A review of Mari-Liis Madisson (2016) The Semiotic Construction of Identities in Hypermedia Environments: The Analysis of Online Communication of the Estonian Extreme Right, Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 195p. (available online: https://dspace.ut.ee/handle/10062/52174)
In the recent Estonian parliamentary elections to Riigikogu (3 March 2019), the radical right-wing populist party EKRE (Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond) made significant electoral gains mounting to 17.8% of the vote as compared to 8.1 % in 2015 (Valimised, 2019). Thus, Estonia appears to follow a pattern of its Nordic neighbours. Centre-right parties have either formed or considered coalitions and alliances with radical right parties or made themselves dependent upon their support, thus allowing the political mainstream to move to the right (Raik 2018). A significant factor of success of the radical right has in all these cases been considerable online presence and activity on social media. It is in this context relevant to turn attention to a PhD dissertation that has analysed hyper-medial meaning-making in the Estonian radical right and that promises deeper insights into the online dynamics of radical right mobilization in general.
Forging radical right online identities
In June 2016, Mari-Liis Madisson defended her article thesis at the Department of Semiotics of the University of Tartu, Estonia. It is accessible online and principally divided into two parts: a general introduction (framing chapter) and articles published between 2014 and 2016 ahead of the dissertation submission. Madisson presents a semiotic study of the processes of identity-creation expressed in online interactions of the Estonian radical right. Her findings are nevertheless possible to generalize in multiple contexts, since in the contemporary climate, racist and xenophobic ideas are predominantly formed in online communities. Madisson’s scholarly approach is that of cultural semiotics – or the study of sign-processes and sign-systems (in communication) paired with approaches from Critical Discourse Analysis (short of any normative aims). She is inspired by Umberto Eco’s ground-breaking semiotic essay “Ur-Fascism” from 1995, which outlined generic features represented in different expressions of radical right thought. The meta-language of semiotics allows, according to the author, a relational conceptualization of radical right communication: hierarchies of meaning are established which shape the interactions between different radical right nodes and dynamic relations between the radical nationalist sphere and the wider socio-cultural context can be studied. Based on non-participatory observation in Estonian right-wing networks, by using the findings of previous research as well as the conceptual framework of cultural semiotics, Madisson identifies and explores four key-elements of contemporary racist and nativist hermeneutics (or ‘meaning-making’, as seen from the perspective of semiotics): 1) the dominant frameworks organizing the radical right interpretations of particular events and generating associations with collective memory; 2) semiotic mechanisms enabling seemingly paradoxical self-descriptions which unite racist and xenophobic understandings with signifiers from generally accepted discourses of liberal democracy and multiculturalism; 3) ‘dominants’ in racist and nativist hermeneutics generating the establishment of (self-referential) echo-chamber communication which in turn facilitates the reproduction of pre-existing stereotypes and thus leads to polarized understandings; and, 4) the position of New World Order (NWO) conspiracy theories in radical right interpretations and self-understandings. Apart from these four main areas, a general theoretical framework is developed enabling to expose the semiotic logic of the signification of conspiracy theories, articulated outside of the radical right sphere of communication. These findings are contextualised against the backdrop of ‘e-Estonia’, an identity discourse which connects contemporary information and communications technologies with particular values and visions of progress in Estonia. This discourse has considerable significance both for mainstream self-descriptions of Estonian society, but also for identity-creation at its political margins.
The most prevalent themes circulating in the Estonian radical right (or, as expressed by Madisson, the “interpretative frames, mapping social reality in their own specific ways”) are “the need to preserve indigenous Estonian-ness; speculations on how a Zionist/Masonic cabal is jeopardizing the existing world order (Estonia and other nation-states included); the idea that cultural and racial mixing is essentially dangerous; a conviction that Estonia should withdraw from decadent international unions, e.g. the European Union, United Nations and NATO” (Madisson 2016: 14, 16).
