More by Johannes Hillje

Only a few weeks before the German federal election, which takes place on 24 September, the debate on the populist uprising has fallen silent. With headlines such as “Populism is on its way down” (Die Zeit) or “the populist wave has broken” (Süddeutsche Zeitung) after the elections in the Netherlands and France earlier this year, the German media was quick to suggest that Europe has already overcome right-wing populism.

Yes, Geert Wilders did not become Dutch prime minister and Marine Le Pen was not elected President of the fifth French republic. Yet, the right-wing populists did not lose. Le Pen quadrupled the number of seats of the Front National in the Assemblée nationale. Wilders became for the first time the second strongest force in his country. As a result, they will receive more resources for their activities, paid from public funds. Even more importantly, not only did the right-wing populists not lose the elections, they did not even really join the race. The reason for this is that populists aim to change their societies not through seats in the parliament, but through interventions in the public discourse. Putting issues on the agenda, framing these issues in a certain way, and changing historical and current narratives – it is with the help of these communication strategies that right-wing populists influence the issues we discuss and how we speak about them. French philosopher Michel Foucault said once that we construct our reality through discourse. In that sense, speech has the power to direct what we believe is “normal” and what is “problematic”. These are guiding factors for any political discourse, which is meant to solve the “problematic” issues and preserve what is “normal”.

The new normal

Two examples illustrate the influence of right-wing populists on European societies in 2017: Shortly before the elections, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte published an open letter, in which he sent a strong warning towards (Muslim) migrants in his country: “Act normal or sod off!”. After his electoral victory, Rutte justified that copying of the rhetoric of Geert Wilders by suggesting that he defeated the “bad populism” with “good populism”. In other words, Geert Wilders did not win the elections, but his notion of migrants as criminals and people who cannot be integrated did succeed. A second example: In April, German Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière made another attempt to define a German “Leitkultur”, or common culture. His motto: “We are not burqa.” Naturally, this was widely echoed by the media. The Kölner Stadtanzeiger, the biggest newspaper in the region around Cologne, commented: “No one can be forced to love the carnival – as the Minister suggested – neither the migrants from North Africa nor the Bio-Deutsche from Westphalia”. “Bio-Deutsche” (literally translated as biological Germans, e.g. those from native German parents) is a racist term, which is commonly used by representatives of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). This term was adopted unquestioningly, without inverted commas or other linguistic markers, in the article of the Kölner Stadtanzeiger – which did not even mention the AfD. A bad journalistic mistake, which is unfortunately not an isolated case. Maybrit Illner, who hosts one of Germany’s most popular political talkshows, asked Beatrix von Storch, AfD’s Member of the European Parliament: “Are migrants more criminal than Bio-Deutsche?”

It is striking that AfD politicians do not need to use their own racist language anymore – journalists are doing it for them. By changing the terms and concepts of a discourse, the perception of normality is changed and as a result, new political opportunities are opening up. Political scientists from the University of Amsterdam have observed how right-wing populists influenced the manifestos of moderate parties over the years.[1] Particularly in the area of integration and migration policies, the scholars saw a constant shift to the Right. In Germany, the AfD and the anti-Islam movement ‘Pegida’ had a significant impact on tougher asylum laws introduced by Angela Merkel’s government in 2016. The right-wing forces were “ahead of time”, as Werner Patzelt, a political scientist from Dresden, puts it.

Propaganda 4.0

The demands and provocations of the AfD, however, can only have a political effect if the party manages to absorb the attention in the traditional and digital structures of the public sphere. In my new book, I call the communications strategy of the AfD ‘Propaganda 4.0’. It is a new form of propaganda, which can be characterised by four key elements: First, the delegitimisation of the traditional mainstream media with labels like “Lügenpresse” (lying press) or “fake news”. Secondly, satisfying the demand for “true information” (which has been created by the first element) through own media channels, mainly digital ones. Thirdly, the creation of a “digital people” with the help of these (digital) media. And fourthly, an ostensibly schizophrenic but in reality highly strategic relation to mainstream media. For instance, appearances on TV shows of those public broadcasters, which should actually be abolished according to the AfD’s manifesto.

In this logical circular communication strategy, the creation of a digital people is decisive for the success of the propagandists, because these people can be seen as the long term supporter base – the life insurance of a political party. The AfD has more fans on Facebook (around 330,000) than Angela Merkel’s party the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) put together. Yet, the number of fans is not the most important indicator for a successful digital party. It is rather the number of people who actually interact with the content of the party. The more interactions (e.g. likes, shares, comments) a party’s page consistently receives, the more weight this page will be granted by the Facebook algorithm, our personal editor-in-chief of our newsfeed. It can be assumed that people who interact with a party online are mainly those who sympathise with its political agenda. Facebook offers “microtargeted” advertising on its platform, which allows parties to show their messages to very specific subgroups of the electorate, for instance defined by postcode, gender, age, hobbies, favourite car brand, and even very specific circumstances like “new parents”.

