The Estonian Case
Populism is a truly global phenomenon in the 21st century (see Mudde 2004; Flew and Iosifidis 2020). Although the most successful Estonian populist right-wing party, Estonian Conservative People’s Party (short: EKRE), was elected to the parliament in 2015, they managed to form the government together with the Estonian Centre Party and Party of the Fatherland only four years later, in March 2019 and ruled the country until January 2021.
Populism and its possible causes are currently widely debated in political science and different scientific explanations have been published in order to explain the rise of populist radical right (PRR) (see Norris and Inglehart 2019; see Wodak 2016). Besides other approaches, researchers in political science and communication studies argue that the media has influenced the rise of PRR to a great extent (see Mazzoleni 2008). Many scientists agree that the populist radical right and its content are especially being mainstreamed through tools offered by social media (see Kasekamp 2018: 1).
This essay concentrates on the influence of the digital media and its role in the success of EKRE. The analysis part of this essay examines to what extent the Estonian PRR party successfully constructed a so-called “echo chamber” in their articles about marriage referendum and traditional family values in EKRE’s digital news portal Uued Uudised (New News) in 2020. It draws on qualitative data which was collected by the author as part of her bachelor’s thesis.
Firstly, an overview is given about EKRE and New News. Secondly, the relation between digital media and populism and the creation of echo chambers are being explained, which is followed by an in-depth analysis of the proposed research question.
EKRE and New News
EKRE was created in 2012, when the People’s Party and the Estonian Nationalist Movement were merged together (see Wierenga 2019: 143). According to Mudde (2017: 7), EKRE falls into the category of PRR, which is defined through three characteristics: nativism, authoritarianism and populism (see Mudde 2007: 15–20). Thus, EKRE is a (ethno-) nationalist party which believes in a strictly ordered society (authoritarianism) and has right-wing populist tendencies due to their idea that only they represent the Estonian people (see Mudde 2017: 4). Mudde and Kaltwasser define populism as something that divides society “into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups and […] argues that politics should be an expression of the common will of the people” (2017: 6).
Although there exists a variety of concepts of populism in the literature, this essay uses the approach of populism being a “thin” ideology, which is compatible with left and right world views (see Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017: 6). EKRE can be sorted into the category of right-wing ideology due to its thematic orientation. Kasekamp et al. (2019) discovered in their discursive study of social media that EKRE’s content in different social media channels and in their news portal, New News is dominated by four themes: “an anti-Russian stance, Euroscepticism, promotion of family values, and an anti-refugee discourse” (ibid.: 4–7).
This essay concentrates on EKRE promoting so-called “traditional” family values in their news channel and forming an “echo chamber” through it. During their time in the government, EKRE wanted to conduct a marriage referendum and ask the Estonian citizens whether a marriage should be defined only between a man and a woman (see ERR News 2020). Although in the end the Estonian government resigned before the referendum could take place, according to Iris Pettai the main political topics in Estonia in 2020 were both the global pandemic and the marriage referendum (see Põlendik 2020). Thus, EKRE managed to not only successfully frame their core policy in the media, but also promote it as one of the most important issues in Estonian society.
The news portal of EKRE, New News will be used as an empirical example, due to the fact that it is “one of the most significant centers of the Estonian radical right web because its articles are vastly cited and reposted in numerous blogs and Facebook groups” (Kasekamp et al. 2019: 2). Furthermore, the party and New News themselves describe the portal as an “alternative” channel of news, by reason that EKRE’s lead politicians believe the mainstream media is part of the “establishment” and “left-liberal brainwashing” (ERR News 2018).
Some political scientists have come to the conclusion that although the site portrays itself as an ordinary news portal, New News is nothing else than an “echo chamber” (see Kivipõld 2020: 41). However, it is stated on the Website uueduudised.ee that it respects freedom of expression and the views expressed in the channel may not comply with the party’s point of view. As EKRE’s news portal is being visited much more frequently than other party news channel in Estonia, approximately 560,000 times per month (see Uued Uudised web presence 2021), it is very much relevant to study this site thoroughly. On Facebook, the Uued Uudised site currently has 22159 followers, almost as much as the Estonian public broadcasting’s website, ERR in Facebook (22396 followers). In addition to that it’s content is also cited in other Facebook groups and blogs.
Social media, populism and echo chambers
Compared to traditional, mainstream media, social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook “allow people to talk to each other directly, organise in groups and rallies” (Flew and Iosifidis 2020: 8). These new technologies undoubtedly offer a great number of benefits for humanity and digital media could in theory both strengthen the spread of globalist as well as nationalist views. However, in many cases populist politicians have been among the first to take advantage of the possibilities offered by Web 2.0 “to get through their nationalistic, anti-immigrant messages and capture popular fears“ (ibid.: 8).
According to Sauer et al. the internet in particular shapes the communication strategies of right-wing populist radicals, as it creates, among other things, a “manipulative space of mistrust, fear and conspiracy” (2018: 27). Contrary to the idea of deliberative democracy in public spheres as proposed by Habermas, the Internet and social media in most cases do not encourage the creation of such places where dialogue between citizens with different opinions could take place (see Flew and Iosifidis 2020: 16f). Rather, social networks and websites have strengthened the creation of the opposite and formed groups in isolation “with those who already think what we think” (Sunstein 2008, cited from Flew and Iosifidis 2020: 16). Those homogenous communities are called “echo chambers”, defined as places “where groups of like-minded users fram[e] and reinforce[e] a shared narrative” (Cinelli et al. 2020: 1). According to Törnberg, despite the hopes that many people had for the Internet to increasingly democratize society, “it [instead] appears to […] have brought an information climate characterized by biased narratives, “fake news”, conspiracy theories, mistrust and paranoia” (2018: 1).
