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Much has been written about the Austrian Parliamentary election 2017 and its aftermath. Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) recently became Europe’s youngest head of government after reaching a coalition agreement with the right-wing FPÖ. He had cleared the path to becoming Austrian Chancellor by defeating incumbent Christian Kern (SPÖ) in a controversial election. This article examines the so-called Causa Silberstein, exploring the reasons that turned the affair into a scandal, and asking if it contributed to the defeat of the SPÖ in the Austrian Parliamentary election.

The Silberstein Affair

At the end of September, Austrian magazine Profil reported that Kern’s Israeli political consultant Tal Silberstein was behind two Facebook pages: ¨Wir für Sebastian Kurz¨ (¨We for Sebastian Kurz¨) and ¨Die Wahrheit über Sebastian Kurz¨ (¨The truth about Sebastian Kurz¨). Until that moment, experts deemed the former as an ÖVP fan page and the latter to be linked to FPÖ sympathizers, as it regularly uploaded anti-Kurz videos.

When it was first reported that Silberstein had been responsible for producing the videos, the SPÖ played down the matter. They distanced themselves from the campaign consultant by stressing that they had fired him in mid-August. Still, as later reports revealed, he not only produced the videos but also managed the pages, the SPÖ no longer found an easy way to deny its involvement.

Silberstein himself seemed surprised about the interest the Facebook issue generated. In an interview, he claimed that “[the pages] have merely emphasized the actual views and opinions that would be reflected in the campaigns of other parties.” Besides parroting conservative talking points, the two Facebook pages with around 25 thousand followers, allowed the collection of data from ÖVP and FPÖ voters to later micro-target them.[1] Silberstein allegedly invested around 100,000 € in efforts aimed at demobilizing ÖVP-leaning supporters who were following the page. Posts tried to spread misinformation and prevent conservatives from voting for the ÖVP.

The Making of a Scandal

To avoid a backlash from voters, Dowling & Wichowsky (2014) have argued that candidates and parties let others do their “dirty” work. This might explain why the ÖVP worked hard not only in vilifying Silberstein but also placing him as close to the SPÖ’s leadership as possible. In doing so they relied on a press constantly running sensationalistic headlines.[2] This phenomenon is somewhat unsurprising as Haselmayer et al. (2017) have demonstrated that Austrian media had a conservative bias in previous elections.

Moreover, the ÖVP tried to frame negative campaigning as a foreign practice only brought to the country by Silberstein. Although, Bischof & Plasser (2013) have proven that parties go negative in Austria since at least 2006, Silberstein’s activities were portrayed as unprecedented. While no national media echoed the ÖVP’s sentiment, The Guardian reported that ¨openly negative campaigning [in Austria] has traditionally been taboo.”

The Silberstein Affair draws attention to how important social media has become for political campaigns. Persily (2017) has recently explored the role of fake news and social media in the context of the last US election. He points to the advantages viral posts may provide to political campaigns, as information, whether correct or false, becomes widely disseminated. Especially, the FPÖ takes social media very seriously: while the party did not get the most votes, it consistently dominated interactions on Facebook and Twitter.

The Austrian Right’s micro-propaganda machine has something to do with the outsized role it plays online. Albright (2016) defines this concept as “an influence network that can tailor people’s opinions, emotional reactions, and creative ‘viral’ sharing episodes around what should be serious or contemplative issues”. Researchers have found the news sites Unzensuriert and Wochenblick as predominant within the rightist information ecosystem and key for generating content and clicks (Fanta, 2017).

Among the many narratives of dubious informational content, they published stories suggesting that Jewish billionaire George Soros, the bête noire of reactionary forces, finances Sebastian Kurz. A post on the Facebook page “Die Wahrheit über Sebastian Kurz”, now managed by Silberstein’s former team, echoed the sentiment. Yet, their attempt to remain camouflaged as an FPÖ fan page backfired: by publishing negative content on Soros and Kurz, the affair was colored with an anti-Semitic undertone that shaped subsequent media coverage of the scandal.[3]

Dealing with the Fallout

While Chancellor Kern would have faced difficulties in describing the origin and the intent of the Silberstein saga in any case, the way he handled it turned an isolated affair of a campaign consultant into a crisis for his whole party and candidacy.

First, Kern noted that no one from the SPÖ leadership had any knowledge of these activities and assured Silberstein had acted alone. In doing so, however, he acknowledged a lack of control about what was going on in his own campaign. As Austrian political analyst Thomas Hofer stated: ¨even if he [Kern] didn´t know, it´s a bad situation for him (…) this is damaging his credibility as a leader.” The fact that he could not explain who financed the Facebook operation or how it continued, especially once the party fired Silberstein and his team, painted him as incompetent. Austrian political expert Peter Hajek highlighted that “[Kern] commissioning someone with hundreds of thousands of euros and having no idea what for¨ did not inspire confidence in his abilities.

