By Reem Ahmed and Daniela Pisoiu
Social media is attractive to the far right in the same way as it is to other extremist groups. It offers a more direct, personal communication channel with potential audiences (Ernst et al. 2017: 1357). Moreover, in the absence of traditional media ‘gatekeepers’, the far right are able to get their message across in a way that was not previously possible in the context of mass media (Stier et al. 2017: 1368). Literature on the Internet and its role in radicalisation, terrorism and extremism has been growing exponentially in recent years. In terms of the far right, there have been a number of studies focusing on the networks and interlinkages online, as well as discourse and content analyses regarding what such groups, individuals, and parties post, and the strategies they employ. This post describes and discusses some of these.
Social Network Analysis (SNA) is one common method which has been used to capture social networks and interlinkages, and to understand better the potential mobilisation structures of the extreme right. Caiani and Wagemann (2009: 69) explain that network analysis is used as a way to investigate the ‘meso’ level of social analysis, ‘filling the gap’ between structure and agency and looking at the connections between the micro- and macro-levels. In a study by Burris et al. (2000), the researchers collected a sample of 80 white supremacist websites based in North America and Europe and measured each website’s centrality score based on the number of incoming links. The most central websites within the network, at the time of the study, were Stormfront, Zundelsite, Resistance Records, and the National Alliance.
Writing in 2000, Burris et al. found that the white supremacist online network was largely decentralised, with different centres of influence. There were few, if any, ‘bridges’ to mainstream political groups, and the online white supremacist world was very isolated from the mainstream Christian right and the Republican Party. There were likewise very few links to other extremist movements or organisations. Finally, the researchers found that whilst there was not enough evidence to confirm the emergence of a transnational white supremacist ‘cyber-community’, the online networks certainly attracted those who lacked such a community in their local towns (Burris et al. 2000: 231–2).
This idea that the Internet serves as an ‘echo chamber’ and a sanctuary for those who do not have access to like-minded people in their own ‘real world’ setting has been investigated – and to some extent verified – on the qualitative level (see, for example, Koehler 2014; von Behr et al. 2013; Wojcieszak 2010). Focusing on the online far-right scene in Italy and Germany, Caiani and Wagemann (2009) examined approximately 80 right-wing extremist organisations in each country and looked at the structure and shape of the networks using SNA. The authors found that the Italian network was more fragmented, while the German network appeared to be more concentrated on a few central actors, with the NPD in particular playing a key role. Caiani and Wagemann also argue that to some extent the results on the virtual level reflect some of the real-world characteristics in each country.
The fragmentation of the far-right scene in Italy, for example, has thwarted attempts to create a united extreme-right force, and whilst the structure of the German network demonstrated more efficient communication channels, the authors argue that it is unlikely that the few central actors will be able to exercise great influence over the whole network (ibid.: 93–4).
When reflecting on these early studies from both Burris et al. and Caiani and Wagemann, it is important to put them in the context of their time; in particular, the online far-right scene has certainly flourished since 2000 when Burris et al. conducted their study, and the radical populist right have made electoral gains across Europe since Caiani and Wagemann’s 2009 study. That is not to negate their worth, but rather to probe the question of such connections anew. The fact that Caiani and Wagemann found that the NPD played a central role within the German far-right scene suggests that a closer investigation into the possible discursive overlaps across the scene itself is warranted; especially given that the NPD has lost much of its influence in the past decade.
Froio and Ganesh (2018) also used SNA to map the transnational far-right Twitter network across France, Germany, Italy, and the UK. Based on an analysis of retweets from followers, they found that while the Internet was a good source for exchange, far-right transnationalism was in fact quite moderate on Twitter as cross-border retweets were limited. The retweets were then qualitatively coded and compared with the content that was retweeted amongst national communities. The two issues that were most likely to be shared transnationally were immigration and ‘anti-native’ economic strategies; in particular, how immigration from predominantly Muslim countries is framed as a perceived ‘threat’ to European culture, security, and the economy. This led the authors to determine that Islamophobia was the “transnational glue of the far right” (Froio and Ganesh 2018: 19).
In another study on the transnational reach of the far-right scene, Davey and Ebner (2017) did find a high level of cooperation between right-wing activists around the world, especially when it came to exerting influence on a number of national elections in Europe in 2017. In the case of the German elections, the aim was to bolster support for the AfD. Information was shared across the American alt-right and European far-right online landscape, including strategies to infiltrate mainstream debates and flood social media with memes and hashtags in support of the AfD, and against the establishment parties. The authors found that the communication had a sequence, which started with coordination and grassroots efforts on 4Chan, 8Chan, and Reddit channels, but then moved onto closed forums. ‘Reconquista Germania’ and ‘Infokrieg’ (info war) on the gamer forum Discord were found to be central in terms of providing instructions for coordinated social media campaigns.
