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Europe’d better learn a lesson from the Capitol madness

Leaders and citizens know that virulent populism also lurks under the surface in Europe.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Tue 12 Jan 2021, 11:11 PM

Like America, much of the world watched in shock on January 6 as a sometimes bizarre-looking mob stormed a storied bastion of democracy: The Capitol in Washington, DC, home to the US Senate and House of Representatives.

The results are playing out on many fronts, including some self-reflection in Europe. Leaders and citizens know that virulent populism, often fuelled by social media, also lurks under the surface in Europe. It could again pose a threat to democracies that were forged in the aftermath of the most disastrous demagoguery and extreme populism the modern world has known.

In a carefully-worded statement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed the current US president for inciting the mob, noting that “a fundamental rule of democracy is that after elections there are winners and losers”.

“President Trump regrettably has not conceded his defeat since November, and didn’t (on January 6) either, and of course that has prepared the atmosphere in which such events, such violent events, are possible,” said Merkel.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol and all I can say is I’m very pleased that the president-elect has now been duly confirmed in office and that democracy has prevailed.”

Pope Francis remarked during an interview that he was “astonished because they (the Americans) are people so disciplined in democracy”, but noted “I thank God that this broke out and we could see it well because this can be remedied, right?”

But European politicians who have tried to mimic the Trump populist surge were careful to leave the president’s name off the list of those responsible.

“Obviously I am extremely shocked by these images of violence,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Rally party. “There are hundreds of people who are extremists who tried to disrupt a democratic process. I wouldn’t confuse them with the 70 million who voted for Trump.”

Nicola Procaccini, a member of the European Parliament from Italy’s right-wing Brothers of Italy party, said we “are talking about something that was implemented by a series of fanatics who in some cases border on the ridiculous, starting with that one who seemed to have come out of the Village People”. The leader of the nationalist Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, condemned the insurrection but shied away from holding Trump responsible for inciting the violence.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the populist Northern League, has worn a mask during the coronavirus pandemic emblazed with the name “Trump” as he tried to piggyback off the US president’s appeal. He is now muzzled another way – refusing to hold Trump responsible for fanning the flames of insurrection.

They, like some in the US Republican Party, might be wary of alienating the populist underground as it is one of their strongest bases of support. Because as in America, populism and extreme conspiracy theories are part of the European social media fabric.

Even the alt-right QAnon movement, which seems so distinctly American in its conspiracy theories and paranoia about a “deep state”, has gained traction in Europe. According an analysis in six languages by the newspaper Politico, the Yellow Jacket movement in France embraced the American movement, while in Italy, QAnon backers hail from the anti-vaccine community. In Britain, adherents are drawn from Brexit supporters.

The publication said a review of tens of thousands of social media posts found that QAnon language and ideas are increasingly making their way into existing online communities and protest movements across Europe.

The New York Times also found a growing QAnon presence Europe, particularly in Germany, where an estimated 200,000 adherents, the largest number in the non-English-speaking world, have built audiences on YouTube, Facebook and the Telegram messenger app. People wave Q flags during protests against coronavirus measures.

And one of most persistent conspiracy theories of all – that 5G communication technology leads to mind control and other nefarious things – appears to have been born in Belgium.

Jonathan Bright, a senior researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, told Politico that “the coronavirus supercharged things. People are spending even more time online, so have more time to come across anti-vaccine and other conspiracy content”.

While tech giants Twitter, Google, Facebook and Amazon made a series of moves to limit misinformation following the Capitol attack, including banning Trump, in Europe concerns remain about how well they can police hate speech and attempts to organise attacks. The reach and number of languages, cultures and countries served by Facebook alone is staggering.

Facebook’s answer has been computer algorithms that identify dangerous posts, which are then screened by human moderators. The company offers its 2.3 billion users menus in 111 languages, but detailed rules known as “community standards” that bar users from posting offensive material are translated in only 41 languages, according to the Reuters news agency. It has a content moderation force of about 15,000 that speaks about 50 languages.

If even at home, in its most well understood market, Facebook is fighting a losing battle in ferreting out hate speech and violent groups, many in Europe wonder if there are private Facebook groups now busily formulating and spreading dangerous plans.

So it is all the more important for populist leaders in Europe to watch what they say. As Trump has shown, the echo chamber of social media can give lies a life of their own. Even most anti-establishment populist leaders don’t want an enraged mob storming their parliamentary chambers.

Following the January 6 Capitol attack, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas proposed a new “Marshall Plan” to defend democracy by Washington and its European allies once Joe Biden is sworn in as the next US president. The original Marshall Plan was an all-out effort following WWII to rebuild Europe and encourage the spread of democracy.

“Without democracy in the US, (there is) no democracy in Europe,” said Maas. “Getting to the roots of the social divisions in our countries is one of the greatest tasks for the future for Americans and Europeans.”

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are 
journalists based in Milan

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