Lessons from Fighting Swiss Right-Wing Populism: Flavia Kleiner and Operation Libero

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In early 2016, Operation Libero, an anti-populist movement cofounded by history student Flavia Kleiner, 26, successfully defeated an anti-immigrant Swiss ballot initiative. The “enforcement” initiative, sponsored by the nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), would have ordered the deportation of immigrants in Switzerland for any criminal offense, no matter how minor. Often, initiative sponsors like the SVP frame such issues in terms of Swiss values and innocuous outcomes for citizens to control the narrative and reduce the potential for negative response. In this case, the SVP initiative followed a long and bruising federal election, and their usual political opponents were exhausted and out of funds to fight the initiative. So Kleiner and friends built a grassroots movement and coalition for “No” on the enforcement initiative to re-frame the issue, reclaim Swiss values, and drive attention to the anti-immigrant initiative. The successful effort has since blossomed into a suite of campaigns under Operation Libero to oppose populist and illiberal rhetoric more broadly.

At the beginning, rather than starting with the big Swiss newspapers of record, Kleiner gave her first interviews criticizing the enforcement initiative to the free daily newspapers distributed around public transportation and read widely by average citizens. By being one of the only smart, vocal critics reaching out to the press, she was able to get front page news in these journals.

Operation Libero also took to the internet to generate easy ways to engage in the campaign and share relevant information across social networks. They aggressively fact-checked claims by the SVP about the initiative and their country’s need for it. They created press releases debunking the claims and made it easy for journalists to write critical stories. Operation Libero also designed compelling and humorous visual memes that could be easily used as Facebook profile images or shared, mocking the SVP’s own imagery.

Operation Libero’s reframing of the issue—defending the rights of immigrants was equivalent to defending core Swiss values—was widely distributed online and offline and overwhelmed the SVP, which had not expected such opposition. A key indicator of success was the fact that SVP paid handsomely for leaflets delivered to every Swiss home that tried to make an argument for the initiative. Kleiner says the expensive measure was an act of desperation, and the misleading claims in the leaflets were quickly debunked by Operation Libero and sympathetic journalists.

Kleiner has made a set of careful and deliberate decisions about how to structure and present Operation Libero. They are a nonprofit and are not aligned with any particular political party. In interviews, she has been careful not to favor a particular party, while still representing her commitment to Swiss liberalism. As a result, MPs from several parties are “members” of the movement. Kleiner is frank that her own background and personal appearance also helps her cause. She is from a self-described bourgeois, rural Swiss-German family, and has a stereotypical blonde-haired Swiss look—she looks native to her home district, which votes heavily for SVP. Her heritage and dress signals a possible affinity with conservative lawmakers, aiding her in presenting as politically centrist and making her case directly to lawmakers.

Operation Libero has supporters from the Left in Switzerland, but they are not building formal coalitions in their movement and avoid affiliation with disruptive politics or a broader radical agenda. Instead, Kleiner says that their appeal is always in terms of traditional Swiss values, which seeks to marginalize the SVP and its nationalist rhetoric as anti-Swiss. This helps them connect with average citizens and own the language of the debate.

Now that Kleiner is seen as a political threat by the SVP, the party and its online supporters have started attacking her personally. With additional nationalist ballot initiatives coming up over the next year or so, she will have to deflect negative associations imposed by the other side and Operation Libero will need to find new, innovative ways to campaign. It will be a test of their model for an anti-nationalist movement. They expect the SVP will be more prepared and the types of memes and media campaigns they used before might have diminishing returns this time around. A danger for Operation Libero, as for all innovative movements, is that the best weapon in political campaigning is surprise, which is very difficult to reproduce.

Beyond Switzerland, Kleiner has been approached by organizers in other European countries struggling to fight the rise of nationalist parties and policies. When she met with us at the MIT Center for Civic Media, she was in the United States on a State Department tour for female political leaders and meeting with American academics and political organizers. It’s unclear if Operation Libero’s values-driven, centrist approach could work outside of Switzerland. In the United States, the radical Left is visibly leading the resistance against nationalistic policies under President Trump. Kleiner’s analysis is that the identity politics of American progressives sometimes get in the way of their own strategies—and they should make sure to be working through internal politics—playing the centrist—as much as external, oppositional politics. Of course, the political landscape and history is different in the U.S., especially because of legacies of racial oppression. Furthermore the two-party presidential system offers more ideologically centralized power over certain executive functions than the pluralist parliamentary system in Switzerland. That said, the battle for hearts and minds and the rise of populist politics is currently an international phenomena, and those in opposition will need to learn from innovators like Flavia Kleiner and Operation Libero.

