🎧 Why Do Far-Right and Far-Left Parties Benefit from Social Media Algorithms?(Season 5, Episode 2)

Eva & Daiva @ The Inoculation

How do algorithms facilitate the rise of political fringes in Europe? And what makes it worthy for political opportunists to be radical? We invited Prof. Miguel Poiares Maduro, who has an academic background in law, governance and politics, to reflect on the various threats to democracy from social media, and to zoom in on his home country, Portugal.

Prof. Poiares Maduro also chairs the executive board of the European Digital Media Observatory, so we asked him about responses to anti-Ukrainian disinformation across the political spectrum. Here are the links to the past episodes mentioned:

Antivaxxers and pro-Kremlin ideas: https://www.theinoculation.com/are-antivaxxers-more-likely-to-be-pro-putin/

How the Portuguese far right opposed vaccine mandates and got an electoral boost: https://www.theinoculation.com/portugal-is-europes-vaccine-hero-losing-its-special-balance-allowing-right-wing-parties-to-flourish/

Ales Herasimenko predicts that antivaxx movements will overflow into political ruptures: https://www.theinoculation.com/the-inoculation-episode-4/

Please subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or another platform of your choice. Follow us on Facebook as @theinoculation, on Twitter as @TInoculation, and on Instagram as @the_inoculation.

Professor Maduro  0:00
Populist parties throughout Europe, they all feed themselves on the same reasons, it is growing this discontent with the political establishment on the part of citizens, the increased perception of the part of system of citizens that the political system is controlled by a few by an elite against the the interests of the overwhelming majority. All populist parties in Europe feed themselves on these but then the concrete political agendas and the ultimate goals vary.

Eva Schaper  0:41
Hello, listeners and welcome to the inoculation. My name is Eva von Schaper. And I'm hosting this podcast together with Daiva Repeckaite. Hey, listeners! Who did we just hear this is somebody that you invited?

Daiva Repeckaite  0:57
Yeah, so I had the chance to go to a talk by Professor Poiares Maduro. And he agreed to be a guest on our podcast. So we asked him to comment on the Portuguese and also that more general European political system and the challenges it faces from disinformation and polarisation.

Eva Schaper  1:19
Okay, so he actually what he can tell us is, he can give us some insights on one of our topics in the season, which is disinformation, on the political fringes, he can give us an overview, and he can also help us understand Portugal a bit better. Is that right?

Daiva Repeckaite  1:38
Exactly. And Portugal is known for having a different political spectrum compared to many EU countries to the north and west of Europe. Because for a very long time, it didn't have any far right presence and the general sort of centre of the political spectrum is more to the left in Portugal. You can find more information in the episode we did on Portugal last year after the Portuguese election.

Eva Schaper  2:04
Okay. But But this election was actually quite special last time.

Daiva Repeckaite  2:10
Exactly. Because from one member of the far right, which was kind of the odd one out, the Portuguese Parliament went on to have 12 of them. And this really surprised a lot of analysts. And there were different theories, the maybe the far right leveraged social media much better than all the other parties.

Eva Schaper  2:32
Okay, but we can talk about that we can, we'll hear what Professor Maduro has to say a bit later. First. Let's let him introduce himself.

Professor Maduro  2:43
So I'm Miguel Poiares Maduro, and I'm a professor at the European university Institute, the School of Transnational Governance, where I am the chair of the Executive Board of the European Digital Media observatory. And I'm the Dean of Católica Global School of Law in Lisbon.

Eva Schaper  3:03
Okay, so I think the first thing that was interesting to know or that we wanted to ask Professor Maduro was, if you could sum up the huge changes that digital media has brought, it's not only social media, how it differs from traditional media, but also how this might change the political landscape and how it is, indeed, already changing the political landscape.

Daiva Repeckaite  3:35
Exactly. So it's not only social media, but also the speed and the quick turnaround of news in digital media. That is the interest of Professor Maduro.

Eva Schaper  3:47
And I think he also told us that he believes that there are some qualities that social media has that helped fringe parties. So let's just listen to what he had to say.

Professor Maduro  4:00
The algorithms work on the basis of very different criteria than the traditional journalist criteria. And the criteria that determines our algorithms use is mostly driven by the business model of social networks, it is not driven by considerations of political pluralism, of balance of credibility of sources, it is what attracts more attention, and therefore drives people to more hits and produces more money on the part of social networks that gets more relevant.

Eva Schaper  4:37
At the heart of social media is something that we don't see in traditional media, and those are algorithms. So basically, what we're talking about is that it's automated decision making by computers.

