In Germany and elsewhere, far-right movements are making use of the ongoing pandemic in various ways and mobilizing supporters online and offline. Just last weekend, around 40,000 people gathered in Berlin reportedly to protest the German government’s measures to redeem the crisis. Reportedly, because the messages and paroles uttered at these so-called Hygiene-Demos – or as we would like to call it, the new wave of white victimhood – are wide-reaching and confusing. The demonstrations that started all over the country as early as March are insignificant in size but attract diverse groups from anti-vaxxers, esoterics, supporters of the anthroposophical movement and hippies to notorious vegan cooks and members of the far-right Identitarian Movement. The movement has been widely described as Querfront, referring to a merger of antidemocratic groups spanning from far right to far left. This description obscures the inherently far-right character of these groups, which shines through their discourse and in their actions. Most of the protesters seem to be united ideologically under their public support and dissemination of various anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and of eugenic thinking either with Neo-Darwinist undertones or esoteric, karmic explanations for illness and disability. In terms of actions, the fact that all these individuals do not see a problem with marching alongside well-known neo-Nazis or waving the flag of Imperial Germany, which has been widely used by far-right groups at least since the Weimar Republic, speaks for itself.
In Germany, one of the driving forces behind the protests is the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) that suffered a brief loss of popularity as the German public largely supports the government’s precautionary response to the pandemic. AfD and their youth organization ‘Junge Alternative’ have been inciting their supporters to protest the government’s attempts to contain the virus. However, while the offline protests have so far struggled with attendance figures, a larger mobilization seems to be emerging online. Which is why, we should extend our perspective on the far right by including its extra-parliamentary manifestations.
On various social media platforms, especially on YouTube and Telegram, far-right influencers are producing and circulating their own interpretations of the government’s response to the crisis, unleashing an intense attack on journalism and its coverage of this pandemic. A quick overview of the most influential far-right YouTubers reveals the unprecedented intensity and diversity of how the far right is utilizing the virus to question democratic institutions including journalism, as every day new videos appear across far-right channels. To illustrate, one former journalist turned YouTuber produced hundreds of videos since the virus reached Europe, 57 of which are named “Me, Myself and Media”, solely devoted to debunking legacy media’s coverage of the virus. Overall, barely any video produced by this movement goes without using Nazi-framed labels for the media, such as “Lügenpresse” (lying press) – a pejorative label for the media coined by Nazis in the 1930s. The narrative is quite simple: the state and the media are conspiring against “their own people” and slowly taking away their freedom and rights. The reasons are diverse and emerge from largely anti-Semitic, xenophobe, nationalist-authoritarian conspiracy theories such as the so-called Grand Replacement or the New World Order.
The circulation of these conspiracies – that have less to do with theories than with ideologies and sentiments – attract and mobilize affective publics (Papacharissi 2015) that, in this particular case, emerge around shared feelings of anxiety. To put it briefly, what this means is that there is a process of knowledge production taking place that does not stem from deliberation but rather builds on emotional appeals. Of course, all public discourse comprises some emotional and affective dimensions but, much like the populist communication style (see e.g. Mudde 2004) these so-called influencers are not interested in a dialogue between different publics but promote a Manichean worldview, meaning that governments, big corporations and media – in short “the elite” is opposed to “the people”, both portrayed as homogenous groups. The YouTubers claiming to represent „the will of the people” are of course largely white and male. Moreover, they seem to value felt truth over expert knowledge and promote anti-institutional, plebiscitary, direct democracy on the basis of the myths they create. The anxiety and fear that they produce and perform in these videos is then amplified and exchanged through interactive affective practices of sharing or reacting through likes and comments on social media. These developments call for a closer examination of how affective publics and their practices online challenge journalism and other social institutions and what do they tell us about the state of the general public sphere. Moreover, how do the affordances of social media contribute to constructing and spreading the economy of anxiety? (See e.g. Nash 2016) And how do these affordances allow transnational issues such as this pandemic to intertwine with affective lifeworlds of social media users?
However, as we analyze these questions, we should eschew perspectives that conceptualize affect as merely bodily occurrence devoid of cognition and any form of intent. When studying the circulation of affect on social media, scholars tend to refer to it as a form of “communication for its own sake” (see e.g. Dean 2010, p. 21). In doing so, they risk ignoring just how intentional, organized and directed these affective appeals can be (for example, on far-right networks seemingly conforming to mainstream values for mobilization purposes see Castelli Gattinara 2017 and Froio 2018). Hence, as we start to examine the public communication around this pandemic, we should keep in mind to examine affects and their associated dispositions.
Castelli Gattinara, P. (2017). Framing Exclusion in the Public Sphere: Far-Right Mobilisation and the Debate on Charlie Hebdo in Italy. South European Society and Politics, 22(3), 345–364. https://doi.org/10.1080/13608746.2017.1374323
Dean, J. (2010). Affective Networks. MediaTropes, 2(2), 19–44.
Froio, C. (2018). Race, Religion, or Culture? Framing Islam between Racism and Neo-Racism in the Online Network of the French Far Right. Perspectives on Politics, 16(3), 696–709. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592718001573
Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 541–562.
Nash, A. (2016). Affect, People, and Digital Social Networks. In S. Tettegah (Ed.), Emotions, technology, and social media (pp. 3–23). Elsevier.
Papacharissi, Z. (2015). Affective Publics. Sentiment, Technology, and Politics. Oxford University Press.