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The Centre on Social Movement Studies

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The Far-right and conspiraciy theories, from Covid to the European elections

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Donatella Della Porta, Cosmos Lab director, has researched on “Regressive movements in time of emergency” using the case of protests against anti contagion measures. In this case as in many others (from the conservative “anti gender”  European farmers) protesters pictured themselves as an abused minority of powerless victims fighting against some hidden and organized power. This frame seems to be a version of those being used by populist (mainly far-right) parties against Europe. We asked Della Porta to explain why and how conspiracy theories and this kind of posturing is keen to fall for the political offer of rightwing parties.

I think that we have to look at it from different perspectives. One is the different resources that the far-right offers to this phenomenon. Each of these protest movements is different from the others but they all emerged in a phase during which the far right is changing and perceiving that there is room to fill the space traditionally occupied by the moderate/traditionally conservative right. Something similar had occurred during the austerity crisis when parties like Podemos or Syriza had developed at the detriment of the centre-left forces by proposing more radical alternatives. There are similarities. The austerity crisis and those that followed have weakened moderate political forces and strengthened more radical forces. On the right part of the political spectrum, far-right political forces tried and managed to conquer space in areas that were not traditionally their own. Opposing compulsory vaccinations, the far-right found a very pragmatic way to expand by adapting their message. European far right is traditionally different from that of the United States that had been much more libertarian (anti rules/anti State) and Islamophobic (after 9/11 and the War on Terror). The European far right imported some of the frames that are traditionally part of the US culture. Steve Bannon has been pivotal in this attempt, while president Trump has been relevant in the No Vax discourse and its refusal to give power to public institutions to regulate and mandate aspects of our life related to health (or education).

 

The use of conspiracy theories, fake news, the identification of a mysterious enemy creates a global echo chamber in which political organizations that use that kind of “grammar” do grow. Is this because we have easy explanations and answers to a polycrisis decade?

In the right-wing spectrum, the type of actor with a low reputation attracts followers and supporters more easily than on the other side. One kind of explanation in sociological terms is that proposed by sociologists such as Zygmunt Baumann: fear generates a search for certainty, and our societies have exchanged traditional sources of trust for a search for freedom, but the effect is that this search has once again made people prisoners of actors who propose simple solutions to complicated and frightening problems. Concepts such as echo chambers or post-truth society refer to adaptations to some of these trends. Some of them make it easier to gather information, but on the other hand they have reduced trust in those actors who used to act as mediators – politicians, journalists, intellectuals, scientists. So people are looking for ‘true’ answers and have easy access to reliable information, but in those parts of society that are more fearful and have fewer links to actors that can mediate trust, such as institutions, social movements, trade unions and also collective actors, they find themselves with a huge amount of information as well as disinformation and a lack of institutions that they trust. This is also linked to the transformation of the welfare state. An example from the pandemic is that family doctors used to be a trusted source of advice for citizens, and now they no longer exist. What we found in our research on the Covid pandemic was that people who were already embedded in some way in civil society organizations used their criticism of official science to construct knowledge in some kind of reliable way, while those who lacked resources and connections were more likely to believe in conspiracies. We also collected evidences about the effects of some attitudes, which could have a different outcome than in the past: people who are skeptical about the official message are exercising their critical point of view, which is a good thing, but it also brings with it an opening to conspiracy theories.

An example of this is what we can broadly call the “new age” groups (alternative lifestyles, alternative medicine, etc.), which were considered as mostly progressive but also have a deep distrust of official science. In these groups, we found that the far right QAnon conspiracy theory had made great inroads. I think that is part of the complexity of issues and one of the reasons why people have responded to the pandemic by opening up on the right. Obviously, things don’t just happen by chance, there was a kind of political mobilization of those kinds of feelings, which is why I think conspiracy theories still have an influence in the public debate on a number of issues: it was QAnon during the pandemic, then we have climate change deniers who have adopted a similar way of thinking. These theories spread in a similar way through the same media (chats, some social media, influencers). Even in these days we have seen something similar in the reactions to the was on Ukraine or the war on Gaza, tragic conflicts that create a panic mode and/or hysteria that helps spread false narratives based on conspiracy theories and false information. To close the vicious circle: believing in conspiracies helps overcoming fear as you feel part of a community, you feel smart as you think you understand and know things that others don’t. On the other hand, conspiracies generate fear, if you think that there is a powerful elite that wants to implant microchips into people’s bodies, you won’t overcome your fears. The more you believe, the more you feel like a lonely group or individual that fights against huge powers and monsters.

