Editorial 1/2021

Christina Krakovsky, Josef Seethaler, Christian Schwarzenegger,
Valerie Schafer & Gabriele Balbi

Populism and populist politics were seen to be on the rise for several years and extreme ideologies as well as radical politics were striving for power in many European democracies and around the globe. With the end of the Trump presidency, with Brexit fulfilled and the right-wing populist FPÖ no longer being a part of the Austrian government, there is also some indication that this constant rise has partly been stalled. Nevertheless, the seed of putting democracies in jeopardy and enforcing divisive politics is still there. During the global Corona pandemic new fronts of populism may be in formation and new movements are set in motion expressing their discontent with the current state of political affairs.

Sensationalism, misinformation, rumors and conspiracy myths also in this context and time provide a fuel to populist agitation, which often is circulated or amplified by media in its diverse forms. Public debate and political pundits suggest that there is a link between the proliferation of radical politics, trenches of polarization between political camps and across societies on the one side and contemporary media environments on the other. The hope that media will save democracy and will be sentinel to democratic processes, serve as harbourers of a critical public sphere and deliberative discourse has changed over the last years. Of late the question whether democracy can be saved from the media, and social media in particular has been raised in discussed with increasing concerns (Sunstein, 2001; Swart et al., 2018; de Vries, 2020).

The emphasis on allegedly new phenomena such as fake news (Burkhardt, 2017; Darnton, 2017), echo chambers (Löblich and Venema, 2021), hate speech or digital platforms as drivers of political polarization and as vessels of agitation often neglects that mediated communication has always played a vital role in both safeguarding democracy as well as putting it in jeopardy. Media have been important factors of disseminating collective fear, propaganda (Baines et al. 2020; Wodak 2015), fostering anti-democratic sentiment and mobilizing for political causes in almost all historical epochs. Their role during wars, political crises and for the rise of populist ideologies or their charismatic leaders has been and still scrutinized by media and communication research (Ribeiro & Schwarzenegger, 2021, forthcoming). Populist politics tend to produce simplistic answers for complex problems (Gerbaudo, 2019). Typically, their rhetoric is anti-elite and advocating for an ingroup (us) which would be threatened or abused by the elites or a perilous outgroup (them). Spreading mistrust against social, cultural or political elites and outgroups is part of communication strategies, which were employed by populists from different political camps and for various ends. These include but are certainly not limited to agitation against vulnerable social groups, religious or ethnic minorities, foreigners, the poor, the disabled, as well as anti-Semitic or misogynist agitation. The anti-elite stance of populist rhetoric also often included antagonizing legacy media and the institution of journalism, in order to discredit information and critical coverage. Rumours, myths, lies and conspiracy theories – all of them have a long history of being used as a pretence to spark public outrage, or moral panic, to motivate uprisings or isolate social groups as scapegoats or fall guys for political gain and hence also require inquiry in historical perspectives.

It is hence the goal of this issue of medien & zeit to provide a glimpse on the long history of how media in their many different forms and variations, served as either and amplifier or even accomplice (for reasons of profit, influence, power or ideology), or in the contrary acted as an adversary to populist and radical politics. The goal of this issue hence is to contribute to an understanding of the role media played as potential accomplices or carriers of populist agitation (e.g. in autocratic regimes and in absence of free media or out of commercial crookedness) or as amplifiers of extreme political positions or groups and populist sentiment (e.g. sensationalist and simplistic reporting or excessive coverage for populist tropes). Media and mediated communication can however also act as countering forces and adversaries of radical politics and aim to tame blatant populism or maintain forums for civilized debate (i.e., governance or self-regulation measures that may evolve through time2).
The articles assembled in this issue do so not only with respect to a variety of different historical periods and socio-political contexts, but also with regard to geographically and culturally diverse cases across the European continent. This broad spectrum makes visible that depending on the contexts given and the state of democratic development and tradition and in close conjecture with the state of the media system’s robustness and vigilance both the threats to democracy and the possibilities of countering them will vary as well – political extremism and what is considered a “radical” position is not an absolute but relative and transient.

