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The Case of the 'Alt-Right'

Analysing the links between political communication and ideology with a deeper look into its impact on conservative, right-wing groups.

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The past few years have ushered in a tone and style of public political discourse which is increasingly blunt and aggressive. The relatively new phenomenon of 'trolling' has provided the conduit for much of the diatribe but the issue is broader than a virtually masked group of people intent on casting out the most negative, often hate-filled messages and commentary.

The internet has reduced 'entry costs' to the public sphere, introducing new audiences to new political voices using platforms (anonymous below-the-line comments, 280-character tweets, blogs building partisan audiences) which combine image and text. As a result, there has been a clear shift in the ideological landscape with persons more convicted and unwavering with their points of view. Just as the advent of national newspapers, radio and television changed the shape of what could be thought and said politically (and how and by whom), changes in political communication today are also affecting the form and content of political thinking.

Alongside the emergence of digital technologies, there have been deep changes in democratic politics. For example, some 'trolling' and related forms of political communicative disruption, including organized online attacks, are parts of a wider network of 'alt-right' and related political groups which have had a recognizable impact on Conservatism in the USA and, increasingly, in the UK and Europe.

“The content, form and style of politics is changing rapidly, and digital technologies are key drivers of these changes. Not only do digital technologies allow extremist voices to get around establishment gatekeepers, they also change how people articulate, share, and understand political ideas. These changes have profound effects for political cultures. This project tries to develop new ways to understand and respond to these deep shifts in politics and culture.”

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What we’re researching:

Dr Robert Topinka, Lecturer, in Transnational Media & Cultural Studies (Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies), is collaborating on research, currently in its second year, combining contemporary cultural and political theory, political science and political sociology, rhetoric and research into visual and digital cultures.

The project aims to:
1) develop concepts for understanding what happens to political thinking and ideology in digital culture.
2) develop and apply methods combining history of political thought, political science and (digital) Humanities.
3) refine and test these through a case-study of the 'alt-right' (interviews with alt-right/conservative thinkers and activists, study of the movement's historical & ideological lineage and analysis of how online forums, formats and visual styles contribute to and constitute its rhetorical form and ideological content).

Dr Robert Topinka states, “The content, form and style of politics is changing rapidly, and digital technologies are key drivers of these changes. Not only do digital technologies allow extremist voices to get around establishment gatekeepers, they also change how people articulate, share, and understand political ideas. These changes have profound effects for political cultures. This project tries to develop new ways to understand and respond to these deep shifts in politics and culture.”

What will the impact be?

The project's research findings will bear on a large number of issues of concern to those involved in politics and political communication including a range of political actors as well as the general public. The relevant findings divide into two: general findings concerning changing cultures and practices of democratic politics and debate; specific findings concerning the political ideology and activity of the alt-right and related movements. The impact strategy reflects these two distinct strands.

Overall the team intend and expect for the research to have an impact on:
- the understanding by online and other political journalists of the ways in which their work forms part of a larger, dynamic and changing ecology of ideologies, rhetoric and political ideas.
- political professionals' attitude towards and understanding of changes in political culture and communication.
- the professional practice of speechwriters and others responsible for mainstream and government political communications.
- the awareness of political specialists and the general public of alt-right activity and of changes in Conservative, Right-Wing and related ideologies.
- the capacity of think tanks, charities and related groups concerned with issues of race and racism, misogyny and hate speech.
- political journalists understanding of and reporting on alt-right and related political activity including the broader reconfiguration of the ideological landscape of our politics.

PROJECT FACT FILE:
Project title:  Political Ideology, Rhetoric and Aesthetics in the Twenty-First Century: The Case of the 'Alt-Right'
Project funding: £397,430
Funder: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Funded Period: February 2018 – January 2021
People: Principal Investigator, Professor Alan Finlayson, Co-Investigator, Dr Robert Topinka

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