Sowing the Seeds of Traditionalism: Investigating the Intertwining and Spread of Religious and Political Ideas through CitizenGO's Online Ecosystem and Coordinated Behaviour
In recent decades, movements that uphold traditional values often rooted in Christianity (Garbagnoli, 2016) have contested and hindered reproductive and gender-related civil rights in Western societies. While traditionalism is a legitimate perspective (Inglehart & Baker, 2000), there is a fine line between radical traditionalist and anti-liberal ideas. Moreover, it has been argued that traditionalist movements may signal authoritarian trends (Fábián, 2022). Studying how traditionalist ideas spread hence deeply matters for contemporary democratic societies.
Traditionalist movements have two distinctive characteristics: they have established unprecedented alliances with populist right parties and movements (Kováts & Põim, 2015) and have spread at the transnational level (Kuhar & Paternotte, 2017). Online communication networks are likely to have a role in expanding traditionalism and establishing links with right-wing ideas. Social media is renowned for being effectively utilized by right-wing populist parties and is the most natural means to cross geographic boundaries and spread beliefs among young generations, scaling movements up (Hwang & Kim, 2015). Thus, the digital media ecosystem represents a fundamental laboratory for understanding the intertwining between traditionalism and politics at the national and transnational levels.
Among communication strategies that have attracted researchers' attention over the last few years is coordinated and inauthentic behavior (e.g., Giglietto et al., 2020). This strategy aims to boost online content dissemination by quickly and repeatedly sharing the same messages (coordination), sometimes using fake grassroots activities (inauthenticity). There are reasons to hypothesize that traditional movements also use coordinated and possibly inauthentic activities, as suggested by previous studies on the anti-gender movement online (Righetti, 2021) and their employment of other non-transparent influence strategies (Datta, 2021).
While exploring online networks is needed to comprehend modern traditionalism better, we still need to learn more about the traditionalist digital ecosystem. The presented study is part of a broader research program aimed at unraveling the digital dimension of traditionalism. The analysis focuses on the exemplary case study of CitizenGO (www.citizengo.org). This major international Christian-right campaigning platform hosts online petitions that advocate for traditional Christian values and oppose topics such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and non-traditional gender roles. The main research questions are: What social media actors spread CitizenGO content across different languages? In particular, what political and religious connections emerge, also at the transnational level? Is there any evidence of coordinated strategies, and if yes, what are their characteristics and main hubs?
The empirical analysis is based on computational methods and adopts a cross-platform and cross-national perspective. About 80,000 posts shared some 600,000 times were collected using official APIs from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, spanning ten years of activity of CitizenGO from when the main accounts were first created (2013-2022). This data has been analyzed using social network analysis, specifically the R software CooRnet (http://coornet.org) and CooRTweet (https://github.com/nicolarighetti/CooRTweet).
The resulting analysis of networks and coordinated behavior provides novel insights into the spread of traditionalist content and the online geography of traditionalist actors, including their relationships with openly religious and right-wing actors. Implications and future research directions will be discussed.