Credit: IE/Alexia Barakou
Small parties with big impact
Right-wing populists dominate the political discourse on social media platforms in Europe far more than their voter share would suggest, according to a study by the Spanish data analysis company Alto. The data from Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland – and exclusive to “Investigate Europe” – show that small parties succeed in attracting attention on Facebook or Twitter by systematically using the mechanisms of these platforms.
The study shows that within the political discourse in Germany Alternative for Germany is mentioned more frequently than any other party. It leads with 32 percent of all references to parties clearly ahead of the Christian Democratic Union with 23 percent, the Social Democratic Party with 22 percent and the Greens with just 7 percent. And while the figures indicate whether a party was mentioned, not whether the sender agreed or disagreed with its contents, the result is clear.
This is even more marked in Spain, where the small, extreme right-wing party Vox, which was not represented in any parliament by the time of the analysis, was mentioned in 42 percent of the cases. In Italy, the right-wing extremist government party Lega leads with 45 percent ahead of the Five-Star Movement at 36 percent.
The only exception is France, where La République En Marche, the party of President Macron, accounts for almost half of all party appointments. However, Alto collected the data when the main topic of discussion in France was the Yellow West movement, which is defined mainly by its opposition to Macron’s government. And Marine Le Pen’s “Rassemblement Nationale” ranked second with 20 percent all mentions.
For their study, the Alto analysts evaluated more than 46 million messages sent or published between mid-December and mid-January this year. For the mentions of German parties, Alto extended the investigation period until mid-March. They used public sources such as news sites, online forums and blogs, Facebook and Instagram pages, Google Plus profiles and content from the video platforms Vimeo and YouTube. However, Alto did not provide the raw data. As a result, it could not be independently verified. This data analytics project is part of a bigger pan-European collaboration involving multiple media companies and is supported by the Mozilla Foundation, the Luminate Group and the Open Society Foundation.
During their work, the scientists also came across a small group of very active Twitter users who disseminate xenophobic content on a massive scale and try to shift online discussions to the right with their news. The owners of some of these accounts tweet more than 100 messages per day.
The researchers programmed a self-learning algorithm that captured this socio-political discourse on Twitter, as it was here that these hyperactive users spread a significant part of the content. According to the study, 106 users in Germany accounted for almost one tenth of the socio-political discourse within one month. Few Twitter accounts reach a similar proportion of those surveyed. Across the countries, this group comprises about 1,500 members. They tweet more than 100 times a day. According to the researchers, the majority of these users have a high affinity for the content of right-wing extremist and xenophobic parties such as the AfD or the Rassemblement National. One of the users tweeted on average more than 400 times a day via an account, which supports the right-wing extremist Spanish mini-party Vox. Within a month, he dropped nearly 15,000 messages.
Ben Nimmo, analyst for the US think tank Atlantic Council, has been observing for years how political groups use social media platforms to influence discourse. “Social media is perfect for small groups that want to be big,” he says. For one thing, they could create fake accounts there, also accounts under false names. On the other hand, they could have a disproportionate influence if they spend a lot of time on the platforms. “A group of ten people who decide to spend all their time on social media platforms can spread so much content there that it looks like a big movement.” In analogue life this is impossible, he says. When a group of ten people walk a street, no matter how loud they scream, everyone would see that only ten people walk the street.
This article originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel and has been translated for this website. It is part of our in-depth investigation on disinformation: The disinformation machine. Find out more and read the story in one of our partner publications.