Instead of focusing on his political agenda and the issues, Kern found himself in rearguard battles having to defend the SPÖ’s involvement with Silberstein’s underhanded tactics. Trying to implicate other parties, he suggested that they had been involved in the leaking of the SPÖ’s confidential information to the media — thus fueling conspiracies about what was going on. Kern was forced to issue a statement offering regret for the recent “anti-Semitic propaganda (…) in a massive intensification of the rhetoric.” He underlined his support for George Soros in the disagreement between the Jewish billionaire and the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán.[4]

The Consequences

In the immediate aftermath of the Silberstein Affair no landslides were registered in the polls. This led analysts to council caution as to the extent of the scandal in electoral terms. One hypothesis was that the discontent about the big parties´ dirty tactics might bring votes to the small parties, such as the FPÖ. On Election Day, however, the Silberstein affair had at best a marginal effect on vote tallies. According to the data analyzed by the SORA Institute (2017), the SPÖ received roughly the same percentage of votes as in the last election: 26,9% in 2017 in comparison to 26,8% in 2013. Indeed, SORA found that only 4% of ÖVP voters declared casting their vote for Kurz because of the Silberstein issue.

In conclusion, the Silberstein affair had no direct impact on the defeat of Chancellor Christian Kern. However, it did influence an already contentious electoral campaign in Austria, consumed substantial amounts of time and attention, and, forced the incumbent to spent time defending himself and his campaign, failing to distance himself from the underhanded tactics of his erstwhile campaign advisor Silberstein, while looking somewhat incompetent and ignorant about what was going on.

In sum, Silberstein failed miserably to swing the election in Kern’s favor, by becoming the story rather than influencing it. Though, he might have succeeded elsewhere, but in a different way and with a different effect than intended. Among the SPÖ’s leaked papers there is a pitch from Silberstein that states: “we need an enemy” (Bauer, 2017b). As this analysis infers, not only did Silberstein fail in making an enemy of Kurz; his strategy actually backfired and he ended up becoming the enemy, both in the eyes of the Austrian public and of those whom he purportedly tried to get reelected.

References:

Albright, J. (2016, November 18). The #Election2016 Micro-Propaganda Machine. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@d1gi/the-election2016-micro-propaganda-machine-383449cc1fba

Bischof, G., & Plasser, F. (2013). The Changing Austrian Voter. London: Routledge.

Dowling, C. M., & Wichowsky, A. (2014). Attacks without Consequence? Candidates, Parties, Groups, and the Changing Face of Negative Advertising. American Journal of Political Science, 59(1), pp. 19-36.

Fanta, A. (2017, March 7). True news or right news? The parallel media universe of the Austrian Freedom Party. Retrieved from https://blog.politics.ox.ac.uk/true-news-right-news-parallel-media-universe-austrian-freedom-party/

Haselmayer, M., & Wagner, M., & Meyer, T. (2017). Partisan Bias in Message Selection: Media Gatekeeping of Party Press Releases. Political Communication, 34(3), pp. 367-384.

Kosinski, M., & Stillwell, D., & Graepel, T. (2013). Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(15), pp. 5802-5805.

Persily, N. (2017). The 2016 U.S. Election: Can Democracy Survive the Internet? Journal of Democracy, 28(2), pp.63-76.

Sora Institute. (2017). Austrian Parliamentary Election 2017. Retrieved from http://www.sora.at/en/topics/electoral-behavior/election-analyses/nrw17-en.html

Footnotes

[1] Micro-targeting enjoys a remarkable hype today. Companies such as Cambridge Analytica purchase sets of data from Facebook and others and build predictive models by identifying correlations between individuals´ behaviors and voting decisions. This allows for segmenting the electorate and targeting them with personalized messages. For more information see M. Kosinski (2013).

[2] Newspaper Unzensuriert shed light on a Romanian-issued arrest warrant against Silberstein which was not approved; Krone Zeitung claimed that Silberstein was digging in Sebastian Kurz’s life; Österreich blamed Silberstein for the SPÖ then-current campaign manager resignation; Die Presse priced his “negative” campaign practices on 100,000 € per month; and, finally, Österreich escalated the demands of Chancellor Kern´s resignation and wondered whether Silberstein was a Mossad agent.

[3] An analysis of the 54 highest-ranked news items in Google—published by national and international media—shows that 70% of them mention the campaign´s anti-Semitic undertone; 40% blames Silberstein; 10% calls the campaign anti-Semitic; and only 2% traces the Soros story back to FPÖ’s news sites. The analysis does not cover news featured in print media, even though Austria is one of the countries with the highest print newspapers consumption rate in Europe.

[4]  Orbán has supported a bill forbidding Hungarian universities from awarding degrees valid within the US. He claimed it leads to unfair advantages for other national universities offering Hungarian-valid degrees only. The measure was perceived as an attack on the Central European University (CEU), an institution founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. Orbán has repeatedly denounced that Soros-founded organizations try to ¨illegitimately¨ influence the Hungarian life.

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