by Michael O’Regan
There’s an observable inclination in some of the literature to automatically associate digital communication with progressive political practices. For example, Hintz’ normative formulation of civil society media explicitly excludes “right-wing movements” (Hintz, 2007, p. 244). Likewise, although Taub et. al (2012) reach overwhelmingly negative conclusions about the techniques and effectiveness of Kony 2012, they acknowledge that the campaign was initially driven by the noblest ameliorative motives.
But it’s salient to remember that new media may also “empower illiberal actors”, (Aday et.al, 2010, p. 7) and can be “fuelled by reactionary tendencies and aims”, (Cammaerts, 2007, p. 217) emboldening those individuals and groups seeking to develop communication against social change.
There is much evidence that such phenomena are occurring within the European Union context. For example, Ekman has shone a light on the ways in which digital technologies have been appropriated by the Swedish extreme right, highlighting how its sympathisers use YouTube as a fungible representational resource to mobilise an unsettling poetics of “confrontation, homo-social aggressiveness and latent violence” (2014, p. 56).
While these groups have been essentially barred from the consensualist politics of mainstream broadcast and print press, new media grant them unfiltered access to a theoretically global audience, by extension facilitating the dissemination of ideas, new member recruitment, and the production of an emotion-laden politics of affection that posits the possibility of returning society to a—perceived—prelapsarian age.
This brand of regressive new media activism would appear to be building momentum. Even in my place of residence, a sleepy coastal hamlet that’s far removed from the hustle and bustle of big-time politics, there’s been a digitally mediated resurgence of right-wing politicking.
In recent months, a chapter of the anti-Islam Pegida organisation has been formed here. This group have used their Facebook page to spread calculatedly inflammatory rhetoric about minority populations, and stoke-up opposition to the construction of a mosque. The unpleasantness extends to their YouTube page, where a member involved in a leafleting drop can be seen to act in an intimidating manner toward a Muslim woman who’s out walking with her young children.
It would be nice to dismiss such groups as a lunatic fringe, but the increasing electoral success of European populist parties indicates that these instances of new media use are reasonably reflective of changing patterns of political contestation.
Indeed, all of this is a predictable corollary to the ossification of liberal democratic institutions and parties, an ossification which has cemented the sense that, in Mouffe’s words, “there are many sectors that do not feel represented”, (quoted in Korbik, 2014) creating an opening for those who claim to offer an alternative; however specious—and spurious—that alternative may be.
Of course, populism is a two-lane street, and the likes of SYRIZA and Podemos might well act as left-liberal counterweights to the phalanx of rightists listed by Mindaugas in our inaugural post. What odds the present tumult will finally force us to accept Mouffe’s plea “to abandon the view that Europe is some kind of neutral institutional arrangement [and] recover what is at the core of European identity” (Ibid.), exchanging a politics of focus-grouped insincerity for one of authentic, if modulated, passion?
Aday, S. et al. (2010). Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics. Washington D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace.
Cammaerts, B. (2007). Activism and media. In B. Cammaerts and N. Carpentier, Nico, (Eds.), Reclaiming the Media: Communication Rights and Democratic Media Roles (pp. 217-224). Bristol: Intellect.
Ekman, M., Stockholms universitet, Humanistiska fakulteten, & Institutionen för mediestudier. (2014). The dark side of online activism: Swedish right-wing extremist video activism on YouTube. Mediekultur, 30(56), 79.
Hintz, A. (2007). Civil Society Media at the WSIS: a new actor in global communication governance? In Cammaerts and Carpentier (pp. 243-265).
Korbik, J (2014, January 15). Populism is a necessity. The European.
Taub, A. (2012). Beyond #Kony2012: Atrocity, Awareness + Activism in the Internet Age, Leanpub: eBook