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The European Elections 2024: Between Digital Policies and Radical Right Success Online

The European Elections 2024: Between Digital Policies and Radical Right Success Online

Published on
4 Jun 2024
Written by
Licinia Güttel, Dylan Thurgood, Nuria Köchling and Dorottya Zsiborács
With millions of EU citizens set to take to the polls this week, OII researchers consider how digital technologies intersect with the European Parliament elections.

The European Elections 2024: Between Digital Policies and Radical Right Success Online

Between 6 and 9 June, the European Parliament (EP) elections will be held for the tenth time. With over 350 million European Union (EU) citizens eligible to vote, the EU elections are the second largest democratic elections worldwide (The Economist, 2024). Citizens of EU member states will elect a new European Parliament, a supra-national body which decides on laws, elects, and appoints the president of the EU Commission and the commissioners, holds them accountable and approves the EU budget. Citizens in each member state vote for members of national parties, who will then, if elected, join a political group. Currently, there are seven political groups composed of parties with shared goals from different member states (European Elections, 2024). Much is at stake during this election, as the continuing support for the radical right could move the Parliament’s composition substantially to the right (European Council on Foreign Relations, 2024). This could pose challenges to the norms of cooperation within the Parliament, lead to rightwards policy shift in a wide range of areas, and even undermine the European Parliament itself, as far-right parties tend to oppose EU integration (Vasilopoulou, 2016).

This article explores how digital technologies intersect with the recent European Parliament elections on several dimensions. We begin by exploring voter perspectives, highlighting how Europeans’ use of digital media might or might not influence their political attitudes and choices. The discussion then shifts to how political parties leverage social media for campaigning, with a special focus on TikTok, where radical right groups are particularly active, and sheds light on grey zone campaigning activities in Eastern Europe. Finally, we will examine the implications of these developments for digitalisation policies in the EU, providing an outlook on the potential digital priorities of the new European Parliament.

The perspective of voters and their news exposure

Researchers have traditionally described the European Parliament elections as ‘second-order elections’ (Reif and Schmitt, 1980). This highlights that voters often perceive these elections as less important, or vote based on discontent with their current national government instead of voting based on their stance towards European issues. EP elections have consistently witnessed lower turnout rates compared to national elections. The 2019 elections, however, marked a notable shift in voter engagement with turnout exceeding 50% for the first time since 1994. This increase in participation has been attributed to EU-wide issues becoming increasingly politicised (Schäfer, 2021). Citizens were found more likely to vote when they attached greater importance to the issues of climate change and environment, the economy and immigration and when they had particularly strong opinions on European integration (Braun and Schäfer, 2022). Considering that these issues and, especially, the EU’s defence and security in light of the war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war are at the forefront of voters’ minds (Eurobarometer, 2024), it appears as though the European elections are becoming more  ‘first-order’ (van der Brug et al., 2022), with an estimated 60% of citizens interested in this year’s elections compared to 49% ahead of the 2019 election (Euractiv, 2024).

The news voters come across prior to an election significantly shapes the importance they attach to different policy issues (Wanta, 2023) and that the vast majority of news seeking about the EP elections happens in the week leading up to it (Yasseri and Bright, 2016). There is also correlative evidence of an association between news consumption and voting choices in the EU election, as citizens exposed to more news content about the EU were found more likely to vote for populist radical right parties in the 2019 election (Stier et al., 2024). However, since the last election, the news media environment has been evolving rapidly and – although traditional media like TV and newspapers remain important news sources, especially for older citizens – news consumption has become increasingly digital and fragmented (Newman et al., 2023).

New forms of fabricated content such as deepfakes, or synthetic news stories generated by large language models (LLMs), raise concerns about their potential to spread misinformation at an unprecedented scale and influence voters in the European elections (FT, 2024). Yet, while these technologies have attracted a lot of attention and sparked alarmist reactions (Simon et al., 2023), AI-generated disinformation has not been very prevalent in campaigns leading up to the European elections so far (Politico, 2024) and there is little evidence to date to suggest that these technologies have significantly influenced outcomes of elections held in the past year (Łabuz and Nehring, 2024).