Flavia Kleiner visited the MIT Center for Civic Media on February 21, 2017. Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman for edits on this article. This piece is cross-posted on Civicist and the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

Youth Digital Activism (United Nations World Youth Report)

Full Report

Link to UN World Youth Report PDF

Presentation at the United Nations

Starts at 27m 40s

https://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1722935254001/?bctid=5037493690001&autoStart=false&secureConnections=true&width=432&height=232

Introduction

The terms “civic engagement” and “activism” traditionally evoke images of voting and volunteering for campaigns or marching in the streets, banners hoisted high. While these are still fixtures of political participation, a broader set of practices enabled by digital technologies is being created and applied by young people. Cathy J. Cohen, Joseph Kahne and others call this broader set of practices “participatory politics”, defined as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern”. They emphasize that “these acts are not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions”.

This is part of a larger trend of youth avowing low confidence in national decision-making bodies and disaffection with elected officials and their ability to address issues. The biannual Harvard Institute of Politics poll indicated consistently declining levels of trust in government institutions among 18- to 29-year-old Americans between 2010 and 2015. According to a 2013 LSE Enterprise study, when European 16- to 26-year olds reflect on voting and institutional politics, they find “the political ‘offer’ does not match their concerns, ideas, and ideal of democratic politics”. At the same time, there are high levels of youth participation in issue-oriented activism, boycotting and buycotting, and protest activities. W. Lance Bennett refers to this new generation of young people as “actualizing citizens”, “who favour loosely networked activism to address issues that reflect personal values”, in contrast with “dutiful citizens”, who maintain a more collective and government-centred set of practices. Similarly, Cohen and Kahne found that interest-driven participation was a strong predictor of engagement in participatory politics among American youth.

If one thing defines this era of youth digital activism, it is the ability to make and widely share media. It is possible for “widely distributed, loosely connected individuals” to work together to solve a problem or create something new—a practice called crowdsourcing or peer production—because the costs of building loose networks of contributors and disseminating information digitally are nearly zero. When people make their own media they can assert power by framing issues in ways that compel others to change their minds or to adapt to new realities and perspectives. This form of “media activism” is not a new theory of change in itself; however, its practice is being transformed by the use of digital technologies for coordination and amplification. Agenda-setting power is shifting to a broader set of political actors with the necessary tools, savvy and timing.

Mobile computing, in particular, is allowing a new generation of citizens to access the Internet and enjoy lowered coordination costs. In Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, 9 in 10 Millennials have a smartphone and spend 50-100 per cent more time on their mobile device than on a desktop computer. Affordable wireless Internet access and mobile phone ownership around the world constitute the most potent force for expanding the pool and potential of young digital activists.

However, the young people best poised to transform the practice of democracy around the world are those who not only create media but also build the tools and platforms through which they are made, shared and organized. Lilly Irani calls this new movement of civic hacking and cultural remaking “entrepreneurial citizenship”. This represents a small but powerful cohort that is taking its cues for solving the world’s problems from Silicon Valley and identifying primarily as social entrepreneurs and designers and secondarily as political or as activists.

These new forms of digital activism are not without problems and controversy. Many youth are still excluded from civic and political participation. That is why it is important to comprehend the wide range of contemporary tactics, tools, and trends and the unique challenges youth digital activists face in connection with current laws, norms, market forces and educational practices. The current thought piece outlines those trends and challenges but also highlights relevant opportunities and offers recommendations for supporting youth digital activism.

News, Memes, and Civic Identity

Link

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2566446

Excerpt

“Measuring engagement with news is comprised of more than just a set of quantitative metrics. It is a process of civic identity construction that unfolds on social networks when someone decides to share a piece of content. This is a core part of contemporary civic learning and political participation. “In his book Post-Broadcast Democracy, Markus Prior uses the term “by-product learning” to refer to learning “politically relevant facts as a by-product of nonpolitical routines” (2007, 4). Prior derives this concept from his study of the “efficiency” of citizens’ media environments, finding that less efficient systems like broadcast television actually produce high levels of by-product learning because exposure to political information was high when so few channels and programming options existed. “Ironically, in the age of “information overload” with a proliferation of free news online and readers spreading their attention across many sources, we have adopted new centralizing mediators in the form of social networks. One important example is Facebook, which services a broad array of information, entertainment, and social needs. Historically, one’s choice of news source was an expression of identity through ideological affiliation, or professional membership. Now, rather than subscription and conspicuous print editions, we signal these things through the headlines we choose to share with our Facebook friends or Twitter followers.”