Earlier this summer the leaders of the Alternative for Germany Party, known as the AfD, came to Vienna—again. For the leading right wing populist party in Germany, the trip was for a chat and a photo op with Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the party’s defeated presidential candidate Norbert Hofer.
In recent months, AfD members of all levels have been regular guests in Vienna. And there was plenty to see: three and a half presidential election rounds with campaigns in all their facets. Not to mention the FPÖ's media machinery. That machinery became the template for every far-right party in Europe, and an unofficial model for all the others.
In Austria, the FPÖ transformed its media activities step-by-step and installed their own media house. Some parts of this strategy may be worth emulating, while other parts are diversionary and aimed solely at generating disinformation. But as populist parties rise in Europe, it’s worth examining the steps the FPÖ took to set up this “blue” story telling machinery supporting FPÖ’s political ideas.
Establishing Its Own Media
Let’s go back to September of 2012. Michael Schumacher is an active Formula One pilot, Barack Obama is still in his first term of office, and the AfD has not been founded yet. This was the year the FPÖ launched "FPÖ-TV". The first episode gets 14,000 views on YouTube. That’s not a lot from today’s point of view, but it wasn’t bad for September 2012.
In September of 2015, three years after the FPÖ-TV launch, Europe is engaged in a contentious debate about the refugee crisis, and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache speaks to the Austrian people. The video gets 2 million views on Facebook alone. No other nationwide news program would reach that many viewers in a country of 8 million.
The FPÖ exploits its position for its own agenda. They profit from their own media, their own channel, and their own content.
Establishing Other Media
With the online news platform unzensuriert.at it is a lot more difficult. In fact, the website insists on being independent. Its founder was the former third president of the Austrian National Council, Martin Graf; the CEO is Walter Asperl, a former Graf employee who is now an advisor to the FPÖ parliamentary group. The website presents itself with the slogan: "The country needs fresh media" and focuses on the issues of refugees, crime, and on a negative attitude towards traditional media. Consequently, unzensuriert.at publishes content that would even for the FPÖ be far too provocative to officially endorse.
The political classification of the Upper Austrian "Wochenblick" is more complex. At first glance, this Facebook page and blog (occasionally a printed magazine) intends to be a full-fledged tabloid that includes salacious “clickbait” content. But the magazine "Profil" has investigated those behind "Wochenblick" and it has found that a considerable share of the staff has a past with the FPÖ – starting with CEO Norbert Geroldinger, a former local leader of the FPÖ until 2010.
Learning to Think Like Editors
Even without considering these satellites, it is obvious that the party uses more media channels than most media houses. The center of this universe is the party leader: all efforts are focused on Strache's Facebook page. The weekly “Neue Freie Zeitung”, the YouTube magazine and the other social media channels orbit the Facebook page, so to speak.
All of these sources work together like an editorial department around a single conference table. They review which topics should be on the agenda, ask who can supply certain content, and decide to whom it should be directed. And this party news apparatus constantly reinforces itself by referencing and citing the other outlets within its orbit.
Last year the mainstream press "Der Standard" analyzed Strache's Facebook page. On average, it published 13 posts per day, which were all shared about 400 times each. The recipe: fans are approached directly, topics are addressed quickly and newspapers’ latest reports supporting their agenda are shared permanently. On an average day, one or two links are added to the infamous tabloid newspaper "Kronen-Zeitung" along with jokes and memos from websites with anti-Islamic content.
The FPÖ expands its internet presence constantly. Five years ago, FPÖ-TV was launched as a YouTube magazine. It then evolved into an editorial office which supplies the Facebook page with content. Ongoing evaluation and development is shaping the editorial style. To the outside world, the FPÖ acts like a "real" media house. It provides more than intensive marketing for the party. By interviewing leading European populists like Germany’s Frauke Petry and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, they produce exclusive content that legacy media struggle to obtain.
Testing the Limits
The FPÖ’s official media and other agencies close to the party built a perfect symbiosis for the presidential election campaign in 2016. The aggressive channels pictured the former green candidate Alexander van der Bellen as mentally absent. In the TV debates, FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer only had to indicate subtly that Van der Bellen mixed up facts or forgot some details. The picture of a confused Green Party candidate was created immediately in the viewers’ minds, an image that was already pushed ahead of time on social media.
While the FPÖ pushed this message aggressively, there’s a lesson here in not crossing the line. At one point during the campaign Strache posted a TV screenshot of Van der Bellen, wryly noting he had forgotten to shave one half of his face. But upon inspection, it was obvious Van der Bellen had shaved properly. It was just a shadow on a poor-resolution screenshot. This crossed a line for many. The sinister intention was too obvious, too plain: the move backfired and Strache was criticized and ridiculed.
In today’s media environment, it’s critical to understand that every time you can connect with voters online in a meaningful way, you can strengthen support for your agenda. Just be careful what you post. At one point during the campaign Strache was fooled into amplifying a daily newspaper’s April fool hoax.
Competitors are treated maliciously, journalists are treated hatefully: the consequence of a tough interview quite often is an article on unzensuriert.at and a personal rebuke on the official social media channels. The fan mob rampages regularly, even threatening female journalists with rape. However, the FPÖ tries to improve its image here too: in March, they hosted a course on good manners and social media etiquette in Salzburg: "How do I participate in social networks without becoming the target of criminal sanctions?" The Vienna "Kurier" attended as well – coming up with the most important advice for social media activities: driving a car and posting is the same, always mind the 0,5 per mille limit.
Build a “blue” news cycle
Attacks on journalists, stigmatized as "privileged", and raging against public broadcasting, branded as "partisan", are an essential part of the story telling by “blue” media outlets. A new task for the FPÖ is attempting to improve its own credibility. The FPÖ uses TV appearances to push their own media. During a TV debate on the private channel "ATV" Hofer cited an article by unzensuriert.at, that backed one of his statements. So the FPÖ candidate attempts to prove his point by citing an article published by a medium whose CEO is an employee of the parliamentary group of the FPÖ. The unofficial channels whitewash content for the party to use; the party pushes that content, profiting from the wide range of their official channels that are allegedly independent and provide a vast platform for their niche media.
But there is one problem left: If PR is mingled with self-proclaimed journalism, if sender transparency is sacrificed and one thinks the end justifies the means – watch out not to be caught with your hand in the cookie jar. In August, RTL, a German TV news outlet, caught the FPÖ, having both hands and its head in the jar. An undercover researcher-reporter applied for a job at unzensuriert.at and was warmly received in Vienna by Alexander Höferl – head of communications for the FPÖ. The whole encounter was filmed by a hidden camera. Asked, what they aim for, Mr Höferl answered: "We don't do that for the sake of independent journalism. We do it to support these political movements somehow."
Now the entire system fires back: Opponents will use this example to undermine the credibility of these channels. There is no chance for Norbert Hofer to use unzensuriert.at in a TV debate as a source again.