Lede: In this first part of a two part series, Senior Fellow Dr Mario Peucker discusses the nature of radical-right recruitment and the different strategies on the spectrum of directed versus self-directed recruitment – using examples from the Australian case and beyond.
When discussing the actions of the radical right in the public debate, we often use terms like ‘mobilisation’ and ‘recruitment’ as if they were unanimously agreed concepts with clearly defined meanings. Given the complexities of the processes behind these terminologies, it seems pragmatic to not get constantly bogged down in conceptual arguments on what exactly we mean by them every time we talk about the radical right.
However, it is worth pausing to revisit the terms we use from time-to-time. This article seeks to do that, discussing specifically the notion of recruitment in the context of the radical right. Drawing mainly from empirical research in Australia, the following article attempts to enhance conceptual clarity around far-right recruitment that may also be applicable to other national contexts. It is meant to contribute to a wider policy and scholarly conversation on the topic rather than offering ultimate answers.
Recruitment as a propaganda goal or an interactive process?
The Oxford Dictionary defines recruitment as a “process of finding people to work for a company or become a new member of an organization”, and the Collins Dictionary adds a distinction between “selecting” people for an organisation and “persuading them to join”. In the public, political, and also the academic debate on the radical right, we apply a similar understanding. Although rarely made explicit in these debates, recruitment is often regarded as the goal behind a radical-right groups’ propaganda, that is, its dissemination of ideological content, aimed at attracting more people to their group, or – when clear organisational structures are absent – their belief system or political movement.
There is no doubt that propaganda and recruitment are interconnected, but recruitment is often more than the objective of far-right propaganda. Research into terrorism and, more broadly, radical political or social movements has highlighted the interactive nature of recruitment processes (della Porta 1988: 156), where individuals are not merely passive objects that are pulled into a radical group, movement or ideology, but subjects with agency who make active decisions. The boundaries between recruitment and self-recruitment are not only blurry but often appear impossible to draw.
This is related to the first of two dimensions I propose (in the figure below) to conceptualise recruitment processes. Recruitment activities sit along a continuum that range from active and deliberate top-down strategies to attract and incorporate new members by a radical-right group, on the one hand, to passive forms of recruitment that rely much more on self-recruitment. In addition to this vertical dimension, the horizontal dimension of recruitment approaches, as proposed here, refers to the role that far-right ideologies play within these processes, ranging from ideologically explicit to ideologically covert recruitment strategies.
The vertical dimension: active or passive recruitment
Recruitment processes are complex and depend on a range of factors, including the organisational structures, capacities and objectives of a certain group, network or individual actor. The following discussion of recruitment actions is not meant to be comprehensive but seeks to illustrate the horizontal dimension of recruitment – from merely having an online presence to highly structured activities such as conducting individual vetting interviews. The examples are drawn from the Australian context. It is important to emphasise that far-right groups can – and often do – adopt a combination of several of these approaches.
- Online presence and posting
Having an online presence, be it a website or an active account on a social media platform, can be a tool in itself to attracting new followers. There are many radical-right actors in Australia that hardly go beyond posting ideological content more or less frequently online, often letting the algorithms of social media platforms do their job of channelling people towards their accounts. If we consider this a form of recruitment, it is almost undistinguishable from propaganda.
In this context, it is worth noting that, as our research has shown, certain social media-based groups have built a loyal online community over time by posting primarily on one particular single issue, such as opposition to gender diversity or Islam. Subsequently, some of these accounts have thematically broadened their posting activities moving into a much more “politically and ideologically charged space where far-right narratives circulate” (Peucker et al. 2020: 35). In doing so, they bring their online community along and introducing them to (more) radical online ecosystems. These ideological shifts may be a reflection of the account administrators’ changing ideological mindset, but they can also be part of a recruitment strategy to gradually pull individuals into radical-right ideological spaces
2. Attracting attention through offline actions
Another common way to raise the profile of a radical-right group or movement for recruitment purposes is to attract public attention, in particular by getting mainstream media coverage, hoping that this will translate into higher traffic to their websites or social media accounts and interest in their group. This approach, while more active than simply posting online, still relies on individuals to search for the respective group online and possibly engage with or contact them. However, it can also be part of a more active strategy that involves offline actions to deliberately trigger media attention.
In our research, we found evidence that radical-right offline actions – from provocations and publicity stunts to street protests – have been an effective way to increase interest in the far-right groups and individuals behind these actions. In the immediate aftermath of radical right street rallies in 2017 and 2018, for example, the number of Google searches for the particular local group that organised the protests increased by 2,564% and 2,251% respectively (compared to a neutral baseline). A recent physical assault on a black security guard by a leading figure of Australia’s White supremacy milieu, filmed and uploaded on the alleged perpetrator’s Telegram channel and reported in the media, resulted in a 60% increase in the number of subscribers of his Telegram channel within only three days.
