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Between Real and Virtual: Far-Right Mobilisation Strategies in Eastern Europe

Between Real and Virtual: Far-Right Mobilisation Strategies in Eastern Europe
4th October 2021 Dr. Manuela Caiani
In Insights

Over the past few years, especially after the 2008 economic crisis, the resurgence of strong far-right groups is a significant phenomenon in European politics and is particularly pronounced in Eastern and Central Europe. The recent European financial and migration crises have provided further opportunities for right wing extremist mobilisation, as these parties and movements capitalise on citizens’ discontent. They also increasingly and skilfully use the Internet and social media to foster an image of assistance to the ‘people’ in their everyday struggles.  This brings about the following question: What is the level of far-right activism in the real world and in the virtual arena in Central and Eastern Europe? How can its recent online evolution and political activities be characterised?

I explored these questions in a recent article, analysing right wing extremist political and violent extremist organisations in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. To do so, I built an original dataset based on the protest events (more than 1000) they organised, as well as a web content analysis of their websites (more than 200) assessing their specific uses of the Internet for political purposes (such as recruitment, diffusion of propaganda, etc.) from 2008 to 2016.  The focus of the article is on Central and Eastern Europe, in comparison to their Western counterparts.

Far-Right Mobilisation Offline

The protest event data in my article demonstrates that radical right mobilisation is a significant—and increasing—phenomenon. The refugee crisis seems to coincide with peaks of far-right activism in Slovakia, and a sharp increase in all of the other countries included in the study except Hungary. The size of the events organised by the far-right in Eastern Europe varies, from thousands of participants (such as in the cases of commemorative demonstrations), to several or only a few activists, similar to what has been found in research focused on Western Europe. The repertoire of action of these right wing extremist groups also varies widely: from ‘conventional actions’, which are political actions associated with conventional politics (lobbying, electoral campaigns and press conferences); to ‘demonstrative actions’, (e.g., rallies, petitions and street demonstrations); to ‘expressive protest events’, which are legal actions focused on far-right activists and sympathisers (such as commemorations and music festivals); to ‘confrontational actions’ and ‘violent actions’ (represented by illegal actions involving some form of symbolic or physical violence against things or people).

The main targets of this mobilisation are: ethnic minorities, such as Roma people (or migration issues); political parties (or political adversaries such as left wing parties, Unions or national politicians and institutions); and conservative values and social minorities, especially in Slovakia and Czech Republic (in which they represent about 40% of actions organised).  In particular, far-right mobilisation on ‘conservative values’ focuses on LGBTQ+ and anti-feminism/gender equality issues (similar to what has been seen in Western Europe).

The Far-Right and Online Politics

All the advantages offered to collective actors by the new information and communications technologies are well known by far-right groups in the countries analysed, as their significant online presence testifies. In fact, not only are the 212 far-right organisations’ websites identified very active, but they also often link to the groups’ official Facebook pages, radio stations, blogs, and online chat forums, allowing a ‘cyber cascade’ effect of their messages.

These far-right organisations demonstrate a great variety of online activities: they use their websites for (a) information (e.g. offering to the audience informative materials such as articles, bibliographical references, etc.); (b) communication (including communication tools to reach potential sympathisers such as email addresses, telephone numbers, feedback forms, etc.); (c) ideology (portraying the goals of the group, defining its general policies, and presenting the foundational ideology); (d) propaganda (directed towards ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’, e.g. hate symbols, multimedia materials); (e) virtual community/identity (the use of the Internet as an arena for debates and discussions, e.g. forum, newsletters, chats, etc.); (f) mobilisation and recruitment (using their websites to encourage offline as well as online actions, e.g. publicising political campaigns, promoting online petitions, providing instructions for offline actions, etc.); and finally, (g) internationalisation (using the Internet to build transnational contacts with other extremist groups and to appeal to an international audience). Far-right extremist groups are particularly active online in Hungary and Czech Republic.

Conclusion

In terms of radicalisation there are two different subtypes of right-wing extremism: one that is opposed to democracy and one that is not explicitly opposed to democracy but nonetheless is hostile to the way representative democracy functions in contemporary society. Although this Insight focuses mainly on organisations pertaining to the latter type, it is often difficult to make a clear-cut distinction between the two – the boundaries (in terms of content and activists) are blurred. They are ‘extremist political organisations’ since they “represent a demand for major transformation of the society, either towards some future vision or back to an idealised past. Such demands diverge from the general, current policy consensus.”

The findings, comparing different types of radical right organisations and the countries in which they originate, revealed common trends but also specificities in the recent evolution of far-right extremist mobilisation offline and online. Though it’s clear that online activities have increased the ability of such groups to address their activists, engage them in the organisation’s life, and spread their message, the question remains as to how much of this is mirrored by an increase of far-right mobilisation in the offline world.

Manuela Caiani is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa.