The far right in the post-digital condition

German security authorities have said almost 1,000 people were affected by the data breach. Photograph: Friedemann Vogel/EPA

The year 2019 began quite turbulently for German politics with a politically-charged data leak. One Twitter user published the personal data of politicians, artists and online activists in the fashion of a Christmas calendar, which opened doors every day to reveal private information about its victims. When journalists and security agencies discovered this data leak in early January, the details of around 1000 persons of public interest were already so widely spread online – such that it was considered almost impossible to contain the damage. Bank accounts, Facebook messages, mobile numbers, ID copies were publicly available to internet browsers for weeks.

What has been described as one of the gravest security leaks in the history of the Federal Republic was committed by a 20-year old student still living at home with his parents in the German province of Hesse. Johannes S. was highly active in the underworld of the internet and had come repeatedly into conflict with the German law for data piracy and privacy infringements. Moreover, the selection criteria for his victims sent a clear political message: Those ‘doxed’ included musicians and YouTubers who speak out against the far-right’s influence and politicians, plus politicians from all parties in the Bundestag except of one, the Alternatives for Germany (AfD). Johannes S. posted racist comments and the data he published has been traced back to servers known to be used by far-right tech activists. All of this indicates that he was motivated to harm “the establishment” and silence voices who are critical of the far-right’s rise.

What sounds at first like a straightforward cyber-hack might be better understood as part of a broader, antagonistic digital repertoire of hate practices online. The ever growing far-right online community, wherein Johannes S. was politicized, is marked by the deliberate blurring of boundaries between ‘shitposting’, random intimidation, targeted harassment and political activism. Far-right actors strategically adopt the ambivalence that online cultures by using irony and satire to recruit new followers and to boost its image. The reservoir and know-how of tech-savvy internet users is central for movements like the Identitarians to receive attention for its ideas. Their expertise can be channelled to subvert the digital sphere, creating sub-cultural spaces for radicalization from where doxing attacks and other hate-led campaigns can germinate, as part of a broader transformation of society. It is undeniable that these online actions have offline consequences.

In a recent book that I have co-edited with Nick Thurston, we and our 20 co-authors dig deeper into the dynamics of how digital tools are transforming far-right activism in 21st century, and how these technologies are emboldening its perspectives and prospects transnationally. What follows are some of our key insights.

Welcome to the post-digital far right

We start our volume with the observation that in our age digital technology is absolutely integral to our everyday lives, making a distinction between online and offline campaigning practices no longer viable. Blending these two worlds makes contemporary far-right politics funda­mentally post-digital. The term ‘post-digital’ describes the blurring line between digital and actual life. It is a technical condition that followed the so-called ‘digital revolution’ and is constituted by the naturalization of pervasive and connected computing processes and outcomes in everyday life, such that digitality is now inextricable from the way we live while its forms, functions and effects are no longer necessarily perceptible. This ‘naturalization’ has been accelerated by the growth in computing power, internet-enabled mobile devices, the low participation barriers to internet culture, as well as the push within that culture towards an emphasis on mass postproduction and compressed expression in the form of content (textual, audiovisual, etc.) that is made to circulate widely.

The far right seems to have adapted quite well to this post-digital condition – and is at the same time its product. Online platforms are key grounds for what they call the ‘info war’. Struggling to control information and ‘facts’ has been viewed by all sides as the most politically efficacious method for gaining cultural hegemony and influence in mainstream politics. Mobilizing sympathetic internet users to use their time online to intervene in both the private and public spheres of our digital worlds, from the deep web to the more immediately accessible surface net, from public chat rooms to multi-player gaming environments, has been a hugely effective technique for far-right campaigners. By bridging the public and private, and the online and offline, heated social media debates fuel protest on the streets and vice versa.

Ever more transgressive online interactions such as trolling are being absorbed as normal practice by far-right campaigners and campaign groups, oftentimes supported by programmed bots and working in sync with the known biases of search engine algorithms that can reinforce racism. Termed as ‘memetic warfare’, far-right activists and collectives make use of a pool of instruments: memes, hacks, doxing, hashtag piracy and coordinated attacks they call “raids” to spread fear and despair. These tactics are written and shared in “media guerrilla manuals” that serve activists as guidebooks to online warfare. According to such playbooks, distorting the digital public sphere by silencing political opponents is considered a first step to accelerating political change in real life.

These circumstances strongly challenge our understanding how far-right activism functions today. How do these tactics relate to the real life measures of political parties and movements? To what extent can we understand partisans in the ‘info war’ as far-right activists? And, with regard to trolling practices, do those involved do it for the ‘lulz’ or to save their nation or race? Questions like these will not find definitive answers. The swarm structure of online hate cultures defies strict notions of membership and ideological fellowship. Moreover, its networked nature challenges the role that centralized parties and organizations from across the political spectrum can have in taking control of swarms of users in our post-digital age, let alone in taking responsibility for them.

We can see all of these dilemmas play out in discussions about Johannes S. Can he be a far-right activist even if he had little or no contact with far-right organizations? As part of the declared far-right war on information, we could clearly consider him a partisan as it is very likely that the published data will pop up during debates for the upcoming state and European elections in 2019, harming liberal and leftist politicians who were compromised. Yet, characterizing people according to their isolated deeds rather than to their declared membership in organizations throws the net incredibly wide. As groups with fixed structures are becoming usurped or transformed into networks of participants with less rigid hierarchies, which are formed and played out online, it is a key challenge of our time to make sense of the interaction between the digital and non-digital worlds.

In our book, along with contributors from the US and Europe we make a modest attempt to promote a common media literacy amongst those concerned or affected by hate content online. We do that by trying to analyse what far-right activists do online, how they do it and why. We also debate and advocate measures that civil society might undertake to counter the far-right’s growth. Our book works on the premise that politics and culture are inter-dependent, just as the online and offline spheres have become. Interventions in one can have effects in the other, so civil society needs a holistic post-digital playbook of its own if there is to be any hope of pushing back the rightwards pressure.

Mr Maik Fielitz is an Early Career Fellow at CARR, and a Research Associate at Institute for Peace Studies and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. See his profile here.

© Maik Fielitz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

The book Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right is available in print and free for download here: https://www.transcript-verlag.de/en/detail/index/sArticle/4371