movements to occupy that space, a sort
of Far Right Big Bang.
According to Mudde, “the
core of the ideology of the radical right includes three features: nativism, authoritarianism,
and populism.” Nativism, he says, is essentially a form of xenophobia that
dictates that a state should only be inhabited by people who are “native” to it.2
Authoritarianism revolves around the belief that society should be “strictly
ordered”, and in which any social issue becomes treated as an issue of security—the
example Mudde gives here is the treatment of drug crises as “something to be
cracked down on” through law and order, rather than as a public health issue.
Finally, populism boils down to another “us versus them” dichotomy, this time
between “the elites”—typically mainstream political figures, but with a healthy
helping of wealthy proponents of liberalism, like the far right’s bogeyman George
Soros—and “the real people”.3 2015 brought a confluence of factors
that served to empower nascent Radical Right movements throughout Europe. First,
the refugee crisis, stoked nativist fears throughout Europe. Terror attacks, starting
with Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, fueled authoritarian tendencies and calls
for increased vigilance, particularly against ‘outsiders.’ Finally, the lingering
effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the aftershocks that threatened the
structural integrity of the EU undermined the existing economic liberal order
and played into populist anti-elitist rhetoric.
Julius Evola knew he
would never see a truly resurgent fascism in his lifetime; it is entirely
possible that Alain de Benoist never thought he’d see the ideological seeds he
sowed bear fruit. But a series of external shocks—a financial crisis
originating in the United States, revolutions throughout the Middle East
leading to a nearly decade-long civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIL, and the
largest refugee crisis since the Bosnian War—provided the cover for a broad range
of Radical Right political movements to spring up in the cultural niche carved
out by the ND.
1Borrowing here from Cas Mudde’s differentiation between
“Extreme Right” and “Radical Right”, in which the former rejects democracy outright
in favour of revolution aiming for authoritarianism, while the latter merely
rejects aspects of liberal democracy, like pluralism and minority rights,
while still claiming to adhere to democratic principles. Castelli Gattinara
helps to further clarify, explaining that radical right groups “locate
themselves outside the political mainstream but without intending to replace
democracy with an authoritarian order.”
2Remember, though, from our very first class, when we grappled with the question of “who is really ‘native’ to a given place?” The Magyar people claim ownership of Hungary, even though they are likely to have arrived significantly later that the ancestors of today’s Slovenes within the borders of Hungary. Likewise, how “native” is a person who calls themselves an “Anglo-Saxon”—itself an incredibly fraught term—to Britain?
3”The real people” has become something of a shibboleth
for Far- and Radical Right groups, differentiating them from Left populists; as
Jan Werner-Muller explains, the term serves to “other” any who don’t fit with
the “majority”, while also delegitimizing any other groups and figures vying
Bar-On, Tamir. “Transnationalism
and the French Nouvelle Droite.” Patterns of Prejudice 45, no. 3 (July
Castelli Gattinara, Pietro. “Framing Exclusion in the Public Sphere: Far-Right Mobilisation and the Debate on Charlie Hebdo in Italy.” South European Society & Politics 22, no. 3 (Sept. 2017): 345–364.
Schmidt, Ina. “PEGIDA: A Hybrid Form of a Populist Right Movement.” German Politics & Society 35, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 105–17.