The semiotics of confirmation biases
But let us now turn more systematically to the dissertation as such. Madisson points out that the thematic focus of her articles relates to “processes of identity-creation formed in online communication”. These processes in turn “have a discursive and context-specific nature” in that identity-construction always demands an ‘other’ against which the meaning of the own identity is measured (9). Since communication in contemporary society to an increasing level is determined by (online) hyper-mediality, it is important to understand its inherent traits not simply as a new form of communication, but a virtual information environment following its own logic, however still “organized by our interpretational horizons”, values, opinions and prejudices. This opens up a form of confirmation bias which implies only to look for reaffirmation of previously held positions or at least for positions not conflicting with these views. In the end, this is also the ratio behind the formation of filter bubbles and echo chambers, self-referential and sealed sign systems, propelled by algorithms directing users to previously requested content. The confirmation bias in combination with an increasing role of social media as primary news channel leads to the fragmentation of the previously embraced ideals of the ‘public sphere’ as providing balanced, multi-perspective information, supporting social and cultural cohesion and political awareness. However, news communication in the public sphere is also affected by these developments and it is measurable how agendas are moved from the margins to the mainstream, normalizing previously extreme positions (Šlerka and Šisler, 2018:61-86).
Vernacular webs of meaning
Madisson has studied “participatory or peer-to-peer webs, which are formed of online interactions of people with similar views and interests” which capitalize on self-identifications as vernacular, grassroots and bottom-up networks among ‘the people’ (2016:10), perceived by their participants to be placed in a conscious opposition to established institutions of knowledge-production such as ‘mainstream media’ or academia. These “radical participatory online communities effectively fuel the spite and skeptical attitudes towards the mainstream media and political elite and amplify the general feeling of discontent and disempowerment”, offering “simplistic and eschatological explanations to intangible complex questions”, thus promoting conspiracy explanations (Madisson 2016:10). Madisson convincingly outlines that both radical left and radical right vernaculars of web-communication are a hotbed of “surprisingly similar black and white schemes of explanation that do not leave any room for accidents and coincidences but recognize the covert malignant actions of ideological opponents behind any disturbing development” (Madisson 2016:11) with joint enemies: globalization, capitalism, liberalism or multinational corporations.
For the case of Estonia, Madisson notes that the vernacular online communication in the Estonian radical right has developed in scope and content. From 2011 (Breivik) onwards, “right-wing populist parties (EKRE, RÜE) and organizations (SAPTK, Pegida Estonia, SA Euroopa Rahvusrinne) – that have often gained public attention because of their homophobic, racist and xenophobic statements – have remarkably grown their significance in Estonia” (Madisson 2016:11–12). However, radical right radicalization has been propelled significantly through social media communication, creating a climate of increasing anxiety and aggressive attitudes. Fear-mongering has led to the proliferation of imagined dangers, in turn sensitizing people towards propaganda directed against the Estonian state and “the establishment” or “symbolic elites”. Furthermore “racist and xenophobic meaning-making” is at the heart of processual and discursive identity-formation of the discriminators, however expressed in complex and polysemic ways and often intermingled with discourses of social cohesion, nationalism and patriotism (ibid: 17).
Hypermedia, online-offline dynamics
It is now time to turn attention to Madisson’s core concept of hyper-mediality (which could have been introduced a bit earlier in the thesis due to its central position) and the relationship between online and offline agency. Hypermedia is characterized by a “nonhierarchical or network-like structure, internal multiplicity, the lack of a centre [decentralisation] or a central axis of organization, fluidity, and temporariness, all of which are most often connected with the abstract textuality of the hypermedia environment” (Madisson, article I, 2016:25). Moreover, “primary specifics of hypermedia texts reside in using hyperlinks which allow the [interactive] connection of various kinds of text fragments, e.g. a hypertextual whole may incorporate verbal, visual, acoustic and inter-semiotic elements” and the informational sphere of the radical right “does not constitute a coherent textual system” (Madisson, article II, 2016:7-8). Instead, it has features of bricolage, a narrative patchwork where different styles and expressions are assembled into particular plots with open-ended and ambivalent interpretations, a strategy of identification that plays with the performance of a “politics of passion”, appealing to affects, emotions and senses (Mouffe 2014: 155; Ahmed 2014: 204-229). Whereas it is tempting to see hyper-medial vernacular webs as sealed information (and socialization) environments with little or no influence upon offline behaviour, Madisson argues for to understand online and offline realities as an “intertwined realm” of reality formation and identity-creation (2016:12). As in many other cases across Europe, such as the Identitarians or PEGIDA, online activism frequently precedes offline organization. This was also the case with the Estonian branch of radical right group, ‘Soldiers of Odin’.
