HERE ARE A couple of relatively safe bets you can make right now about the European parliamentary elections that commenced yesterday and will continue through the weekend.
ONE IS THAT nationalist, populist, far-right parties will surge, winning up to a third of the seats in the contest. The other is that Steve Bannon—Donald Trump’s erstwhile campaign manager, former White House chief strategist, and self-styled populist-whisperer to the world—will be there, trying to grab some credit for their success.
Bannon, as you may recall, began haunting Europe in the spring of 2018. Reprising his role as a blustering, reactionary Gandalf in baggy cargo pants, he turned up in piazzas and hotel suites across the continent, promising to unite Europe’s notoriously fractious populist right.
Beneath his grand vision, of course, was a sales pitch. Having recently lost his chief American clients and benefactors, Bannon was now offering Europe’s far-right parties his services as a political consultant. In advance of the 2019 EU parliamentary elections, he would give them messaging that could “dominate news cycles,” as well as data analysis and polling. He also offered membership in an umbrella group with a vaguely revolutionary, messianic name—the Movement—that would yoke their various parties together under a unified Bannonite theory of global anti-globalism.
But aside from dominating a few news cycles itself, Bannon’s big plan never actually got off the ground. “There is no Movement,” says a source close to Bannon and the effort. In November 2018, an investigation by The Guardian revealed that the Movement would violate the electoral laws in most of the countries Bannon planned to operate in, which either barred or restricted in-kind election contributions from foreign entities.
As comical as that mistake was, other impediments ran perhaps even deeper. While some European leaders—like Matteo Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orban in Hungary—were initially enthusiastic about working with Bannon, other nationalists turned up their noses at the overtures of a foreign interloper (He “doesn’t come from a European country,” said Marine Le Pen) and found his ideas clumsy and offensive. Which partly goes to show that Europe’s nationalists are out of step with each other.
But in at least one respect, Bannon was out of step with nearly all of them.
Last August, shortly after he announced his plan for the Movement, Bannon told CNN that companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google were run by “sociopaths” and “narcissists,” adding: “These people ought to be controlled, they ought to be regulated.” Big Tech companies, he said, “have to be broken up, just like Teddy Roosevelt broke up the trusts.” Part of Bannon’s grand unified theory is that Silicon Valley is a cultural enemy that needs to be brought to heel.
But one of the few things Europe’s right-wing populists have in common with each other is their opposition to recent EU efforts to regulate the big tech platforms—efforts that have been driven by Europe’s centrist establishment parties. Some far-right leaders, like Italy’s anti-immigrant deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, are vocally opposed to these efforts on the grounds that they amount to censorship of the internet, and they are just as vocal in their outright praise for platforms like Facebook.
Others are simply Euroskeptics—nationalist politicians who wish to nullify the EU itself and tend to oppose any stringent, far-reaching legislation coming from Brussels—or market conservatives who tend to favor the rights of corporations. And many of them owe their rise to power at least in part to viral campaigns.
“When you look at the voting pattern of the right, and the populist parties of Europe in general, you can clearly see that they seem to resist this call—which is very much coming from the establishment—to govern or stamp some authority on Big Tech,” says Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU Law at HEC Paris, a prominent business school. Many of them, says Alemanno, prefer the Wild West version of social media that allowed fake news—and far-right parties—to flourish. “That’s where they come from,” Alemanno says. Ultimately, the current online “ecosystem is what produced them in the first place, so they need to preserve it in order to exist.”
Which is all to say that the stakes attached to this week’s elections could be significant for Silicon Valley in some surprising ways. The European Parliament is a supranational institution with 751 elected members, called MEPs, drawn from the 28 European Union member states. When a piece of legislation like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—last year’s expansive EU measure to strengthen users’ data privacy—passes in the European Parliament, it then moves down to each state’s national parliament, which they then need to implement into domestic law. And the EU governing body has become a key legislative battleground for the likes of Google and Facebook.
“When it comes to tech, generally speaking, the European Union is the regulator,” says Alexander Mäkelä, a former Brussels-based Facebook employee who worked as a policy adviser on content issues and fake news, as well as public relations in the EU in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “When it comes to international norms and standards, global norms start in Brussels.”
With right-wing populists expected to make big gains overall in the European elections, further legislation to rein in Silicon Valley could struggle to pass. In recent months, EU leaders have discussed imposing new digital taxes on the revenues of Big Tech companies; those efforts might not find support among Europe’s new parliamentarians. And the EU’s incipient antitrust crackdown against Big Tech—which now involves probes of Amazon and Google—could face stumbling blocks. Could Big Tech find itself depending on the votes of far-right, populist politicians to defend its corner?
A MAN WITH a well-trimmed beard, wearing a puffy, hooded coat, looks down into his wobbly video camera, speaking in Italian. “Those that flee from war, from hunger, from famine and bombs, they want to watch soccer matches on Sky. They want to eat well, and they want to relax. Because after all, who pays? Us,” the man says, and then he gestures at the camera with both hands: “You.”
