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Home / News / Robert Fico and the rise of political violence in Europe

Robert Fico and the rise of political violence in Europe

As Robert Fico recovers in hospital, and well-wishers across the globe continue to send him support, the motives behind Wednesday’s attempted assassination of the Slovak prime minister remain shrouded in mystery.

A 71-year-old man has been arrested and charged. Local media have described him as a former security guard at a shopping mall and the author of three collections of poetry.

However, the episode has already fed into a deepening sense of unease at the rise in political violence in Europe ahead of the June European elections, and also unease at the role social media is playing in local and national politics.

On Thursday the European Commission wrote to 23 of the largest online platforms – including Meta and TikTok – urging them to crack down on misinformation around the shooting.

Slovakia was already deeply divided and had been since the murder of Ján Kuciak, a 27-year-old investigative journalist, and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová, in 2018.

He had been investigating tax fraud by senior businessmen and alleged links between the Italian organised crime syndicate, the Ndrangheta, and, among others, Mária Trošková, a senior adviser to Fico.

The murders brought tens of thousands onto the streets throughout Slovakia. Fico and his entire government resigned as a result.

Slovakian investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová were murdered in 2018

“Ever since the Kuciak murder and the protests [Slovakia has become] a deeply polarised society,” Milan Nič, a former government adviser and a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told RTÉ News.

“We’ve had many crises of one type or another, then a rollercoaster series of elections since last summer. There have been a lot of death threats [including against Fico] that became somehow frequent and normal. Some of them were investigated. Some were not.”

Some of those death threats were directed at Zuzana Čaputová, Slovakia’s popular president, who announced in June last year that she would not seek reelection.

“People who are threatening to kill me are using the vocabulary of some politicians,” she told Slovak television. “It does not only concern me, but also my loved ones.”

Čaputová had been facing relentless attacks by Fico and his Smer-SD party, with Fico – according to reports – labelling her an “American agent”.

Fico’s ally Peter Pellegrini, who had taken over as prime minister in 2018 after Fico’s resignation, was elected president of Slovakia instead.

In a keenly watched election last October, Fico was re-elected a fourth time thanks to a clear pivot to the far-right and a more aggressive social media style.

“It was the divisiveness, the radicalisation and the high emotional engagement from the prime minister’s camp, reaching out to the far-right by exploring any type of divisive issue, including anti-vaccine protests that he led. He was riding a wave that he couldn’t stop,” says a close observer of Slovak politics.

In a nod to the risk of that polarisation deepening, President Pellegrini suggested the day after the shooting that campaigning for the European elections should be suspended, adding that Slovakia should “avoid confrontation”.

“Many elections and other political events were cast as crucial historical turning points, where the country would decide whether it’s moving to the west or to the east, or whether it will be responsible for vaccinations – almost live-or-die issues,” says Milan Nič.

This polarisation re-opened fault lines dating back to the 1990s, when Slovakia emerged from communism and endured a faltering embrace of market economics, democracy and globalisation, with its winners and losers.

The attack was condemned by European leaders across the spectrum. Assassinations of political figures have been relatively rare over the past 50 years, but such events remain shocking.

Anna Lindh, the Swedish foreign minister was stabbed to death in a shopping centre in Stockholm in 2003, while Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindic was shot dead the same year. In 2002, Pym Fortuyn, a Dutch anti-immigration politician was shot dead by an animal rights activist.

But the real problem of contemporary political violence in Europe appears to be in Germany.

In 2019, Walter Lübcke, a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician who had supported Angela Merkel’s welcoming of refugees, was shot dead at close range by a neo-Nazi – the first political assassination by a far-right extremist in Germany since World War II.

German politician Walter Lübcke was killed in 2019

In 2022, the authorities recorded 58,916 politically motivated crimes, the highest number since records began in 2001. Over 4,000 were violent.

A Forsa survey of 6,400 mayors across Germany found that 40% said they, or those close to them, had been insulted, threatened or physically attacked, with some contemplating quitting politics as a result.

However, a spate of attacks in the run up to the European elections in June has triggered alarm at the highest level, invoking echoes of the country’s Nazi past and prompting an emergency meeting of interior ministers from German states.

“Democracy is threatened by such things, so accepting them with a shrug is never an option,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “We are not going to take it, and we, the decent and reasonable, are the majority.”

Scholz was reacting to a violent attack on Matthias Ecke MEP, a Social Democrat (SPD) candidate seeking re-election to the European Parliament. Ecke, 41, was pounced on by a group of assailants as he hung election posters in Dresden and was beaten so badly his cheekbone and eye-sockets were fractured.

