3rd December 2020
Following the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there has been sustained political, media and academic debate about the nature and impact of social-media-driven foreign interference in elections, and democratic integrity more broadly. The focus of these debates has often been on state actors, the influence of automated accounts, and the role played by Russia in particular.
What has often been ignored is the importance of both domestic and transnational non-state actors in weaponising social media to amplify deceptive, hateful and polarising content. A range of actors including extremist groups, fringe media outlets, individual influencers and populist parties now have the power to influence our democratic processes.
Over recent years, the far-right has been able reach significantly broader audiences than many would have once thought possible. This has been largely due to the opportunities for broadcast that social media affords, as well as an increasing amplification of their messages by influential politicians and political commentators. Research shows that far-right communities on subreddits like The_Donald and 4chan’s /pol/ board have been fairly successful in spreading memes and alternative news to wider audiences on social media and the internet at large. Qualitative research has also shown that far-right disinformation originating on fringe platforms such as 4chan can spread via Facebook and end up in mainstream media outlets, despite scepticism around the veracity of the content.
Our rapidly transforming media ecosystems have fuelled these dynamics, enabling far-right activists and media outlets to systematically spread disinformation, attack political opponents and mainstream their previously fringe ideologies. At the same time, far-right ideas have increasingly spread across borders. Ideas originating from the French far-right movement Nouvelle Droite, such as the ‘the great replacement’, ‘metapolitics’, ‘Identitarianism’ or ‘ethnopluralism’, have been adopted by the American ‘alt-right’ over the past decade, and inspired acts of terrorism across the globe, from New Zealand to the US, Germany and Norway.
Against this background, ISD researchers sought to understand the mechanisms by which far-right ideas are disseminated in a transnational context through tracking how such ideas move from the far-right’s online media ecosystem to different geographical and political contexts. Specifically, researchers explored if and how far-right narratives from the US, France and Germany gain traction in domestic mainstream media, or move across state and national borders. We first tested the ‘mainstreaming hypothesis’, which holds that far-right ideas start out in far-right alternative media but eventually move to the mainstream; and second, the ‘transnationalisation hypothesis’ that far-right ideas spread between media ecosystems.
The volume and timing of stories about far-right narratives differ between mainstream national and far-right media. Our analysis shows that, of the narratives selected, many more stories were published in national media, but that in far-right media the relative proportion of such stories was greater. Additionally, the volume of coverage in far-right media appears to be more constant over time, while national media’s coverage is more event-driven, often based around terrorist attacks or right-wing politicians using slogans associated with far-right movements, or not condemning those who have expressed far-right views.
The research found some support for the mainstreaming hypothesis within a national context. US far-right and US national media cited each other relatively frequently, showing that within national contexts, or at least within the US national context, far-right media is regularly referenced by more mainstream press outlets. Interestingly, US national media referenced US far-right media less often when covering far-right narratives that originated in the US context than when covering European far-right narratives.
The research found limited support for the hypothesis that far-right media frequently hyperlink to international far-right outlets. The volume of stories from far-right media outlets that linked to a far-right media outlet across the Atlantic (in either direction) was relatively small and differed between countries. In stories that covered the US far-right narratives selected, 23.8% were from German far-right media and 24.3% were from French far-right media. However, no links from US far-right media outlets linked to other far-right outlets across the Atlantic.
French and German far-right media cite US far-right media more often than the other way around. Even for stories about narratives that originated on the European far-right, US far-right media is more likely to be cited by German and French far-right media than to cite them.
We wanted to explore if and how extremist narratives get picked up by fringe and then mainstream media, and then move across borders. Our research offers evidence to support the concept that far-right ideas do spread between different parts of national media ecosystems – starting out in far-right alternative media but eventually moving to the mainstream. However, only limited support was provided for the hypothesis that the far-right media frequently hyperlink to international far-right outlets.
While ISD’s findings provide a foundation upon which other research can build, key questions remain that must be addressed. One of these is whether social media platforms serve as intermediaries for the mainstreaming and transnationalisation of far-right ideas across different geographical media ecosystems. It is conceivable that there is a reciprocal relationship between far-right media and online communities in each national context, and that online communities are more important in facilitating any transnational spread via social media platforms. On these platforms, narratives may be picked up by far-right media outlets and far-right influencers who are active on specific platforms and will likely be responsive to the content that is popular among their audiences.
Of equal importance is the need for surveying or polling to determine the extent to which far-right narratives are adopted both in the wider population and among supporters of the far-right. Only through such efforts can the impact that these narratives have beyond the online space be truly assessed.
This article presents the key findings and takeaways of a research study conducted by researchers at ISD. The full research paper can be accessed here.