Ideology Research Unit’s Interview Series features some of our members. This post discusses the work of Brian Hughes, a Doctoral candidate in School of Communication, American University, a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a member of IRU, doctoral fellow at CARR, and the associate director at PERIL (Polarization & Extremism & Research & Innovation Lab). His work has addressed the impact of communication technology on the ideology of violent lone actors, media ecosystem of ISIS, the political economy of early “Alt-Right” media, and more.
You are specializing in communication technology, religious extremism, fringe culture, but your works are pointing to a range of different directions (and scholarships): environmentalism and environmental sociology, political theory, communication studies. As an early career scholar, and instead of situating yourself in a particular scholarship, what is it that you would like to accomplish with your research?
Media and communication studies, like extremism studies, tend toward interdisciplinary approaches. And I would say that my educational background—the institutions I attended, the senior scholars I’ve worked with—has emphasized that interdisciplinary aspect even more than most. When you take a broad view of communications media, information consists of its content, its conduits, and the environments where it circulates. Transportation is a medium, currency is a medium, weapons are media. They’re media because they convey information about social values and social relations. But they are also information ecosystems which lend evolutionary advantage to some messages and disadvantage others. So, it becomes necessary to draw from many different disciplines, and many different theoretical and methodological approaches, to capture the full scope of any communications question.
So, in a sense, I do consider myself situated within a specific scholarship, but it’s an eclectic and systems-oriented one. It isn’t always clear which journal I should send a particular article!
What I’d like to accomplish with my research is a holistic and systems-oriented approach to extremism and media and communication technologies. I want to understand the mutually constitutive processes of technological development, social change, and political economy. I want to understand these issues as they relate to hegemonic Ideology as well as the tertiary “small-i” ideologies that emerge out of that system. That’s one of the goals I hope to accomplish with the IRU. And I want to do that while contributing to knowledge about the most pressing problems of our day: environmental and epistemic breakdown, as well as the pervading sense that the current social and political order is both immutable and falling apart.
I know that’s a lot! And maybe it’s characteristic of emerging career scholars to be overly ambitious in this way. But I see all of my work so far as contributing pieces to that overall picture.
You are also an associate director of Polarization, Extremism and Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) – can you tell us a bit about the work you do at PERIL?
I worked with Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss, [head of outreach at CARR] to launch PERIL a little over one year ago. At PERIL we do what we call “pre-PVE.” We develop studies and interventions to reduce the overall risk for radicalization within a given community, or in society at large. We want to stop radicalization to extremism before it begins. And if it’s already begun, then we want to offer community-based, non-carceral solutions to deradicalization and to protecting the groups targeted by extremists. That means developing curricula for educators and support guides for parents and caregivers. It’s meant developing and deploying attitudinal inoculation counter-messages. We’ve worked with private enterprise, universities, and foreign and local governments. Our work so far has covered topics ranging from male supremacy to scientific racism, COVID conspiracies, the Boogaloo movement. And it’s critically important to us that every project we work on includes meaningful impact measurement and assessment. Nothing gets done without a plan for assessing how well it actually works. We want to be rigorous in our methodology and study design but also extremely practical.
We’ve assembled a phenomenal and diverse team of scholars and practitioners, “formers” and survivors of racially motivated violence. We’re continuing to grow and expand, with a few really interesting reports on their way in the coming months. People should visit our website at American University (American.edu/PERIL) if they want to learn more.
Can you reflect a bit on the debates related to the renditions of radical right as an Ideology with a ‘capital’ letter? What is the difference? Does it even matter and if so, why?
I think one of the defining characteristics of capital-I Ideology is its disavowal of itself. That’s what distinguishes capital-I Ideology from the many lowercase ideologies whose manifestoes you can read at the library or on the internet. If Althusser is correct, then the real substance of Ideology is in the imaginary relationship of people to the conditions or their existence, and in the materiality of Ideological practice, its implementation in real life. Neither of those require a statement of values to function. In fact, everything goes much more smoothly if this is denied, if Ideology can be naturalized as just the way things are. It may even be possible that Ideology “finds its level,” that Ideology will always be bounded by whatever relations can be naturalized, and that anything falling outside of that, anything seemingly contingent, gets subsumed into this overflow of small-i ideologies.
