The Challenge of alternative-right media strategies in the digital public sphere

by debate dehate

Toxic Narratives as a media strategy of the alternative right

“Together against online hate.” (“Gemeinsam gegen Hass im Netz”) With this prominent problematization of the issue of hate speech, the German Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection (BMJV), along with a task force composed of other political, business-sector and civil society actors, introduced the danger of right-wing populist and right-wing extremist social-network content to a broader public. The problem and possible countermeasures were also widely discussed in the press.

In the course of 2016, the British referendum on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU), as well as Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States (US), drew media attention to additional digital phenomena that can be prominently used to promote group-focused enmity – especially fake news and social bots.

The various phenomena are frequently conflated in public discussions. However, the relationships between them, as well as with the specific strategies pursued by right-wing extremist and right-wing populist actors, often remain unclear. U.S. media reports during and following the presidential election helped kindle a vigorous discussion about the future of the German public sphere. However, the lack of empirical foundation has made it difficult to develop suitably targeted responses.

For this reason, the current overview will provide an initial introductory illustration of the connections between the phenomena. In the process, it will also highlight significant differences between the German and American developments.

1. Hate Speech as a digital form of group-focused enmity

Public debate in Germany in 2016/2017 focused initially on communications designated by the Council of Europe as hate speech – thus, those that attacked people on the grounds of national origin, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, physical disability or religion, or otherwise promoted, justified or incited the production of such content. To be sure, the disparagement and vilification of specific population groups, an expression of group-focused enmity, is nothing new. However, the incidence of such behavior has increased significantly online since the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany surged in 2015.

In Germany, content that is clearly subject to criminal prosecution, such as incitements to hatred or violent action, threats or libel, can be distinguished from forms of hate speech that are not as yet punishable by law. This latter category includes cyberbullying, defamation, harassment and coercion – or more simply, toxic communication. More generally, it encompasses communication styles and content that contribute to the destruction of online communities or induce certain participants to leave such communities through methods such as the persistent disparagement of individuals or groups, lies, insults and other destructive expressions.

All of these various forms have serious psychological and physical consequences for those affected. This can begin with headaches and increased blood pressure, and range through aggressiveness, anxiety and even suicide. In some cases, the acts also have an effect on the victim’s surroundings.

We have observed an alarming diffusion of discrimination and numerous calls for violent acts in connection with hate speech. Thus, the strategic dimension of such speech must be emphasized. In many cases, the speech act is not only intended to wound, but is also deliberately used as a verbal weapon to recruit sympathizers, intimidate activists, focus attention on particular issues and gain interpretive sovereignty within societal discourses.

2. Fake News as a cornerstone of the new altenative-right media landscape

Since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November 2016, an additional phenomenon has drawn significant media attention: the viral propagation of false information, rumors and lies – in short, fake news. This refers to false reporting that is distributed over the internet and particularly through social networks with the aim of influencing public opinion.

This phenomenon too is not strictly new. In Germany, as carefully documented by projects such as HOAXmap.org, a massive rise has been evident particularly since the surge in the number of asylum seekers in the fall of 2015. Following the U.S. election, numerous press outlets addressed the issue of the degree to which fake news determined the outcome of the election, as the majority of such false reports had supported Donald Trump’s campaign. For example, the most prominent instance was the so-called “Pizzagate” accusation, in which Hillary Clinton was alleged to have operated a pedophile network from a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.

However, recent studies have indicated that fake news did not in and of itself determine the election’s outcome. Rather, the election results reflected the depth of division within U.S. society, which also manifested in the context of the travel ban for Muslims from certain countries to the United States, which was supported by about one-half of the population. Furthermore, some researchers argue that fake news is only a symptom of the systematic consolidation of the alternative-right media landscape by outlets such as Breitbart, Fox News and the conspiracy-theory site Infowars, all of which strategically and skillfully use social networks to disseminate misleading information and even disinformation. The goal here has been to establish alternative counter-publics skeptical of the supposed media mainstream, to influence the selection of issues addressed by the mainstream media, and above all, to stoke emotions such as anxiety and hate – the foundations of hate speech – and spread conspiracy narratives.

