TikTok and Youtube Generation: The Rise of Far-Right Influence Among Europe's Youth

How did the far right gain traction among Europe's youth?

by Sededin Dedovic
TikTok and Youtube Generation: The Rise of Far-Right Influence Among Europe's Youth
© Sean Gallup / Getty Images

From Germany and France to Poland and Spain, the far-right has gained traction thanks to the votes of young people in key EU states – entering as a generation that grew up amidst constant crises, seeking new answers and following politicians who use TikTok and YouTube, writes Reuters.

Young voters, traditionally considered more left-leaning, initiated a wave of support for environmental parties in the previous EU elections in 2019, earning the nickname "Generation Greta" after the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

But after the COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the cost-of-living crisis, many have shifted their support this year to far-right populist parties. With leaders of anti-establishment European ethno-nationalist movements, often brash, better navigating new social media than their mainstream counterparts, they use it as a subversive counterculture among some young people.

They particularly appeal to young men who feel left behind and censored by an increasingly "woke" mainstream, analysts say. “Germany is not heading in the right direction and they were the only party with a really clear message on migration,” said Christoph (17), a student at a trade school in Berlin who refused to give his full name and voted for the right-wing German Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Support for the AfD, which seeks to curb migration and warns of what it calls the Islamization of Germany, rose by 11 percentage points to 16 percent among those under 25, according to an Infratest dimap poll, doubling the five-point increase among the broader population.

The shift, which helped the AfD achieve a historic second place nationwide, was notable as it was expected that Germany’s decision to allow young people aged 16 to 18 to vote for the first time would favor left-wing parties.

Although the far-right has not performed well among young voters everywhere – and they are a relatively small category in a continent with an aging population – the trend will still worry mainstream parties, who face emergency elections later this month in France, and federal elections next year in Germany.

Large-Scale Protest In Berlin Against Right-Wing Extremism in February 2024© Sean Gallup / Getty Images

A recent survey among German youth showed that young people are increasingly concerned about inflation, expensive housing, and social divisions, and less about climate change.

The Greens received only 11 percent of the youth vote on Sunday, a drop of 23 percentage points. “There’s no longer a sense that if they just work hard, the future will be better, and they’re disappointed with the parties in power,” said the lead author of the study, Simon Schnetzer, noting that economic gloom makes them more receptive to the AfD’s anti-migration rhetoric.

Christoph said his experience led him to believe that newer German immigrants are more prone to violence and unwilling to integrate. In France, the far-right National Rally (RN) took 25 percent of the vote among 18 to 24-year-olds, according to an Ipsos poll, a 10 percentage point increase compared to an overall increase of about eight points to 31.4 percent.

Of course, the majority of young people in the EU's two largest powers still support left-wing parties, and many are concerned about the latest trend. “It worries me because I’ve seen the far-right wants to deport people even if they have German citizenship like me,” said Ensar Adanur (17), a German of Turkish origin.

“But Germany is home to me”. In Poland, however, support for the far-right Confederation among voters aged 18 to 29 rose from 18.5 percent to 30.1 percent, making them the leading choice for that demographic. Mainstream parties “no longer have any credibility for me, the previous and current government clearly show that,” said Pawel Rurkowski (30), an IT specialist who voted for the Confederation.

The relative expertise of far-right parties in the favorite communication channels of young voters – video apps like TikTok, YouTube, and Telegram – is a significant factor behind their growing success with that generation, analysts say.

A recent German study showed that 57 percent of young people get their information from social media. But German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, like many mainstream politicians, joined TikTok only a few months ago. “If you’re not on the youth channels, you simply don’t exist,” said Schnetzer.

Meanwhile, social media platform algorithms favor controversial messages that create engagement over serious content, said Ruediger Maas, founder of the Institute for Generation Research in Augsburg. The leading AfD candidate for the EU elections, Maximilian Krah, went viral on TikTok, for example, with tips for young men: “Don’t watch pornography, don’t vote for the Greens, go outside… Real men are right-wing”.

He has about 53,300 followers on TikTok, compared to only 11,000 and 2,652 that the leading candidates of the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens have. “My generation doesn’t really know about politics, but we keep hearing about the AfD,” said AfD voter Christoph.

In Spain, Alvise Perez, who is very influential on social media, won 6.7 percent of the youth vote, compared to 4.6 percent of the total vote, after running his anti-immigration and anti-corruption campaign almost exclusively on Instagram and Telegram.

Meanwhile, the far-right party Vox, which has been strong on TikTok, received 12.4 percent of the vote among those under 25, compared to 9.6 percent overall. “It seems to be the only party that really opposes the government on taboo topics like immigration or gender discourse,” said Javier, a 22-year-old student who voted for Vox.

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