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.
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.