The role of social media in the rise of right-wing populism in Finland

Karina Horsti and Tuija Saresma


Populism, although in itself an empty ideology, often attaches itself to other ideologies (Laclau 2005; Palonen & Saresma 2017; Yla-Anttila 2017). Right-wing populism is typically entangled with xenophobic nationalism and neo-conservatism, which often usher in racism and misogyny (Palonen & Saresma 2019). A ‘populist Zeitgeist’ is advancing across the globe across the ideological spectrum of populism (Suiter et al. 2018, 396); however, a particular right-wing populism has in the 2000s become a major political force in most European countries. In the Nordic countries that are characterised by multi-party systems, right-wing populist parties have been central in the political arena in the past decade.

Scholars have acknowledged that social media have become influential channels for spreading right-wing nationalist-populist messages (e.g. Mudde 2016, 28; Pettersson 2017; Suiter et al. 2018; Saresma 2020). However, we lack more detailed knowledge of how politicians of populist parties benefit from social media (Jacobs & Spierings 2019, 1692) and what other social processes, in conjunction with the emergence of social media, facilitate the spread of rightwing populism. In this chapter we take Finland as a case study to examine the role of media technology in the rise of right-wing populism. We argue that transformations in the mediascape that began in the 1990s — the internet, mobile technology', and market competition — crucially afforded the emergence of the right-wing populist movement and its transformation into a political force. However, we do not argue that the role of these shifts in the mediascape should be taken as a sign of technological determinism; rather, our analysis suggests a broader angle to the complex connections between different social processes: namely, racism, Islamophobia, and misogyny, together with changing technology, journalistic practice, and new forms of spreading and interpreting mediated contents.

The Finns party (Perussuomalaiset) in its current form is a populist radical right party that mixes traditional conservatism and anti-establishment sentiment with extreme nationalism. The party was established in 1995 on the grounds of the agrarian populist Finnish Rural Party (Suomen ntaaseudun puolue). It is an exceptional case among the right-wing populist parties as its agrarian populist political legacy is intertwined with a nationalist and socially conservative political agenda and, more recently, increasingly with ethnic nationalism (Keskinen, 2013, 2016; Mickelsson, 2011; Pyrhonen, 2015; Norocel et al., 2021). In the

2011 elections, the party took Finnish politics by storm, polling 19 percent of the votes. Again, in the 2015 elections, polling close to 18 percent, the party joined the right-wing governmental coalition (Kantola & Lombardo 2019, 1112). A significant ideological shift to right-wing nationalist populism, however, took place in 2017, when the party went through a dramatic leadership change. The moderate leader Timo Soini stepped aside, and his favourite candidate lost the election for the next chair of the party’s right-wing fraction. Despite the break-up, in the 2019 elections, the party again polled 17.5 percent of the votes. The Finns Party was just one seat away from winning the general election, and it thus became the largest opposition party.

This transformation from centre-populist to far-right ideology in the party (Norocel et al., 2021) was enabled by the right-wing factions popularity, gained gradually on social media, hidden from the sight of traditional media and political commentators. The party’s new core element, the ethno-nationalism of Finnishness (Arter 2010, 485, 501—502), connects it to other right-wing parties in Europe. Ethno-nationalism refers to a belief that a nation is formed based on its ethnic and other uniform features, such as genetic heritage. Groups that come from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds are understood as fundamentally incompatible. Ethno-nationalism as an ideology produces a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘the others’, the latter being systematically excluded from ‘our’ nation (Ovaskainen 2019; Saresma & Tulo-nen, 2020).

In this chapter, we demonstrate the strengthening of the far-right ideology on and through social media from the beginning of 2010s. More specifically, we examine the rise of the present chair, Jussi Halla-aho, and his success in taking over the Finns Party as an example of how the transformation of the media environment from a centripetal phase of mass communication to a multi-platform and centrifugal phase facilitated the mainstreaming of Islamophobia and misogyny, ideologies that are at the core of right-wing populism throughout Europe.

In the first part of the chapter, we argue that analysis of present-day populism needs to examine the media environment as a system of connectivities by paying attention to two spheres: first, the structure and restructure of the media ecology' in general, and second, the decentralised anonymous online spaces, the so-called echo chambers. Then we focus on the mediated construction of two entangled ideologies in the right-wing populist movement — racism (or, more specifically, Islamophobia) and misogyny. We argue that through these two intersecting ideologies, national and local right-wing populist movements connect to transnational flows of right-wing discourses and practices. Nevertheless, as our analysis shows, these developments are simultaneously deeply rooted in the particular social context.

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