 

Conspiracy theories and fear have contributed to the growth of the far-right in electoral terms. Why is so in your opinion? And shouldn’t be Europe be more immune to these kind of irrational influences?

The ways in which the left and the right tend to mobilize are different. The right has appealed more to individuals, while the left has always worked more on the construction of intermediary organizations. Nowadays campaigns are mainly oriented towards the interest of the individual put in contrast with the interests of the rest. It is a more antagonizing form of mobilization. The left has worked more on solidarity, equality, empowerment of different groups which asks for different tools and strategies. The right-wingers have been much more pragmatic, as they often have a more thin ideological systems that allow bridging their core racist message with different emerging problems. A perfect example can, again, be found in the pandemic. The right, which traditionally promotes a “Law&Order” society, found a way to connect from the core elements of their value system with the calls for individual freedoms which were also against rules and law imposed by governments during the pandemic. Other examples: the turn that the radical right has made on antisemitism. It started in Nordic countries where the right started presenting itself not as the defender of national identity but of an identity built around a clash of civilization between the West, they claim to defend, and the rest of the world. The identity is that of the West in which, for instance, gay rights are protected. The same has been true with the relation with Israel and antisemitism. The Republican party is presenting itself as the defender of Jews in the US, while former president Trump and others elected officials also promoted QANon and other theories that are typically antisemitic. These types of contradictions are more difficult to bear on the left because of the large theoretical role of ideology. Finally, as Europe is concerned, I think that since the Ukranian war Europe has lost much of its capacity to appeal to its very roots. The great achievement of Europe was peace. Nowadays the institutions of the European Unions talk about investing more and more in the military complex and spread narratives of war. This produces fear and reduces the appeal of the European Union as it was promoted in the past as a space of peace and wellbeing. Moreover, the EU seems to betray the very idea of solidarity it formally promotes: from internal solidarity, that was challenged during the austerity crisis to  the pandemic crisis when the European countries denied free access to vaccines to the global South.  Finally, war is one of those issues in which the cleavage between the public opinion and the elite is stronger. Both on Ukraine and on Israel you have an almost unanimous political choir on one side while the public opinion is much more divided. The debate also produces a lot of examples in which conspiratorial ways of communication have penetrated the mainstream. The quality of information has decayed in order to push and justify choices that are being made. Research in different countries that claim that coverage by media and the political message has been full of fake news, stereotypes in order to build an image of the enemy. I think this is a very dangerous trend, we have seen what kind of results it has brought in the United States in terms of the weakening of democratic institutions.

 

 

News

01/07/2024

Le basi istituzionali di un panico morale

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Attraverso una lunga rassegna di casi concreti, Donatella Della Porta, direttrice di Cosmos, descrive il processo per cui la lotta istituzionale all'antisemitismo in Germania, inizialmente promossa dalla società civile progressista, si è trasformata nella costruzione di un apparato statale e di una struttura di potere ufficiale come strumento di razzializzazione e repressione.

14/06/2024

The Far-right and conspiraciy theories from Covid to the European elections

alt
Donatella Della Porta, Cosmos Lab director, has researched on “Regressive movements in time of emergency” using the case of protests against anti contagion measures. In this case as in many others (from the conservative “anti gender”  European farmers) protesters pictured themselves as an abused minority of powerless victims fighting against some hidden and organized power. This frame seems to be a version of those being used by populist (mainly far-right) parties against Europe. We asked Della Porta to explain why and how conspiracy theories and this kind of posturing is keen to fall for the political offer of rightwing parties.

10/06/2024

Social movements, Coronavirus and the right to healthcare

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The 2020 pandemic has brought renewed focus on public healthcare and many mobilizations both on healthcare systems and vaccine patents. What are the peculiarities of right to healthcare movements? A talk with Cosmos Lab member Stella Christou

03/06/2024

Far right movements and the European elections

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Intersections and differences among far right politica Europan parties and movments, transatlantic exchanges, the role of mobilizations at the grassroots level. An interview with political scientist Andrea Pirro

17/05/2024

An open letter on freedom of expression and protest on Palestine by the European social movement studies community

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As social movement scholars we express strong concerns about the growing trend to restrict the right of expression, critique, and protest in several countries in Europe. Signed by research centres, journals and standing groups.