Online spaces of the Estonian radical right
The empirical core of Madisson’s thesis is constituted of three and a half years non-participatory observation of online communication, for instance her study of posts on the online forum ‘Para-Web’. Entries on Para-Web hyperlink to other platforms such as blogs ‘Rahvuslane’ and ‘Vabomõtleja’ aimed to “reveal the manipulations of the Estonian decadent elite and corrupted mainstream media” (Madisson 2016:25). Another ten blogs or Facebook-pages were included in her study either directly or indirectly linked to the core themes of the radical right such as nativism, xenophobia and illiberalism. In her material, Madisson noted a shift of perspectives roughly occurring during 2014 and triggered by the so-called European ‘refugee crisis’.*
The tone turned more radical and explicit, promoting exclusionary identifications based on race or gender and the umbrella-topic of ‘white genocide’ covering a host of sub-categories such as cultural Marxism, moral corruption, the decline of traditional gender roles and the purported Islamization of the West. A special topic for the case of Estonia is the impact of the Snowden-leaks. Estonia has promoted a “cyber-optimistic self-model” (Madisson 2016:27), which under the impression of the totalitarian American surveillance program PRISM has turned more dystopian and in which radical right bloggers have assumed the role as “defenders of the democratic Internet and freedom of speech” (ibid). It is important to stress that these narratives tie into larger conspiracy theories of the NWO as promoted in the online ‘noosphere’ of the radical right. One of the greatest merits of Madisson’s thesis is her ability to bring to our attention the affinity between radical right positions and susceptibility to conspiracy thinking.
Out of the six core articles of the thesis, five are published in English. Given the sensitivity of the topics addressed, Madisson’s (and her co-author Andreas Ventsel’s) writing is characterized by a persuasive intellectual poignancy, making a solid case for the productive application of cultural semiotics to the analysis of online meaning-making and identity-formation. As in most article theses, a (negligible) drawback are overlaps and the lack of coherence between the articles and thus my hope is that Madisson in the future will be enabled to elaborate her findings into a monograph, which most certainly will contribute to a revitalization of the research area, not least in methodological terms.
Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor in the History of Ideas, University of Gothenberg. See his profile here:
© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
* = Comment by the author of this review: It is my sincere conviction, that the ‘crisis’ which has led to the forced displacement of tens of thousands human beings from the MENA-area and beyond not is occasioned by the refugees themselves, but that the root causes of these migration movements not are addressed properly by the term. We, as scholars, should try to avoid to reproduce this false problematization of the issues that have forced people to leave their countries of origin.
Ahmed, Sara. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. London: Routledge.
Hock, Alexej; Lindenau, Jan. 2018. “Roboter mobilisieren gegen den Migrationspakt”, Die Welt 10/12 2018.
Mouffe, Chantal. 2014. “By way of a Postscript”, Parallax, 20:2, 2014, 149-157.
Raik, Kristi. 2018. ”The rise of Estonia’s radical right: to engage or not to engage?”, 15 October 2018, accessed 2 March 2019,
Šlerka, Josef and Šisler, Vít. 2018. “Who is Shaping Your Agenda? Social Network Analysis of Anti-Islam and Anti-Immigration Movement Audiences on Czech Facebook” in Expressions of Radicalization: Global Politics, Processes and Performances (Eds. Andreas Önnerfors & Kristian Steiner) Palgrave: London.
Valimised [Estonian Election Agency], accessed 4 March 2019, https://rk2019.valimised.ee/en/election-result/election-result.html