This is Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right party Lega, coming to you via Facebook Live Stream. He’s recording the video on an iPhone outside a house where several alleged refugees are living. “I leave you with a kiss goodbye,” Salvini says, putting his fingers to his lips, “and the certainty that they would never let you see footage like this on prime-time news.”
In many ways, Salvini—one of the first major European politicians Bannon recruited to his cause—is the key protagonist in the spiraling right-wing populist nightmare Europe is currently facing. Lega is set to become the biggest single party in the European elections. And where Bannon failed, Salvini has been touring Europe in search of recruits to his own far-right alliance.
Ahead of the European elections, Salvini visited the nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary, and promised a “European spring” that would break German-French hegemony over the continent. Salvini is also close to France’s National Rally—he flew to Paris in early April to cement his relationship with leader Marine Le Pen. A week ago, he hosted leaders from 11 EU countries in Milan for the launch of a new far-right populist alliance. It was reminiscent of the Movement, except that Bannon was nowhere to be seen—and that, when it comes to Big Tech, Salvini is unequivocal.
“Thank God for the net. Thank God for social networks. Thank God for Facebook,” Salvini said after his party’s unexpectedly strong result in the 2018 Italian national elections, which led to it forming a government with the populist, pro-tech Five Star Movement. “There are 20 million unemployed in Europe, there’s Islamic terrorism, there’s out-of-control immigration. And what is it you busy yourselves with in the European Parliament? With gagging Facebook and fake news,” Salvini said in a speech in Strasbourg against efforts to clamp down on fake news, which he called Orwellian. “Long live the internet! Long live Facebook!” he concluded.
Since coming to power, Lega has grown exponentially in popularity. According to opinion polls, it is now the biggest party in Italy. That success has been predicated on inflammatory rhetoric—particularly the stoking of anti-immigrant feeling—for which Facebook and other web platforms have been an indispensable medium. During the current European election campaign, Salvini’s Facebook page posted a dozen or more videos a day, often livestreams. He currently has 3.7 million followers on Facebook, more than any other politician in Europe.
As crucial as Facebook and other platforms have been to Salvini’s political rise, the backlash against Big Tech—and the calls demanding that companies clean up their platforms—have been decidedly bad for Lega. After an investigation by the online activist group Avaaz ahead of the European elections, Facebook was forced to close more than a dozen pages supporting Lega and Five Star, as they were shown to have continually violated Facebook’s own rules around fake news.
A post from one banned page contained a photo of former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi of the center-left Democratic Party with Mark Zuckerberg, alongside the false assertion that the pair had reached an agreement to censor the internet. One video posted to a Lega-supporting page, purporting to show migrants destroying an Italian police car, reached 10 million people; turns out it was from a movie.
Little wonder, then, that Lega and Five Star have both come out against the EU’s most recent major attempt to regulate the internet, the EU Copyright Directive—a law that will require Facebook, YouTube, and others to assume greater responsibility over copyrighted material being published illegally on their platforms. In fact, the battle over the Copyright Directive could prove instructive in understanding how the European Parliament is likely to handle Big Tech in the wake of the elections.
While the directive offers a broad overhaul of EU copyright law, its most controversial articles require web platforms to filter and remove content that infringes copyright. Online memes are often based on copyrighted images, and critics of the law fear that it will amount to a “meme ban”; they worry that companies, to protect themselves, will use automated filters with extreme prejudice.
Another controversial part of the directive requires news aggregator sites to start paying publishers for using snippets of their articles, which likewise stokes fears that platforms will preemptively purge themselves of content that will suddenly cost them money.
Opposition to the directive was led by a German MEP named Julia Reda from the anti-establishment—but not far-right—Pirate Party. But a large chunk of the opposition was made up of Salvini’s far-right Lega, along with Five Star, the party of hard-right British politician Nigel Farage (or “Mr Brexit,” as Trump calls him), and Poland’s hard-line Law and Justice party.
Salvini opposed the Copyright Directive because he thought it would infringe further on freedom of speech: “The European Parliament is trying to impose new barriers, filters, and restrictions on the internet,” Salvini said in a selfie video to his followers on the day of a preliminary vote regarding the EU Copyright Directive. “They’re trying to find a way to do this,” he said, covering his mouth. “To gag us, and also to gag you.”
Among Europe’s nationalists, Salvini has been unusually vocal about defending Big Tech from the EU. But right-wing populists across Europe have harnessed social platforms in much the same way he has, to engage ever-bigger audiences. From Spanish party Vox’s shrewd use of Instagram to Alternative for Germany’s viral tweeting, ultranationalist and populist parties are winning the online arms race across the continent. It’s not hard to imagine that they will want to use whatever leverage they can to maintain that advantage.
