A coordinated online campaign by far-right activists pressured mainstream European parties to drop support for a U.N. migration pact that was years in the making, analysis of social media activity shows.
Starting in September last year, a coalition of anti-Islam, far-right and neo-Nazi sympathizers fueled a surge in social media activity about the pact, which until then had garnered little attention, according to analysis by academic researchers.
The burst of activity, including tweets, videos and online petitions, prompted politicians in several countries to take notice of the previously uncontroversial pact and revise their views. In Belgium, the controversy led to the collapse of the government.
The rapid move from online activity to political reality is an example of how a process can be hijacked by what researchers describe as a global network of nationalist, far-right activists. In this case the efforts were spearheaded by popular YouTubers and political "influencers" such as Austrian far-right activist Martin Sellner, then coordinated via chat groups and hyper-partisan websites.
“If you look at nationalist parties across the globe, you see these parties are part of a specific niche, and a specific network. All these actors inform each other, and adopt each other’s political positions,” said Ico Maly, a researcher who teaches new media and politics at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.
Martin Sellner, a leading member of the Identitarian Movement, chats with visitors at a gathering entitled Europa Nostra in Dresden in August 2018 | Sean Gallup/Getty Images
In Austria and Italy, the researchers found that a surge of online activity preceded government decisions to change tack on the U.N. Global Compact for Migration. A total of 152 countries ended up approving the deal, but the United States, Hungary, Israel, the Czech Republic and Poland voted against while 12 others abstained, including Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
A report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which monitors extremism online, looked at the discussion surrounding the U.N. deal in Europe. Analyzing tweets and posts on YouTube and Facebook, the researchers found that “right-wing extremist and right-wing populist actors played a disproportionate role” in influencing the discussion around the deal before last October.
“While the agreement was barely talked about on social media until mid-September, far-right and right-wing populist influencers discovered the issue in mid-September and began spreading large-scale distorted interpretations and misinformation about the U.N. migration pact,” the researchers wrote in the paper.
From that point, the discussion developed around social media accounts operated by the website Epoch Times; right-wing populist columnist Thomas Böhm, who runs the "alternative" information campaign website journalistenwatch; and the nationalist, anti-Islam blog Philosophia Perennis — all of which featured in the top 10 mentioned accounts in over 1 million analyzed tweets globally after October 31.
"YouTube plays a particularly important role in the dissemination of distorted or even false information within the right-wing populist and extreme right-wing scenes," the researchers added, stating that right-wing populists and conspiracy theorists were responsible for about half of the top videos about the deal.
“Given the prominence of the anti-migration narrative across the different groups in that space, the U.N. migration pact was something that could galvanize these groups all over the world,” said Chloe Colliver, head of the digital analysis unit at ISD.
“U.S. and European groups do work together. But within Europe the problem has become the mainstreaming of these ideas, and it is more organic than we think. It is pushed by certain groups, but it has taken on a life of its own now,” Colliver said.
Austria’s far-right drove agenda
ISD found that for months, the most shared link on German social media channels was to a petition against the U.N. pact organized by Sellner, an Austrian far-right activist who was called “the new face of the far-right in Europe” by the BBC.
After Heinz-Christian Strache, the country's vice chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party, expressed his objections to the pact in September, Sellner picked up the theme. In a video he calls for an “information war” to start “spreading fire.” According to Sellner, the pact would mean the “demise of the European people” and the realization of the “vision of the future of the global elites.”
Sellner’s videos made it to the top of the list of most-viewed YouTube clips about the migration pact, according to Tagesschau, a news program by the German public broadcaster, closely followed by Russia Today’s German edition RT Deutsch.
It was Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who in October started the ball rolling in Europe, announcing his government had decided to pull out of the U.N. pact. Kurz is in a coalition government with the Freedom Party.
Sellner said the campaign was about creating public discussion. “The pact was very ambiguous and we just understood in the way that most ordinary people who read it did. It is a pact for more migration,” he told POLITICO in an email.
An off-road vehicle with a U.S. flag drives near the Mexico border fence east of Calexico, California | Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images
“The thing is,” he added, “without our campaign there would have been no public debate at all.”
It didn’t miss its goal. Soon after Kurz’s move, similar debates cropped up in the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic — all countries where the far-right online movement has proven influential on political processes.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and U.S. President Donald Trump had already pulled their governments out of the deal.
"Trump instantly dropped out [of the U.N. process] to draft the deal, but in Europe no one will follow Trump. Then there was Orbán but that too is not someone that you'd back instantly," Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish-nationalist New Flemish Alliance, which pulled out of the Belgian government over objections to the U.N. deal, said at a leaders’ summit in Marrakech in December.
When the U.N. deal was finally voted on in New York on December 19, five countries voted against and 12 abstained.
"It's only when Austria, as the first 'normal country,' so to speak, said they were unsatisfied, that our alarm bells went off," De Wever told public broadcaster VRT in early December.
In Italy, the government, which includes the far-right League, followed in Austria's footsteps in backtracking on the deal in November. According to ISD's research, League leader Matteo Salvini, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio were in the top 10 most-mentioned accounts in a dataset of over 1 million tweets globally.
When the U.N. deal was finally voted on in New York on December 19, five countries voted against: Hungary, Poland, the U.S., the Czech Republic and Israel. Twelve countries abstained: Algeria, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Italy, Latvia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Romania, Singapore and Switzerland.
In a speech at a U.N. conference in Marrakech, Louise Arbour, the U.N.’s point person who drafted the international migration deal, looked back on the weeks and months leading up to the summit. “It is surprising that there has been so much misinformation about what the compact is and what the text says.” She dismissed claims spread on social media that it creates a “right to migrate” or that it would directly impact national legislation.
“This is not my interpretation of the text — it is the text,” Arbour said.
Her statement was a swipe at the far-right vloggers, influencers and trolls who waged a monthslong campaign to sway the positions of mainstream politicians.
“The idea that politics is being done within national borders has long vanished,” said Maly. “We have to start looking at this in a global perspective. New right is a global network."