In this Series, our Head of Ideology Research Unit Balša Lubarda speaks to some of the people helping to make CARR the ‘one-stop shop for knowledge and resources on right-wing extremism’.
Michael is currently completing his doctoral studies at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu (Estonia). He specializes in far-right populism in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as connections between the far right and football. His PhD research is part of the Marie Curie H2020 Project ‘Fatigue’.
You recently assumed position of the Head of Doctoral Fellows at CARR. What is it that you would like to accomplish in this new role?
It’s an exciting time to be taking on the role of Head of Doctoral Fellows at CARR. CARR has come a long way in such a short time, and I can only see that trend continuing in the future.
I enjoy working with CARR Doctoral Fellows to edit their Insight blog posts and I believe this is a great way to communicate the excellent research being done to broader audiences.
Looking ahead, I want to continue developing opportunities for Doctoral Fellows to connect with others in the field who are working on similar topics. It would be fantastic to see more collaborative projects involving CARR Doctoral Fellows and I hope to play a role in facilitating that.
Your research touches upon the intersection of football and politics. For CARR website, you wrote about topics such as anti-semitism and football in Poland, or a Georgian footballer who was a target of the far-right smearing campaign. Can you tell us a bit more about how football brings on board political ideologies?
Football has always been a big interest of mine, and so perhaps it was only natural that I would gravitate towards the sport in my research into the populist radical right. The connections between football and ideology are extremely varied, from the use of clubs or national teams by political leaders to endorse their regimes, to the frequency with which extreme and racist views are voiced by supporters in stadiums.
The aspect I find most interesting is the way football so often provides an arena where wider political and social issues are played out. In Georgia, the reactions to a footballer wearing a rainbow-coloured armband in support of LGBT+ rights brought to the surface one of the key societal antagonisms regarding EU integration and the country’s future direction. In this case, something which occurred on the football pitch, at first, provided a pretext for far-right groups to amplify their homophobic views, but it then created opportunities for resistance to this, and more inclusive understandings of Georgian identity to be voiced.
In Poland, the situation is quite different, but again there are countless examples of football acting as a barometer for wider societal discourses. Most of my research so far has highlighted connections between Polish fans and far-right ideology, but I’m also cautious about understanding supporters as a homogeneous group. There are a lot of different people who attend Polish football games, and I don’t see them all holding radical right-wing views from the outset. But when you’re in a stadium and a sizeable and influential part of the crowd with a very strong sense of identity are using anti-Semitic language, for example, to attack their opponents, there can be a lot of pressure to go along with that, especially if it’s presented as just a way of showing support for your team.
“What’s difficult in this case is where the society draws lines between acceptable sporting rivalry, and outright anti-Semitism and racism, and unfortunately there’s an unwillingness at higher levels to deal with, or even acknowledge that the problem exists.”
In this way, football provides a very visible indication of broader conversations and ideas going on in a society. A racist or anti-Semitic banner displayed during a game by a group of fans is one visible sign of potentially much deeper issues in a society. However, it’s equally important to assess the responses, or lack of, from political actors to those incidents to understand the processes which might cause them to be considered acceptable by the population more broadly.
Your work on the populist use of social media was particularly insightful, as you focused on rather interesting applications of somewhat abstract concepts such as ‘direct democracy’ in conducting a popular referendum on the choice of lunch, the so-called ‘Spinach referendum’. How do ideologies, often presented as something abstract and based on ideal-types, enter the ‘mundane’ realm?
It would be easy to dismiss Marine Le Pen’s fondness for sharing cat pictures, or Viktor Orbán’s joy in showing everyone his homegrown pickles as trivial, but it’s clear there’s a lot of strategic thought going into their social media posts. Social media in many respects provides a unique playground to experiment with political ideas, and present them in ways that people can relate to. Orbán’s lunchtime ‘spinach referendum’ is, of course, tongue-in-cheek, and it’s likely that the aim was simply to present himself in a playful light. But, considering how central direct forms of democracy are to the populist way of ‘doing politics’, it may also help to foster the image of a leader who is in touch with, and listens to, ordinary people and is thus the right person to represent them.
Ideology plays a role in this, though I tend to shy away from understanding populism itself in ideological terms.
“What is fascinating is how each social media platform gives political leaders new sets of tools to showcase aspects of their ideological views in different ways.”
