Far-right politics on online platforms
Discussions on the fourth wave of far-right politics, referring to its mainstreaming and normalization, can not ignore the role of social media platforms in current-day politics.
Far-right actors were early adaptors of the internet, creating messaging boards, forums and webpages. The reach of these websites was often limited to isolated corners of the web, as individuals had to “seek out” these spaces. The rise of social media platforms broadened the window of opportunity for the far-right. Features of social media platforms, such as hashtags and retweets, allow for far-right content to spread beyond direct followers and reach a much broader audience. Discussions on the fourth wave of far-right politics, referring to its mainstreaming and normalization, can therefore not ignore the role of social media platforms in current-day politics.
The affinity between populists and platforms
The success of the far-right on these platforms is perhaps not remarkable. The populist ideals of these actors fit the egalitarian nature of these platforms, where politicians can directly speak to the people without a filter. Social media platforms, through their algorithmic design, have been argued to favour populist content, which is often highly emotional, simplified and dramatized in nature. This affinity between populists and platforms has contributed to the position of the far-right as “stars in cyberspace”, generating far more support and attention online than other parties or politicians.
In a chapter published in the edited volume Researching the Far Right (Routledge, 2021), we review the methodological opportunities and challenges of using social media data to study online discourses of the far right. With the growing political importance of social media, research into the online networks and discursive practices of far-right actors has surged. Social media platforms enable us to study social behaviour in novel ways, allowing for an unobtrusive analysis of real-life everyday discussions among far right supporters. Moreover, as social media data have exact time indications, it allows us to study the effects of offline events in changes in far-right discourse much more accurately than if we rely on expert surveys or manifestos.
Linking time-stamped tweets to offline events
In our chapter, we illustrate this important benefit by linking time-stamped tweets to offline events. In this study, we analysed whether the salience and position of issues posted on Twitter by Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), changed over time depending on whether he was in the opposition or supporting the minority government. Using a manual content analysis of tweets over three years (2010-2013), we show how Wilders did not moderate his stance when he was in a pact with the minority government. To the contrary, the outspoken nativist stance is remarkably consistent in his tweets.
Twitter is often used by politicians for broadcasting statements to journalists. Politicians use it more frequently to update their followers on their opinions than Facebook. This makes Twitter a more useful medium for tracking the effects of offline happenings on online content than Facebook. Facebook, on the other hand, allows better for studying the variations in discourse between parties and their supporters. The design of Facebook - where users come together such as on message boards to discuss topics that are of their interest - allows for the easy comparison of the views and interests of parties and movements compared to their followers.
Studying issue salience among followers
How parties and their supporters emphasize different issues on Facebook is shown in the second part of our chapter. Whilst far-right parties frequently mention topics such as Islam and migration in their posts, as one would expect, these issues seem to be much more salient in the discourse of their followers. This difference is most notable between parties and their followers, and less considerable between movements and their followers. As we showed in an earlier study, this is not so remarkable, as far-right parties less often address nativist issues, such as those related to migrants and Muslims, compared to far-right movements. Instead, parties take on a much more populist and anti-elitist focus in their online posts. Of course there are differences between countries, with some far right groups being more anti-Islamic overall (the UK), and others more populist (The Netherlands).
New fundamental challenges for researchers
These cases show how social media platforms differ in their affordances, thus shaping different types of communication. At the same time, we show how different types of far-right actors post different type of content on the same platforms. By studying online content, we can more easily track the views of parties over time and compare the views of parties with their followers. It thus can form a useful addition to expert surveys on party placements or manifesto coding. However, after the writing of our chapter, changes in the access of data of social media platforms have created fundamental challenges for researchers that rely on digital trace data. These complications will make it harder for scholars to study how digital platforms are employed by political actors, and its potential consequences. It remains to be seen how discussions on data access will develop and how opportunities for digital scholars will evolve.
This text is excerpted from a longer chapter in the new Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right volume, edited by Stephen Ashe, Joel Busher, Graham Macklin and Aaron Winter: Researching the far right: theory, method and practice.
The arguments were presented as part of the C-REX and PERIL webinar series 'Researching the far right: method and ethics'.
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