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University of Basel

Follow me! (02/2022)

A disturbing dictionary.

Text: Urs Hafner

Right-wing populism has been gaining strength for years now. The pandemic provided rich soil for the growth of conspiracy theories. Now, researchers have demonstrated a link between these phenomena based on online comments from right-wing populist circles.

Man reading his newspaper, Twitter birds soil it with their droppings.
Illustration: Christina Baeriswyl

The world of social media can sometimes make you feel quite uneasy. Already a feature of everyday communication on Twitter, the rapid recourse to abusing those with different opinions reaches alarming levels in some forums. Hatred, resentment and frustration are expressed without restraint. Users mete out malicious abuse and spread lies, allegations and rumors. These are the sort of places that could easily destroy your faith in humanity.

That is precisely the experience of literary scholar Hevin Karakurt, who visited forums of this kind for her research. Some of the things she read there made her stomach turn. For example, she says that Holocaust denial is a matter of course on far-right websites: “They openly engage in historical revisionism. In their version of events, the National Socialists only wanted the best for the Jews.” Supposedly, the Nazis used gas not to kill the Jews but rather for hygiene purposes — to rid them of infestations. “That sort of thing is difficult to read,” says the researcher. In this area of discourse, the boundaries between true and false, between fact and fiction, have lost their meaning.

Hevin Karakurt is one of a team of researchers from the field of literary studies and the social and communication sciences whose work includes the analysis of right-wing populist conspiracy (RPC) discourse on the internet. As part of the Basel-based research project Half-Truths. Truth, Fiction and Conspiracy in the “Post-Factual Age”, which is led by Nicola Gess, the researchers have compiled a digital dictionary of online “conspiratorial populism”, known as RPC-Lex.

Corrupt elite, hidden agenda

The relationship between right-wing populism and conspiracy theories is not necessarily an obvious one: Whereas right-wing populism pits an ostensibly homogeneous “people” against a corrupt “elite”, conspiracy theory is based on the principle that everything is interrelated, nothing happens by chance, and nothing is quite as it seems. “Populism and conspiracy theory feed off one another, particularly in right-wing nationalist contexts,” says Karakurt.

To create RPC-Lex, the Basel-based team worked with Cornelius Puschmann from the University of Bremen. As well as consulting theoretical literature and linguistic studies on conspiracy theories and right-wing populism, the researchers also analyzed relevant texts in collaboration with students. These works include, for example, the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion and texts by the German conspiracy theorist Ken Jebsen. Finally, the researchers used computer-assisted techniques to scan a dataset consisting of social media posts from sectors close to the party Alternative for Germany and the movement of “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident” (Pegida: Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes).

This work has given rise to a German-language dictionary with some 10,000 entries that are broken down into 13 categories and grouped according to “style”, “antagonists” and “topoi” (themes or topics). The dictionary includes not only individual words such as Auschwitzkeule (playing the Auschwitz card) or Kopftuchmädchen (headscarf girl) but also expressions such as hinter den Vorhang schauen (look behind the curtain). The latter is used in the context of conspiracy theories because it alludes to a supposedly concealed truth. In circles with an affinity for conspiracy theories, it seems that people “look behind the curtain” more often than usual, seeking to reveal those who are “truly” in power – whether it be former German Chancellor Angela Merkel or the Rothschild Jewish banking dynasty.

Surprisingly, however, the dictionary also includes esoteric terms such as Erweckung (awakening), which seems harmless enough at first glance. Karakurt says there is an overlap between esoteric and right-wing bodies of thought  – apparently, National Socialism adopted many elements of esoteric thought, and this is a lesser-known fact today even among those who described themselves as esoterics.

Esotericism is just one of the 13 categories in RPC-Lex. Others include anti-elitism, apocalypse and nationalism, for example, while conspiracy discourse is concerned with revelation, scandalization and suspicion. The antagonists are Jews, elites, migrants, women and members of the LGBT+ community. As you click through RPC-Lex, one thing you notice is that the discourse is astonishingly diverse – and dynamic. The dictionary not only reveals the current state of conspiracy discourse but can also be used to study its composition and evolution.

Based on Facebook data from 2010 to 2019, for example, RPC-Lex shows that there was an explosion in anti-immigration rhetoric during the “refugee crisis” of 2015. The same is true of the proliferation of antifeminist expressions around the time that same-sex marriage was introduced in Germany in 2017. Russia’s war in Ukraine may represent a new area for discourse analysis.

Making mechanisms explorable

According to Karakurt, this collection of terms and expressions is primarily intended to serve as a resource: “We want to facilitate the investigation of relationships that weren’t previously visible. With the help of computational linguistics, we’re able to detect patterns in huge volumes of text that would not otherwise have been spotted.” They have now observed that, in Germany, hostility toward migrants is linked to apocalyptic rhetoric – in other words, the fear and evocation of an impending apocalypse. “Examples include superconspiracy theories such as that of the Great Replacement, which attributes immigration to a secret plot to replace the white majority with Muslims and non-white people,” says the literary scholar.

Although RPC-Lex doesn’t provide an antidote for right-wing populist and conspiratorial thought, it is a valuable tool for analyzing large datasets from such contexts. Karakurt hopes this will help to identify the mechanisms underpinning this often vague – and yet dangerous – form of discourse: “This will allow us to find better answers to how we, as a society, plan to tackle it.”


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