Reconquista Germania, for example, released a video on YouTube proclaiming that the campaign to get the AfD into the German Parliament – attacking the ‘old’ established parties and championing the AfD – would start on 1 September and end with the General Election on 24 September 2017. The instructions included ‘raids’ on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, whereby scheduled tweet storms and hashtags were agreed upon in advance. Members were instructed to troll and spam comment sections on Facebook and YouTube. There was also advice on how to automate Twitter accounts, and members were encouraged to post about other topics too, in order to avoid suspicion and evade take-downs.
Davey and Ebner observe that in the two weeks leading up to the election, the top five trending hashtags were pro-AfD, indicating a successful campaign on the part of the ‘coordinators’. Using geo-tagging, the authors also analysed the #Merkelmussweg (Merkel has to go) hashtag and discovered that whilst over 60% of the tweets containing this hashtag originated in Germany, it was also posted from other European countries and the US, as well as Indonesia.
The extreme right flooded Twitter with #MGGA (Make Germany Great Again) and a barrage of Pepe the Frog memes, in a direct nod to the alt-right tactics during the 2016 US election. This finding is interesting. It indicates that there have been transnational efforts at critical junctures in national politics – such as elections – and that the Internet is facilitating the communication and coordination of such tactics. Davey and Ebner’s study refers to the influence of the US-based far-right online scene, in terms of both the adoption of tactics and transnational cooperation. This is significant, as the US-based far right – particularly the alt-right – are quite influential in terms of driving such narratives online. For example, in his study on the alt-right on Twitter, Berger (2018: 5) observes that whilst the alt-right’s “centre of gravity is found in the United States … its reach extends internationally”.
Berger analysed 27,895 accounts (collected between April and June 2018) which were identified as an ‘audience’ for alt-right content, and detected six key categories of content relating to the following: pro-Trump; white nationalism; general far-right ideas; anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim; trolling/shitposting; conspiracy theories and disinformation (ibid.: 14–16). Pro-Trump content was by far the most prevalent theme, and it provided “a crucial, in-group definition that united a fractious group of far-right ideologues” (ibid.: 53).
The use of conspiracy theories in political discourse has a long history and they were even considered a “legitimate form of knowledge”, especially in the US, where they were communicated through prominent political figures (Butter 2014: 28). For example, Butter argues that presidents from George Washington to Dwight D. Eisenhower brought the American nation together through imaginations of ‘plots’ being carried out against the state by internal and external forces. Importantly, from the 1960s conspiracy theories lost their status of ‘official knowledge’ (in the West) becoming less mainstream and more of a fringe phenomenon. With this shift, the ‘establishment’ began to be included in the group of conspirators, rather than being its victim (ibid.)
As well as investigating transnational linkages, there have been attempts to examine the discursive overlaps that exist within both the broader far-right scene and mainstream politics. For example, in a study on ‘inter-ideological mingling’ on Twitter, Graham (2016) utilised a mixed-method approach which examined both the hierarchical clusters at the meso-level and a textual analysis on individual tweets at the micro-level. For the hierarchical cluster analysis, data was collected through purposive and snowball sampling based on a hashtag search – a total of 4,800 tweets from 12 hashtags were collected. Graham used four hashtags from the following categories: extremist; mainstream conservative; and mainstream progressive.
One month later, a second set of tweets (1,600) was collected using the same hashtag terms as the first search. Graham analysed the texts of the second set of 1,600 tweets with the aim of ascertaining whether the extremist hashtags were being used alongside other mainstream conservative and progressive hashtags in the same tweet, in order to infiltrate the mainstream debate. The results of the micro-level analysis showed that extremists were using hashtags as a tactic to reach out to a wider, more mainstream audience, and that a number of strategies were being employed to do so. The first tactic is ‘piggybacking’,whereby a user would use trending hashtags and add an extremist hashtag, as a means to infiltrate a trending topic. ‘Backstaging’ is used to blend and join a series of hashtags, which ultimately links to an external website. Finally, ‘narrating’ uses a sophisticated blend of hashtags, which flips the debate to fit around the extremist’s idea of current debates (Graham 2016: 33–5). For example, this particular tactic may include taking the hashtag #refugeeswelcome and re-writing the narrative to reflect why refugees should not be welcomed.