Professor Maduro  4:51
One of the things that we know, as I said, is that algorithms are driven by basically by What? What generates more interest in people on an instinctive basis? And we know that Neuroscience tells us it is things that tend to shock people tend to drift to alert the emotional side more, even if when people don't like them. Whether people like them or dislike them, it seems that shocked and that tend to drive more their attention, and therefore tend to be amplified more by the algorithms and tend to be more widely disseminated, get more salience in terms of these editorial processes of algorithms. What does this mean? More radicalization, more polarisation, because those are the things that the algorithms more pick up and make more visible.

Daiva Repeckaite  5:45
So all of the sounds like fringe parties know better what they're doing. And I think you asked him, whether we can attribute this deliberate will to exploit to exploit social media. Is that right?

Eva Schaper  5:58
That's exactly right. And I think he had a really interesting answer. Let's just listen.

Professor Maduro  6:05
I cannot tell you, because I have no, we have no empirical data for that, that there is exclusive intentional strategies on the part of any party to explore these by purposely choosing messages that they know that are going to shock more people, and because of that will get more visibility. But of course, I mean, one sees that kind of speech being disseminated. So one to assume that they know, at least because that they see that whenever they speak more radically and more violently, that they get more visibility that they can see now they can see that tweets and posts that use that kind of language that get visibility. So naturally, they will tend to learn from that in a negative way, learn but in a negative way, that the more violent their language becomes the more likely it is that they will get more salient, and get more visibility.

Daiva Repeckaite  7:16
So algorithms are this black box that we cannot see how they make one tweet or one post more visible than the other. What we do see is the result, but actually, the more popular tweets or posts on social media get even more visibility, and they're pushed to more people. And we saw that the far right Chega party was actually getting a lot of attention for its tweets about vaccine mandates in Portugal. This proportionate attention compared to much larger and much more established political parties if we only look at retweets and favourites on Twitter.

Eva Schaper  7:58
So the Chega party is the party that we were talking about before, which went from I believe, or one seat in the Portuguese parliament to 12 in port in the Portuguese election that took place just about a year ago.

Daiva Repeckaite  8:16
Exactly. Something important to remember is that when we talk to experts, while working on this episode in Portugal last year, they told us, and they elaborated a lot on the inspirations that the Portuguese variety draws from other European countries. And we also found trends around the way different political powers talk about vaccine mandates in France in the Netherlands and Portugal, even though these countries have a completely different situation.

Eva Schaper  8:45
Exactly. And I think one thing that was very surprising when we went back and a year ago after Russia's invasion of the Ukraine, when we looked at France, and we looked at the Netherlands, we found part parties who were on the far right wing of the political spectrum, were more likely to retweet pro Russian pro Putin and anti Ukraine tweets or a to tweet themselves, so not only retweeting but tweeting themselves.

Daiva Repeckaite  9:19
Exactly. We can link to that episode as well in the description box.

Eva Schaper  9:23
You know, we have Professor Maduro about this. And here's what he had to say.

Professor Maduro  9:29
You've seen both on the extreme right and the extreme left throughout Europe, and different positions being taken in this respect. We know that whoever supports Russia is on the extremes. And it's fringe parties, but in some countries have been more extreme left. Parties in other ones have been more extreme right. And in some countries it has been a mix of both; in Portugal is more the radical left that has taken a position more favourable to Russia than the populists of the right. And the populists of the right have basically been silent on on that. They have been, they haven't been strong supporters of Ukraine. And I'm talking of the party of Chega, Ventura, they haven't been strong supporters of Ukraine. But I've also not taken positions that feed on the disinformation narratives of Russia. Instead, the party that has most strongly taken a position favourable to Russia is the is the Communist Party in Portugal. And the Communist Party in Portugal has a long tradition of relationship first with Soviet Union, then with Russia, they are really orthodox. And they've been basically, they've been spreading the idea that Ukraine, basically is a neo Nazi regime. That that that is Ukraine that provoked Russia, they bought into this, they claim that their only interest is peace, but that peace is to be guaranteed by Europe, not supporting Ukraine, that is only feeding the war. They basically are the ones that are more widely spreading this narrative.  There's the left block, that has been slightly ambiguous, it seemed to to be close to the Russian position support, then they realised that they were probably going to suffer strong backlash, because the public opinion has very strongly supported Ukraine in Portugal, and the backdrop into closer position to Ukraine. Now, it depends on the members of the party. And the end of the day is to sometimes they are more open to the Russian position, or the times they they they backtrack on that. The party that has more strongly endorsed and reproduced the disinformation narratives on the war of Russia is in Portugal the Communist Party.

