Authoritarianism Behind the Screen: Online Forums’ Role in the Normalisation of Far-Right Discourse

Radical views and opinions are commonly expressed on various discussion forums online. In a recent Nordicom Review article, professor Mats Ekström from the University of Gothenburg investigates how authoritarianism is articulated online, and the implications it has for the normalisation of far-right discourse.

In a recently published article in Nordicom Review, Mats Ekström, professor at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Gothenburg, explores the authoritarian dimension in the far-right discourse of online forums, and argues for a focus on the articulations of authoritarianism to understand the dynamics of far-right discourse.

Previous research on the propagation of far-right opinions in contemporary online and social media has mainly studied either political actors or specific opinions and discourses such as anti-immigration and racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

Ekström, however, advocates for the importance of focusing on the fundamental pre-political values that explain why these views often coincide.

– My study provides support for the theories that identify three basic components of authoritarianism: conformism, submission, and aggression. I show how these values are expressed in different ways, in milder and more extreme forms, in people’s attitudes and responses to a number of different social and political issues.

The study is based on data from two Swedish forums, Flashback and Familjeliv (English: Family life), and consists of 79 threads related to three issues: disorder in school, gang crime, and transgender.

There are significant differences in the culture and conversations on the two forums examined, but there are similarities when it comes to the expression of authoritarian opinions. While it is more common on Flashback, it also occurs on Familjeliv.

– When it comes to two of the issues that I analysed, the disorder in school and how to solve problems with unruly students, as well as gang crime, authoritarian opinions, and ways of reasoning are common even in the threads on Familjeliv.

The processes of normalisation – from radical to mainstream

One focus of the study is how the authoritarian culture on the online forums has implications for the normalisation of far-right discourse. Ekström discusses how the concept of normalisation, rather than being a process, should be conceived as processes of transformations in the social and political landscape.

– I do not see normalisation as an unequivocal shift from the abnormal to the normal, or as a straight process towards a completely new normality. The concept of normalisation refers to the discursive practices that contribute in various ways to shifting and expanding the boundaries of what is normal and legitimate. Transformations through which opinions and language previously treated as extreme and not accepted appear as increasingly normal and uncontroversial elements in mainstream media and public political debates.

Ekström argues that the frequent occurrence of extreme views, anger, hatred, and uncivilised language – which in itself constitutes a normality in the discourse of one of the forums examined – is not the only factor that is central to the normalisation of far-right authoritarianism in the discourse of mainstream online forums.

– Central, above all, is the coexistence and mixture of the extreme and milder, more civilised expressions of authoritarian views in, for example, demands for repressive, tougher measures as decisive solutions to various problems in society.

Normalisation of radical views is something we have seen numerous examples of throughout history, often with severe consequences for people and societies. Ekström, however, is careful to draw any historical parallels to what he examines in his study.

– A discussion of such parallels requires more space than we have here, and of course we should be careful in drawing parallels between completely different historical contexts, societies, and political movements. What we can note is that the social scientists and philosophers who analysed and explained the success of fascist authoritarian policies in Europe during the 1930s and the following decades (Theodor Adorno, Erich Froom, and others), placed great importance on the interplay between societal conditions and the prevalence of authoritarian pre-political psychological dispositions.

How authoritarian values develop and are activated under different social circumstances has since been analysed in extensive research, and this issue has become increasingly relevant and important today, according to Ekström.

– In liberal democracies, and not least in Sweden, the authoritarian responses have increasingly become common sense in politics and public discourse. To understand the radical shifts in the contemporary social and political landscape, and what is basically at stake in liberal democracies, it is crucial to understand the dynamics of these authoritarian responses on various societal conditions and political issues.

News stories as activators for authoritarian responses

Many of the forum threads examined in the study refer to news stories in legacy media, and Ekström suggests that mainstream news serve as activators for far-right discourses.

– On Flashback, news are frequently used as a starting point in the threads, less so on Familjeliv. In the opening posts, news articles are reproduced and framed as something to react to. The news are posted to express thoughts and to trigger responses from people on the forum. News are also frequently linked in the threads and used, for example, as evidence and additional illustrations.

Though news are a common subject of the threads, details of the news texts are rarely discussed.

– It is more the topic, and the framing of the topic, that triggers discussions. News that indicates, foregrounds, and even amplifies threats to social order seem to function as particularly important triggers of authoritarian responses. However, important to note, in the forums even seemingly neutral news is transformed into extreme authoritarian and dehumanising discourse.

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Authoritarianism in the Discourse of Online Forums

The article “Authoritarianism in the discourse of online forums: A study of its articulations in the Swedish context”, by Mats Ekström, explores the authoritarian dimension in the far-right discourse of online forums, and argues for a focus on the articulations of authoritarianism to understand the dynamics of far-right discourse.
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