Photo: REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Authors: Miriam Haselbacher, Ursula Reeger, Institute for Urban and Regional Research, Austrian Academy of Sciences

The organised far right in Austria is characterised by its high degree of institutionalisation, which is closely tied to its representation in the parliament FPÖ. Controversial political figures such as Jörg Haider and HC Strache have recruited large numbers of voters based on their aggressive provocations and xenophobic as well as anti-immigrant discourses. Under populist leaders, the party has celebrated electoral victories but also sharp downfalls. Most recently, in 2019, the coalition between the centre-right ÖVP (chancellor Sebastian Kurz) and the right-wing populist FPÖ (vice-chancellor HC Strache) was dissolved after the publication of the so-called Ibiza video. As a consequence, the FPÖ had lost its most prominent figure as well as major chunks of its voter base and had to restructure. The more liberal Norbert Hofer competed with Herbert Kickl to become party chairman and to confront the COVID-19 prevention related policies of the government. In this internal struggle, traditional media, right-wing magazines, Internet platforms and social media played crucial roles.

The rise of the populist leaders has been closely tied to their presence in mass media as well. As we underlined in the D5.1 Austria report on cultural drivers of radicalization[1], the relationship between media in general and right-wing actors is ambivalent: while mainstream media are frequently portrayed by the far right as being in confluence with an elitist system that is dominated by the left, they themselves have been as successful in drawing media attention and receiving coverage. In the consolidated Austrian news market, tabloids enjoy large market shares and have a great sway on political opinion-forming (e.g., the Kronen Zeitung). The targeted provocations of right-wing populists have secured them regular headlines in the mainstream media that decried and nurtured their rise. At the same time, it was the actors of the far right that have accused the media of spreading fake news and who have discredited reporters in the end.

In order not to rely on the reporting of traditional news channels, the organised far right has built up its own media network.[2] On the one hand, there are several magazines and online platforms, such as Die Aula, zur Zeit, or info.direkt, that are financed independently and that target explicitly right-wing audiences. On the other hand, the right-wing has discovered the benefits of social media and established channels, profiles and pages on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to communicate more directly with their followers. Furthermore, protagonists of the right-wing extremist scene have also turned to less monitored channels such as Telegram, Odysee or Bitchute. The variety of these channels fulfils the function of linking the parliamentarian right-wing extremism with extra-parliamentary extremist groups, to spread narratives and to create audiences. More importantly, populist speech corresponds well with the fast pace and the emotional nature of online debates[3]. In this context, the internet provides an easily accessible platform to share extremist content as well as political and radicalised worldviews, to engage in strategic exchange and networking activities, and to recruit followers.

The strategic navigation of these channels helped Herbert Kickl to harness a confrontational rhetoric, to stabilise the party and to build alliances with far-right groups in the battle against COVID-19 related prevention measures imposed by the government. He made extensive use of the YouTube channel of the FPÖ TV, where the party publishes several videos on a daily basis, spoke up against measures in parliament, at round tables or during demonstrations organised inter alia by the party and has thus become a leading figure in the anti-COVID-19 movement. In this process, more pronounced and radical forces in the party came to the fore and openly engaged with extremist groups. For Kickl, this approach was successful. In June 2021, Hofer resigned and Kickl became party chairman and the FPÖ is currently back at 20% in opinion polls. These most recent developments in Austrian politics were facilitated by the specific arrangement of the (right wing extremist) media landscape and the creation of online audiences that resulted in the recruitment of followers offline as we present in D5.1. Austria report.

[1] See Haselbacher, Miriam; Reeger, Ursula (2021): Cultural Drivers of Radicalisation in Austria. Country Report.

[2] For an overview on the relationship between right-wing extremism and the media see Goetz, Judith; FIPU; Sulzbacher, Markus (ed.) Rechtsextremismus Band 4. Herausforderungen für den Journalismus. Wien: Mandelbaum Verlag.

[3] For a more thorough overview on the relationship between right-wing actors and see Brodnik, Ingrid (2021): Die rechte Eroberung des Cyberspace, in: Goetz, Judith; FIPU; Sulzbacher, Markus (Eds.): Rechtsextremismus. Band 4: Herausforderungen für den Journalismus. pp. 136-155.