Europe’s populist parties lack proper online networks

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.


Pro-European groups connect through the Internet. Euroskeptics remain independent and isolated, writes Isabell Hoffmann from the Bertelsmann Foundation.

Isabell Hoffmann is a project manager at the Bertelsmann Foundation, in charge of the Europe’s Future programme.

There is an international online community of organizations that want to create a united Europe. Not only do the pro-Europeans link to each other’s sites, they also engage in effective dialogue. They have even formed a pan-European network, which they use to exchange information, ideas, opinions and strategies. In contrast, there is no pan-European network linking groups that reject the idea of a united Europe. And not only are the anti-Europeans isolated on the European level, they also stand alone at home as well. Neither Marine Le Pen nor Geert Wilders nor Beppe Grillo are thought leaders in the national discourse taking place online in their respective countries. One exception, however, is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage, which is embedded in a broad network and actively supported by civil society.

These are the key findings of a study by the German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung that examined online sites in six European countries prior to the European Parliament elections. The study evaluated the websites and online activities of populist, anti-European organizations in six countries: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK. The connections between the sites were assessed and the level of interaction analyzed, with the findings depicted as infographics. For purposes of comparison, pro-European websites in Germany and France were also assessed. A total of 1,638 sites were evaluated.

The network of pro-Europeans is not only greater in number, it is also close-knit. In France and Germany there are 651 pro-EU websites compared to 251 anti-EU websites. In these pro-European networks, however, there is a dramatic absence of civil society. In Germany, for example, their websites account for only 5.4 percent of all Internet sites evaluated. Major parties and institutions predominate the online discourse.

So what could be done to change this? The dominant organizations could potentially increase the visibility of Europe’s civil society without spending any additional time or money or placing themselves at risk. There are plenty of ideas and initiatives, mostly generated by young Europeans committed to the concept of a united Europe. As a rule, what they need is not money, it is acknowledgement by and links to the websites operated by major institutions and parties.

The country-specific findings in a nutshell:

In France, 67 percent of the websites are integration-friendly. Nonetheless, contrary to other European countries, an anti-European stance in France is not a unique feature of one particular individual or one political party. There are a number of people from a variety of political backgrounds who have quite openly adopted euroskeptic positions. The most prominent one, Marine Le Pen, continues to be isolated though. She has not managed yet to overcome the mistrust that was accumulated by her father. The network of her party Front National is rather large but remains fairly isolated, too.

Eighty percent of the websites evaluated in Germany are pro-European, with only 73 out of 349 offering euroskeptic content. The most extensive anti-EU network is run by the AfD party, the second most extensive by the right-wing extremist NPD party. Yet, the NPD is much more isolated compared to the AfD, which has more connections within the web and is mentioned more often by Germany’s online media than any other party.

The rising stars in Italy are Beppe Grillo and his Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S). During the short time of its existence, it has managed to build up a very close-knit network, based on Beppe Grillo’s personal website and the party website. The network of Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia, on the other hand, is remarkably isolated even though it was the governing party for many years. Despite its comparatively good election results in the past, Lega Nord has a resilient network of websites with a low but stable level of support.

As for the Netherlands, the eurocritics are fragmented and 90% of the websites identified are those of political parties. The PVV, led by Geert Wilders, has the largest network but is otherwise very isolated. Compared with the other countries, it is noticeable that many parties in the Netherlands hold anti-European views. They come from all sides of the political spectrum.

The largest network in Poland is that of the Law and Justice party PiS. The most active network is that of Nowa Prawica, or Congress of the New Right, though which forecasts see at seven percent of the votes for the European Parliament elections. It is growing rapidly and has contacts with other organizations such as the radical right-wing party Ruch Narodowy.

The United Kingdom is the only country in which a traditional party, namely the Conservatives, is openly anti-European. However, the Tories are neither central to the debate on the internet, nor are they opinion leaders.

The real leader of the anti-European debate is the United Kingdom Independence Party. UKIP is the only party in the study that has managed to become mainstream. It is not only at the center of the British debate, it also leads it. UKIP has its own network and links with all other important actors.

To read a more complete analysis, please click here

Bertelsmann Stiftung: The Populist Networks (Spotlight Europe, May 2014)

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