21/03/2024

CFP: Feminism as a method - Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies and Methods in Social Sciences

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International Conference 14-15 November 2024 Anastasia Barone, Giada Bonu Rosenkranz and Donatella della Porta (Scuola Normale Superiore)

Publications

Journal Article - 2023

Resisting right-wing populism in power: a comparative analysis of the Facebook activities of social movements in Italy and the UK

Niccolò Pennucci
This paper aims to present a comparative study of the civil society reaction to right-wing populism in power through social media, by looking at cases in Italy and the United Kingdom.

Journal Article - 2023

Emotions in Action: the Role of Emotions in Refugee Solidarity Activism

Chiara Milan
This article investigates the different types of emotions that result from participation in refugee solidarity activism, investigating how they change over time and to what extent they explain why individuals remain involved in action in spite of unfavorable circumstances.

Journal Article - 2023

‘Love is over, this is going to be Turkey!’: cathartic resonance between the June 2013 protests in Turkey and Brazil

Batuhan Eren
This study addresses the question of why and how a protest can inspire individuals in distant countries. Taking the June 2013 protests in Turkey and Brazil as cases, it investigates the reasons why the Turkish protests were framed as one of the inspirational benchmarks by some Brazilian protesters.

Journal Article - 2023

Mutual aid and solidarity politics in times of emergency: direct social action and temporality in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic

Lorenzo Zamponi
From the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing measures introduced created a series of social problems and needs that were partially addressed in Italy as well as in other countries by grassroots mutual aid initiatives. While many of these initiatives were strongly rooted in the Italian social movement and civil society landscape and the choice to engage in mutual aid activities was the result of long years of reflection and planning, the article shows how strongly the temporality of emergency affected the nature of these initiatives, their development and their outcomes, in particular with regard to the extraordinary number of people who volunteered and their relationship with politicisation processes.

Monograph - 2023

Populism and (Pop) Music

Manuela Caiani, Enrico Padoan
The book provides a detailed account of the links between production of popular culture to the rise of populism and contributes to studies on populism and popular culture in Italy, using a comparative approach and a cultural sociology perspective

Monograph - 2022

Labour conflicts in the digital age

Donatella della Porta, Riccardo Emilio Chesta, Lorenzo Cini
From Deliveroo to Amazon, digital platforms have drastically transformed the way we work. But how are these transformations being received and challenged by workers? This book provides a radical interpretation of the changing nature of worker movements in the digital age, developing an invaluable approach that combines social movement studies and industrial relations. Using case studies taken from Europe and North America, it offers a comparative perspective on the mobilizing trajectories of different platform workers and their distinct organizational forms and action repertoires.

Monograph - 2022

Resisting the Backlash: Street Protest in Italy

Donatella della Porta, Niccolò Bertuzzi, Daniela Chironi, Chiara Milan, Martín Portos & Lorenzo Zamponi
Drawing interview material, together with extensive data from the authors’ original social movement database, this book examines the development of social movements in resistance to perceived political "regression" and a growing right-wing backlash.

Journal Article - 2021

Learning from Democratic Practices: New Perspectives in Institutional Design

Andrea Felicetti
Drawing from literature on democratic practices in social movements and democratic innovations, the article illustrates three ways to advance institutional design in the wake of the systemic turn.

Monograph - 2021

Migrant Protest. Interactive Dynamics in Precarious Mobilizations

Elias Steinhilper
This book explores the interactions and spaces shaping the emergence, trajectory, and fragmentation of migrant protest in unfavorable contexts of marginalization.

Journal Article - 2021

Populism between voting and non-electoral participation

Andrea Pirro & Martín Portos
The article focuses on a neglected aspect of populist mobilisation, i.e. non-electoral participation (NEP), and elaborates on the extent to which populist party voters engage politically outside the polling station. While challenging common understandings of populism as inherently distrustful and apathetic, and protest as an exclusive practice of the left, the study critically places NEP at the heart of populism in general, and populist right politics in particular.