Klein and Muis (2018) examined the Facebook pages of far-right parties and groups in the UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The aim of their research was to compare the types of online mobilisation techniques used by parties and non-institutionalised groups (movements and communities) according to the political opportunity structures in their respective countries, as well as to ascertain the differences in online discourses between these groups. Klein and Muis found that far-right parties tended to focus more on the struggle against establishment politics, rather than exclusionary discourse against non-natives. The BNP was an exception, which the authors attributed to the fact that there are limited political opportunities for far-right parties in Britain.
Debate amongst the non-institutionalised groups tended to be more extreme, and there were more activist forms of online mobilisation. For example, the authors noted that the most extreme discussions were found on the pages of Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident – Pegida) and the IBD (Klein and Muis 2018: 15–17). This was not as evident in the Dutch case however, as the non-institutionalised groups placed more emphasis on anti-elitism. The AfD focused more on criticising the EU and the elitist political establishment than Islam and immigration (ibid.: 15–17). It is important to note that the data in this study was collected in 2014–15; as elaborated above, the AfD has changed its direction and party goals significantly since Klein and Muis collected their data, and it is likely that different results would emerge if this study was repeated.
In France there were no notable differences between the discourses of the Front National (National Front – FN) and the French Identitarian Movement. The authors also noted that at times it was difficult to distinguish between party, movement, and community pages because some groups supported a particular party or leader, whereas other groups were called ‘party-movements’. This research is interesting as it highlights some relevant differences between parties and non-institutionalised groups. On the surface, it would appear acceptable to assume that parties tend to place less emphasis on nativism in a bid to appear more attractive and legitimate. However, that does not mean that they do not intersect on an ideological level with movements and communities; thus, it is important to examine the subtext and metanarratives.
In another study, Stier et al. (2017) examined the overlaps between Pegida and the German political parties by looking at two areas of potential crossover on Facebook; in particular, audience and topics. The authors also sought to ascertain whether German political parties were increasingly adopting topics traditionally emphasised by radical right-wing populists. To test for audience overlaps, the authors compared likes and comments on the Facebook pages of Pegida and established German political parties (AfD, CDU, CSU, Freie Demokratische Partei [Free Democratic Party – FDP], Grüne [Greens], Linke [the Left], and the SPD). Pegida and the AfD appealed to similar audiences and focused on similar topics which were different from those of the other parties. The topics included media bias, EU referenda and Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy, and were linked to the wider narrative of criticising elites. The out-group narrative also played a central role for Pegida and the AfD whilst criticising policies relating to asylum, border control, Islam, mass migration and refugee housing. Other topics, such as fear of social decline and poverty amongst the elderly, were also emphasised by the left (Stier et al. 2017: 1378).
Based on this finding, Stier et al. argued: “While party leaders repeatedly distanced the AfD from more radical right-wing groups and Pegida in particular, our findings challenge the self-presentation of the AfD as a party of the political centre” (ibid.: 1381). The researchers also found that the CSU increasingly subsumed topics emphasised by the radical right-wing groups, although not to the same extent as the AfD and Pegida. Other than this, Stier et al. found that the CDU were more inclined to de-emphasise right-wing populist topics, which probably helped the populist groups, especially given the febrile climate in the country on the issue of the grand coalition’s liberal refugee policy (ibid.: 1382).
1 Relating to Pepe the Frog – a meme that was re-appropriated by the alt-right and has been used in racist and anti-Semitic contexts. It was added to the ADL’s hate database in 2016. See: www.adl.org/combating-hate/hate-ondisplay/c/pepe-the-frog.html
2 Berger (2018:14) identifies such content as “hard-right attitudes just outside the realm of mainstream conservatism and fringe-right nationalism lacking an overt racial element.”
3 The FN changed their name to ‘Rassemblement National’ (National Rally – RN) in June 2018.
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This article is an excerpt from a new VOX-Pol report which was released on 12 November, 2019. You can read the full report here.
Reem Ahmed is a Researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) working within the framework of VOX-Pol. She is also a PhD Candidate at the Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy Graduate School of Law (AMBSL) at the University of Hamburg. Her dissertation examines responses to online extremism in the UK, Germany, and the EU and is funded by a scholarship awarded by the AMBSL. You can follow her on Twitter: @RAhmed105
Daniela Pisoiu is a Senior Researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (oiip), Vienna and a member of VOX-Pol. She completed her PhD at the University of St Andrews, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence and has conducted fieldwork on the topic of radicalisation in Austria, Germany and France, as well as other European countries.