Using new digital tools and tactics to speak to all sections of society.
This movement has creatively reframed public discourse by skillfully turning the spaces, tools and rhetoric used by populists on their heads to reach broad audiences through emotional, simple and accessible imagery, messages and concepts.
With respect to additional features of populism, the Swiss context is unique:
anti-debate: There is officially space for debate, but until Operation Libero, the public discourse had been dominated by the SVP for more than 25 years. The SVP has more parliamentary seats and financial resources than any political party in Switzerland.
rejects intermediaries: For years, the SVP has opportunistically manipulated the most important symbol of direct democracy (and anti-intermediary tool) in Switzerland — the popular initiative/referendum — knowing that pushing for sensationalised initiatives would attract media attention, and therefore dominance in public discourse.
crisis, breakdown or threat: The SVP has historically promoted a sense of crisis and threat to Swiss society, frequently scapegoating immigrants as the culprits. For example. it has deployed imagery depicting “criminal” foreigners as black sheep being kicked out of Switzerland to guarantee security.
Role of Digital Media
In this context, Operation Libero has used digital media as a solution. Social media magnifies its messages, and digital engagement has helped it reach a wide audience. Operation Libero even transformed the negative concept of digital “trolling” into a tool to disseminate more raw and authentic messages from everyday citizens. Indeed, Operation Libero’s “online warriors” are real individuals who carefully study, believe in and promote their statements, while trolling is often done by paid rumourmongers. Operation Libero’s activists are constantly subject to online and offline harassment, but have access to peer support through organised Slack channels.
Main Features of the Innovation
Operation Libero was started by a group of students in 2014 as a political movement to combat the SVP’s populist right wing agenda. Run by a small team of young individuals in Zurich, the organisation has 1,500 paying members paying a CHF50-100 [€45-90] annual subscription, including members of parliament. Moreover, it activates a broad range of individuals and groups across the political spectrum to oppose the populists’ anti-immigrant, anti-liberal measures. Today, Operation Libero counts 10,000 donors, most of whom give sums/subscriptions of less than CHF 250 [~€230], and also benefits from 5,000 volunteers.
Using new online and offline methods that target all residents of Switzerland as opposed to certain segments, Operation Libero appropriated the SVP’s principle patriotic platform and turned it on its head. Operation Libero cast the party as a destroyer — rather than defender — of traditional Swiss values by eroding its traditional institutions of democracy, rule of law and individual freedoms. In its first referendum victory in 2016, which concerned the expulsion of foreigners who have broken the law (even with minor offences), Operation Libero managed to mobilise a staggering 64% voter turnout, defeating the SVP’s initiative by a majority of 59%. Since then, it has consistently defeated all of the SVP’s anti-immigrant and anti-European integration initiatives, established itself as a wellknown and trusted voice in Swiss affairs and, this autumn, is primed to stir up the national elections with a campaign for progressive candidates.
Operation Libero maintains the same general principles across its wide campaigns and initiatives, but is keenly aware of the need to keep things fresh and continue innovating. Key features include:
Reframing public debate on Swiss values in a fresh, accessible and emotionally-grounded way for the majority of the population. It has demonstrated that it is groups and individuals like Operation Libero which are actually the true defenders of traditional and long-treasured Swiss values — rule of law, democracy and individual rights and liberties — and not the SVP. This “reframing” of the definition of Swiss values showed that the party was actually attacking these, through the constitutional changes it was proposing by popular referendum. Operation Libero has connected with new audiences using emotional as well as intellectual tactics appealing to patriotism, but in an “emancipated way”.
Ensuring that the populists’ false claims are immediately and directly rebutted with facts. Operation Libero has systematically acted as a “bullshit buster”, publicly revealing the SVP’s lies and destroying its credibility.
Promoting a vision of the future rather than complaining about the present. Operation Libero consistently promotes an appealing and optimistic vision of Switzerland in 2050. The Switzerland of the future is open, dynamic and a land of opportunities for everyone living there. This contrasts sharply with the conservative and backwards looking “open air museum” promoted by right-wing actors, who merely seek to preserve a relic of an idealised yet fictional past.
Appealing to all of society rather than one segment of it. Increased political participation throughout all of Switzerland — and not just in support of its own agendas — is one of Operation Libero’s top priorities.
Creating a movement with a low barrier to participation by anyone and everyone. Operation Libero shares its campaign materials on its website and even sends them physically to people who want to organise small meetings or beer gatherings around a given issue. It is funded through membership contributions and small donations, and raises brand awareness by distributing its signature bright pink Operation Libero socks, tote bags, etc.
Using fun, simple, accessible language grounded in popular culture is what grabs people’s attention. “Often all you have are five words and one photo to capture people’s attention”, explains Flavia Kleiner, one of Operation Libero’s co-presidents. “So … the way you communicate is as important as the message”. Operation Libero’s campaigns break down complex technical issues into easily understandable messages conveyed alongside fun and engaging imagery that people can quickly absorb, share and amplify. For its same-sex marriage campaign, Operation Libero depicted a photograph of a gay couple in winter snow scenes accompanied by the caption: “unhappily unmarried”, and then the same couple in summer scenes, along with the caption: “still unhappily unmarried”.
Using tools that engage the digital space but also promote in-person organising (online and offline). Operation Libero has landed in the front pages of free tabloids available to the masses, not just big recognised newspapers, and has also successfully used memes, GIFs, socks, totes, banners and billboards to reach broad audiences.
Recruiting “online warriors” as well as multipliers/influencers in the media. Defying conventional advice against “feeding the trolls”, Operation Libero understands the power of individual statements in comment threads on social media platforms. The organisation has deployed volunteers across the country (including a 93-year old man) to rebut toxic and erroneous comments defending or promoting rightwing arguments with fact-based, responsible statements.
Operation Libero’s transformational nature has been recognised around the world, receiving extensive coverage by global media, CSOs, academia and even government agencies (including a tour sponsored by the US State Department and the European Union). Operation Libero has inspired many other groups of activists around Europe, and Flavia Kleiner is frequently travelling to share strategies and tactics to counter right-wing populism.
Using the imagination, “you can be popular without being populist”. By using positive emotions, imagery from pop culture, and resonant one-liners that break down abstruse legal concepts, Operation Libero made ideals of democracy, individual freedoms and rule of law accessible to ordinary members of society, bringing them into conversations in cafés, bars and homes. Instead of being dominated by populist discourses, patriotic ideals can, via creative campaigns which stimulate people’s imaginations and emotions, be relevant, likeable and worthy of support.
“Being popular is hard work, but being populist is easy”. Binary populist rhetoric is easy to devise and promote, but being popular requires a long process of trial and error to translate abstract ideas and values into accessible stories and images that gain traction with wide audiences. Being effective inpopulist contexts requires significant investment in research and iteration, as well as a drive to constantly innovate.
“You need to be courageous in being patriotic”. Operation Libero has successfully appropriated an over-used populist truism to not only oppose the SVP, but also to rally the majority of the population who love their country and do not want to be associated with racism and bigotry. This exemplifies the benefits of taking a major weapon from the populist arsenal, detoxifying it of negativity, and giving it back to (civil) society for it to own.
We have categorised Operation Libero’s work as an established, transformational innovation. It utilises new tools (online spaces, pop culture icons and everyday objects such as socks and tote bags) that are aimed at new audiences. The sheer
diversity of its audiences differentiates it from other organisations.
Operation Libero is a youth political movement, designed as a progressive vision for Switzerland and as a response to right-wing populism.