You might have noticed the term "alt-right" debated a bit more since the US voted a reality TV star as their president-elect. Although the 'alt' preface might suggest something young, trendy and counter-cultural, it's pretty much just a mishmash of variations of conservatism. It encompasses everything from white nationalism, anti-feminism and pro-segregationism to classic online trolls, looking to get a rise out of people. And, from the outside, a lot of its members look like they're coming together online, Pepe the Frog memes and all.
It may sound distinctly familiar to anyone who's been following the way we discuss online extremism. "When we talk about online radicalization we always talk about Muslims," Motswana writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa recently tweeted, after years following alt-right groups online. "But the radicalization of white men online is at astronomical levels. Young men came to these groups for tips on picking up girls and came out believing it was up to them to save Western civilization... [They] found young white men at their most vulnerable and convinced them liberals were colluding to destroy white Western manhood."
Deradicalization programs, mostly targeting young Muslims, have been running in the UK for around ten years now, but we're seeing more referrals related to the far-right—in some parts of the country, these may make up the majority. We spoke to Rashad Ali, a counter-terrorism practitioner at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, about what deradicalization could look like when applied to a different, relatively amorphous, group.
Hi Rashad, what's your background with radicalization, first of all?
Rashad Ali: I became involved with radical Islamist groups as a teenager in Yorkshire. After a while, I began to realize it was wrong—I saw it had no real moral framework, that it was devoid of any political substance, and that it was problematic. I've been working in counter-terrorism for over eight years now, and have worked on over 100 cases. The far-right and radical Islam are actually very similar, because they create this narrative of a civilizational conflict between the "Muslim world" and "the West." That's the problem with Trump and Steve Bannon—they essentially push the same message as radical Islamists.
What kind of person tends to be susceptible to radicalization?
I don't think there's a specific type of person. Human beings, on a base level, share the same vulnerabilities and trigger spots. Grievances, personal experiences and existential identity crises are what extremist narratives manipulate. They present themselves as anti-establishment, authentic, and the voice of the people.
For example, radical Islamism is really quite superficial and reactionary, but the narrative resonates with people who are having existential identity crises and who have religious views that can be manipulated. Far-left politics, such as Corbyn's rhetoric, exploit genuine grievances people have with the government, but there's no real substance there in terms of actual policies.
So why do you think we're seeing a rise in extremism right now?
There are several reasons. When people feel a disconnect between government and society, it creates space for an extremist narrative to step in. It isn't as simple as saying that neoliberal economics has failed people; it's because the narrative is there to manipulate them.
Secondly, you have to look at what's going on globally—the rhetoric of both the far-right and left in Europe and the US are in line with Kremlin propaganda, and we know that the Kremlin funds certain far right groups. Then lastly, you have the online dimension. Social media polarizes views and creates an echo chamber. Any interaction between different groups ends up being combative. If you want to engage with these people, then you have to engage them within that space.
How do deradicalization programs work?
There are two main types: online and offline. Online work is done on a mass scale, reaching large numbers of people, and offline programmes work with individuals.
In the online space, we craft counter-narratives to reach out to people. We'll use targeted advertising on social media to identify people who like certain groups or are engaging very heavily with extremist content, then impact that echo chamber and present them with an alternative. You have to make sure your counter-narrative is interesting from the get-go—it needs to grab them in the first ten seconds—it needs to be engaging, so they keep coming back to you, and they need to have a way of contacting you afterwards.
Can you give an example of a counter-narrative?
We've found former group members can be really effective—it's a credible voice to engage people with. Survivors of attacks—such as the Anders Breivik massacre in Norway—can also be very powerful.
And what about the offline?
It happens through leakage—family or colleagues will pick up on radicalization and report it. There will then be a channel referral, and mentoring may happen. Instead of criminalizing these people, we see them as vulnerable individuals who are in need of support. Depending on the individual case, this can last for up to a year.
How do you identify people?
It isn't that difficult to identify them, the harder part is measuring what's happening. We work with a tech company that analyses data, such as whether people are sharing and commenting, if it's positive or negative, and if they're coming back for more. We then use the same tools to analyze how well our own counter-narratives are performing.
How would the programs work?
There are already projects doing targeting far-right extremism—from South Wales and Yorkshire to the East Midlands—and doing it well.
What constitutes a success?
You can see success in attitudinal changes. Do they still demonize the Other? Do they see groups of people as subhuman? They might still have grievances, but they may be channeling them in a different way.
Also, If you get the senior people, it creates a ripple effect because those below them will start questioning things. For example, look at [former EDL leader] Tommy Robinson. If you look at his Twitter feed he's still a bit of a twat, but removing him from the EDL means it isn't really functioning as an organization any more.
Do you think we're currently doing enough to combat the far-right?
We're doing a good job, but we could definitely be doing more. Deradicalization costs time and money, and it needs continued government support.
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