Research by the analytics firm ‘quintly’ suggests that the AfD used microtargeting more than any other German party in the first months of this year.[2] This marketing tool allows it to show a tailored message to a very specific group of Facebook users. For instance, after the sexual assaults during the 2015/2016 New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne (mainly committed by asylum seekers from North Africa), the AfD could have targeted young women in the Cologne area who are interested in self-defence training, with a message on homeland security and migration policies. With the help of this marketing method, the AfD has built a very interested and engaged audience on Facebook. Since their loyal supporters consistently share and like the party’s content, the AfD reaches millions of people on some days on Facebook. The most successful posts of the AfD have reached a larger audience even than the evening news on TV.

A stable party base, however, can only be established if the supporters develop a shared collective identity. For that purpose, the AfD uses several closed digital groups, for instance on Facebook and WhatsApp. The largest closed Facebook group is called ‘AfD sympathisers’. It has 24,000 members – much more than any of the Facebook groups of other German parties. In the conversations within this group, it becomes clear what constitutes the digital people of the AfD: It is not the filter bubble, meaning the one-sided and biased news sources, but rather the concept of the “echo chamber”. That means that although pluralistic news sources are shared within the group, these pieces of news are collectively and unanimously evaluated by the members, as news on social media are not only consumed but also evaluated by many people. In practice, if a news article by Der Spiegel is shared within the group, it usually comes with a comment like “The Spiegel publishes fake news again” or “how the Lügenpresse wants to manipulate us today”. The media bashing of the AfD becomes a key boundary marker in the process of developing a collective identity. In other words, they are “fake news” and we are “true news”.

Reframing the green-progressive agenda

The central question that the German public faces in the coming weeks is therefore not only how many seats the AfD will get in the Bundestag, but also how to limit the party’s disproportionally large influence in the public discourse. For that I would like to propose two avenues, which progressive and Green forces could take to limit the AfD’s discursive power: First, we should fix the broken communication culture between political representatives and citizens. In the end, the AfD meets a demand, which has been created by other parties. In particular, progressive and Green actors need to offer voters way to better identity with their party organisation and their leaders. The AfD scores highly amongst many voters in the area of cultural identity. Many politicians have nothing to oppose the bashing of Islam by the AfD with (see the “we are not burqa” statement of Thomas de Maizière). Some actors do promote a European identity as a modern counter project in this field. A good answer which, however, lacks a convincing framing as well as the arenas from which such a European identity could emerge. Often times we speak about the “European idea” or the “European project” – formulations which imply a limitation in time and scope. If we would use terms like “European home”, we would enter much more positive and emotional fields of imagination in the minds of the people. Moreover, we need spaces where a European identity can really be brought to life. The media can serve as a facilitator for that. One format could be a European political talk show, where politicians from different countries debate common European issues – broadcasted by ARD, TF1, Rai, RTVE, and others at the same time. People would have a real European experience if they would watch such a talk show and ideally join the debate in parallel on social media with their fellow Europeans.

The second avenue takes us to the digital public sphere. It seems that right-wing populists have benefited the most in recent years from the new opportunities offered by digital communications. On the one hand, we have to make sure that democratic principles are as equally enforced on giant platforms like Facebook or Google as they are in the traditional public sphere. On the other hand, new data-based marketing methods such as microtargeting must not break democratic rules. Right-wing populists like Trump or Brexit campaigners have used microtargeting to target very specific segments of the electorate with lies about their adversaries or simply with false claims. Since these “dark ads” are only presented to a small audience and thus invisible to the large majority, in contrast to other campaigning tools like billboards or TV ads, it is necessary that we introduce transparency obligations for these forms of digital campaigning.

All in all, what democratic society as a whole – but progressive and Green parties in particular – need to do to combat right-wing populism is to enter into the areas of the public discourse where these anti-democratic forces celebrate their major victories.


[1] Sjoerdje van Heerden, Sarah L. de Lange, Wouter van der Brug & Meindert Fennema (2014) The Immigration and Integration Debate in the Netherlands: Discursive and Programmatic Reactions to the Rise of Anti-Immigration Parties, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40:1, 119-136.

[2] The analysis from quintly has been published in this article:

More by Johannes Hillje

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