Neo-Populist Scandal and Social Media: The Finnish Olli Immonen Affair

Neo-Populist Scandal and Social Media: The Finnish Olli Immonen Affair

Juha Herkman, Janne Matikainen
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2019-1.ch001
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The article analyses a political scandal that occurred in Finland in 2015, when an MP of the populist right-wing Finns Party, Olli Immonen, published a Facebook update in which he used the same kind of militant–nationalist rhetoric against multiculturalism that Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik had used a couple of years earlier. By analyzing the content published in both social and news media, the role of social media and the relationship between news reporting and social media are explored by analyzing the progress of the scandal. The analysis indicates the prominent role of social media as being a starting point for scandal and for keeping scandal in the public eye, serving as forums for supporters and opponents of the scandalized politician. The relationship between social and news media seems symbiotic in this case because both of them fed and inspired each other during the scandal. However, further research is needed to fully understand the role of social media in scandals linked to north and west European populist right-wing parties, as well as political scandals occurring in different political contexts and media environments.
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As populist parties in Europe have gained increasing press coverage and political power, scandals linked to these parties have become increasingly common as well. However, although the relationship between populist movements and the media has been extensively analysed (e.g. Mazzoleni et al., 2003; Boomgaarden & Vliegenthart, 2007; Koopmans & Muis, 2009; Bos et al., 2010; Roodjuin, 2014), the type of scandals linked to these parties have rarely been studied. This is slightly surprising, since, as Mazzoleni (2008, pp. 55-57) has pointed out, playing the role of the underdog and being provocative, organising rallies and creating media sensations are common events in these movements and have even played significant roles in their communication strategies (also Wodak, 2015, pp. 19-20). Herkman (2016a) has studied scandals connected with radical, right-wing populist parties in the Nordic countries and identified a specific type of political scandal: the ‘neo-populist scandal’, in which the populist rhetoric of the radical right confronts and conflicts with the liberal ethos of journalistic news media.

Herkman’s (2016a) study showed that one fifth of all major political scandals in Sweden, Finland and Denmark between 2005 and 2015 were linked to domestic neo-populist parties. The analysis reveals the significant role of social media, especially in launching the scandals, since neo-populist scandals often begin with derogatory comments, images or video-clips being made about a minority group by a neo-populist, which are then subsequently highlighted on social media. In addition, social media also comes to the fore during scandals, when supporters of the populist promote ‘a counter-cycle’ (Jenssen & Fladmoe, 2012) against the mainstream media. Nevertheless, the role of social media in neo-populist scandal has not been empirically proven. Thus, the aim of this article is to determine the role of social media during the different stages of neo-populist scandal. In this context, social media refers to Internet services that have their form and content mostly determined and produced by the users of the service. Therefore, social media may be regarded as an umbrella term that covers many kinds of user-based platforms, such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, discussion forums, YouTube and Wikipedia (Lietsala & Sirkkunen, 2008, p. 161).

This article analyses the role of social media by producing a case study of an infamous neo-populist scandal that occurred in Finland, the ‘Olli Immonen affair’. Consequently, further research will be needed to prove the link between social media and scandals connected to right-wing populist parties. However, we believe that by taking advantage of our analysis, some preliminary observations can be made on a general level about scandals generated by northern and western European radical right-wing parties that promote ‘nativist’ ideology and anti-immigrant policies (cf. Mudde, 2007).

The Olli Immonen scandal started in summer 2015 on Facebook. The furore around Immonen’s Facebook post quickly escalated within Finnish social media when Finland’s largest newspaper stated that Immonen, an MP of the populist Finns Party, had used similar militant rhetoric against multiculturalism to that of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist and mass murderer. Supporters and opponents of Immonen soon occupied the social media forums and started to comment on the public treatment of the affair in the news media. Whereas the Finnish news media represents mostly liberal values, social media serves as a platform for both liberal and conservative camps. The tabloid media may, in general, promote a more positive attitude towards right-wing populist movements and their nationalist approach than the quality news media, but it does not usually support perspectives that are explicitly hostile against minorities (see Herkman, 2015). The Immonen affair therefore represents an interesting case, highlighting the complicated role of social media in today’s political scandals and the increasingly pronounced relationship between the news media and social media. The precise research questions of the case study are:

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