The end goal is essentially the same: communicate a specific message to your audience, but the difference in medium requires the mastery of an entirely separate skillset. And it seems that populist leaders have been the quickest at mastering these platforms in creative and appealing ways. Whether it’s asking followers to help them decide what to have for lunch, or connecting with ordinary people over a shared love of cats, there’s a concerted effort to use social media to build relatable images for audiences to connect with.
Try comparing Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage’s Instagram pages with Labour Leader Keir Starmer’s for instance. Until fairly recently, Starmer’s page paled in comparison to the other two, and consisted more or less entirely of screenshots taken from his Twitter feed. This surely only reinforced perceptions of Starmer as a bland, overly serious leader, which in the British context did him few favours in appealing to the public. Johnson on the other hand is well known for playing the fool, and his Instagram page certainly reflects that. Farage’s output on Instagram is predictably divisive, but in an environment that rewards that kind of content, he’s further able to demonstrate his constructed persona as an ‘everyman’, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. This is a huge part of right-wing populist politics.
So, regardless of whose political views you agree with, there’s no question which Instagram accounts are likely to gain more attention. At the very least, this opens up the possibility for Johnson and Farage to connect with much bigger audiences than Starmer, and this puts him at a huge advantage when it comes to promoting more serious political ideas.
Interestingly, I’ve observed a considerable change in Starmer’s use of Instagram over recent weeks, with more pictures showcasing a sense of humour, or showing him meeting ‘normal’ British people. It seems Starmer is finally using the platform the way it is intended, but the fact that he’s adapting his strategy to closer resemble approaches used by Johnson and Farage also highlights how important political leaders of all stripes consider this.
It may seem particularly unsettling that what some of the radical-right and populist politicians like Salvini or Orbán advocate for causes we would normally consider progressive, such as consuming home-grown food or animal welfare. Is there something ideological about these intersections, and what is it that we can take away from them?
I agree that this is very interesting from an ideological perspective because, to an extent it can seem paradoxical. However, when Marine Le Pen posts pictures of cats, or Nigel Farage shows himself spending time with his pet dog, it doesn’t equate to either holding progressive attitudes towards animal rights. There’s little reason to doubt that they genuinely like animals, and are aware of how social media can be used to cultivate a particular image of themselves, which emphasises these more relatable aspects of their personalities.
“Viktor Orbán posting pictures of pickles from his garden is probably not so much about demonstrating the importance of consuming home-grown natural foods, but more a way of showing how his experiences are similar to those of ordinary people.”
It’s impossible to know for certain the extent to which individual right-wing populists believe in every aspect of the image they present on social media, and how much of it is done just because it generates traffic and allows them to express some personality. I’m sure Matteo Salvini does really love Nutella, but who knows how much he actually cares if the hazelnuts used in the recipe come from Turkey rather than his native Italy. In this case though, it’s surely more a case of him finding a playful and less obviously threatening way to present nationalistic views, whilst retaining an element of deniable plausibility.
Since your work is mostly based on Eastern Europe, how has the ethnographic embeddedness affected the choice of topics you write about, and what is it that you find particularly important to convey about conducting research on (the radical right in) Eastern Europe?
It’s important to remember that Eastern Europe is extremely broad and diverse, with political attitudes in each country and region heavily dependent on unique local issues and cultural contexts. What’s going on in Georgia is not the same as what’s happening in Ukraine or Poland, and so to get a better understanding of the differences it’s crucial to speak to people for whom these issues are not just vague concepts or statistics, but actually have an impact on their daily lives and the way they see the world.
It would be easy to make broad assumptions about reasons for the increased popularity of radical right politics in certain countries based on general criteria and by approaching research from a normative perspective. However, to better understand what facilitates the acceptance of anti-Semitism in Polish football, or why a footballer expressing support for LGBT+ rights caused so much debate in Georgia, you really have to have a conversation with the society itself.
The topics I’m interested in writing about often start out with me noticing things that might seem banal, or are just accepted as normal by those who experience them every day, but in another context might be received differently. The article I wrote about anti-Semitism in Polish football is a good example of this. For an outsider, seeing so much anti-Semitic graffiti in Krakow was initially quite shocking, particularly as it seemed to be generally ignored, or explained away as simply football-related. It was only after speaking to people from within the society about how they themselves understand the situation, that I got a sense of some of the thought processes and discourses in Poland, which contribute to its normalisation in certain spheres.
You can read more about Michael’s work on far-right populism in Ukraine, Poland and Georgia, and connections between the far right and football here.
Read more interviews with CARR Fellows here.
Find out more about CARR’s Ideology Research Unit here.