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Some say Austria dodged a bullet last year. After an acrimonious year-long election campaign the Alpine nation elected Alexander Van der Bellen, a veteran Green Party politician, as president last December. He had a margin of 7.5 points over his far-right rival candidate, Norbert Hofer. Centrists, social democrats and liberals all over Europe breathed a sigh of relief, the Guardian remarked. In least in one country, nativist populism had been defeated.

Yet, those worried about right-wing populism should not claim victory too soon. The far-right managed to build a strong online presence in this election—one that they will capitalise on in the future.

Austria’s 2016 presidential election

Austria’s vote echoes some of the most divisive aspects of the US elections held shortly before. Just as Donald Trump made claims of election fraud before and after the vote, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) of Mr Hofer made allegations of voting irregularities after an earlier run-off vote in May 2016. (Authorities admitted to irregularities in counting procedures, yet it remains unclear these changed the results. Some have criticized the Austrian Constitutional Court for ruling on purely procedural grounds.)

The Freedom Party challenged the result in court and forced a re-run. In a twist that turned tragedy into farce, the second run-off ordered by the Constitutional Court, scheduled for October had to be postponed: the glue on thousands of absentee ballots had come unstuck, rendering them invalid.

In December, Austrian voters confirmed the result of the first round of the presidential vote and Van der Bellen assumed office. This unusually long, bitter electoral contest rallied most Austrians to one or the other camp. It also garnered a lot of interest abroad. (See here for a Time magazine cover story centred on Austria.)

While the campaign did not secure the largely symbolic president’s office for the far-right, the election helped the Freedom Party to build a fearsome echo chamber on social media. Their strong online presence, in my view, gives them a crucial edge to win the next elections in Austria, and likely boosts their allies in Germany.

The Freedom Party

The Freedom Party is the rising force in Austrian politics. Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was a fellow-traveller of Neonazi group Wiking Jugend in his youth. Over the past 12 years, Strache positioned the party as a nationalist alternative to the establishment. Any government by the FPÖ is likely to see Strache as leader.

The FPÖ is also a key player within the emerging “nationalist international” of Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and other like-minded groups around Europe.

The ideology of the Freedom Party is one of fighting immigration and Islam, mixed with strong anti-establishment rhetoric and nationalist opposition to the European Union.

The Freedom Party is closer to taking power than most of its European allies. Austria is currently ruled by a “grand coalition” of Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party. It has not been a happy marriage, and many voters call for change. In a recent poll, only one in ten voters said they supported another “grand coalition”.

Elections for a new parliament in Austria must be held by late 2018 and many observers believe the current government will call them earlier. The FPÖ has come out on top of nearly every opinion poll since mid-2015. The most likely constellation for the next Austrian government is a coalition of the People’s Party with the Freedom Party as senior partner.

The online power-base of the far-right

Like nationalist leaders before him, Strache has built up a strong personal following for himself. The FPÖ chairman has over 500,000 followers on Facebook. That is equivalent to 10 per cent of voters in the last election and more than any other politician in Austria. The far-right leader gained over 100,000 followers during the presidential election campaign last year.

Strache’s Facebook site is key to the Freedom Party’s influence on social media. Research published in newspaper Der Standard shows that he posts 13 times a day on average and his posts are typically shared around 400 times[1]. At those rates, Strache can potentially reach tens of thousands of people that don’t follow him. This gives the Freedom Party impressive reach. It also allows Strache to share content to toxic for other platforms, often originating from news sites close to the party.

It’s not surprising Strache recently called social media a “blessing for democracy”. It is also reminiscent of Trump’s bypassing of the traditional media: Twitter gives him a platform to communicate directly with voters, without the filter of journalism.

Homespun tales from the far-right

Several websites publish the highly controversial content the FPÖ frequently shares on social media. Two websites have a particularly strong impact.

Most prominent among these websites is Unzensuriert.at (“Uncensored”). The site states that it is independent, although it was founded as blog of a senior party figure and is co-run by FPÖ parliamentary staff.

