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Flanders, the far right and Facebook.

That was the cocktail that helped the Belgian party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) stage a surprise sorpasso in last weekends “triple election” to the federal, regional and European parliaments. As the results came in, the young guard currently in charge of the far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party saw that their strategy — conceived almost five years ago — had paid off.

Vlaams Belang won up to 18.5 percent of votes in Dutch-speaking Flanders, a whopping 12.6-point surge compared to the last triple elections in 2014. Isolated for the past three decades from the political mainstream by an anti-extremist cordon sanitaire, Vlaams Belang managed to come second behind Belgiums largest party, the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which scored 24.8 percent.

Party Chairman Tom Van Griekens description of the winning formula sounds deceptively simple: “We talked about people, our people, and they have to come first,” he told POLITICO on Monday, as Belgiums political establishment wondered how to respond to one of the biggest surprises of the weekends voting. Dazed and confused, the countrys more moderate political forces initially had few clues to offer on how they intend to break the resulting political deadlock and form federal and regional governments.

Facebooks ads library reveals a social media strategy that was focused on the final weeks of the election campaign, and mostly targeted young voters aged 18 to 34.

Somehow, Vlaams Belangs campaign delivered it 15 parliamentary seats in the federal parliament, up from a previous three seats. In the Flemish region, the party jumps to 23 seats from six. Aligned at the EU level with Marine Le Pens far-right National Rally list in France and Matteo Salvinis League party in Italy, the party will be sending three MEPs to the European Parliament as well.

Young and male

The party scored especially well with young, male voters, Van Grieken said — a trend that had been spotted by pollsters ahead of Sundays votes.

“Were the most popular party with young people, and political scientists agonize over why this is the case. Its pretty simple: We had terror attacks [in Brussels in 2016], the biggest migration crisis,” he said. He added that Belgiums integration policy encourages cultural diversity but also causes resentment among some Flemish youngsters “who say We want to experience our culture.”

If one single candidate epitomizes how Vlaams Belang won over young voters, its Dries Van Langenhove.

Dries Van Langenhove | Dirk Waem/AFP via Getty Images

A 26-year-old who recently aligned himself to the party as an independent candidate, Van Langenhove gained national prominence as leader of an extreme-right youth movement called Shield and Friends, which is part of a broader phenomenon of so-called “Generation Identity” groups cropping up across Europe.

Last September, an investigation by Belgian public broadcaster VRT documented how Van Langenhoves group was running blatantly anti-Semitic and racist online chatrooms on platforms like Facebook and the gaming app Discord — flirting with neo-Nazi ideology and memes linked to the U.S. alt-right movement.

The investigation shocked many Belgians. But Van Langenhove dismissed accusations and said the investigation misrepresented him, and used the spotlight to his own advantage, rallying young, far-right sympathizers at universities and elsewhere behind him. Then Vlaams Belang announced in January that it had recruited the extreme-right youngster to lead its list of candidates in one of Flanders five provincial constituencies.

“Polls show I score very well with Flemish youth — even that Im the most popular politician with that group,” Van Langenhove told POLITICO. Asked about his attachment to the identitarian movement Shield and Friends, he said: “Shield and Friends remains the future if you ask me. A real change in mentality with the Flemish youth remains necessary.”

Social spending

While Van Langenhove faced criticism, scrutiny and expressions of revulsion from the mainstream media and political figures, he performed well on social media.

“What I do, my job, I cant do it without social media,” Van Langenhove said, adding that his new seat in Belgiums federal parliament would help protect him from censorship for hate speech on platforms like Facebook.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms have come under criticism around the world in recent years for boosting fringe and radical groups in the political debate at the expense of moderates. These companies have tried to turn the tide by tweaking algorithms to repress messages that incite hatred. In the past year, under pressure from political leaders in Europe and elsewhere, they have also increasingly blocked and banned political figures who have violated their rules against spreading hate speech.

In Belgium, Vlaams Belang has been more effective than probably any other party in concentrating its message — and campaign budget — on Facebook and other online platforms to spread its message.

Public broadcaster VRT calculated that Vlaams Belangs expenditure on social media was double that of the countrys largest (and richest) party, the New Flemish Alliance. The latter also spent half its online budget on Google ads, which Vlaams Belang didnt do. In total, Vlaams Belang spent nearly as much on Facebook and Google as all of the other Flemish parties combined.

The man behind that online campaign, Bart Claes, has spent years working outside of the public eye to build up an audience and test tools targeting subgroups of Flemish voters sensitive to the partys radical-right messaging.

For inspiration, Claes turned to Brexit and the Trump campaign. “For some time I was really obsessed about these campaigns,” Claes told POLITICO, adding that he had devoured books and documentaries on how these U.K. and U.S. political shocks were delivered to study their potential application in Flanders.

It was clear to him that Vlaams Belangs particular message sticks more easily with social media audiences.

“This is the scroll generation. People have an attention span of one, maybe two seconds. Within that time a message has to be clear, and thats easier for a party with clear positions than it is for parties in the [political] center,” he said.

Ad campaign

Claes said he and another social media team member looked for ways to identify those potential voters. They came up with a social media strategy that, he said, reached 1.5 million Flemish people per day during the campaign whom the party could attempt to sway in its favor.

Facebooks ads library reveals a social media strategy that was focused on the final weeks of the election campaign, and mostly targeted young voters aged 18 to 34.

The Flemish far-right party spent €400,551 on ad campaigns on Facebook and Instagram between March and May 25, according to the ads library. Over €125,000 of that was spent during the last week before the election.

Far-right leader and chairman of the Vlaams Belang Party Tom Van Grieken atteRead More – Source

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