Four suspects, aged 17 and 18, were later arrested. Police found far-right material at the home of one of the suspects, while German media reported that two others had extremist connections.

In the same week, in Lower Saxony, a man threw eggs at an MP and then punched him; a pensioner struck a senator over the head with a bag “filled with hard contents” in Berlin; the night Ecke was attacked, thugs punched a Greens campaigner in the face and kicked him repeatedly on the ground in the same Dresden neighbourhood.

Local politicians tend to bear the brunt of attacks in Germany. They do not enjoy the same security and protection as national figures, and because violent extremists cannot get to politicians in Berlin, they take out their rage on local candidates and volunteers.

Katrin Klubert is programme director for the Respekt im Rat (Respect in the Council) project, which is aimed at detoxifying local politics in town and city councils, and developing strategies to combat threats.

She argues that since almost all political discourse took place online during the Covid-19 pandemic, and since much of it was violent, particularly on the vaccination issue, the pandemic has effected a profound shift in how politics is conducted.

That brutalisation of language, she says, has lowered the threshold for rhetoric to be turned into physical violence.

“Local politicians are very vulnerable,” she told RTÉ News. “That’s why they need more support and solidarity. There must be a debate about whether or not there are enough resources for prosecuting criminal offences, especially against elected officials, and whether or not penalties should be increased.”

She adds: “Politicians are reporting that they are experiencing more and more attacks and more offensive actions, like threatening letters or being attacked when they put up posters ahead of elections.

“They live in the same area as the people who attack them. Those attackers know where they live, where their children go to school.”

In all debates in Germany about the rise in political violence, the finger tends to point at the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), which has been designated an “extremist organisation” by the German courts.

The AfD was created by a group of discontented economists during the euro crisis but its embrace of more radical far-right policies and rhetoric was fuelled by the migration crisis of 2015-16, when over one million people, mostly fleeing the Syrian civil war, arrived in Germany.

The fact that Germany has increasingly been governed by grand coalitions of the centre-right and -left opened up a gap which the AfD enthusiastically filled.

Critics say the AfD have changed the culture and manners of German politics, especially through the use of social media, and which is now being co-opted by mainstream parties.

“The AfD had a certain strategy, being very harsh in terms of its rhetoric, being very clear in terms of the way they dress and how they attack people verbally,” says Professor Stefan Marschall, of the Düsseldorf Institute for Internet and Democracy.

“This has changed the [political] atmosphere also for the mainstream parties.”

Professor Marschall told RTÉ News: “Extremist forces will pour oil on the fire. They see people who don’t share their opinions not as other people but as enemies, so they create an atmosphere of hatred and agitation. Under certain circumstances, and under certain conditions, this can turn into violence.”

The hatred and agitation is first manifest on social media.

“The AfD has been very successful in its social media strategy, putting a lot of resources into it, especially TikTok. Other parties have been reluctant to do that. But by putting very strong and very uncivilized remarks in posts, on the internet or on the platforms, they feed the algorithm – we know the algorithms are very much in favor of sharp comments and posts,” says Professor Marschall.

The AfD rightly points out that their party has been subject to the majority of physical attacks – 86 in 2023, the highest of any party.

The evidence suggests these attacks are carried out by the far left. Reuters reported that when all types of criminal attacks were counted, including threats and defamation, the Greens were by far the most-affected party, suffering 1,219 attacks in 2023 compared to the AfD’s 478.

Whoever is worst affected, there is no doubt that the upcoming European elections will be dominated by an expected surge in populist and far right victories.

According to a poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the populist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and far-right Independence and Democracy (ID) groups could win 85 and 98 seats respectively, shrinking the size of the pro-European centrist bloc within the Parliament.

“A lot of the radicalisation, the deepening polarisation – let’s call it what it is: extremism – is directly linked to the fact that people are receiving more and more of their information in isolated echo chambers which have a lot of false and misleading information.”

Far-right or radical populist parties are expected to top the polls in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia and come second or third in Germany, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden.

Whatever the results, such voters can no longer be dismissed via stereotypes of angry, white males.

“The far right is getting a broader profile among voters than we’ve seen in the past,” Catherine De Fries, Professor of Politics at Bocconi University in Milan, told a recent Politico podcast.

