This blog post draws on content from a chapter for a forthcoming report from VOX-Pol (voxpol.eu)
In the last three decades, the emergence of digital communications has had a significant impact on how the radical right communicates, both between members and toward external audiences. For the most part, we tend to think about digital communications and the radical right through the lens of the alt-right and its “troll armies” (cf. Feldman 2018), though research into political blogs, the counter-jihad, and populist radical right communication online shows that the picture is much wider. Early research in this area, such as that by Susan Zickmund (2002), shows how the radical right were active in developing white supremacist virtual communities, and research by Burris, Smith, and Strahm (2000) has shown how extreme right websites connected to one another online.
More recently, however, the role of trolling and memes seems to take centre stage in discussions of the radical right today. Undoubtedly, the role of Internet culture has transformed the styles of the radical right online. However, focusing too closely on these practices risks missing a bigger picture that researchers of the radical right online might want to consider.
I would like to propose that there are three key phases by which the radical right has developed before and after social media, concurrent with social and technical shifts in interactive digital communication. The first phase is captured by the webforum and virtual community; the second came with the rise of the political blog in the Web 2.0 era; and the third involves the swarm structure of the radical right that we encounter online today.
The webforum, which we might think of as a kind of virtual community, represents the first configuration of the radical right online. Chip Berlet comments on 1984 as the year in which “hate went online” when bulletin board systems were being used by neo-Nazi groups. Bulletin board systems and Usenet groups were early technologies that radical right users made use of to communicate with one another. However, as Susan Zickmund (2002) notes in her work on Usenet groups, white supremacist chat groups were not sealed communities closed off to the outside world. Webforums, in the 1990s and 2000s, overtook these technologies and became more prominent for the radical right, but Zickmund’s observation remains true. As Stormfront’s “Opposing Views Forum” shows, for example, cyberspace is indeed a place in which these views can be challenged. However, what Zickmund also finds is that as far back as Usenet groups, the radical right’s shared myths play an important role in keeping the community together. Taking the example of Stormfront, it becomes clear that the use of racist language, eugenic reasoning, and pleasure in attacking opposing views serves a specific function that not only binds the community together but also produces specific cultural norms. Transgression plays an important role here: by expressing their views on Stormfront, many of which violate injunctions against the expression of racism and eugenics in mainstream society, users feel they are creating a site of alternative knowledge and information exchange. In a study of Dutch Stormfront users, this made the webforum feel like a “second home” (De Koster and Houtman 2008). Looking at more contemporary parallels, 4chan has become something of an anonymous virtual community which uses a webforum style where many of the trolling and memetic tactics of the contemporary alt-right have been developed.
Alongside the growth of these webforums and virtual communities, the emergence of blogs and websites were used to increase viewership of radical right content, which Jesse Daniels (2009) documents in her work on cloaked websites. After 9/11, the radical right—particularly its counter-jihad segments—continued to use blogs in which self-appointed “experts” on jihadism, Islam, and Muslims helped to reinforce the extreme narratives that were in development on these virtual communities. The blog democratized barriers to entry in taking part in news production and consumption, allowing these so-called “experts” to push “alternative” perspectives on Islam and Muslims, often advancing conspiracy theories and Islamophobic tropes about “Muslim invasion” and Sharia law. Anti-Muslim activists such as Pamela Geller, for example, used their counter-jihad blogs to push spurious theories about “creeping sharia” and conspiracies that invent fears that Muslims seek to overthrow democratic governments in the West. These blog posts have in turn been cited as ‘research’ by far right and neoconservative think tanks to support a broader counter-jihad movement. As Lee notes in research on the counter-jihad blogosphere, these blogs and activists played an important role in curating information and providing a platform for coordinating protests, such as opposition to the establishment of mosques or pushing conspiracy theories about Sharia law and “invasion” of Europe by Muslims (see Lee 2016, Ekman 2015).
These two configurations of radical right digital communication have evolved alongside one another and set the stage for the contemporary configuration that I argue is best described as a ‘swarm’ (Ganesh 2018). The ‘swarm’ combines both the aspects of belonging to a community that users appreciate on a webforum with the democratization of voice that allowed ideologues to appoint themselves as experts. In doing so, the swarm structure has made the extremist myths that bring together a virtual community into more public view and at the same time, allowed the rapid rise of various pundits and influencers.
In all of these configurations, radical right digital communications have conformed to the structures of webforums, political blogs, and in the case of the swarm, social media. What social media might be said to contribute is bringing together the community-building aspects of the webforum and the democratized voice of the political blog. The social media influencer—with thousands of dedicated followers—thus takes the place of the self-appointed expert as we might have identified with political blogs. Thus, individuals such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), Colin Robertson, or Lauren Southern can use sites like YouTube to circumvent the mainstream media and present their voices directly to audiences. They gain their authority much like other celebrities have on social media—by amassing followers using multiple platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
What is concerning about this is that the radical and extreme right has identified the swarm structure as the current evolution of their virtual communities. Using the term ‘mob’ in place of swarm, Andrew Anglin writes of the alt-right: “We have now moved from arguments and debates and become a new political collective, a type of hive mind…The mob is the movement.” What is key is that the swarm is a loose coalition of like-minded people more than it is a collective, so it becomes close to impossible to draw boundaries on who is part of it and who is not.
In the swarm, the deeper bonds that formed through repeated interactions on Stormfront (for example) are replaced through coordinated, networked action such as raids that coordinate attacks on targeted individuals or spamming content and “shitposts” to get certain topics to trend on social media platforms. Thus, the role of influencers, such as Tommy Robinson, Britain First’s Jayda Fransen, or Lauren Southern—who resemble the authors of political blogs like Pamela Geller more than they do users in a virtual community—have a privileged role not only in curating information, but directing activism. This is an important change; as Lee (2015) notes in his study, it is not likely that rank and file members of the English Defence League read or even cared about the writings of bloggers online. In the swarm, communities are able to rapidly form behind the influence of particular voices (in their defence for example, or attacking those that challenge the swarms’ preferred influencers). Thus where previously there was a gap between radical right digital communications and the activist rank and file, the swarm has the potential effect of bringing together the multiple factors of community, low barriers to entry, and distributed networked action in a more effective form of radical right digital activism. What is unclear, however, is whether the activity of the swarm translates into offline mobilisation.
Dr Bharath Ganesh is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute focusing on the digital cultures of hate speech and right-wing extremism, focusing on how these groups weaponize new media. See his profile here.
© Bharath Ganesh. 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).