Digital communication of right-wing populist parties

In a large scale research project, Research Group "Digitalisation and the Transnational Public Sphere" investigates patterns of digital communication of right-wing populist parties in six European countries. The team around Research Group Leader Annett Heft reports on the findings from the analysis of party communication in social networks and on websites in the context of the 2019 European elections.

The 2019 European Parliament (EP) elections entailed a major test for European democracy: Populist parties on the right had gained ground throughout Europe in 2014 and now election commentators speculated that their growing gains in national elections suggested that they could build on this success at European level. In the course of the election campaign, this would add another burden to the political project of European integration. Although the election results did not confirm all the fears, it was clear that the right-wing populist parties were able to consolidate their representation in the parliament and in some cases achieved spectacular successes, such as the Italian Lega.

Although a transnational public sphere across Europe has always been associated with more European democracy, 2019 showed greater cross-border collaboration among populist challengers to the system. For example, after Matteo Salvini met with populist counterparts in Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party in January of 2019, he explicitly called for an “Italian-Polish axis” in the EP to challenge the influence of centrist parties in Germany and France.

The core of right-wing populist communication is tied to the internet. Digital technologies allow new kinds of actors to thrive in an increasingly fragmented public sphere, bypassing traditional news media gatekeepers and speaking directly to enclaves of disaffection. At the same time, digital communications offer new possibilities to form networks across national boundaries. Thus, parties and individuals that are marginalised within their own domestic politics are in the position to exchange information and build alliances with like-minded actors abroad.

Against this background, our research group "Digitalisation and the Transnational Public Sphere" asks to what extent do digital communications enhance the Europeanisation of the radical right? To answer this question, we have been conducting a major research project investigating party communications on Facebook, Twitter and websites across six European countries in the 2019 EP campaign. We included countries in which right-wing parties hold different positions. Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreich (FPÖ), Italy’s Lega and Poland's (PiS) have been established and hold significant power or government positions. France’s Rassemblement National (RN), Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and Sweden’s Sverigedemokraterna (SD) have been kept at the margins of their political systems. Using innovative computer- based methods, we searched for evidence of transnational networks between these right- wing populist parties in the election campaign. We also examined the themes of right-wing populist parties, how much they resembled each other or where their agendas differed.

Our data does not reveal the presence of a single, integrated network of the European radical right. Instead, we find that radical right parties are much more likely to establish and reinforce links within their own national- level community. For example, the AfD tweets connect primarily to members of their own party. Nevertheless, there are some situations where European linkages do occur, and two factors prove particularly significant in our data to explain when and why.

We find that transnationalisation is more likely between parties that share a parliamentary party affiliation and thus work together ideologically and organisationally. For example, around 20 percent of the digital connections of the Polish PiS refer to the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the EP. After the 2019 elections, a number of right-wing populist parties joined together to form the new Identity and Democracy group. We can expect potentially greater transnationalisation over the current term of the European Parliament.

Second, transnationality is more pronounced among citizens and civil society actors engaging with right-wing parties, as opposed to the parties themselves. In other words, the German public engaging with the AfD using Twitter are more prone to react and connect transnationally, such as with the Italian Lega or the RN, than the politicians are.

Thus, right-wing Europeanisation is sustained by a dynamic that emerges from bottom up more than from a top-down organisation. This finding is important because it suggests that political entrepreneurs at the grassroots level will be the basis for right-wing transnationalisation in the future.

Transnationalisation here means that parties raise the same issues in the same time periods in their digital communications. Structural topic modelling allows us to not only find the main themes raised and observe how the estimated proportions of these themes changed over time.

In addition to general campaigning information, two issues unite right-wing parties on a transnational level: immigration issues and blaming the elites. The intensity of these shared issues varies according to the individual party and is influenced by individual factors, however, such as the political role in a government and their ideological stances. Part of the transnational potential for these issues is the way they can be adapted and localised to suit individual country contexts.

For instance, in the case of immigration, the German AfD focuses on crimes committed by migrants, the economy and asylum policy, while the Swedish SD focuses mostly on cultural aspects of immigration, such as Islamisation and terrorism. Such a difference can be explained by the particularly strong ideological stance of the SD, which rejects multiculturalism and puts an effort into distinguishing “culturally similar Swedes” from other ethnic groups.

All right-wing parties in our study share the disposition of blaming the elites. However, they are also adapting this issue to national contexts. Outsider parties in oppositional roles, like in Germany, Sweden and France, are more focused on criticising the established political parties and media. We interpret this as a strategic choice in the fight with political competitors. Right-wing parties in government like the Lega in Italy, PiS in Poland and the FPÖ in Austria, which arguably hold more elite power themselves, shift the blame to the European level by jumping on issues of EU scepticism.

The coronavirus pandemic, with its intertwined health and economic crises, is increasing the pressure on liberal democratic institutions and European democracy. Against this background, the role of digitalisation in threatening European democracy, and in particular the transnationalisation of right-wing actors in the political system, will continue to occupy us.




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