European Parliament groups harness TikTok: The radical right dominates engagement

Political parties are increasingly utilising digital technologies to enhance their campaigning efforts. The following Politico infographic depicts an analysis of the European Parliament groups’ presences on TikTok ahead of the European Parliament elections.

EU groups

While political groups like European People’s Party (EPP) and Renew Europe are active on TikTok, the more extreme groups, particularly Identity and Democracy (ID), achieve significantly more engagement in the form of likes and followers. This suggests ID’s content is resonating strongly with TikTok’s younger audience, potentially enhancing their influence in public discourse and in the upcoming election. The disproportionate representation of the ID group on TikTok suggests that they may be better positioned to engage with and mobilise voters through this social media platform. This could boost their already high standing in the polls even more, as technological advancements in digital media allow for targeted communication strategies that can influence political participation and electoral outcomes (López-López et al., 2023).

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from various political groups – and even the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola – have started uploading TikToks, despite Metsola banning TikTok from all Parliament’s employees’ working devices (Euronews, 2024). Several MEPs were reported to start using TikTok as a response to the ID group’s prominence on TikTok. One motivation to use TikTok is to reach the youngest voters in this year’s EP election (Euronews, 2024): In five Member States, voting will be possible for those who are younger than 18 years (Austria, Belgium, Greece, Germany, Malta) (Euronews, 2024).

The European Parliament itself is also increasingly investing in digital tools to convey information: the EP has rolled out a comprehensive informational and engagement campaign that includes the use of TikTok, with almost 30,000 followers and above 200,000 likes at the time of writing (TikTok, 2024). A dedicated multilingual portal was launched, offering extensive details about voting, aimed at promoting turnout at elections (eunews, 2024). However, these numbers stand in stark contrast to the engagement received by the six MEPs with the most followers on TikTok, who have each received above five million likes on their posts in total (Politico, 2024).

Overall, this election demonstrates that both the European Parliament administration as well as the parliamentarians and parties are increasingly utilising – albeit to different extents – digital technologies such as TikTok to inform, engage, and convince possible voters.

Grey zone election campaigning: A closer look at Eastern Europe

In Eastern Europe, grey-zone political campaigning is a wide-spread phenomenon (Győri et al, 2022). Grey-zone political campaigning refers to political party-organised non-governmental organisations that pretend to be independent NGOs. In doing so, they exploit social media to skew electoral contests through undermining the transparency, competitiveness, and fairness of elections (Political Capital, 2024). The social media content is produced by trained influencers who disseminate party propaganda and hostile narratives through paid advertisements.  These activities contribute to widespread confusion about the origins of the messages, often obscuring the partisan sources (Győri et al., 2022). This creates an unchallenged digital space for their views and undermines the concept of social media as a public sphere for debate and open discussions (Bradshaw et al., 2020). Despite election laws that set limits on campaign spending for political candidates or parties, these caps are circumvented through social media advertising by financing pro-party influencers through unofficial channels (Transparency International, 2022).

Hungary presents an important case-study for considering grey zone campaigning, as EU institutions and other member states frequently called out the radical right government for Hungary’s democratic backsliding under prime minister Viktor Orbán.  Megafon, a non-profit private corporation established in 2020, emerged as a key public communications tool for amplifying pro-government voices (New Eastern Europe,  2022). Political Capital and its partners created a website to continuously track paid content promoted during the 2024 election campaign in Hungary  to enhance the election’s transparency (Lakmusz, 2024).  Leading up to the EP elections, Megafon’s pro-government influencers spent approximately twenty times more on spreading hostile narratives against the West compared to the official party spending of the radical right Fidesz (Political Capital, 2024). This amounts to unprecedented spending on social media advertising, particularly on Facebook and YouTube (Lakmusz, 2024).  Key findings reveal significant asymmetry in online political advertising spending, as pro-government actors spent more than one million Euros to promote their messages on Google and Facebook in less than four months, which exceeds by more than five times the spending of all opposition parties combined. (Political Capital, 2024).

