What WhatsApp Conversations Reveal About the Far Right’s Ideology

Do media scandals have any effect on the core ideology of the far right?
Ico Maly, Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, Forum for Democracy Netherlands, FvD Netherlands, Thierry Baudet FvD, far right ideology, far right media scandals, WhatsApp news, far right WhatsApp groups, FvD party news

Thierry Baudet, The Hague, Netherlands, 11/6/2019 © Nancy Beijersbergen / Shutterstock

October 29, 2020 12:40 EDT

Forum for Democracy (FvD) is a political party on the rise in the Netherlands. Thierry Baudet, FvD’s conservative revolutionary leader, positions himself and his party as right-wing and as an acceptable ideological alternative to all other Dutch parties. All media controversies about his radical-right ideology are labeled by Baudet as the work of opponents trying to frame him and the party in a negative way. A careful analysis of WhatsApp messages shared between the youth divisions of the party, however, shows a different reality, namely that mass media reporting helps shape a metapolitical discourse without deradicalizing the core ideology. 

Intimate Conversations

Thierry Baudet likes to use controversy to normalize his ideology. This strategy can be seen in his victory speech following the 2019 election and his review of Michel Houellebecq’s book “Sérotonine” for American Affairs. The two interventions were in essence about what he calls the decline of the boreal (or “Northern”) civilization and what Baudet sees as the devastating impact of the party cartel in particular and the individualization and atomization of society since 18th-century Enlightenment in general.

Such discourse is emblematic of Baudet’s ideological position. He regularly echoes anti-Enlightenment, conservative revolutionary and new right thinkers such as Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye. All the classic tropes from these thinkers are present in his discourse: the decline of the nation, the demographic question, the loss of identity, traditional family and gender roles, and the devastating impact of globalization, liberalism and the French Revolution. And, as with any new right leader, he also loudly stresses the need for a national and civilizational rebirth. 

Most notable, however, is that both his victory speech and his review became the object of intense media scrutiny. In Baudet’s victory speech, the use of the word “boreal” was read as an indication of his radical-right stance. In his review, it was the use of the word “suicide” in relation to abortion and his suggestion that women entering the workplace causes the decline of society that affirmed this profile. But despite all the classic ingredients of generic fascism being on full display, the Dutch media centered around some emblematic features without discussing the ideology that gives meaning to those excerpts.

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This allowed Baudet to claim that the media was taking his words out of context and that it avoided the real debate on the issues that he was proposing. He constructed, as usual, the idea of an unfair witch hunt by fully exploiting the multilayered meanings attached to his words.

In light of this public debate, the discussions in the party WhatsApp groups are revealing. WhatsApp groups have become important tools for political parties and for populists in particular. The groups are used to share political messages among young FvD militants and even to suggest a direct line between Baudet and his sympathizers. The closed spaces of those groups not only enable so-called echo chambers, but they also facilitate more intimate conversations among party members and sympathizers as well as functioning as a teaching environment for new recruits.

As a result of the more informal and private nature of such groups, participants tend to lower their guard. Those conversations, when made public, can become highly explosive scandals. The FvD experienced this first-hand in April this year when a group of young party militants leaked a series of racist, radical-right memes and posts that were posted on the party’s official WhatsApp groups. They did this after their concerns remained unanswered by the leaders of the youth division and the party elite.

The whistleblowers categorized the communication in those groups as “expressions that correspond to authoritarian, fascist and/or National Socialist ideas, including anti-Semitism, homophobia and racist imperialism.” In short, the posts showed the integration of the members in the global new right culture. The media backlash was substantial, but the party, even though it called the discourse “disgusting,” refused to apologize. 

Surveillance Culture

This summer, the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant asked this author to analyze another 900 WhatsApp messages of the FvD’s youth divisions. Those new chats were collected after the media storm caused by the first leak and illustrate the impact of earlier leaks. Concretely, we see how members of the WhatsApp group act as if they are being watched by mainstream media like de Volkskrant or the NRC. 

