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Europe’s Right Is Making a Noise. But Can It Win an Election?

Europe’s Right Is Making a Noise. But Can It Win an Election?

Monday, 8 April, 2019 - 11:00

Next month’s election to the European Parliament will be a test of a phenomenon that has roiled US and UK politics: the use of social networks to promote divisive issues.

Anti-immigrant parties make a disproportionate noise on social networks, helping to push their cause further up the list of voters’ concerns. That may help such groups to make gains in the election, but it’s far from clear they can turn that momentum into a cohesive coalition in the European Parliament.

According to Alto Data Analytics, a Madrid-based firm which collects real-time data in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain, less than 0.2 percent of social network users in those countries were responsible for up to 11 percent of all activity. That is largely explained by right-wing activity across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms.

In Germany, for example, supporters of the Alternative for Germany party and anti-immigration forces account for 16 percent of Twitter users and 50 percent of retweets. They represent most of the 0.09 percent of accounts that generate 9.6 percent of political posts across all social networks.

In France, more than half of the 280 users who generate 11 percent of politicized activity on Twitter are backers of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party. In Spain, there’s a similar pattern with a small number of users promoting the views of the far-right Vox party. Only in Poland and in Italy are liberals giving as good as they get.

The debate on the social networks is easy to skew, and right-wing parties, which have learned quickly from the success of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign, are good at it. For relatively small parties that lack the extensive infrastructure and resources of their more established centrist rivals, it is an opportunity to shape the debate — at least until their opponents catch up.

Anti-migration movements have been remarkably successful in pushing their agenda. YouGov recently conducted a poll across 14 member states which account for four out of every five seats in the European Parliament. The survey, for the European Center for Foreign Relations, found immigration was the top issue for voters in four countries, and one of the top three in eight more.

There are strong majorities across Europe in favor of preventing illegal immigration and providing more aid to developing nations to discourage it. But an astounding 38 percent of the 41,600 people polled by YouGov wanted a halt to all immigration, both legal and illegal. Only 45 percent — a minority — supported legal immigration.

Drawing its own conclusions from the poll, the ECFR pointed out that voters don’t appear to be that preoccupied with immigration. In France, for example, they are more worried about the cost of living, in Eastern Europe corruption and in Southern Europe unemployment. In Italy, Spain, and Poland, more voters are worried about emigration than about foreigners coming in.

This suggests the European election won’t turn into a referendum on immigration, as populist leaders such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini hope. But, as the importance of the subject in voters’ minds show, the right’s social network strategy appears to be working.

Converting that agenda-driving power into actual seats in the European Parliament and a cohesive political force will be a different matter. Politics, after all, aren’t limited to mobilizing users of social networks. Polls predict Europe’s nationalist parties will make only modest gains on their showings in the 2014 election.

Salvini’s efforts to end the right’s current fragmentation are making little observable progress. Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose strongly anti-immigrant views are close to the Italian populist, is reportedly staying away from the launch event of a new pan-European political force Salvini is planning. Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s own effort at uniting Europe’s populist forces has largely petered out.

Politicians for whom keeping out immigrants is just part of an ideology centered on their own countries’ sovereignty will resist any serious effort to herd them into a European pack. The supranational nature of the European project should act as a counterweight to right-wingers’ technology-based success. It should also give centrists some breathing room to improve their social networking skills and push their own agendas more effectively.


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