Populists use social media to target younger voters and bypass traditional mainstream media that are seen as hostile. They create the impression that they are the truly modern parties, while their opponents, who were not able to catch up, still rely on old-style politics.
Did you know that the French National Front was the first polit- ical party to launch a website in 1996? That Marine Le Pen has 2.16 million followers on Twitter, while the French conservative leader Laurent Wauquiez has only 313,000 and the French Socialist Party even less? Sad news, but predictable for several reasons.
First, as the far-right Populists have set a priority on targeting the youth, they have consequently adopted their mode of communication, which is, mainly, using Facebook and Twitter.
Second, the far-right is often depicted by its opponents as backwards and opposed to change, but is has nimbly responded by becoming an expert in the use of social media, and it has also invested a great deal of energy in producing high-quality videos such as the one on “Being a European”, produced by the New Right “Institut Iliade”, which amassed 1 million views on YouTube.
Populists have an edge, because their unsubstantiated claims or outright disinformation can find a wide audience on social media.
Thirdly, social media very much fits the short-worded, aggressive, forthright kind of discourse the far-right Populists use in order to make believe that complex issues can be answered in simple “Yes or No”- dichotomies. This is probably the main issue for the Progressives, who will have to adapt their messages and communication into the Twitter format if they want to be better heard.
In the meantime, Populists have an edge, because their unsubstantiated claims or outright disinformation can find a wide audience on social media, whose younger addicts rely less and less on the established printed, TV or radio media, with the consequence that they tend to believe what they read on propaganda accounts or websites where the accuracy of information is not guaranteed by the same ethical standards as in the traditional media. The growing distrust in mainstream media is the reason why so many supporters of the far-right, and also many uncommitted voters, are in search of “alternative news” – this ends up being a great boost to the Populists. The far-right are trying to tell citizens that the mainstream media is not trustworthy because it is in the hands of “financial powers” whose hidden agenda is to promote globalisation and multiculturalism at any cost, but not to provide a fair coverage of the news.
Far-right Populists also like to portray themselves as outcasts whose point of view is censored by the “liberal” media, while in fact they often get far bigger press coverage than they deserve according to their electoral strength. That is why they train their militants to use social media as a propaganda tool. And their propaganda on the social networks is not only about relying party slogans and events: it also means knowing how to discredit political opponents on social media through “trolling” on Twitter, for example, and even through intimidation and threats posted on social media.
Far-right Populists are not the only people at the extreme end of the political spectrum to be adept in using social media. A number of activists, extreme-right movements, have gained a high-profile visibility by staging actions which are “broadcast” live on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram or Twitter: Génération Identitaire, the French paragon for the whole trans-European “Identity” movement, has become well- known through its aptitude to create an online buzz as well as anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim street actions.
As Populists and hardcore racists have become technology savvy, the major challenge for the Progressives is to promote a European agenda of regulating social media so that it is no longer a “safe haven” for hate speech.