The Rise Of Rightist Groups And Extremist Ideologies In Southeastern Europe In The Pandemic Era

Across the globe, the pandemic has led to a rise of many problems, which, broadly speaking, include economic, social, and political problems. Among these, the rise of rightist groups and extremist ideologies has been a concerning trend in various parts of the world. In southeastern Europe, rightist groups have made use of the pandemic’s circumstances to extend their messages to broader audiences. While the trends have become prevalent in several countries in the region, the common themes revolve around the rise of right-leaning ideologies and encouraging extremism in members of these groups.

A report titled “State of Hate, Far-Right Extremism in Europe 2021” shows that there are “[networks] of loosely organized groups which connect individuals internationally [and] encourage individuals to perpetrate acts of violence, to network them and share knowledge rather than formally plan attacks.” The report explains that the rhetoric widespread during the pandemic includes conspiracy theories, nationalist sentiment, anti-Semitic ideologies, and anti-immigrant ideas. This report also explains that in southeastern Europe in particular “far-right ideas are deeply rooted [where] they pose a threat to the region’s stability.” Much of this has to do with the region’s recent history of conflict, particularly due to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Many war memories remain fresh in many people’s minds, including the wartime ethnic tensions that persist to this day.

While the pandemic has amplified many of these issues, it is important to note that the rise of extremism has been an emerging issue in years prior. In early 2019, Politico reported that anti-Muslim views were widespread in various European countries such as the U.K. and France. The trend is more worrisome in countries like Bosnia given events like the Srebrenica genocide during the Bosnian war that targeted Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments have also fueled Islamophobia in the region, feelings that have only amplified in recent times.

What about the pandemic is causing the rise of rightist groups and extremist ideologies in southeastern Europe? These reasons include lockdown measures, mask mandates, job losses, and pandemic fatigue. Many feel that this is trampling with their personal freedoms, people want a faster economic reopening, and some want to return to normal life as soon as possible. However, other overarching reasons combined with the pandemic, have made it easier for rightist groups to spread their message. Al-Jazeera reports that Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist who heads the Observatory of Political Radicalism at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, states that “to label, the far right’s gains across the European board as being purely down to COVID-19 would be a serious oversimplification.”

Camus also notes that issues such as “migration, the economy, and crime” are in people’s minds. In countries like Bosnia, which has seen waves of migrants arriving from Africa and the Middle East, anti-immigrant sentiment is strongly present. Economic issues for the past several years have also kept people’s hopes of a better future low. As a result, rightist groups have seized the points above as a rallying call for promoting their ideologies, conspiracy theories about the government or the pandemic, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and finding someone or a group to blame for the present failures in their countries.

A concerning fact is that there has not been significant action on the issue in southeastern Europe. In the digital world, there have been attempts by Facebook and Twitter to filter out hate content, but they have faced shortcomings in removing it entirely on the platforms, according to a BIRN report. The report also notes that hate speech tends to be targeted towards minority groups, which is not surprising given the region’s wartime context, feelings about immigration, and the presence of nationalism. This approach is inherently difficult to execute without errors since what is and is not hate content can be context-dependent.

Moreover, it may not even be a person behind such comments. Rightist groups can use bots to spam comments on threads or pages, and if one gets deleted, another bot account can be easily created to repeat the process. Another layer of complication is that lawmakers in the region may accuse these companies of trying to suppress free speech, the will of the people, or by promoting certain ideas while shutting down others. Responses by local and national authorities have been limited over the years, and social media sites have not demonstrated a firm response either.

One would assume that there would be legislation in place to help resolve the issue, but in the context of southeastern Europe, legislation to curb hate speech and anti-Semitism is a major challenge. In the Bosnian context, the years-long dominance of ethnic parties in part has made it difficult to pass sweeping legislation on these issues. For instance, members of these parties, primarily representing Bosniaks (SDA), Bosnian Croats (HDZ), and Bosnian Serbs (SNSD), tend to support legislation and proposals that benefit their constituencies. What this does is leave out the other groups, create tension amongst them, and present to their constituencies an “us vs. them” perspective, thus further fueling tensions in Bosnia.