This issue of medien & zeit originates in the 2019 workshop of the ECREA (European Communication Research and Education Association) Communication History Section in Vienna. This workshop, which went by the same name, was hosted by the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies (CMC) and invited by Josef Seethaler and Christina Krakovsky. It was the goal of that conference to shed light on populist and radical political communication in a historical perspective and across various political and cultural settings in Europe and beyond. All the contributions to this volume have been originally presented at the conference. Authors were invited to submit a full paper for this issue and all submissions were then subjected to peer review.
From Sweden to Austria, through Hungariam Finland and Switzerland, from post-WWI to the 1990s, from governmental sources to computers through the study of radio, populist communications and military magazines, the authors highlight a diversity of positions, reactions, audiences and shift, may it be through time and space as well as through stakeholders and countries themselves, while also combining a diversity of methodologies. Discourse analysis, automated text analysis, digital mapping also shows the way historians may combine digital humanities and digital history with media studies.

The first article is by Merja Ellefson from Umea University in Sweden. Her article explores the ways military magazines remembered and made sense of the Finnish civil war both directly after the 1918-1919 war and during the centennial anniversaries of the declaration of independence and the war in 2017-2018. Combining automated text analysis with discourse analysis, Ellefson uses the peculiar media type of military magazines, as influential memory-makers in public discourse. She compares how the winning and the losing parties of the civil war were constructed a hundred years apart and how far the constellations of friends and foes have transformed or persisted over time.

The second contribution by Balázs Sipos from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, analysis how extreme right propaganda in Hungary turned the Soviet Union into an enemy, then into a friend and back to an enemy during the course of World War II. He suggests that while the propaganda of the Hungarian extreme right movement (Arrow Cross Party) depicted the Soviet Union as the “Jewish-Bolshevik” “they-group” and hence an antithesis to the Christian Hungarian “we-group”. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Hungarian extreme right held the believe that the Soviet Union would be a friend of Nazi Germany and hence a new image of the former enemy was needed – in fact not just a new one but the complete opposite. The article shows how this was resolved in the media related to the extreme right movement and how this change in tone and image was later corrected and returned to the initial version again. Sipos shows that in extremist propaganda and populist communication not only the absence of truth is a characteristic, which does not hinder the success of communication, but also that replacing the falsehoods spreads with their opposite and changing back again may be acceptable as long as it promises political gain.

Ely Lüthi, from USI Università della Svizzera italiana presents a study on how the Swiss government used media and communication as tools to foster national cohesion and unify the country politically and in terms of identity. Using governmental sources, Lüthi analyses the approach of Switzerland to communication tools and technologies in the service of democracy by comparing the case of radio during World War II and the role of supercomputers in the service of national defense at the end of the 20th century and the role and function the Swiss government attributed to these communication means. Following a political economy of communication approach, it underlines how Switzerland saw in communication the perfect instrument to protect the country, increase national unity and tried to connect the various linguistic regions, attributing it a specific pattern of ideas and values, which remained very similar in different historical times.

The fourth paper by Simon Ganahl from the University of Vienna is more of a methodological reflection about practices of mapping as an access and vantage point to historical reconstruction. He describes the project “Campus Medius” which aims to explore and expand the possibilities of digital cartography in cultural and media studies. Ganahl presents the premises of the project and sketches its path from a historical case study on the Austrofacism and fifteen events within twenty-four hours in Vienna on the weekend of May 13 and 14, 1933, including the so called “Turks Deliverance Celebration” (“Türkenbefreiungsfeier”) and how this historical case evolved into a mapping platform. The potential insights gained and the affordances of the project are described in his paper.

Besides the evolution of populist politics and their relationship with the media of their respective times, the articles in this special issue also highlight that academic inquiry into this relationship is a shifting and challenging field of observation itself. Theoretical conceptions and normative assumptions about, for instance, the role of journalism for democratic societies, the ideal of the public sphere and deliberation, or the “neutrality” of the media in reporting and forming audiences are sometimes anachronistically applied to past scenarios or dated concepts may be applied to new phenomena. But while we need to be careful when looking back with our contemporary experiences and expectations, historical perspectives also help prevent to fall for hasty accounts of exceptionalism for current phenomena: The media have always amplified radical politics and, similarly, arguments and discourses in favor or against it have already emerged in the past. At the same time, there are of course new possibilities and new forms of amplification thanks to digital media, but the emergence of populism is not a digital phenomenon per se. Also, by academic myths and scholarly narratives some communication practices are normalized while others might be pathologized. Prevalent concepts, eligible methods and accessible sources shape and foster certain understandings of problematic populism or romanticized counter-publics and civic engagement. In this vein it is also important to reflect the scholarly assumptions, concepts and approached and to also discuss and reflect how the past of populist endeavours or the struggle of counter voices can be made transparent, accessible and comprehensible to contemporary audiences, scholars and understandings.


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