17th Feb 2020

Online anti-EU networks fragmented and nation-based

  • "It's difficult to find courage to even speak on twitter" (Photo: Tom Raftery)

Anti-EU online networks are as fragmented and nationally-based as in the real world and they tend to operate in isolation, but the big exception is Ukip which has built up a large online network in the UK.

A study by the Bertelsmann Foundation concludes that "Europe's virtual public sphere is just as fragmented in linguistic and national terms as the traditional one."

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After examining websites in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland, the study finds that "there is no such thing as a pan-European network of anti-European populists on the internet" and "no market place for ideas".

Speaking in Brussels on Thursday (11 September) Isabell Hoffmann, the study's author, said "the dislike of the EU is not big enough to unite them."

Instead being anti-EU - which for the study's purposes was defined as being against the EU, the euro and the borderless area in a "destructive manner" - serves such networks well.

The EU is not their main grudge but is a useful pole bearer for getting recognition domestically.

Hoffmann and her team found 988 eurosceptic websites in the six countries concerned - but just four links from all these websites were to similar websites abroad. Of the six countries, Germany had the fewest websites with anti-European content (73) while the UK had the most (235).

The other main finding of the study was that such networks tend to be "isolated" online.

Even well-established parties such as France's National Front, which rocked the political establishment by polling first in the EU elections, has "not been rewarded with links and interconnectedness".

Meanwhile the Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the Five Star Party in Italy are almost entirely reliant on their outsized leaders Geert Wilders and Beppe Grillo.

While Grillo is the "uncrowned king of the internet populists" with over 1.4 million followers on twitter, deputies belonging to his movement "inhabit their own universe" with no links to the "system".

Internet audiences

But Benoit Thieulin, president of the French Digital Council, warns against being too complacent about the online populism despite its apparent isolation from the mainstream.

He points to the amplifying effect of the internet. While 20 years ago far-right populists might have had small newspaper with a readership in the hundreds, "these same people now have video channel seen by 1000s and 1000s of people".

Meanwhile there are major exceptions to the isolation finding in the form of Ukip which topped the EU election in the UK in May and AfD, Germany's anti-euro newcomer.

Brian Melican, an expert on digital populism, notes that Ukip has been a master of "using the internet to get around the traditional gatekeepers" such as the BBC, who previously did not give the party airtime.

"It is the only anti-integration party in (the) study that has managed to become an integral part of the mainstream."

UKip's major advantage over, for example the National Front or Poland's Congress of the New Right (which won a surprise four seats in the EP election) is that it is regularly quoted by mainstream media, civil society or associations.

This has made the party the central point of discussion and ideas when it comes to EU discussion, much more so than the traditionally eurosceptic Conservative Party.

However with its climb up the polls, the party has effectively become mainstream making it difficult to cultivate its outside 'nobody-is-listening-to-us' stance.

Soon, says Melican, it will face a decision on how it continue to communicate in the future.

As to the AfD, its quick success - it was founded in 2013 and just won seats in the EP and in a regional German parliament - has been facilitated, unusually, by a mainstream newspaper - the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The paper-to-read for Germany's educated right, particularly the legal establishment, FAZ's online version has seen a cross-over of ideas, links and discussion forums between the AfD and legal experts disgruntled with the eurozone's bailout decisions.

And the pro-EUs?

As for pro-European networks, they have a "pan-European public sphere on the internet" in which to communicate.

But still the twittosphere can be an intimating space for people with pro-EU views.

"It's difficult to find courage to even speak on twitter," says Thieulin.

He adds that those with pro-EU opinions need to have issues "which they can be proud of" only it should not be Europe-as-a-peace-project which has no resonance among young people who simply don't believe that Germany and France would ever be at war again.

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