Home Society Europe’s far right wins over youth vote on TikTok
Europe’s far right wins over youth vote on TikTok

Europe’s far right wins over youth vote on TikTok

by host

“MY HUSBAAAAAAND!!!”

“What an elegant man, I love you”

“He’s hitting on me with THIS LOOK”

Some might expect these to be declarations of love for a K-pop star. But they’re actually comments from ardent fans on a far-right politician’s TikTok.

Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old protégé of France’s far-right Marine Le Pen, has racked up more than one million followers in less than three years on the Chinese-owned video app. The leader of the country’s far-right National Rally became a social media hit by avoiding what he knows best: politics.

Speaking directly to a generation of social media users more interested in viral dance crazes than in staid party-political policies, Bardella poses in tight-fitting turtlenecks while playing a video game.

@jordanbardella

Santé ! 🍻

♬ son original – Jordan Bardella

When he’s not grabbing a casual drink with locals in the South of France, he borrows from viral music trends out of Marseille’s suburbs like other internet influencers who make appearances in a nightclub and he posts grainy selfies. And Bardella, who leads his party list for the European Parliament’s election in June and is a current member of European Parliament, never misses an opportunity to share moments with smiling girls or his boss.

Because it’s all for the votes.

Billions of people will vote in a record number of elections in 2024, amid expected foreign interference, disinformation campaigns and fears of voter fraud. Still, politicians have flocked to social media to convince the masses their values and their ideology will fundamentally affect how Europe, the United States and the world will be run. 

Extremist movements around the world are challenging the fundamentals of democracy, and parties tout ideologies against economic equalities, immigration, war and climate change to an extremely online population. Among them is a young base of voters tapped into politics, finding much of their news on social media. In Germany, Malta, Austria and Belgium, 16-year-olds will be able to cast ballots in the European election. In Greece, the voting age is 17.

Polls across Europe, from Italy to France to the Netherlands, show support for the right and the far right among young voters is growing. With their potential votes, much of Europe could shift to the right in the June election when 450 million people can vote for Members of European Parliament (MEPs). Some projections show far-right parties are expected to win a record-setting number of seats.

Bardella, an acolyte of the far right since his teenage years growing up in the Paris suburbs, is capitalizing on that surge.

@jordanbardella

À la votre ! 🇫🇷

♬ son original – Jordan Bardella

The Frenchman is one of the 142 million Europeans on TikTok. Where he stands out among his political peers is that he is one of a handful to successfully engage with the platform’s young audience.

POLITICO reviewed all 705 MEPs’ presence on TikTok between February 15 and March 8 and found 186 active accounts, with a quarter of lawmakers coming from the right wing and far-right grouping in the European Parliament. 

Analysts and political advisers interviewed by POLITICO flag that social media, particularly TikTok, has become a key battleground for the next generation of voters. 

The right-wing movement’s “first objective is to win what they call a cultural battle, which in their view they are winning because, as American right wingers would say: the left can’t meme well,” said Romain Fargier, a researcher on political radicalization at the Center for Social and Political Studies (CEPEL) of Montpellier university. 

From Italy to Germany, many far-right members of the European Parliament engage with young users on TikTok far more than peers from traditional parties, according to POLITICO’s research. Nearly four out of 10 accounts following MEPs on TikTok subscribe to the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformist group or the far-right Identity and Democracy group. Those right-leaning MEPs have accrued nearly 39 million likes and two million followers. 

Lawmakers from the center-right European People’s Party, the largest grouping in Parliament,  held fewer than 3 percent of the total likes. 

Some lawmakers are worried. 

“We simply cannot leave the space to anti-European forces, to anti-systemic populists, to all of those who want to undermine and destroy democracy and undermine and destroy Europe,” said Slovak center-right politician Vladimír Bilčík (EPP), who joined TikTok in January and has fewer than 200 followers.

Tom Zoete, a senior press officer of the left-leaning European Greens party, said it was working to “bridge this gap and counter misinformation with a legitimate and democratic discourse.” 

Pierre Le Texier, the director of communications from liberal party Renew, pointed to a recent Ipsos poll  showing that only 4 percent of the 18-24 year-olds planned to vote for his party in France in June. Thirty-one percent considered voting for Bardella. 

“We don’t have the kind of long-term strategy that [far-right parties] seem to have, and that could be worrying in the future,” he said.

Only the far-left politicians came as close to competing with their far-right rivals, with more than a quarter of total subscribers of MEP accounts on TikTok.

Ticktock on TikTok

After Barack Obama cruised into the White House in 2008 on the back of Facebook, many politicians doubled down on digital communication with the masses on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook and Instagram. But the love affair between mainstream politics and social media took a hit after the 2016 U.S. election, when Trump trolled his way to power in D.C. and American officials accused Russia of using those very platforms to manipulate voters.

Politicians for years pointed the finger at social media companies, saying their technology was polarizing politics and society.

In the United States, TikTok’s affiliation with China has kept some, but not all, politicians from joining the platforms — and Congress is now mulling the forced sale of the network on national security grounds. In Europe, politicians have been more wary of using social media, in general, to target voters with political messaging over data protection concerns.

In recent weeks, a woman berated German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a town hall in Dresden for his Social Democratic party, like other traditional parties, not being as active on social media as the country’s far-right anti-immigrant extremist Alternative for Germany party (AfD). She begged Scholz to ramp up its online messaging. 

At the European Union level, many have stayed away from TikTok after the European Commission, Parliament and other institutions as well as national governments issued restrictions on its use in 2023 over fears of Beijing’s access to the data. TikTok denies those allegations. 