The lack of change makes it difficult for locals to believe that there will be meaningful progress if all they see is a constant breakdown of negotiations and failed legislation. The reports highlighted above are one step in the right direction as they shed light on the trends in the region. However, these efforts alone will not do enough to curb the rise of rightist ideology and sentiment in the pandemic era.

There is no one reason as to why there is a surge of rightist and extremist ideologies in the region. As shown above, a combination of factors, ranging from the political environment, regional history, and current events (including the pandemic), have led to more of these groups being in public settings spreading their ideologies and seeking to shift public sentiment on several fronts. What has also made it difficult to enforce consequences on these groups is the use of social media and networks.

Using fake accounts or spamming hate comments makes it a challenge to track down who is behind these actions. In some instances, algorithms may not detect all cases of “hate speech” or miscategorize posts. To take on rightist groups and extremist ideology in the region, it is necessary to evaluate the existing (limited) approaches, understand what is causing them to be ineffective, and propose solutions that take on the issue on multiple fronts and not just limited in scope.

In the context of the pandemic, the widespread promotion of conspiracy theories, nationalism, and anti-Semitism, is a challenge inside and outside the internet. A completely uniform response by authorities or social media websites will not completely resolve the issue as the type of hate speech can vary from country to country. It is important to maintain and enforce the broad guidelines and etiquette in these social media sites, but in cases of targeted hate speech, these broad guidelines may not be as effective.

For instance, BIRN’s report found that “One in two posts reported as hate speech, threatening violence or harassment in Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin or Macedonian language, remains online [and for] reports of threatening violence, the content was removed in 60 percent of cases, and 50 percent in cases of targeted harassment.” Therefore, companies such as Twitter and Facebook must have a larger number of human reviewers to examine the hate speech content that gets reported. The report highlights that the companies are “using a hybrid model, a combination of artificial intelligence and human assessment in reviewing such reports.”

There is no mention of the number of staff in charge of this but increasing the number of staff actively monitoring social media content will improve the numbers above. It will also help reduce the amount of “targeted hate speech” that may bypass the general guidelines. Additionally, being transparent about these guidelines will allow for more people to understand the reasoning behind them, how and why they are enforced, and make the general public more mindful about the content they post online.

The leadership in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and neighboring countries must also step up to take on the rightist groups in the region. The approaches will vary from country to country, but in a region where ethnic conflict, nationalism, and wartime sentiment are still present, there must be more cooperation between the lawmakers to target these issues. However, the fact that there are lawmakers in the region who have endorsed or promoted these same ideologies makes the task a major hurdle, though it is not impossible to resolve.

One way to bring this issue to the spotlight is via reports from non-partisan and no-affiliation groups. This will signal to lawmakers that there are issues to tackle in society, and citizens will want to learn more if the messaging of these groups remains consistent and promoted in ways that capture interest (ex: long reports that are summarized in one page, infographics, or other appealing visuals). Also, local peace organizations and non-profits should continue promoting anti-hate efforts in the region to maintain a consistent message. This can be done online through posts or by holding panels with testimonies of those affected by hate rhetoric. The more people that are aware of the content rightist groups promote, the more scrutiny these groups will receive.

An immediate solution to addressing rightist and extremist ideologies or groups is unlikely, but steps towards addressing their hate speech, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and provocative comments can happen now. More reports on the region’s developments and explaining what has or can contribute to the problems will help address confusion. Also, groups, people, or organizations must remain consistent with promoting anti-hate messages but also be able to adapt to a changing social, political, and economic environment. The recent wartime history of southeastern Europe could complicate efforts, but it can also serve to explain why “far-right ideas are deeply rooted” and how to best approach proposed solutions.

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