Moderators help members to imagine surveillance and to self-surveil. Party member Iem Al Biyati, for instance, explains how members should interact in the WhatsApp group: “Place yourself in the position of a journalist before you post edgy memes. You know very well how everything can be framed, so don’t open up that space.” In the literature, this is called imagined surveillance: moderators imagine “the scrutiny that could take place … and may engender future risks” for the party and act accordingly. As a result, a culture of (self-)surveillance is installed within the group chat. Not only the moderators but also regular members intervene when somebody posts something that can create bad optics.

Why is this important? The interventions and the non-interventions of moderators and members help us understand what the party and its members understand as acceptable discourse within both the party itself and society at large. It also allows us to understand the reception and appropriation of the discourse of the party elite by the militants and staffers. This is especially relevant when the party elite regularly claims to be misunderstood by the (left-wing) mass media and academia. And, lastly and maybe most importantly in the context of this article, it allows us to assess the impact of mass media hype on the discourse among party members.

Moderation policies in the WhatsApp group affect those topics that can connect the party to national socialism, Nazism and, in particular, anti-Semitism. Explicit anti-Semitism, explicit racism or incitement to violence are (sometimes) moderated. Any association with those topics has the potential to destroy the metapolitical construction of the party and push it out of the Overton window. Despite this surveillance culture, we see that members are still very explicit in their aversion toward LGBTQ+ people, migrants and migration, and the left. The analysis that Dutch identity has been emptied and is now filled with “transgenderism” in an attempt to destroy the nation passes without moderation. The framing of criminals as mainly “non-boreals” is not moderated, indicating that the controversy the media has created around Baudet’s use of the term didn’t succeed in harming the party. 

A similar pattern is visible after mainstream media claimed that Baudet questioned the role of working women, as well as the availability of euthanasia and abortion in his review of Houellebecq’s book. Baudet himself claimed that his words were taken out of context, but in the WhatsApp group, the members, including the moderators, were enthusiastic, responding with “It was about time,” “nice!,” “he is just a great thinker, who thinks things through and puts them up for debate. Very well done! Proud of Cherry.” These takes were not only similar to what the mainstream media read in Baudet’s interventions, but in many cases, this back-facing discourse was far more radical than what Baudet explicitly stated or what the media made of it. Mainstream media reporting didn’t have an impact on the reception of Baudet’s words among peers.

Triggering Outsiders

Already in the 1990s, J.B. Thompson stressed that the study of ideology should not only look at the original text, but also at the transmission, construction, reception and appropriation of ideological discourse. From the FvD’s WhatsApp messages, we see how the party’s ideology is shaped in the interaction between the members of the WhatsApp group, the official party discourse and mass media reporting. 

The moderation policies in the WhatsApp groups are partially informed by previous media attention. An earlier WhatsApp scandal created a surveillance culture that steers the militants away from damaging scandals. But this surveillance culture is rarely legitimized in terms of the party and its ideology. The need for self-surveillance is advocated to avoid what the journalists, in the words of another moderator, can use it to “frame” the party. 

The imagined surveillance does not seem to affect the uptake of Baudet’s discourse by the militants and staffers in the WhatsApp groups. Mass media hypes that avoid tackling the larger ideology of the party contribute to the metapolitical character of the discourse. They help to establish a radical discourse that avoids explicit connotations with neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism and fascism. At the same time, we see that mass media reporting hardly affects the ideological core conviction of its members. With the exception of explicit or so-called “ironic” racism, anti-Semitism and references to Nazism, militants and moderators in the Young Forum for Democracy WhatsApp groups amplify Baudet’s discourse even when they think that they are being watched.

The word “boreal” has been used in over 100 WhatsApp messages. Baudet clearly has succeeded in introducing the term and establishing a strategic ambivalence concerning its meaning. The militants clearly understand the strategic potential of the ambivalent meaning, which now functions as an identity emblem in the group. It is clear that when media hypes fail to sketch the bigger ideological picture, the words and sentences that are extrapolated from of Thierry Baudet’s discourse become badges of honor because they have succeeded in triggering the outsiders without causing bad optics. 

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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