This article originally appeared on VICE Canada. The extreme right is increasingly sophisticated, globalized, and actively recruiting young people, a grim new study says.
The once perpetually fractured eco-system of the far right, from white nationalists in the US to anti-migrant groups in Europe, has become cohesive and highly adaptable. The Fringe Insurgency, a study published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, shows that while these movements may differ in ideology and scope, they are increasingly working together. Essentially, the extreme right—many of which state isolationism and nationalism as key ideologies—has globalized.
"There is certainly a real paradoxical relationship in that these very ultra-nationalistic movements started to act internationally and globalize their anti-globalist ideas," Julia Ebner, one of the study's authors, said. "I think that's rather ironic."
While it may be ironic, it isn't something to be taken lightly.
The paper is built on three case studies: the Defend Europe campaign, the Charlottesville rally, and the German election. It focused on, but wasn't limited to, the alt-right, neo-Nazis, Identitarians (a European ethno-nationalist movement that works to preserve of European culture and identity,) and counter-Jihadists actions. Julia Ebner and Jacob Davey, the authors of the study, analyzed 5,000 pieces of content from more than 50 channels of communication, including Twitter, 4chan, and far-right discord channels.
"There was really a need to start figuring out what was causing this explosion in extreme-right activism globally," Davey said. "There was really a need to start getting data behind all of that and see what mechanism is allowing this to happen.
"They're not all knuckleheads… The big thing here is that they are increasingly becoming more and more sophisticated. It's a continuously growing and expanding process, if you look closely—they're constantly learning from each other. They're becoming more aware of the fact that they can have this greater impact."
There are numerous goals for the far right—the election of populist leaders and removing hate speech laws, among them—but one of the major shared goals of the groups is to push what is known as the "Overton window." The Overton window is the range of ideas that are acceptable in public discourse and the extreme right would like more of their fringe ideas to fall under this.
The globalization isn't limited to online activity. Several of the groups, most prominently the Identitarians in Europe, are expanding IRL as well. The Identitarians recently met to discuss opening a British chapter, which if set up could possibly work as a bridge between Americans and Europeans. Ebner said that the group said they attempted to start a chapter in Canada, but it didn't take. However, as we've seen with the emergence of anti-immigration street patrol groups like the Soldiers of Odin, groups obsessed with border security such as the Storm Alliance, and a self-described anti-Islam militia like III% Canada, far-right groups are flourishing in the Great White North.
In their research, the duo found a sophisticated ecosystem that is apt at recruitment, propaganda, and mobilization. Utilizing a range of social media platforms, the far right is able to increasingly fundraise, mobilize, propagandize, and, most important, translate their online activity into real-world dollars. More than $200,000 was raised on various online platforms for Defend Europe—the Identitarian anti-refugee mission in the Mediterranean—and the donations came from around the world, not just countries where the Identitarians exist.
The study paints a bleak view of just how sophisticated the far right has become as the authors suggest the extreme right is a full step ahead of policies set up to counter them. The duo write that "analysis illustrated that the extreme right is currently ahead of the curve on at least three levels." They are early tech adopters, they know how to work together, and they know how to speak to the young. Furthermore, the various far-right groups are teaching and learning from one another.
"What we're seeing, especially from the coalition building from the European Identitarians and the Americans, is that they've tried to leverage those different comparative advantages each of them has," said Ebner. "The Americans have the advantage of the trolling and [online activities] and the Europeans have more of the intellectual backbone of the movement, but also more experience in staging media stunts and rallies."
According to the study, the far-right movement is recruiting through mainstream channels on the internet, not just your 4chans. By utilizing mouthpieces like Richard Spencer and more "palatable" organizations, the extreme movement is able to "penetrate new audiences" who normally would be repulsed by the fringe right. They're increasingly targeting "normies" within Generation Z for radicalization by acting the part of the counterculture pushing back on the progressive hegemony. "Their recruitment of the youth come through their gamification of their information campaigns, the way in which you can get involved, the way in which you can become an activist online," said Davey. "It's fringe weaponization of internet culture that leads to memetic warfare, the clever flirtations with the fringes of the internet, this cross-breeding with gamer culture."
One of the researcher's case studies—the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in August where anti-racist protest Heather Heyer was struck and killed by a car driven by a white nationalist—has since become searing evidence of the existence of the far-right in North America and the transition from the online realm to real-world activity. By analyzing the communication surrounding the event, Ebner and Davey found that the event bridged many groups together by utilizing several messaging points about the rally, each of them tailored for a separate target audience. Further analyzation of the Twitter traffic surrounding #unitetheright showed what the primary grievances of the attendees were: Race was number one, followed by anti-left sentiment at number two.
Their most recent case study, the German election, is focused on studying a recent trend emerging in the far right around their world—the far right's eagerness to disrupt and impact elections. In the French, American, and German elections, the far right mobilized extremely active campaigns to various levels of success. Ebner and Davey write in their study that a cohesive unit of European and American far-right "troll armies" were able to drive two of the most powerful hashtags on Twitter in the days leading up to the German election.
The study says that the European groups "exchanged know-how with the American alt-right," and it showcased "extreme right-wing grassroots explicitly declared an 'Infokrieg' ('info war') mobilized across a range of message boards and encrypted apps." This is a trend that Davey believes will continue.
"What needs to warrant more attention in the future is their attempts to disrupt the democratic process," said Davey. "They worked to do it in the French, American, and German election to different degrees of success. They're going to keep trying to do this so we have to be aware of this subversive lobbying."
One of the most disturbing portions of the paper found that the extreme right's "sophisticated and coordinated media disruption techniques and psy-ops are based on military guides such as leaked GCHQ and NATO's strategic communication documents."
"One of the most surprising elements was the degree to which they've used their own government's military documents actually against their own government and against their own democratic processes and structures," Ebner said. "I found that quite scary—they could simply access these documents and implement them quite skillfully."
The ISD report states that it is "imperative that counter-strategies are developed, which match the sophistication of the extreme right on a technological, cultural, and communications level." The recommendations include more research, digital literacy programs, and an international coalition of counter-hate efforts. Ebner and Davey didn't publicly list every recommendation they have and are asking for policymakers to contact them directly in an attempt to get a step ahead of the extreme right.
While for the moment it appears the extreme right is winning online, Ebner says that not all is lost. "I think this opportunistic cross-ideology coalition building is one of the most worrying signs because it allows them to mainstream their ideologies, but it could be one of the best opportunities to tap into and expose all the differences that exist between them. And to expose what they're hiding in their outward-looking face on social media and what they're actually writing internally."
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