Pierre Rom is a sprightly 93-year-old who has joined a movement of politically engaged young people. He is part of the “Army of comment-writers” that is being branded the “secret weapon” of the Operation Libero movement. His mission: to speak out against hate on the Internet.
His activities show he is every bit the equal of many digital natives.
“I’m better at expressing myself in writing than out loud,” says Rom, pushing a two-page list of arguments towards the author at the beginning of their conversation at a restaurant table in the Swiss capital, Bern.
In the document, he outlines his political views. Parties are no longer capable of mobilising support beyond their immediate environment, states one point. These sorts of tasks can and should now be performed by new movements like Operation Libero. That’s why he joined.
Born in 1924, Rom is a former secretary and ongoing active member of the Radical Party Switzerland and is online warrior for Operation Libero. The “Army of comment-writers” is being called one of the secret weapons of the movement which developed out of student groups. With the help of lots of young volunteers, liberal principles and clever social media campaigns, it has been stirring up Swiss politics over the last few years.
This article is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues from swissinfo.ch.
Its online warriors engage with people in the comments sections of social media sites and debate on the Facebook fan pages of political opponents. This online “information war” has been a familiar phenomenon at least since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict in spring 2014.
Well-organised “troll armies” acting on behalf of both sides of the conflict engaged in an online battle and didn’t hesitate to bring their disputes to the comments sections of European media: a tactic that is now becoming increasingly popular among parties and organisations here in Switzerland.
The Liberos came up with the idea as soon as they themselves became the targets of angry comments. “Supporters of the enforcement initiative flooded our page with posts,” says their social media expert Adrian Mahlstein. From then on, the liberal activists decided to fight back with the same weapons.
Little effort, big return
This form of political engagement has a very low threshold but can have a huge impact. In fact, research with German-language Swiss news sites showsexternal link that people believe the opinions expressed in online comments actually represent the majority rather than the opinions of a minority that is engaging in political dialogue in a very specific way.
Researchers refer to this ploy as “astroturfingexternal link”. This is where people create the impression that public opinion is weighted a certain way. “It could perhaps be a single person leaving hundreds of comments. This massively distorts public perception,” says political scientist Lukas Golder from the leading GfS Bern research and polling instituteexternal link.
A study also shows that those with a rightwing political bent are active comment-writers, while those on the left of the political spectrum prefer to make do with “likes”.
This is the trend that Operation Libero wants to counteract using arguments and liberal principles. Not using clichéd propaganda imposed from above, as is the case with government-backed and/or paid “troll factories” abroad but with tools for arguing. Political discourse should be fuelled by facts rather than spin.
“We’re interested in the people who read along. Not the trolls,” explains Max Obrist, essentially the “commander-in-chief” of the online warrior group, to swissinfo.ch.
“We found that some people were arguing about patterns of migration with very little knowledge. And we saw that the busybodies had the stage all to themselves because everyone else had been scared off. That’s what we wanted to change.”
Thick skin required
To help one another, warriors share their experiences on the communication tool “Slack”. They give one other feedback on the answers they leave in comments sections and provide mutual encouragement, since the debating scene can often be harsh and rough.
The fight against online hate can be gruelling, so “mental hygiene” is crucial and supporting one another can provide motivation.
The volunteer army isn’t just made up of so-called digital natives. Older generations are also getting involved. Bern-born nonagenarian Rom is a perfect example.
“I may be old but I still have the right to vote and that’s why I still want to have my say. It’s wrong to just sit back and enjoy life now,” he says.
The digital battlefield
His war zone is called Facebook. He is active on the biggest social network every day, engaging with a politically diverse network of friends and arguing with both the left and right.
On this topic, Rom raises his voice: “If someone claims something that is evidently wrong, I respond.” The liberal simply cannot stand claims that are factually wrong.
Rom spends several hours on research to back up his Facebook posts with facts and arguments. He says he hopes to remain a part of Operation Libero as long as it remains a dynamic campaign platform for issues relating to the constitutional state and to socially liberal ideas.
He believes this is one of the keys to its success and thinks the movement should never become a party.
That’s why he had to defend the new French President Emmanuel Macron on Facebook “from all sides”. Rom firmly believes that new movements capable of forming coalitions like Macron’s “La République En Marche!” are the key to the future.
In the fast lane
The figures on social media prove him right. Many rightwing populist parties like Germany’s AfD, Britain’s UKIP or France’s Front National have an online following that is three times larger than that of the established governing parties.
But unlike in Germany, France, or Britain, with 23,200 fans as of 1 June 2017, the Liberos here in Switzerland overtook the parties on both the left and right – the Social Democrats and the Swiss People’s Party – in no time at all, making Switzerland the exception in Europe in this regard.
Because it is precisely on the noisy social media scene that populists of all stripes generally have the upper hand.
“The trick lies in reducing complex white papers and communicating a balanced view on digital platforms in a productive way,” says political scientist Golder.
Direct democracy is helping, since debates on social media seem to interest more people than parties’ digital communications.
Many voting committees act more professionally when using multimedia formats, as demonstrated by the large numbers of people mobilised against the People’s Party’s enforcement initiative in 2016 or the Corporate Tax Reform III.
Gifs, videos and fact-check infographics are becoming an increasingly prominent feature in the standard arsenal of the digital voting battlefield.
If Facebook and consortiums become even more popular as an arena for shaping political opinions in future, the Liberos are armed with Rom and the other “comment warriors”.
Adrienne Fichter is the former head of the social media editorial team at NZZ newspaper and now works as a freelance online journalist.
She deals with digital direct democracy for the #DearDemocracy blog on swissinfo.ch, looking at the influence and impact of digital technology on the systems and processes of direct democracy.
We focus on the influence of social media on elections and votes, public participation on digital platforms, e-government, civic tech and open data.
In a time of virulent fake news, bots and Donald Trump’s excessive Twitter politics, political dialogue and digitalisation are becoming increasingly important.
On #DearDemocracy, we reveal the trends, opportunities and risks posed as well as the political responses.
The author of this text is also on Twitter: @adfichterexternal link
Translated from German,