Understanding Digital Hate Culture

Understanding how hate groups cohere in online spaces is essential toward understanding their growth and capacity to radicalize.

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Online radical-right extremist groups exhibit a massive range of ideological stances and approaches, which vary from country to country. These include the affirmed political stances of alt-right groups, the social movement-like practices of groups like Generation Identity, and the violent, homicidal actions of those like Atomwaffen Division (linked to the offshoot Sonnenkrieg Division in the UK). Other loosely affiliated online groups and more traditional “offline” groups exist with varying degrees of association to the category of the radical right, including the so-called alt-light, KEK, and Gamergate cultures online, as well as the legacy of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and anti-government groups such as Sovereign Citizens and doomsday “preppers.”

Most, if not all, of these groups interact in some capacity online and on social media. Bharath Ganesh has used the term “digital hate culture” to refer to this broad range of groups, noting that online they make up a “complex swarm of users that form contingent alliances to contest contemporary political culture and inject their ideology into new spaces.”

While these groups, as a “swarm,” may share some common concerns and frustrations, and while they may often coalesce around events or attack people online, they do not actually often like, agree with or make sustained political alliances with each other. As such, they do not cohere together in any sense common to traditional notions of “publics” — coherent groups acting with shared concerns and interests within the broader imagined community of the public sphere — as part of democratic political processes.

This confounding of traditional notions of publics is most clearly seen in these groups’ difficulties transferring the online coherence of the “swarm” to offline actions. One example of this was the so-called DeploraBall, an inaugural ball held after the 2016 election of Donald Trump where many of these groups attended the event proudly appropriating Hillary Clinton’s claim that they were “deplorables.” Once together “in real life,” enmities and ideological differences came to the fore as several prominent alt-right group members were “disinvited” by alt-light organizers. Further tensions led to open fighting at an afterparty.

Another example is the difficulty these groups have had coordinating large events since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The “public-ness” of these groups falls apart easily outside the online spaces of the swarm.

Intimate Publicity

What, then, makes these groups cohere in online spaces in ways that have grown their membership, mainstreamed their ideologies and bolstered their open expression of hate? I adapt Lauren Berlant’s concept of “intimate publicity” as a framework for understanding how these groups interrelate. Berlant argues that intimate publicity is characterized by public-ness generated from individuals engaged in the circulation of “texts and things.” The circulation of texts and things is intimate when accompanied by an expectation “that the consumers of its particular stuff already share a worldview and emotional knowledge that they have derived from a broadly common historical experience.”

This sensibility is affective and tied to emotional responses rather than rational argument. Thus, the publicity of the engaged individuals coheres because of this “intimacy” as the shared sense of already knowing and understanding each other’s pain and experience even though they may be strangers. The intimacy of publicity can be seen in narratives used by engaged individuals who articulate their concerns as “the complaint.”

Within the radical right and related cultures online, intimate publicity is generated specifically and primarily through misogyny. Within these groups’ online discussions (including websites, blogs, videos, memes, 4Chan and 8Chan boards) the misogynistic complaint can be assigned to two primary categories: precarity and nostalgia. Precarity refers to both the endangerment of masculinity and whiteness, while nostalgia designates the portrayal of a return to a mythic golden past when the “correct” socio-cultural hierarchies — male dominance and white dominance — prevailed and from which they can be recovered.

Within the two categories of precarity and nostalgia, one can further identify three frames of misogynist articulation. Basic misogyny refers to the narration of women as evil simply because they are women; this includes vile language, slurs and overt, often sexualized threats of violence, including death and rape. Anti-feminist misogyny is the narration of feminism as the primary mechanism of the destruction of society. Here women themselves become the conduit of feminism’s destruction because of their “incorrect” desire to step out of their “naturally” (read biologically or divinely ordained) passive and complementary roles. This is a common feature of the “great replacement” theory and a trope often used by women adherents of radical-right ideologies.

Finally, homophobic misogyny relates to the narration of other men as feminized, specifically through misogynist and homophobic slurs aimed by men at other men. This practice is a mechanism for shaming, policing and controlling men through displays of dominance by other men using specifically negative, feminizing terms. Here, homophobic slurs are used because homosexual men are seen as deviant and stereotyped as “more feminine” than supposedly “real” men.

Extreme and Mainstream

But perhaps more importantly, radical-right groups online have incorporated notions such as “red pilling.” This term is drawn from the misogynist cultures of the manosphere — a loose conglomeration of websites and blogs, including men’s rights activists, Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) and pick-up artist groups, as well as the growth of incel (involuntary celibate) culture, which predates the rise the alt-right by nearly a decade. Indeed, prominent members of today’s radical right, particularly in the alt-right, were formerly members of the manosphere, including Stefan Molyneux and Chris Cantwell.

Recently, extremism researchers have begun to focus on male-supremacist extremism, specifically on masculinist incels, due to violent acts such as the murder of more than a dozen people in three mass shootings in the last few years, although the history of such acts goes back to the late 1980s. Incels, however, are not the only group with a strong reliance on male supremacy for their worldview and culture. In fact, right-wing worldviews, from the mainstream to the extreme, favor a heteronormative, male-female gender binary that supposes men as dominant and women as passive locked in a complementary (but hierarchical) relationship.

The link between extreme and mainstream cultures through gender — specifically as it is narrated through misogyny —is intrinsic to the maintenance and growth of radical-right extremist culture. Because of the similarities between varieties of conservative gendered worldviews, misogyny is particularly useful for radicalization and helps normalize extreme ideology into mainstream socio-political life and culture.

Understanding how these groups cohere in online spaces is essential toward understanding their growth and capacity to radicalize. Moreover, understanding how and why misogyny and gendered narratives present such a fundamental point of attachment for so many varied groups is urgent. Currently, examples of this approach are limited. As Bharath Ganesh notes, “actors are currently focused on one part of a bigger problem: They typically attend to content rather than the cultures and the virtual spaces that these groups inhabit. By focusing on censoring content and banning certain users, they do not address the connective infrastructure that brings the swarm together.”

Frameworks for understanding amorphous, non-rational group coherence in online spaces like Intimate Publicity allow us to ask questions both specific and structural of the larger culture of online digital hate. They allow us to understand the often difficult relationship between the online swarm and offline action — a crucially important issue to understand as transition between the two spaces becomes ever-more fluid.

Ms Ashley Mattheis is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. See her profile here.

© Ashley Mattheis. 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).

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