French center-left politician Raphaël Glucksmann, who was among the most popular MEPs on TikTok with over 55 thousand followers, stopped using the platform after the security warning and closed his account in February, according to one of his aides. 

@sardonesilvia 🟥 Ci odiano in nome di Allah! Basta sottometterci! Gli estremisti islamici odiano il nostro modo di vivere, odiano la libertà delle donne di scegliere chi sposare, con chi uscire, come vestirsi. Odiano i nostri valori, le nostre tradizioni! Di fronte a quest’odio la risposta europea è la sottomissione, il buonismo, il politicamente corretto. BASTA! #europa #terrore #islam #parlamentoeuropeo #sardone #integrazione #odio #ue #perte #neiperte ♬ suono originale – Silvia Sardone

Pedro Lopez de Pablo, head of press for the EPP, said his political group had invested less on TikTok for security and practical reasons. 

“We cannot use it with our phones or computers when they are connected with the Parliaments’ network, so we are on the network with computers and phones outside of the Parliament,” he told POLITICO. 

Still, the group had made a decision to stay on TikTok to combat the spread of misinformation and to thwart attempts at polarization. 

“What has worked best is the kind of videos which very much have to do with direct confrontation with anti-European, anti-system populists,” said Slovak center-right politician Vladimír Bilčík.  

Like many social media platforms, TikTok’s content algorithms are designed to keep people on the platform by amplifying videos that spark strong reactions. The company is currently under investigation for potentially boosting addictive behavior via its algorithm and for its impact on children, under the EU’s new content-moderation rules, the Digital Services Act. It denies any wrongdoing.  

TikTok said it will have content moderators and specialists to monitor real-time trends and potential problems including misinformation ahead of the European Parliament election. 

Kevin Morgan, the company’s European head of trust and safety, said TikTok would remove content or accounts of politicians and political parties that posted illegal content or violated its own terms and conditions, though adding the platform will take “public interest” into account when making such sensitive decisions.

“We don’t get into politics at all so we don’t differentiate between right, left, center,” Caroline Greer, the head of TikTok’s Brussels office, told POLITICO.

Emojis, dance moves and anti-immigrant rants

Betting on their ability to outsmart the algorithm, the far right is adapting its political message to woo the TikTok generation. Around Europe, the social media platform has become populist leaders’ experimental lab during elections, sharing bombastic TV appearances and fiery speeches framed by bright backgrounds and emojis while attacking migrants, Islam and climate change. 

“They hate us in the name of Allah,” said Italy’s far-right Silvia Sadorne to her 110,000 followers recently. Sardone, a native of Milan, posted a video of a speech about a terror attack in Brussels, which was liked nearly 24 thousand times. 

In another video liked by more than 85 thousand people, Polish far-right politician Patryk Jaki, who has 218,000 followers, showed footage of an assault of a young girl and her mother overlaid with music. Without evidence, he insinuated the person who carried out the attack was a migrant. He said: “We do not have this in our country because a few years ago we stood up to the European Union and did not agree to the mechanism of forced relocation of migrants.”

In Slovakia, the governing SMER party put forward a Bardella-like photogenic politician, Erik Kaliňák, to address TikTokers in a casual black hoodie. With nearly 61,000 followers and more than 1 million likes, the party ranked above its opponents on the social media app.

“The far right has been more active and been using the platform more strategically and — to that end —  was also able to gain more traction simply because they understood the platform logic,” said Martin Degeling, an analyst for Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung.  

Still, some experts said converting likes into votes is no sure thing. 

Much of what goes viral on TikTok is often humorous or shocking, according to Ioana Literat, a Columbia University professor who has studied how young people use the platform to engage with politicians.

“Examples of politicians who turned their TikTok success into electoral victories are few and far between,” she said. “You can be really successful or effective on Tiktok, gain visibility and engagement, but still not be successful politically.” 

France’s far right, in particular, has often disguised political messages via innocuous social media posts about personal growth, according to Romain Fargier, the researcher. “They don’t talk about politics, but about identity, criticize women’s hypergamy, encourage bodybuilding, financial development and so on … This can have an effect on teenagers in the making,” he said.

Half of Bardella’s content “doesn’t directly contain a political message but shows that he masters an entertaining oratory art in debates,” Fargier said.

Alexandre Eyries, a university professor at the Catholic University of the West in France, said that many of his students thought that Bardella was another influencer and did not identify him as a politician.

The third most followed French politician on the social network, Bardella now lags just behind President Emmanuel Macron and left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Of Bardella’s  274 TikTok posts, 166 are clips from TV appearances, most of them heavily edited with punchlines and popular expressions among young followers, like when he claimed to be “drinking tears” from his enemies (journalists or leftists, depending on the post). 

Asked about Bardella’s strategy on TikTok, Philippe Olivier, a European lawmaker and a key adviser to National Rally, said in a statement that “we’re preparing for the presidential election, and we’re not into petty politics. Educating young people in particular is a priority for us,” Olivier told POLITICO in a written statement.

To do so, Bardella rarely mentions his political party’s name and hardly mentions the face of the French far right, Marine Le Pen. And he almost never calls on his followers to vote for him during June’s election. 

This cunning strategy makes it all the more difficult for teenagers to identify that they are actually watching content from a far-right leader. 

For example, after school, 14-year-old Jean, whose last name POLITICO is not disclosing because he is a minor, has a routine. The French teen checks his phone. He chats with friends on Snap. He binge-watches TikTok videos of Jordan Bardella on his way home in Brittany.

“I don’t know much about politics,” said Jean, whose family has always voted for left-leaning parties.

“But I like how he clashes with others.”

Source link

You may also like