Analysis: Uued Uudised – an echo chamber?
This essay uses data which was collected as part of my undergraduate thesis. 100 articles about the marriage referendum published on New News in 2020 were collected and analyzed, using the computer program MAXQDA. As a method in my thesis, I used qualitative content analysis. This essay also draws on the interview with the founder of New News, Urmas Espenberg, which was conducted by Siim Saavik for his undergraduate thesis at the University of Tartu in 2017 to compare my empirical results with the original aims of the news channel and sort it into the broader theoretical context (see Saavik 2017).
The claim of Kivipõld (2020: 42f) that New News only publishes articles which correspond to EKRE’s ideology was supported by the empirical analysis for my thesis. All the articles concerning the marriage referendum published in Uued Uudised in 2020 were exclusively pro-referendum, from which one could conclude that New News works as an “echo chamber”, because the like-minded users framed a similar narrative (support for the traditional family and marriage) throughout all the posts. Hence, their statement of respecting the freedom of speech and the depiction of New News as a “usual” news site raises concerns.
What is more, during my empirical analysis various populist rhetorical strategies could be identified that were used by the authors of the articles in order to convince the reader about their views about how traditional family and marriage should look like. The editors of New News and other authors of the posts often used strategies such as creating threatening scenarios and reinforcing stereotypes such as victim-attacker. In addition to that, they used othering, ethnonationalism, narratives of the past and emotional language. I will briefly showcase examples to illustrate the strategies used, after which I will explain them in the theoretical context proposed earlier.
To start with, in many articles the “traditional” marriage between a man and a woman was portrayed as being under threat, which is apparent in the following quote written by the editors of New News: “[T]raditional family values are already being made into a joke; will love between a man and a woman soon be a subject of taboo as well?” (Uued Uudised Editors 2020a). While doing so, they often used the dichotomy victim-attacker to identify the state of the “traditional” marriage. According to the authors of the posts published in New News, the most common attackers of the traditional values are liberal democracy, the LGBTQ+ community, the EU and the Estonian liberal or leftist parties such as Reform Party, Social Democrats and the Greens (see Uued Uudised Editors 2021e).
The articles in New News see the “traditional family” as “part of an Estonian lifestyle” (Uued Uudised Editors 2020d), which stands in contrast to European and liberal values. Not only is critique of the referendum “abnormal” (Uued Uudised Redaktion 2020b) according to them, but also a threat to the preservation of the Estonian nation state (ethnonationalism). While making those statements, they use othering to differentiate heterosexuality from homosexuality and “traditional”, which according to them are the only “normal” families from same-sex couples (see ibid.). They refer to homosexuals as to people “of second class” (ibid.).
These statements indicate that the editors of New News have been successful in forming an “echo chamber” using many populist strategies. As their web-page is being visited more frequently than other party media in Estonia, their content is widely spread on Facebook and their Facebook-page has almost as many followers as ERR’s page on Facebook, it is very much relevant to know how the so called “alternative” media channel works.
However, one also needs to take into account the purpose of why New News was created. Looking at the interview with the founder of New News, Urmas Espenberg, helps to understand that Uued Uudised works exactly the way it was supposed to. According to Espenberg, one of the reasons why they created the channel was “to promote a neo-right wing worldview” (Saavik 2017: 32). So, it was not a coincidence that New News ended up being an “echo chamber” and promoting EKRE’s ideology, it was the goal for the channel from the beginning. Nevertheless, the media channel misleadingly portrays themselves as a “serious” news portal, as the it tries to imitate a usual news site with different rubrics, such as “opinion articles”, “broadcasts”, “world”, “economy” etc. In addition to that, the risks regarding this media channel in forms of possible spread of misinformation, “fake news” and increased extremism connected to it must be taken into account. The relatively high number of readers of homogenous “alternative” media channels in Estonia, including New News, is very likely to further increase the polarization in various issues in the Estonian society.
The aim of this essay was to examine to what extent the Estonian PRR party successfully constructed a so-called “echo chamber” in their articles about the marriage referendum and traditional family values in EKRE’s digital news portal New News in 2020. The empirical results of my undergraduate thesis show that the editors of New News have been successful in forming an “echo chamber” using many populist strategies, among others in creating threat scenarios and using emotional language and othering. However, according to the creator of New News, Urmas Espenberg, the spread of neo-ring wing ideology was the goal of the media channel from the beginning. Thus, it is no surprise that the media canal works as an “echo chamber”, where only similar content is published. Research about Uued Uudised and other “alternative” media channels remains relevant, because they have the potential to further polarize Estonian society.
Martina Eerme is a student of political science and geography at the University of Freiburg with a particular interest in international relations, populism and environmental politics. After her Erasmus semester at the University of Helsinki, she wants to continue her studies on a master level in International Affairs.