“People are increasingly concerned about the future, so it might actually be manifested in economic hardship, such as the war in the Ukraine, when gas prices went up and the cost of living crisis started, but it’s also the fear of that happening in your life. It might not necessarily be that you’re already feeling squeezed economically, but you just fear that it’s going to happen. That’s providing a breeding ground for far-right politicians.”

That sense of voters being weathered by geopolitical forces they can’t understand – and which mainstream parties can’t seem to control – is colliding with a lack of trust in the political process, which, say critics, is being exploited by social media.

“Europe is in a really fragile space in terms of trust in democracy,” says Tanya O’Connell, founder of The People v. Big Tech, a network of civil society organisations.

“A lot of the radicalisation, the deepening polarisation – let’s call it what it is: extremism – is directly linked to the fact that people are receiving more and more of their information in isolated echo chambers which have a lot of false and misleading information.

“It is not just reflected on social media, it’s very much driven and amplified by it. Algorithms are designed to keep people’s eyeballs on screens as much as possible and that means they prioritise the kind of content that is incendiary.”

That incendiary content, in other words, gets more reaction than basic facts and social media companies stand accused of profiting from deliberately skewing their platforms to prioritise such misinformation.

In October 2022, the Integrity Institute in California explored how many additional posts a “well-crafted lie” would get from a user on a large platform compared to what that user would normally get.

Analysts discovered that on TikTok a “well-crafted lie” in video form would get on average 29 times the number of responses (likes, shares etc) compared to a normal post, and 35 times the number of responses on X (formerly Twitter).

The report suggested that misinformation typically gets 90% of its total engagement in less than one day, meaning that the impact will have been made (and the damage done) before fact checkers have challenged the content.

“It’s baked into the business model that extreme content and misinformation is going to get the reach,” says O’Connell.

People v. Big Tech believes the public is strongly opposed to this model.

The organisation published a YouGov survey on Thursday showing that voters in Ireland, France and Germany overwhelmingly wanted platforms to stop using “behavioural profiling” – in other words, those algorithms which select, by default, what content users are given based on what they read, what videos they watch, how they react to them.

Under the EU’s Digital Services Act, the European Commission has wide-ranging powers to tackle these algorithmic risks and has already launched investigations into Meta looking at potential foreign interference in elections.

Campaigners want the Commission to go further and force platforms to deactivate behavioural profiling systems before the June European elections, citing a high profile experiment in the United States ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Researchers paid 35,000 volunteers who regularly used Facebook and Instagram to deactivate their social media accounts. One group, 27% of the total, deactivated their accounts for six weeks before the November election, the other for only one week.

The results were mixed, but instructive.

Staying off Facebook and Instagram had little or no effect on people’s political views, their negative opinions of opposing parties, or beliefs around claims of election fraud.

However, when it came to Facebook, those who deactivated their accounts were less likely to fall for widely circulated disinformation (their political participation also decreased).

The result shows at the very least that voters who steer clear of social media are less likely to be manipulated by deliberate misinformation, even if their voting intentions are not likely to change.

However, a study in March by Common Consultancy, a Danish think tank, suggested that prominence on social media can make a difference when it comes to voter intention.

They analysed Meta posts by 771 MEPs between 2017-23 and found that those on the far-right were by a strong margin the most popular on it. Jordan Bardella, the French far-right leader, had 13.2 million interactions out of 572 million in total; the average post by a Green MEP received just 241 interactions.

“Micro-actions such as likes, comments, and shares influence the reach of MEPs’ posts and can ultimately sway votes on election day,” authors Eske Vinther-Jensen and Thomas Albrechtsen concluded.

“Therefore, it is crucial to understand how digital dynamics, information flows, and tech giants impact the democratic conversation.”

That conversation has been dominated in recent years by issues which are likely to inflame antagonism: migration, vaccines, energy prices, the cost of living, the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Voters are trying to find answers, and politicians are trying to deliver them without being assaulted, physically or verbally, online or on the streets.

“How does online violence and discontent and rage end up spilling over into the real world?” asks Tanya O’Connell from People v. Big Tech.

“We are living in incredibly contested times in a way that we’ve not seen for decades. Social media is normalising a whole set of radical beliefs, ideas and behaviors in terms of what people are willing to express.

“They feel they’re not alone in expressing extreme views, that they’re backed up, that they belong to a tribe of others like them. That is exactly what allows things like the Dublin riots to happen, when there’s a moment of ignition.

“As human beings, we don’t live in two parallel worlds, the online and the offline world: we live in just one world and what we see expressed around us informs our views. The research shows those views are radicalising.”

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