Europe’s continued anxieties towards the refugee crisis has allowed fringe groups to exploit tensions.
Finland’s “Soldiers of Odin” is one such example. This ‘street patrol’ movement promises to protect native Finns from immigrants and Muslims. It considers itself “a patriotic organisation fighting for white Finland”.
They claim that Islam causes insecurity and increased crime. At protests they have carried signs that read “Migrants not welcome”.
You can trace the origins of the movement to a protest in the town of Kemi, near the northern city of Tornio, last October.
Its founder Mika Rana, justified their patrols under the guise of security. Social media allowed the movement to connect online. And share their anxieties (and hatred) of different cultures. A Facebook post alleging that asylum seekers housed near a school in Kemi had spied on young girls brought them onto the streets.
Rana’s own social media account reveals his white supremacist beliefs. His Facebook ‘likes’ include Holocaust denial, nostalgia for Nazism, and a ‘Stop Islam’ page.
The Internet has always enabled far-right ideologues and groups to disseminate materials with ease. Social media serves to intensify the process. And it allows groups to mirror other far-right groups across Europe. Take for example, the English Defence League. You will find chapters across Finland, Sweden, and Germany to name but a few. Social media allows individuals to express solidarity or influence discussions irrespective of location.
Rana’s profile is no exception. Other ‘likes’ include the neo-Nazi thuggery of Combat 18 and Britain First. In spite of this, Rana insists that the movement remains open to all.
Invoking the language and imagery of Odin helps white supremacists mythologise their purpose. They extol the heroic virtues of northern European whites – as it promotes genetic closeness and the tribe. A tribe that helped build civilisation against the elements and odds. Mythologising the past allows them to situate their own experiences in a grander narrative. A struggle for white consciousness and identity grows its own momentum with the weight of history behind it.
Forging this link can provide the individual and movement fresh direction and purpose. They claim a uniformed presence in at least twenty Finnish towns and cities. Social media allows the group to collect custom orders for merchandise.
A recent online poll compromised of 1,000 Finns found a groundswell of support for the group. Researchers found that 48 per cent of individuals polled held negative views of the group. In spite of its links to the Finnish Defence League and the criminal past of some of its members, 28 per cent held positive views of the group. Online polls carry their own caveats; but the findings have alarmed some in Finland.
This support may stem from Finland’s acceptance of more than 30,000 asylum seekers amid a prolonged economic recession. Soldiers of Odin exploit the disquiet of disapproval, resentment and anxiety.
In recent years, Finland has embraced asylum seekers from the Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, and the Balkan regions. Yet Christianity remains Finland’s largest religion. As 78 per cent self-identify as Lutheran. Finland’s Muslim population remains a minority.
Soldiers of Odin continue to grow in popularity. Its Facebook page boasts over 12,000 ‘likes’. With added growth, the group has started to appeal to individuals in the UK. Britain First has also shared a story about the Soldiers of Odin as media interest in the group rises.
The group’s Facebook serves to reinforce prejudical views of Muslims, refugees and migrants. Externalising these groups as a threat helps justify their street presence. For supporters, the protests become acts of bravery, not intimidation.
At a political level, Prosecutor General Matti Nissinen has rejected the presence of the movement. Police insist that there ‘are no legal obstacles to forming a street patrol‘. But it grants them no additional rights to interfere in the activities of others.
The coalition government seems split on how to deal with them. Finance Minister Alexander Stubb suggested that the coalition would consider making the patrols illegal.
In response, the Soldiers of Odin urged supporters to sign an online petition opposing the ban. Narratives that drive a sense of self-victimisation appease supporters. Especially if they perceive a conspiracy from above.
Here’s why the echo chamber effect is so important: if you surround yourself with information that confirms your own opinions it becomes mainstream. It can distort perception, polarise opinions and make a person distrustful of other sources. Radical right and far-right groups attempt to exploit this distrust to recruit. A key tool of this recruitment concerns Barkun’s theory of ‘stigmatized knowledge‘. In short, stigmatized knowledge presents information that mainstream institutions have not validated.
If individuals feel disempowered or ignored by the mainstream, they will find alternative sources to make sense of their anxieties. It presents an opportunity for radical groups to influence parts of society they would otherwise face rejection from. Not all will follow; but it remains a popular tactic.