By Absalom Sink
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.