Unlike other political and ideological currents, the extreme right and the so-called libertarians have been better able to read the changes in societies, take advantage of the weaknesses and cracks in liberal democracies and understand the advantages offered by new technologies, and they demonstrate this, above all, in their campaigns not only of fakenews, but also of shitnews.
By Aram Aharonian
The far right has understood that fragilities and vulnerabilities can be exploited and that deconstructing shared reality and sowing confusion can further polarise society and remove them in the imposition of collective imaginaries and at the electoral level. Hence their interest and efforts to generate and disseminate fake news. In Europe, the United States, Asia, Oceania and Latin America.
The growth of extreme right-wing parties throughout the world, especially in countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Poland, Brazil and the United States, has put every democrat and anti-fascist on alert, and from this concern arises debates on how to combat their racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic or aporophobic hate messages, i.e., those who reject, dislike, fear and despise the poor, the underprivileged.
And then thinkers ask themselves old questions such as whether intolerance should be tolerated, or whether any idea, even if it is discriminatory, is respectable for the sake of the sacrosanct freedom of expression.
But the real concern is how to counter them and how the media – and social organisations, trade unions, democratic political parties – should deal with the extreme right. And we are back to the eternal dilemma of whether the media should ideally ignore the far right or whether it is better to counter-argue their discourses. The issue is once again on the agenda of academics and communicators.
From March 2020 to October 2021, more than 400 politicians, civil and religious leaders, and some 200 civil, religious and political organisations have been counted in Latin America pushing messages and lobbies against a rights agenda: they do not believe in a gender focus in education, nor in LGBTI rights, nor in equal marriage, nor in sexual and reproductive rights. And they question the UN’s efforts to push for gender equality, “the globalist agenda”.
The far right
The far right 2.0 has been able to read the changes in society better than others, to take advantage of the weaknesses and cracks in liberal democracies and to understand the possibilities offered by new technologies, unlike other political and ideological currents. It has understood that existing weaknesses and vulnerabilities can be exploited.
Hence its interest in and efforts to generate and disseminate fake news. In the 2016 US election campaign, the vast majority of fake news were pro-Trump messages, while in Poland, twice as many fake news pages were classified as conservative as progressive ones.
The far-right’s medium-term goals are to undermine the quality of public debate, promote misperceptions, foster greater hostility and erode trust in democracy, journalism and institutions.
Up to 22 new websites that function as “opinion generators and content creation by influencers, to fabricators of hoaxes or ‘fake news’ or the whitewashing and naturalisation of the far right” were identified in Europe by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, in a report that states that the genesis of the new right lies precisely in the internet and in these types of portals.
The viralisation of messages, videos or memes on social networks is the most widely used tactic through a complex network where so-called far-right influencers are aided by an endless number of fake or automated profiles -bots and sockpuppets- and activists who engage in trolling and shitposting. Techniques that border on illegality or are punishable as a crime are becoming increasingly common.
These include doxing – the disclosure of a person’s personal details in order to intimidate, silence and publicly discredit critical voices and political opponents – or coordinated attacks known as shitstorming.
Often these practices are supported by what have been called troll factories or troll farms, companies dedicated to creating automated accounts, spreading fake news and harassing journalists or users on social media. These companies can be funded or created by governments, but also set up by individuals apparently not linked to political formations or governments. But generally, the financiers are the same.
In the far-right’s strategy, fake news is a central element, and there is a distinction between short- and medium-term objectives. Among the former, as the case of Cambridge Analytica shows, is that of winning elections or increasing electoral consensus.
The ability of fake news to modify voting intentions seems to be much more effective than traditional electoral advertisements. The slogans used – ‘Take Back Control’, ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Italians First’ – have ‘sold’ their political products, have managed to connect with the sentiments of the citizenry and have displaced rational reflection on technical issues.
This connects with social media studies, which allow us to analyse people’s feelings, opinions, prejudices and fears, and thus personalise propaganda and push certain messages over others. Content that provokes highly stimulating emotions is more likely to be shared. That is, a Facebook post or tweet that provokes astonishment, anxiety or anger is positively linked to virality.
Already Cambridge Analytica (CA)-a private British company that combined data mining and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process-which came to fame in 2018 for the so-called “Facebook-CA scandal”-had shown that provoking anger and outrage reduced the need for rational explanations and predisposed voters to a more indiscriminately punitive mood.
