Worrying about Russian interference in our elections – or possibly even Chinese – is a hot topic in media and political circles. I raise my hand as one of those voices that’s pointed to the capacity for foreign actors to try to put their finger on the scale of our upcoming federal election, or just to sow distrust in our democratic institutions.
But the more that researchers take a look at what is happening in countries around the world, the more the threat appears much more complex than just the Kremlin pulling strings. What’s also apparent is a transnational extreme right movement exists, connecting and strategizing with local groups through online networks – sometimes further backed by Russia, but not always.
As Canadian scholar Barbara Perry has noted, the Internet “gives them a place to express and connect with others on the basis of white European chauvinism that serves to then empower and embolden them as part of (a) common cause that is global rather than simply local.”
International researchers have been sounding the alarm that the extreme right is using increasingly sophisticated online strategies to amplify its messages on social media platforms, seeking to bring fringe ideologies into the mainstream. Note the coordinated far-right online misinformation campaign to discredit the UN migration pact, which eventually cast its shadow on political debate in Canada.
Earlier this week, London-based Sasha Havlicek, CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), visited Ottawa to brief public servants, academics and others interested in what creepy things turn up when you lift up the rocks of social media platforms these days. The institute has been doing detailed ethnographic analysis of online behaviour, including embedding researchers in the darkest social media gathering spaces for the extreme right.
They’ve found evidence of transnational coordination of extremist groups during the 2018 Italian election and in the 2017 German election, in both cases to help build support for far-right political parties. Hashtags created by those groups wound up trending across popular social media platforms. And American alt-right groups extended their tentacles into both election campaigns.
“By exploiting synergies, exchanging best practices and encouraging collective learning, the fringes have been able to rapidly expand their sphere of influence, appeal to legitimate social and societal grievances and make efforts to manipulate the mainstream,” the ISD has said.
What Havlicek shared during her Canadian visit were the broad strokes of new research into the recent 2019 EU elections, which will be published this summer. The main themes that have emerged via the networked extreme right are anti-migration, anti-climate action, pro-family values and pro-free speech, and they are part of a long-range battle to dismantle internationalist and progressive gains, she noted.
The ISD has also detected a shift from the use of “fake news” and disinformation, to the use of narratives around real news – then manipulated to fit with the idea of an ongoing culture war.
Each country, of course, has its own institutional landscape and media ecosystem, and so the various actors at play online can have different degrees of influence and impact on elections and deepening polarization.
In the United States, some scholars have downplayed the impact of white supremacists and alt-right trolls, pointing instead to the structure of the media in the United States as the most destabilizing force.
The authors of Network Propaganda collected and analyzed two million stories published during the 2016 presidential campaign, and another 1.9 million stories about the Trump presidency during its first year, the links between online sites, and how stories were shared. They place the blame for the “crisis of disinformation and misinformation” squarely with a “radicalized” right-wing ecosystem that includes Breitbart, Infowars, Truthfeed and Gateway Pundit.
“Repeatedly we found Fox News accrediting and amplifying the excesses of the radical sites,” write Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts.
And all of these actors continually try to shred public trust in more mainstream media outlets.
“Having a segment of the population that is systemically disengaged from objective journalism and the ability to tell truth from partisan fiction is dangerous to any country. It creates fertile ground for propaganda. Second, it makes actual governance difficult.”
The challenge for governments in dealing with these democratic and electoral challenges is it’s much easier for governments to get public support for combatting foreign baddies. It’s much more difficult to figure out what to do about citizens working double-time to destabilize democracy.
Havlicek of the ISD says our strategies for dealing with the extreme right must start looking at policy solutions designed to “upscale the civic response.” That would include giving citizens more information about how their data is used online and how we are being driven into certain online conversations through the use of algorithms that we cannot see. There also needs to be much more research into these trends – and research that is open source. Civil society organizations and the public sector require training to understand what is going on online.
Again, we should hesitate before overlaying the experience of the United States or European countries onto our own. Still, we have a financially strapped news media sector in Canada and a government that is just starting to think about regulating online activity. And if there’s anything we’ve learned about technology platforms, it’s that things change very quickly – 2020 will be different than 2019. We can stand to be a little more vigilant about the discourse that emerges online during this fall’s federal election campaign.
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