Furthermore, Fidesz and its satellite organizations are the main sources of hostile disinformation narratives in Hungary, responsible for 98% of the total amount spent on promoting such narratives. These target “European leftist pro-war politicians” – such as  Ursula von der Leyen, Emmanuel Macron, Donald Tusk, or Olaf Scholz who are portrayed as wanting to start World War III (Political Capital, 2024).  Thus, the unprecedented level of grey zone activities on social media during the campaign period underscores the need for vigilance against government-sponsored information manipulation. This highlights the importance of civil society actors in monitoring these activities to enhance transparency and ensure fair electoral competition in the digital age.

Digitalisation as an emerging EU policy issue

While digital technologies play a major role in campaigning, digitalisation has also become a pivotal policy issue for the EU. In recent years, the EU has dedicated substantial attention towards digitalisation policies, such as the GDPR, or the EU AI Act. This was also pushed by perhaps one of the most well-known commissioners, Danish liberal politician Margarete Vestager, whose task it was to make ‘Europe fit for the digital age’ (Commissioners, 2024), and who frequently appeared in media to call for a decisive approach against platform monopolies (Politico, 2024). Parties, and hence political groups, also play a key role in shaping and deciding policies, such as on digitalisation.

What might the digital priorities of the new European Parliament look like? A closer look at the election manifestos of the current seven political groups within the Parliament might offer a first glimpse on the priorities the political groups accord to this topic. Firstly, the populist radical right Identity and Democracy group has not published an election manifesto due to internal frictions (Euractiv, 2024). They don’t seem to accord much importance to digitalisation, as their website does not mention a vision for future approaches in this area (Identity and Democracy, 2024). Similarly, the national conservative to right-wing populist European Conservatives and Reformists group only mentions digital policies once, by calling for investment in technologies such as AI or quantum computing (ECR, 2024, p. 3). In the likely case that these groups gain more seats, it is unclear how much emphasis they will put on Europe’s digital future.

The emphases political groups put on digitalisation differ according to their party profiles: The Socialists and Democrats advocate for an ‘inclusive digital Europe’, while emphasising labour, gender equality, digital learning, and the access to digital connection. They highlight achievements in the realm of roaming rights, stricter rules on tech companies, and consumer protection (S&D, 2024). By contrast, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) links digitalisation to border protection, economic performance, and cybercrime. The EPP also promotes European leadership in digitalisation and AI over the US and China (EPP, 2024, pp. 7, 16). While the liberal Renew Europe group did not publish an election programme, a recently issued policy programme calls for the maintenance of existing Internet governance structures and net neutrality, the principle that all web traffic should be treated equally (Renew Europe, 2024). The European Left Party mentions digitalisation and AI in relation to labour policies and workers’ rights, while calling for AI regulation and addressing risks of digital exclusion (European Left, 2024, pp. 15-16). The European Greens propose to put ‘humans at the centre in artificial intelligence’, push for more climate friendly AI, and for countering disinformation and online hate (Greens/EFA, 2024, pp. 33-34).

Previous research on party positions on digitalisation at the national level highlighted that digitalisation policies tend to align with parties’ policy portfolios in other areas (König, 2019). This trend can also be observed at the European level, with left-wing parties emphasising labour and societal issues, and conservative parties perceiving digitalisation rather as an issue of economic competition. It thus remains to be seen what level of priority the new Commission and Parliament will assign to digital policy issues.

Is Europe Still ‘Fit for the Digital Age’?

The European Elections are taking place against the backdrop of a complex mosaic of digital, analogue, and country-specific factors. We situated the impact of digital technologies at three levels: voters, campaigning, and policy priorities. Online news use is one part of the formation of political attitudes, while fears around generative AI disinformation seem to be overblown in the European context. However, digital technologies are leveraged by certain actors, such as radical right parties or Eastern European government parties, attempting to push their electoral success and discursive power. Mainstream parties can also play a role in fostering the radical right’s discursive power, as for instance, building strategic alliances with these parties to secure the role as Commission President (Politico, 2024) further normalises radical right parties and their ideas. While digitalisation policies have been high on the agenda of the last Parliament, the ambitiousness of policy ideas on the digital future varies between parties, with more right-wing parties dedicating less attention to this policy area. A new, more radical right, composition of the Parliament might foster different patterns of political communication practices and lead to less ambitious policies for Europe’s digital future.


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