Salvini’s own efforts to unify Europe’s mutually antagonistic far-right have not been without struggle. There is plenty of friction between the continent’s various populists over a broad range of issues, including Lega’s pro-Russia stance. (Much of Europe’s hard right has close ties to Russia, but a few parties, as in Poland, are fiercely opposed to Moscow). And not all of Europe’s right-wing populists praise Facebook quite as fulsomely as Salvini does; Farage has accused the platform of harboring its own liberal bias and of censoring conservatives.
But depending on how the elections turn out, Salvini may still be able to form a powerful new bloc in the European Parliament after the elections—which could become the third-biggest political group there and end up holding the balance of power. The question is: How would that bloc play with the other parties and constituencies that have opposed regulating Big Tech—including the companies themselves?
AXEL VOSS, FROM German chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is the centrist legislator who led the EU Copyright Directive through the European Parliament over the past three years. “It was so intense,” he tells me over the phone from Germany, where he was campaigning ahead of the European elections. He says he was taken aback by the level of animosity directed at what he saw as a sensible piece of legislation.
He shouldn’t have been. “There was a lot at stake,” says Luisa Izuzquiza, a campaigner with the Corporate Europe Observatory, an organization that monitors the influence of corporations on EU decisionmaking. “It was groundbreaking regulation in terms of how it will affect the internet.”
Google reportedly spent 30 million euros to lobby against the directive. An investigation by The Times of London found that the company helped fund a supposedly grassroots campaign group called OpenMedia, which called for people to spam politicians with automated messages; OpenMedia claimed that its backers did not influence its actions, even though it listed Google as a major donor.
Voss found himself on the receiving end of a massive, seemingly coordinated campaign against the law—one that often got personal, criticizing his character rather than the legislation itself, he says. YouTube itself promoted videos arguing that the directive would destroy the internet as we know it. Voss accused Google, which owns YouTube, and others of rallying people against the directive without giving them the facts.
Another campaign to stop the Copyright Directive, Savetheinternet.info, organized a petition that secured 5 million votes and supported a phone-calling campaign to reach members of the European Parliament. “We work independently from any corporation,” campaign leader Pascal Fouquet says. “We don’t get any money; we contributed our free time.”
On March 26, the EU Copyright Directive passed by a slim majority. But Izuzquiza firmly believes the surge in right-wing populist parties will make such legislation far more contentious in the future: “These parties have a pro-corporate agenda,” she says. “These tech companies have enormous resources, and naturally they’re spending a lot of money to defend their interests … In the European Parliament you have a lot of parties that will side with these interests—especially now with far-right parties growing.”
Of course, it is highly unlikely that tech companies will openly make common cause with the far right. But with the many “transparency shortcomings”—as Izuzquiza puts it—in the European Parliament, it will also be very difficult to track any possible collaborations between Big Tech and far-right MEPs. And so the task may fall to watchdog groups and journalists. “We need to make sure we put these companies on the spot … and give democratic oversight however we can,” Izuzquiza says.
But what about the digital rights activists who have fought on the same side as the tech companies? “We are an independent NGO, and our goal is a strong European Union,” says Pascal Fouquet, who says his organization will not cooperate with right-wing populists, despite the fact that they are using online networks to connect with Europe’s young people about overlapping issues. “The possibility that right-wing populists like Alternative for Germany or others will get more seats in the next parliament scares us like most European people.”
Thomas Lohninger, executive director of Epicenter Works, another NGO that ran an ostensibly grassroots campaign against the Copyright Directive, says his group worked with politicians from across the spectrum. “You can find allies in all political parties, and if you are working toward the majority, you also have to talk with all of the people and explore all avenues that you can in order to gain a majority. And that’s what we did,” Lohninger says. “There are of course the Euroskeptics, that are fundamentally opposed to every type of European legislation or regulation. And if you’re just trying to prevent the laws from being adopted, those parties can be helpful.”
This isn’t to say that Lohninger, who is Austrian, is comfortable cooperating with right-wing populists—he has not been sorry to watch the unfolding corruption scandal this week involving the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, which saw its party leader caught proposing to offer government contracts to a reporter posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece.
“As we are a civil liberties and strongly pro-European organization, we won’t collaborate with anti-democratic forces,” Lohninger says. “In my experience, nationalist forces lack the pan-European cooperation that’s needed to bring about forward-looking legislation like the GDPR. I haven’t seen that spirit or the pragmatism to really get down to details for many of the populist parties. The contradiction becomes obvious if you think about it. Europe is built on multilateral cooperation. That doesn’t come easy to nationalists or populists.”
Lohninger is keen to stress that his point of view isn’t ideological, but that right-wing populists are unlikely to make useful partners. Besides which, he predicts difficulties in efforts to unite them: “If you go back in history, there have been many previous attempts,” he says. “And they’ve all failed.”