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Miriam Haselbacher, Jullietta Stoencheva, Tina Askanius and Ursula Reeger

The first report of WP4 Media, Machines, Mobilisations delves into the historical and political contexts of three case countries – Austria, Bulgaria, and Sweden, to map the range of extremist narratives circulating across Europe today. Through a comprehensive review of previous research and secondary data sources, the report [available in the Autumn] synthesizes existing knowledge on contemporary forms of extremist narratives, pursuing two key objectives. First, it maps what kind of narratives are on offer across Europe today, and second, it identifies where across the digital mainstream these are currently in circulation. In addition, it presents early insights from a study of online discussions on the topic of migration on the international and multi-language discussion forum Reddit, in the subreddits r/Austria, r/Sweden and r/Bulgaria. It reveals the widespread circulation of anti-democratic and extremist narratives around this contentious topic across all subreddits, but also identifies nuanced variations that reflect the unique circumstances and challenges faced by each country.

In doing so, the report presents the results of the first of three empirical steps informing Work Package 4.

Fig 1: Research design of WP4: Objectives, foci and level of analysis

Fig 1: Research design of WP4: Objectives, foci and level of analysis

This first step of our work is topic-driven in that it focuses on extremist narratives emerging around contentious topics as they circulate online in specific national contexts.

The report identifies four key topics as central to the proliferation of extremist narratives across the three countries and European regions. First, extremist narratives continue to predominantly emerge around the topic of migration and anti-migration discourse specifically. Contemporary anti-immigration narratives, which continuously take on new forms and tap into shifting conspiratorial narratives and various degrees of falsehoods, resonate with well-known tropes in nativist political campaigning suggesting that European societies are crumbling under the weight of multiculturalism, and that immigrant communities, especially Muslims, are “invading” Europe and “polluting” white/ethnically homogeneous populations. Although they share a core ideology, the narratives, arguments and discursive tropes differ slightly across the three countries, reflecting their distinct historical and political contexts. In Sweden and Austria, anti-immigration narratives orbit around perceived threats posed by Muslim populations, with tenets rooted in xenophobia, racism, and white supremacism. Conversely, as a country of emigration, with more citizens leaving than migrants arriving, Bulgaria’s anti-immigration narratives are shaped by the country’s transit status and economic anxieties stemming from emigration trends.

Second, the Covid-19 pandemic gave rise to a host of anti-establishment narratives, some of which veered towards illiberal, anti-democratic and violent ideas. These narratives peddle widely circulated conspiracy theories suggesting that a malevolent global elite exploited or orchestrated the pandemic to dismantle European societies, infringe upon civil liberties and harm populations through the vaccination programs. Anti-establishment narratives sparked during the pandemic continue to circulate and take on new forms in online spaces today.

In addition, in all three countries, climate change and gender emerged as key topics around which political extremism tends to gravitate in Europe today. As suggested by the figure below, these topics are intertwined and connected to specific narratives and conspiracy theories revolving around the delineation of in- and outgroups, enemy constructs and the establishment of hierarchies. Hence, extremist narratives tend to draw on several of these topics simultaneously inviting feelings of discontent and grievances against an imagined corrupt or “woke” elite. This narrative pattern was particularly prominent during the Covid-19 health crisis but can also be observed in the context of the deepening climate crises, and in the context of discussions around ongoing wars and armed conflicts such as those unfolding in Ukraine and Palestine.


Each of these topics has become a source of societal polarization and given rise to conspiracy theories in their own right. But when looking at these together, a complex landscape of intersecting narratives that tap into multiple topics and divisive debates simultaneously emerge. This convergence of narratives reflects societal divisions and ideological clashes, while forging new enemy images by the delineating sharp fault lines. Take climate change, for example. It’s a subject marked by stark contrasts. On one side, there’s passionate activism pushing for urgent action, while on the other, climate justice movements are increasingly dismissed as extreme or radical. Some actors, on the far right in particular, even deny the very existence of climate change, and spread disinformation about climate change science, further contributing to polarization. Further, we’ve seen narratives of climate change denialism and misogyny converge in far-right campaigns against Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement in ways that reflect the intersections of anti-science sentiment, reactionary politics, and gender-based discrimination.

In general, debates related to gender issues have intensified in all three countries, and these oftentimes intersect with anti-immigration discourse and far-right ideology. These debates over “gender ideology” and “wokeness”, often propelled by conservative actors, have given rise to anti-feminist, transphobic and at times misogynist and male-supremacist narratives adding layers to the societal divide on issues related to gender and gender roles.

When it comes to identifying where extremist narratives occur, the report identifies a wide range of online spaces ranging from mainstream social media platforms to more fringe and country-specific sites operating at the margins of the digital mainstream. These span alternative news sites, websites and blogs to fringe video sharing platforms such as Rumble, BitChute, Odysee or Discord, as well as local online spaces like Flashback Forum, Familjeliv and SwebbTube in Sweden or Spodeli, Kaldata, and BG-Mamma in Bulgaria. This highlights the interconnected nature of our global media ecology in which extremist narratives tend to flow fairly seamlessly between mainstream and fringe platforms and between international, national and local contexts. Finally, the report highlights a concerning trend in today’s landscape of online extremism. Narratives produced by extremist groups tend to hide their ideologies and violent intentions behind layers of coded language, humor, irony and euphemisms. This disguise makes it difficult to detect and speak out against these harmful narratives. As a result, extremist narratives can spread widely and seep into everyday conversations online. This penetration blurs the lines between acceptable public discourse and extremism and risks accelerating the process of mainstreaming extreme ideas and violence.

In the next steps of our work, we delve further into how the dynamics and patterns identified in this initial mapping manifest more concretely within the contexts of the three European countries that serve as focal points for our empirical investigations.

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