Our analysis suggests that media reporting about these events play an important role in attracting high interest in these groups’ or individuals’ actions: the greater the media attention to these events, the larger the effect on Google searches for the actors involved (we acknowledge, of course, that a proportion of this increase is due to general interest by people who are not sympathetic or who are even explicitly opposed to far-right ideologies). A recently leaked manual of Australia’s most active White supremacist national socialist group describes “media baiting as a huge portion of our recruitment drive”, calling on its members to “stag[e] media provocations to make
the organisation itself better known and recruiting suitably committed people into the organisation” (reference can be provided upon request)
3. Facilitating and inviting direct contact
A more overt recruitment strategies among some far-right groups in Australia and elsewhere is to invite and encourage individuals to get in touch with the group. A particularly common way to do this is via flyer drops, and public stickering and postering blitzes where the displayed material included contact details of the respective group. This has been part of the radical-right tool box for decades, as Blazak’s (2001) ethnographic research on the US Nazi Skinhead scene in the 1980s and 90s illustrates (see also Berger et al. 2020). These recruitment tactics do not appear to have lost their appeal with the rise of social media, rather to the contrary. A recent analysis of far-right “ephemeral pieces of propaganda” distributed in 2018 in the US found that most of these flyers included an URL and/or email addresses. The authors of the study conclude that “one of the key objectives of these flyer drops, it therefore seems, was to introduce readers into the online recruitment ecosystem” (Berger et al. 2020: 123).
This recruitment approach has also been used by several White supremacy neo-Nazi groups in Australia. Our research suggest that such public sticker campaigns do drive interest in the group responsible, even where media do not cover the incident. In early 2018, for example, a (now defunct) neo-Nazi youth group put up stickers in a beachside suburb of Melbourne; subsequently, the number of Google searches for this group increased by 200% (predominately from the respective suburb), although the media did not report about the stickering blitz.
Inviting individuals to contact a far-right group (or visit its website) is, of course, not limited to the offline actions. Social media sites have played an important role in the recruitment efforts of far-right groups either by calling on people to follow them on less moderated alt-tech fringe platforms, such as Gab, or encrypted messaging services such as Telegram, or by inviting them directly to get in touch and to join them.
4. Interpersonal outreach
While such flyer and sticker drops or online postings constitute a form of active outreach, they remain rather generic and anonymous without direct interpersonal engagement, at least at this early stage of the recruitment process. This distinguishes them from outreach strategies that are based on personal interactions between the far-right group or individual and the potentially recruited individuals. Typical examples are targeted recruitment efforts through online gaming or dating platforms. The former recruitment in online gaming chatrooms and platforms (such as Discord) has received significant attention in recent debates around radical right online grooming of young people. According to a recent study by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), almost one in four surveyed online multiplayer gamers “have been invited to discuss or have heard others discussing the “superiority of whites and inferiority of non-whites” and/or “white identity/a home for the white race.”
While there is little empirical research specifically on far-right recruitment on gaming platforms in Australia, our work has identified other examples of interpersonal outreach activities online as part of far-right recruitment efforts. These include the use of online dating platforms by a member of an Australian neo-Nazi group as well as the regular appearance of another self-proclaimed National Socialist actor on a politically neutral online chat platform (such as Omegle), where he frequently tries to convince randomly matched chat room users of his ‘White Genocide’ claims and pushes antisemitic, racist and White supremacy narratives
5. Vetting processes and personal invitation
Some far-right groups, in particular those with organisational structures and more or less formal membership status, have established vetting processes as part of their recruitment strategies. Individuals who seek to join the respective group need to undergo an interview and background checks. Several Australian far-right groups apply such vetting process to identify suitable recruits, and at least one group has set up a dedicated Telegram ‘vetting chat’ channel. A recently released secret audio recordings of vetting phone conversations, conducted by the US neo-Nazi accelerationist group The Base with potential recruits in Australia, has offered unprecedented insights into this last stage of the recruitment process (The Base Tapes Part 1 and Part 2). In some (assumedly rare) instances, these vetting processes seems to be considered unnecessary by the far-right group as the potential recruit is approached directly and invited to join the group without further checks. The Australian far-right terrorist, Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 Muslims in the Christchurch attacks in 2019, for example, was reportedly invited by a Melbourne-based far-right group to join – an invitation Tarrant declined. Such an approach constitutes probably the most active, targeted and deliberate from of recruitment.
Dr Mario Peucker is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Senior Research Fellow at Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities (ISILC), Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. See full profile here.
© Mario Peucker. 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).
 In the following article, I have decided to not name the far-right groups and individuals. I can provide more details upon request.
 This research was undertaken by a team at Victoria University in partnership with Moonshot CVE, who analysed the Google search activities in the context of several far-right offline events in Melbourne.