Populist parties are sweeping the continent -- and Facebook. It's time we took them seriously.
- By Jamie BartlettJamie Bartlett is head of the Violence and Extremism Programme at the London-based think tank Demos. Jonathan Birdwell is a researcher on the Violence and Extremism Programme at Demos. They are undertaking a major research project into the growth of far-right, street-based movements across Europe, including the largest-ever survey of far-right activists, due to be completed this October.
A few months ago, I clicked a Facebook "like" for the band Fleetwood Mac. Ever since, my Facebook sidebar has been tempting me with advertisements about albums and T-shirts of a similar hue. Advertisers, having picked up my musical taste, are able to target me with personalized ads based on my online behavior and demographic. Annoyingly, they are usually right.
But the effectiveness of the targeting gave me an idea. Over the summer, half a million individuals across Europe were similarly targeted, this time by my organization, the think tank Demos. They were not soft-rock aficionados, but Facebook fans of populist right-wing parties that are sweeping the continent. Over the course of three months, 13,000 of them clicked on my link and filled in a survey, providing the most detailed understanding of this new breed of populist politics to date.
(Of course, there are a number of strengths and weaknesses with this method of survey recruitment, such as the "self-selection problem" — for example, the most vocal were also the most likely to click our link. The results are all caveated by this novel approach, but even so, the findings are surprising and are available for download here.)
In Europe, populist parties are defined by their opposition to immigration and concern for protecting national and European culture, especially against a perceived threat of Islam. Over the last decade their growth has been remarkable. Once on the political fringes, these parties now command significant support in Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and even (or especially) the socialist bastions of Scandinavia. In some countries, they are the second- or third-largest party and are seen as necessary members of many conservative coalition governments.
There has been a flurry of research papers and monographs about who supports these parties. But until our report, no one had looked online, even though the Facebook membership (if that is the right word) for these groups dwarfs their formal membership lists. This combination of virtual and real-world political activity is the way millions of people — especially young people — relate to politics in the 21st century.
Our results suggest there is a new generation of populists that are not the racist, xenophobic reactionaries they are sometimes portrayed as. They are young, angry, and disillusioned with the current crop of automaton political elites, who they do not think are responding to the concerns and worries they face in their lives.
The patronizing account of populists is that they are the "losers" of economic liberalism, cornered animals lashing out at mainstream politicians by voting for a tub-thumping demagogue. This is wrong. They are not particularly more likely to be unemployed than the national average, according to our survey. Their worries about immigration are driven by the threat they believe it poses to national and cultural identity, rather than economic considerations.
Above all, they have extremely low levels of trust and confidence in mainstream political institutions — especially the justice system. They see the European Union, in particular, as distant, ineffective, and a waste of money. Its legacy is not the freedom to travel and a fountain of economic opportunity, but a loss of border control and cultural dilution.
This pessimism does not extend to democracy, however, which they cite as a top personal value along with the rule of law and human rights. For many of them, Islamic extremism poses an existential threat to these civilized values (hardly surprising when a lot of the mainstream right-wing media says it does), which they feel duty-bound to defend.
With most of their activity limited to the digital realm, they are largely out of the sight of mainstream politicians, but they are motivated, young (the majority are under 30), and active. They say they are highly likely to vote for the parties they like on Facebook, and they are far more likely to take part in demonstrations and marches than European averages. Clicktivism is a bridge into, not a substitute for, real-world action.
So what is to be done? A significant number of Europeans are concerned about the erosion of their national culture in the face of immigration, the growth of Islam in Europe, European integration, and economic globalization. These concerns are likely to remain, if not grow, in the coming years. To dismiss these worries as proto-fascist is not only lazy and inaccurate — it will not make them go away. It would be better to engage them on facts, argument, and hopefully persuasion.
As social media continue to colonize our political life, the relationship between people’s online and offline worlds will complicate the face of European politics still further. There are now oceans of data available for social researchers to interrogate — my Fleetwood Mac "like" was one of 5 billion pieces of content shared every day on Facebook alone — but we still don’t know the effect the social media revolution will have on political engagement.
Our research also offers a glimmer of hope. We found that those online activists who were also active offline — by voting, demonstrating, or being part of a political party — were more democratic, had more faith in politics, and were more likely to disavow violence. This is powerful evidence that encouraging more people to become actively involved in political and civic life, whatever their political persuasion, should be Europe’s top priority. That is impossible if liberals condescendingly deride all populists as ignorant bigots rather than fellow citizens with whom we share a common moral core.