This is no less true of the neoliberal ideology which predominates in many parts of the world today. It is the epistemic and normative ether that we swim in. And, as evidenced by its history in the Chicago School of Economics, its deployment in the lab of Pinochet’s Chile, and its embrace by the governments of Thatcher and Reagan, neoliberalism is a fundamentally far right ideology. At its core, neoliberalism is concerned with the expansion of private regimes of power via the action of the market. So, the question might not be so much “Is the radical right an Ideology” as it is “Does Ideology belong to the radical right?” And I would say the answer to that is yes. It does.
But that doesn’t answer the real nut of your question, which I think has to do with the variety of far right and extreme right ideologies we see emerging and reemerging today. We have to ask about the extent to which extreme right-wing ideologies, which position themselves as counter-hegemonic, are in fact recapitulations of Ideology. To what extent do they serve the function of Ideology’s self-disavowal? If we treat the radical right and extreme right as exceptional, do we as scholars serve the same function of disavowal? That’s a difficult question, and one that researchers of the radical right have to ask self-critically, I think.
You are currently working on the American reactionary alternative media –
I’m kept very busy with the work we do at PERIL, and after this initial year of research, we’ll begin publishing more of our findings in scholarly outlets. But in my independent scholarship, I’m pursuing several avenues of research into the effects of media and communication technology on the ideological commitments and identity claims of movements on the far right and beyond. This includes the “materialist” study of American reactionary alternative media. I want to understand how the development of markets, technologies, and the regulatory regimes that framed them helped to influence changes to radical-right alternative media in the 20th and 21st Centuries. And in turn, I want to understand what impact those material conditions had on the political values, the persuasive narratives, and the strategic coalitions that the far right took as a matter of historical specificity. I’ve published some very preliminary work on this question relating to the Alt Right, and the shift from Web 2.0 to the social web. But I think this kind of materially grounded inquiry can only be properly done with a broad historical sweep. So I’ve been pursuing research into the pre-digital era, from the postwar period through the Reagan administration, when the (so-called) “paleo-purges” occurred and a new wave of alternative far right media emerged with publications like Chronicles, Left and Right, and the Rockwell-Rothbard Report. Archival research is somewhat stalled thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this is a project that I’m pursuing long-term.
Similar theoretical and methodological approaches can be used to explore more fringe scenes, like the more marginal strains of far right ecologism, which sometimes call themselves ecofascist, or the variety of different accelerationist tendencies. In all cases, I think the key is to gather that far-ranging, systems-wide view of relevant communications milieus and technological apparatuses, and the political-economic dynamics that suffuse it all. These are the “motives behind the motives” of ideology, where I think some of the most interesting and surprising insights might be found.
Since your area of expertise is also in the digital communication technology and the radical right, which trends do you anticipate happening in the near-to-mid-term future?
I think we will continue to see increased ideological fragmentation, and the emergence of idiosyncratic beliefs and identities. Lone actor violence will continue to grow as a problem. I see both of these trends as direct consequences of the style of communication afforded by digital media, and the modes of belief that these forms of communication engender. The individualized quality of online media encourages people to cobble together their ideologies à la carte. There’s no need ever to tow the party line or wait for someone else’s green light to commit an act of violence. That’s not to say that more traditional forms of extremist organizing and violence will go away. But newer and less easy to pigeonhole varieties of radicalism will continue to proliferate.
In the United States, I think we finally might see a rewrite of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This has the potential to force greater responsibility onto digital platforms to police the content that they host. That offers the possibility to curtail extremist propaganda and recruitment, but of course it also poses serious concerns for free expression. It also raises interesting questions for the future of “alt-tech” platform clones that have tried to offer far right alternatives to the major social media and user generated content services like Youtube, Reddit and Twitter. A tightening of section 230 could seriously damage these platforms’ ability to function, since they exist in large part to foster an environment where extremist discourse can thrive. Those are only some very general possibilities, though – the actual outcome will no doubt find ways to surprise us.