Unzensuriert.at is an ideological outfit that runs Austrian and international political news. It focuses on migration and Islam, mixing news lifted from other sources with commentary. Recent stories include an exposé on “Unrest in Sweden – Trump was right” and “Further stunning silence on riots in France”. “Uncensored” purports to give readers the “truth” that mainstream media is silent about.

Another site, Wochenblick.at, was founded in 2016. It is a more lowbrow alternative to Uncensored, not shying away from apolitical local news and celebrity stories. While it frequently publishes alleged “refugee crimes”, it also runs yellow-press pieces such as “World’s sexiest female fire fighters”.

It is run by former party members who claim to be independent. The site asks for donation and doesn’t show any advertising.

Other websites frequently shared by the FPÖ and its party leader include FMPolitics—a Facebook site that produces anti-refugee and anti-Islam memes—and Verein Freunde der Tagespolitik—a “satire site” that runs anti-migrant caricatures.

These websites are read not only in Austria. They get much of their traffic from Germany—in the case of Uncensored more than half of it. According to a recent survey, Austrian far-right sites are widely read among followers of the far-right Pegida network[2] and likely add to the momentum of Pegida-ally Alternative für Deutschland.

The legacy media in thrall

The Freedom Party leverages its rising online power with legacy media.

In Austria’s small media market, public broadcaster ORF and tabloid Kronen Zeitung dominate domestic TV and print news respectively.

The Freedom Party frequently attacks ORF as left-wing propaganda machine and has called for an end to the licence-fee model of financing public broadcasting.

That, of course, doesn’t prevent Strache and party leaders from sharing ORF content and reposting segments of interviews on social media.

Much like Trump, the Freedom Party uses TV interviews to reinforce notions from fake news stories with their core audience. A recent analysis by Falter newspaper showed how often Norbert Hofer as presidential candidate alluded to Alexander Van der Bellens’ age and allegedly poor memory.

In TV debates, Hofer repeatedly called his septuagenarian opponent ‘forgetful’ and ‘absent-minded’. This reinforces a notion taken from internet memes that Van der Bellen is unfit for office due to his age and declining mental state. Much like a dog whistle, this toxic message can only be heard by those who are familiar with the internet rumours.

Contrary to their fraught relationship with the public broadcaster, the far-right has strong ties to tabloid Kronen Zeitung. Austria’s most popular newspaper has a right wing-nationalist bent, but has been keen to keep good relations with all parties.

Strache, however, has power over the tabloids that others lack. In an interview last year, the then-online editor of Kronen Zeitung, Richard Schmitt, conceded the Freedom Party’s held sway over their audience. ‘When Strache shares one of our stories on Facebook, we have noticed it pushes up our traffic by one and a half. And, of course, he gets more traffic if we share him’, Schmitt said. Both players have thus become intertwined in a complex, and worrying way.

Meanwhile the Freedom Party increasingly bypasses traditional forms of media exposure such as press conferences.

From my own experience as a journalist covering the FPÖ, I can say that during recent trips by party leaders to Israel, Russia and the US, Freedom Party officials barely spoke to legacy media. They did not take journalists along and publicised their trips mainly on Facebook and party platforms.

What this means for the future

If the Freedom Party is voted into power in Austria, legacy media is likely to be side-lined and restricted. The far-right has repeatedly called for the public broadcaster to be curtailed financially and in the freedom of its reporting. Meanwhile hidden subsidies to newspapers, totalling 188 million Euro in 2015, make them vulnerable to interference by any government. It seems likely that the far-right will use its leverage to undermine the traditional media. The success of the far-right in Austria in decoupling from traditional media is closely watched and, as far as I can see, mirrored in other countries. Their allies in Germany, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), might even profit directly from their echo chamber. The far-right and their voters in Austria and other European countries might well be heading towards a space where independent journalism, and therefore public scrutiny, can no longer reach them.

References

[1]   Maan, N. Schmid, F. Hametner, M. Fellner, S., Ausserhofer, J. & Puschmann, C. (2016, October 4). ‘”Zur Info”: Das Facebook-Universum des HC Strache.

[2] The survey results will be published in a contribution by Noura Maan and Fabian Schmidt to the anthology ‘»Wir sind das Volk« – auch im Netz’ (Ch. Links Verlag) in March 2017.

 

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