Some say Austria dodged a bullet last year. After an acrimonious year-long election campaign the Alpine nation elected Alexander Van der Bellen, a veteran Green Party politician, as president last December. He had a margin of 7.5 points over his far-right rival candidate, Norbert Hofer.
With parliamentary elections in Austria due to be held before the end of 2018 there are signs that while the election did not secure the largely symbolic president’s office for the far-right, it helped Hofer’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) build a fearsome echo chamber on social media — one they are expected to capitalise on in the future.
Social media and the Freedom Party
Like nationalist leaders before him, Heinz-Christian Strache, FPÖ chairman, has built a strong personal following. He has over 500,000 followers on Facebook, equivalent to 10 per cent of voters in the last election and more than any other politician in Austria. The far-right leader gained over 100,000 followers during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Strache’s Facebook site is key to the Freedom Party’s influence on social media. Research published in Der Standard newspaper shows that he posts 13 times a day on average and his posts are typically shared around 400 times. At those rates, Strache can potentially reach tens of thousands of people that don’t follow him. This gives the Freedom Party impressive reach. It also allows Strache to share content considered too toxic for other platforms, often originating from websites close to the party.
It’s not surprising Strache recently called social media a “blessing for democracy”. It is also reminiscent of Donald Trump’s bypassing of the traditional media: Strache uses Facebook to communicate directly with voters, without the filter of journalism.
Websites with links to the Freedom Party
Several websites publish the highly controversial content the FPÖ frequently shares on social media. Two websites have a particularly strong impact.
Most prominent among these is Unzensuriert.at (“Uncensored”). The site states that it is independent, although it was founded as the blog of a senior party figure and is co-run by FPÖ parliamentary staff.
Unzensuriert.at is an ideological outfit publishing Austrian and international political news. It focuses on migration and Islam, mixing news lifted from other sources with commentary. Recent stories include an exposé on “Unrest in Sweden – Trump was right” and “Further stunning silence on riots in France”. “Uncensored” purports to give readers the “truth” that mainstream media is silent about.
Another site, Wochenblick.at, was founded in 2016. It is a more lowbrow alternative to Uncensored, not shying away from apolitical local news and celebrity stories. While it frequently publishes alleged “refugee crimes”, it also runs tabloid-style pieces, such as “World’s sexiest female fire fighters”.
The site is run by former party members who claim to be independent. It solicits donations and doesn’t display any advertising.
Other websites frequently shared by the FPÖ and its party leader include FMPolitics—a Facebook site that produces anti-refugee and anti-Islam memes—and Verein Freunde der Tagespolitik—a “satire site” that runs anti-migrant caricatures.
These websites are read not only in Austria. They get much of their traffic from Germany—in the case of Uncensored more than half of it. According to a recent survey, Austrian far-right sites are widely read among followers of the far-right Pegida network and likely add to the momentum of Pegida-ally Alternative für Deutschland.
The Freedom Party leverages its rising online power with legacy media.
In Austria’s small media market, public broadcaster ORF and tabloid Kronen Zeitung dominate domestic TV and print news respectively.
The Freedom Party frequently attacks ORF as a left-wing propaganda machine and has called for an end to the licence-fee model of financing public broadcasting.
That, of course, doesn’t prevent Strache and party leaders from sharing ORF content and reposting segments of interviews on social media.
Much like Donald Trump in the US, the Freedom Party uses TV interviews to reinforce notions from fake news stories with their core audience. A recent analysis by Falter newspaper showed how often Norbert Hofer, as presidential candidate, alluded to Alexander Van der Bellen’s age and allegedly poor memory.
In TV debates, Hofer repeatedly called his septuagenarian opponent ‘forgetful’ and ‘absent-minded’. This attempted to reinforce a notion, taken from internet memes, that Van der Bellen is unfit for office due to his age and declining mental state. Much like a silent dog whistle, this toxic message can only be heard by those who are familiar with the internet rumours.
Contrary to their fraught relationship with the public broadcaster, the far-right has strong ties to tabloid Kronen Zeitung. Austria’s most popular newspaper has a right wing-nationalist bent, but has been keen to keep good relations with all parties.
Strache, however, has power over the tabloids that others lack. In an interview last year, the then-online editor of Kronen Zeitung, Richard Schmitt, conceded the Freedom Party’s appeal to their audience. ‘When Strache shares one of our stories on Facebook, we have noticed it pushes up our traffic by one and a half. And, of course, he gets more traffic if we share him’, Schmitt said. Both players have thus become intertwined.
Meanwhile the Freedom Party increasingly bypasses traditional forms of media exposure such as press conferences.
From my own experience as a journalist covering the FPÖ, I can say that during recent trips by party leaders to Israel, Russia and the US, Freedom Party officials barely spoke to legacy media. They did not take journalists along and publicised their trips mainly on Facebook and party platforms.
What this means for the future
If the Freedom Party is voted into power in Austria, legacy media is likely to be side-lined and restricted. The far-right has repeatedly called for the public broadcaster to be curtailed financially and in the freedom of its reporting.
Meanwhile hidden subsidies to Austria’s newspapers, totalling 188 million Euro in 2015, make them vulnerable to interference by any government. It seems likely that the far-right will use its leverage to undermine the traditional media.
The success of the far-right in Austria in decoupling from traditional media is closely watched and, as far as I can see, mirrored in other countries. Their allies in Germany, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), might even profit directly from their echo chamber. The far-right and their voters in Austria and other European countries might well be heading towards a space where independent journalism, and therefore public scrutiny, can no longer reach them.
Background: The Freedom Party
The Freedom Party is the rising force in Austrian politics. Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was a fellow-traveller of Neonazi group Wiking Jugend in his youth. Over the past 12 years, Strache positioned the party as a nationalist alternative to the establishment. Any government by the FPÖ is likely to see Strache as leader.
The FPÖ is also a key player within the emerging “nationalist international” of Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and other like-minded groups around Europe.
The ideology of the Freedom Party is one of fighting immigration and Islam, mixed with strong anti-establishment rhetoric and nationalist opposition to the European Union.
The Freedom Party could be closer to taking power than most of its European allies. Austria is currently ruled by a “grand coalition” of Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party. It has not been a happy marriage, and many voters call for change. In a recent poll, only one in ten voters said they supported another “grand coalition”.
Elections for a new parliament in Austria must be held by late 2018 and many observers believe the current government will call them earlier. The FPÖ has come out on top of nearly every opinion poll since mid-2015. The most likely constellation for the next Austrian government is a coalition of the People’s Party with the Freedom Party as senior partner.
 Maan, N. Schmid, F. Hametner, M. Fellner, S., Ausserhofer, J. & Puschmann, C. (2016, October 4). ‘”Zur Info”: Das Facebook-Universum des HC Strache.
 The survey results will be published in a contribution by Noura Maan and Fabian Schmidt to the anthology ‘»Wir sind das Volk« – auch im Netz’ (Ch. Links Verlag) in March 2017.
A version of this article first appeared on OxPol, the Oxford University Politics blog
image: screenshot of public Facebook page
Tags: Austria, Der Standard, Donald Trump, echo chamber, Elections, Facebook, far-right, Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, media, media and politics, Norbert Hofer, online, ORF, Politics, populism, Press freedom, Social media