In his study of the far-right US Alt-Right, The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz showed how memes – that is, an image, video or text, usually distorted for caricatural purposes – are key to this strategy. The algorithms used by the major social platforms were not designed to assess whether an idea was true or false, prosocial or antisocial, but to measure whether a meme triggered a surge of activating emotions in a large number of people.
Memes are associated with the tactic of shitposting, i.e., trolling and attacking political opponents and filling social networks with low-quality content to divert discussions and render what is posted on a site useless or, at the very least, worthless. Shitposting also has the function of desensitising listeners over time.
It is therefore evident that the publication of fake news and conspiracy theories favours both the viralisation of news and the emotional and visceral reactions of a significant percentage of users. And the viralisation, moreover, does not remain only in social networks, but also reaches the traditional media and even parliaments.
The phenomenon of feedback between social networks, traditional media and places of public debate such as parliaments demonstrates the existence of global networks for the dissemination of far-right discourse, such as Steve Bannon’s Movement, one of the promoters of far-right libertarianism, but also important lobbies – such as arms or Christian fundamentalism – that promote a common agenda and finance far-right parties.
This is what explains the spread of truly incredible plot theories such as Pizzagate, according to which the main leaders of the Democratic Party in the US, starting with Hillary Clinton, had created a human trafficking network and organised child sex abuse sessions in restaurants such as the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington.
Or that of Qanon – which interprets the world as a struggle between Good and Evil, represented by Trump and a supposed System, respectively – or that according to which Bill Gates is the creator of the coronavirus. In a bewildering and ambiguous reality, conspiracy theories offer a mould of order, whose attractive simplicity eclipses their absurdities, Forti points out.
Spain’s far-right Vox party studies the formation’s website and profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Flickr, Youtube, Instagram, TikTok and Gab. The use of these channels differs in their format and style, as they target different audience profiles.
An analysis by Andrea Castro and Pablo Díaz points out that all the content generated by Vox for the digital sphere responds to the same discursive patterns: simplification and the use of direct and clear language, with belligerent expressions and calls to action, which it exploits to disqualify and ridicule its political opponents and praise its leaders. His use of networks focused on young users, such as Youtube, Instagram or TikTok, where he adapts his stylistic resources, stands out.
Also relevant is its presence on Gab, a social network characterised by not limiting any content and whose users are associated with extreme right-wing political positions.
In Germany, the AfD, the new German far right, did not become the country’s “social media” party by chance. They knew that the mainstream media would not let their racist and disrespectful messages get across so easily. And so, they started to sell themselves as victims who build their own rebel loudspeaker and begin to generate distrust of the mainstream media.
No other political party in Germany has more followers than Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) on Facebook. It has 4.5 million users in Germany. The more emotion a post conveys, the more reactions it provokes. This is how the algorithms score. More user interaction with a post means more visibility and more attention.
While the AfD’s official pages contain posts on topics such as terrorism and immigration, the far right is at home in private Facebook groups. The modern discourse of the “new far right” changes and users go straight to sharing quotes from Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s book, or links to “scientific” publications on white supremacy and so on.
As a closed group, this generates a much stronger sense of community or bond, where the constant reaffirmation of the same identity that feels defrauded and “deceived” by the media and institutions is strengthened. Only three percent of Germans have a twitter account, but almost every journalist in Germany has one. Their tweets are aggressive and direct in order to get their issues on the media agenda and get the other parties to make statements about them.
Conspiracy theories can also be transmitted as a subtly progressive process. They call this redpilling, in reference to the movie Matrix, where the ideological component is added step by step. Personal fear is associated with a picture of the culprit. In most cases these are fears related to migration, sexual violence, social decline or terrorist attacks. Conspiracy theory provides an easy explanation and a simple picture of the enemy.
In the US it was noticed that the focus and resources afterwards were too much on Islamist terrorism. The far-right internet networks were hardly observed. There was a failure to better understand this whole subculture, in order to finally be able to classify it properly.
What is potentially threatening to democracy? What can turn into violence? What is really just trolling? Today, the authorities do not have the full picture, in terms of far-right online groups. On the Islamist side they believe they are much better protected, or at least they do not have accomplices in the upper echelons of power.