Daiva Repeckaite  12:09
What Professor Maduro told us about Portugal surprised us a little bit.

Eva Schaper  12:12
What we also found was that there is what I would call maybe energy disinformation, that we have powers trying to build a case in the media against the Ukraine. So basically saying this war is bad because the war is going to drive up gas prices.

Daiva Repeckaite  12:31
And it's also not worth helping, because then our poor, poor citizens will suffer from rising gas prices. Is that right?

Eva Schaper  12:42
Exactly, exactly. And, you know, we have had we have seen, as you know, Germany is quite dependent or was quite dependent on Russian gas. And we have seen, and this was actually just, at the end of last year at the end of 2022, that gas prices were extremely high. And people were quite afraid that they wouldn't be able to, you know, pay their energy bills pay their gas bills.

Daiva Repeckaite  13:10
Exactly. So we wondered, did this happen in Portugal, none of us speaks Portuguese. So we asked Professor Maduro.

Professor Maduro  13:18
That kind of discourse on the war, basically saying supporting Ukraine is bad because it's feeding the war and therefore means higher energy prices for the people and everything this in Portugal is basically the discourse of the Communist Party, the Chega has not made you make use of that of that speech. And I think it's because part of Chega is really hardcore conservatives that were anti communist, and anti Russia from the start. So they don't want take, it will be countrary, it will be complicated for them to have that kind of discourse.

Eva Schaper  13:56
What I was very interested in and this goes back to one of the first discussions that we have, or one of the first interviews that you that we had, you remember, which was Ales Herasimenko, in Oxford, in the in the UK, that anti vaccine tweets and basically, the political structures and the messaging messaging structures that are being built up on the back of anti vaccine tweets may be a pathway for a new parties and new radical parties to form. And this is something that I think we saw in Germany when we had like, I'm just gonna call it an attempted mini coup. And these are people who are very active in the anti vaccine. So we asked Professor Maduro, if this is something that would also apply to Portugal and to the far right Chega party.

Professor Maduro  14:51
I have no doubt that Chega wants to become a government party. And I think their role is to try to implode the right and centre right, to the point that then they become instrumental to do what Salvini almost achieved to do and that in fact Front National do leading in Italy. That is What they become, that they fragment so much the political system, that then they become the bigger within the centre right. And they become crucial for any political alternative of government, and therefore, they will present themselves as unavoidable in government. And it buys into the political protest, the protest pitch, but it's not a party that wants and Mr. Ventura is not someone that wants to limit himself to be a protest politician, he wants to be in power, he wants to gain power. To a large extent, I mean, you have to realise that is a very smart, very intelligent person, that I think it's driven much more by political opportunity reasons than by strong ideological convictions.

Daiva Repeckaite  16:07
So in the end, the Portuguese political spectrum is quite different. And we see that there's a lot of competition on the left.

Eva Schaper  16:15
But I think what it does do, I think all of this leads us back to one question, and one really important question is, how do we find a way to, I'm just gonna say, live with social media? Without it destroying our democracy with? We're not only talking about fringe parties, but how can we? How can we use social media? How can social media be part of our lives without it destroying our democracy? And so we asked Professor Maduro, what he thought, what can we do?

Professor Maduro  16:48
We also need to work at the level of improving the quality of the editorial processes in social networks themselves. What does this mean? For example, accountability of algorithms? What exactly are what determines the choices of information that algorithms make more easily accessible to us to limit some of the risks we the our algorithms are currently designed? Because like I said, they have been designed to monetize information in light of the business model of social networks. They have not been designed as information editorial processes, when actually they do that. So we need to know those algorithms to make them accountable, to scrutinise their criteria, to change their criteria, we might consider to impose rules requiring pluralism of algorithms to allow people to choose different algorithms, for example.

Daiva Repeckaite  17:53
I think what we found is that a mix of regulation and maybe algorithm transparency could go a long way to help us with the issues that we're having today.

Eva Schaper  18:04
I think we all have an idea of what to do, but the solution is still so far off. We'll keep on top of that for you. Thank you for listening this week.

Daiva Repeckaite  18:14
And tune in in two weeks, we will continue talking about fringe parties. In the meantime, you can find us on social media, because whatever we say about it, we're still there. We're still on Twitter, or on Facebook, and Instagram.

Eva Schaper  18:29
Exactly. And you can find us on our website, www.theinnoculation.com, where you can find all of our past episodes and transcripts to all the episodes and links to everything we discussed in the episodes.

Daiva Repeckaite  18:45
Exactly. So bye for now.

Eva Schaper  18:48
Thank you bye for now.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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