Social media versus reality: How representative is this tool in assessing far-right opinions?
An exciting new medium?
Social media has been an exciting development for politics. Facebook and Twitter in particular have let academics gather large samples of data to shed light on discussions between far-right supporters. But how representative is this data? These sites are mostly used as a platform by devoted and extreme far-right followers. This means that we do not get a complete picture of the rest of the more moderate supporters. To add to this problem, it seems that up to a third of far-right social media followers end up not following suit in elections. More generally, the rising usage of social media has allowed people to leverage their influence. Some research has documented a common and modern phenomenon, notably trolling. This consists of actors who are opposed to the far-right ideas yet still join on social media to pose as a devoted follower with the prime goal of stirring confusion. Recent times have seen the emergence of the so-called “alt-right”, a group that has successfully engaged in such “trolling” with the popular media outlets with an aim of promoting their ideas. These groups are credited with uploading explicit and attention-grabbing media content by means of posting videos on social media. The hope is that mainstream news reports pick up on them and further spread publicity.
What are the advantages of this tool?
On the plus side, social media has been a particularly helpful tool for studying far-right rhetoric. Research has been able to capitalise on the time-stamped feature of comments and posts, including much valuable information on follower activity allowing researchers to uncover prejudices among far-right groups. Social media is unique in the sense that the collected data is “non-reactive” which means it is gathered with stealth and with no interference. The advantage is that social desirability biases, whereby people act in a way that is favorably seen, do not happen. Another way of using social media sites is to observe the far-right leaders’ ideological narrative by going through their personal feeds on Twitter, a short text-driven social media website. It contains a big collection of quotes by political leaders, which the popular media has systematically used during reporting.
Hypocrisy after election to office
Interestingly, research indicated that far-right politicians seem to moderate their stance in the lead-up to elections and especially if they get elected to office. This theory is called “inclusion-moderation thesis” and is well documented in academic literature. It happens due to the competitiveness of election campaigns which pushes far-right politicians to “tone down” their most extreme opinions, which inevitably causes a shift of far-right politics towards a more acceptable version that can be attractive to the moderate electorate. The Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) is a clear example that illustrates the inclusion-moderation in action, as they entered talks to form a coalition in 2010 and build a minority government consisting of the CDA, and the VVD, a more moderate party. Geert Wilders, leader of the PVV party, famously accused the political class of being the “corrupt elite” and supported the “common Dutch” as the victims of it on his social media posts. Ironically, when Wilders took to his governmental role, his rhetoric was impossible to stand by as he now was a part of the very establishment he once criticized. The far-right leader did in fact change his discourse, and suppressed his criticisms of the “political elite”. This neatly illustrates the inclusion-moderation effect, as Geert Wilders ultimately had to tame his political views to fit the mainstream.
All in all, there are many advantages of social media as a tool to observe the far-right narrative. The large amounts of raw data available allow for an extensive array of far-right views. Despite this, certain obstacles make it hard to justify its reliability. The far-right following on social media does not represent the average sympathiser. Also, the widespread presence of trolling gets in the way of coming up with meaningful research, as is virtually impossible to distinguish sarcasm by trolls from genuine views by the devoted followers. Adding to the confusion, disagreement about what happens post-election still divides scholars, making the inclusion-moderation effect a hot topic. To settle this debate, more research needs to be aimed at specific case examination of other far-right politicians, like the ex-US President Donald Trump or Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, to compare their respective shifts in rhetorics. This could be done by analysing their social media activity at key moments, before and after their election to power. Nevertheless, the latest Cambridge Analytica scandal has compelled social media platforms to introduce new restrictions on tools that access information on their platform. With this in mind, it is now harder to use social media to gather primary data. We still believe it is a gold mine when it comes to collecting relevant and current data on the far-right and should be explored to its fullest.