3. Alternative-right media figures and their mutual reinforcement

The situation in Germany is for the moment more differentiated. As Facebook research conducted by the Süddeutsche Zeitung shows, the broad democratic middle remains confronted by a rather isolated right-wing-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In this regard, Germany appears to be far less polarized than the United States, with a significantly smaller right-wing-populist and extreme-right party and media spectrum. However, the strategies used to establish the alternative-right media landscape in the United States have been evident here too. As one sign of this fact, the issues and the content shared by political parties and followers, as well the sites “liked,” differ significantly between the mainstream parties (which rely on sites such as Tagesschau, ZDF-heute-Nachrichten, Spiegel Online, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Huffington Post Deutschland) and the AfD (which relies on Junge Freiheit, Epoch Times, Russia Today Deutschland and Compact Magazine).

Twitter analyses by the newspaper Tagesspiegel and netzpolitik.org have illustrated the AfD’s creative use of social networks. For example, the party benefits from an apparently large online support network. The account with the broadest reach, which primarily disseminates AfD party material under the name @Balleryna, is an anonymous, unofficial supporter account. But how has it collected its 287,000 followers? “The analysis of hundreds of thousands of accounts confirmed the samples,” write the netzpolitik.org authors. “Only 3 percent of Balleryna’s followers, or barely 10,000 users, are German-language accounts, although tweets are exclusively in German. The remainder of the followers speak English, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese and numerous other languages. Particularly amusing: We find that there are nearly twice as many Arab speakers subscribed to the unofficial communications channel of the right-wing populist party as there are German followers.” This is a clear indication that this media presence in fact reaches only a small number of real supporters.

However, the agreements between the AfD and the operators of such supporter accounts are informal; thus, these accounts, tightly networked with each other, can behave more radically than the official party accounts. They create a continuous “background noise” of information slanted toward the party’s interests, and reinforce the positions of official accounts, for instance those of party officials such as Frauke Petry, Marcus Pretzell, Alice Weidel or AfDKompakt.

4. Social bots' amplification of discursive conflicts

The fact that the @Balleryna account has so many followers is in all probability due to automated procedures and so-called bots or social bots – and points to additional factors that contribute to the viral propagation of group-based enmity online. Bots are computer programs that largely automatically process repetitive tasks without being dependent on human interaction. Social bots are in turn computer programs that masquerade as persons within social networks, produce or share content and interact with people. Their use in the U.S. elections showed that operators can draw on the analysis of large and complex data sources (“big data”) to help control or manage them, enabling individualized communication strategies (“microtargeting”). Because these bots imitate real users, they can be particularly challenging to identify.

Social bots are increasingly employed for political purposes, for example to increase a politician’s number of followers, distribute negative information about an opposing candidate or promote certain issues within the political discourse. Their manner of functioning and impact was also made clear during the U.S. election: 20% of the content distributed online during the campaign was ostensibly generated by social bots, although social bots comprised just 0.5% of all users. In addition, a significantly higher share of the content created and distributed by social bots showed support for Donald Trump as opposed to Hillary Clinton.

However, one of the few analyses of the use of social bots in Germany, conducted during the 2017 presidential elections, indicates that the share of content automatically generated and distributed on Twitter in this country remained comparatively small for all parties.

Why do we use the concept of echo chambers?

The “echo chamber” concept describes a phenomenon created by many people’s tendency to surround themselves in social networks with other like-minded people, thus mutually reinforcing each other’s opinions. This produces the impression that one’s own position is a majority opinion. This effect is often equated with the concept of the “filter bubble”; however, this latter term simply describes a situation in which algorithms primarily show social-network users content that is likely to be of interest or relevant to them on the basis of their previous usage behavior.

5. Mobilization and the interaction of media phenomena

his overview of the phenomena featured most prominently in media reports shows that they are all closely related. However, the concepts of hate speech and fake news, as well as efforts to consider them in isolation, often obscure the view of the deeper causative problems. At the root of the discursive challenges observed within democratic public sphere are deliberate strategies by right-wing populist and far-right actors who utilize the latest media and technological methods in pursuit of their goals.

This trend is exacerbated by so-called echo chambers. This refers to the individual informational and discursive spaces within social networks – created through users’ own activities (posts, likes, friendships, etc.) – in which users come into contact only with content that generally accords with and thus reinforces their own opinions, despite the platforms’ overall large sizes. Made possible by the personalization of content, this development risks giving users a false impression of the general climate of societal opinion. For example, minorities can more quickly imagine themselves to be in the majority, while individuals often feel themselves to be better informed – and better able to participate in the political discourse – after consuming one-sided information. This is also true of Germany’s right-wing populist and right-wing extremist actors, who currently remain a minority, but who are mobilized using the support of echo chambers.

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