How the far right are using the internet to spread white supremacy.
“Welcome, brother”. Those were the words that reportedly greeted a young man who went into a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, carrying a gun and then opened fire on those who were there to worship.
When it comes to terrorism, the governments across the Western world and majority-white countries tend to focus on ISIS or other groups associated with Islamic terrorism. Their stories dominate our media, but the reality is that we are in the midst of a crisis being carried out by the far right often against Muslims, Jews, queer people and other marginalised people. It is the far right who are a threat to our society, and we have done nothing to stop them.
In the last few weeks, it was found that a US coast guard was planning a white supremacist act of terror on a “scale rarely seen“. Prominent Democrats, including Pelosi, and journalists with national platforms were reported to be targets. Despite this, the media interest has been entirely lacking. The story has simply fizzled out.
What we have heard more of in the UK is the case of Shamima Begum. She was groomed by ISIS at the age of 15. She has lived in Syria but has begged to return to the UK to give birth to her baby. The UK refused, and it was revealed just days ago that the baby Begum had given birth to had died. Begum poses little threat to the UK. In fact, there are fears about her life if she remains in Syria given the current situation she is in and the media attention she is getting. Yet, we heard warnings about her every single day, despite the fact she was the victim of grooming.
White supremacist acts and violent acts against progressives have been rising across Europe and the US. In October, multiple suspicious packages were intercepted across the US which had been mailed to prominent progressives and liberals. Hate crimes across the US have been on the rise. In January of this year, a Mayor in Poland, Pawel Adamowicz, was stabbed on stage at a charity event and died from his injuries. Adamowicz was well known for supporting queer people and had spoken out in solidarity for the Jewish community after a synagogue was attacked. There has been a sharp rise in bigoted rhetoric across Poland and the country has seen a surge in support for nationalist policies – something that Adamowicz stood in opposition to. In the UK, the far right has become ever more present in the UK, as have their ideas. What used to be fringe politics is now mainstream, with ‘go home’ vans, the hostile environment policy and far right figures gaining in popularity. Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins have made their careers from spreading hate.
Part of the rise has been the fact that mainstream journalist outlets have failed to challenge hate. While radio presenters of LBC were quick to condemn the attacks on Twitter, the station itself has repeatedly given platforms to people who espouse hatred, such as Nigel Farage. Just as Trump had his hair stroked on a US chat show during a presidential campaign where he had been outspoken with his racist views; fascists in the UK have been normalised through journalists who present alt-right figures as “lost boys” rather than dangerous men who are organising daily to cause harm and spread their toxic ideologies. Just hours after the New Zealand terrorist attack, BBC Newsnight invited onto its show Generation Identity UK – a far right group that has sent its ‘recruits’ to attend military style training camps in Europe. One of the key quotes from a Norwegian member of Generation Identity was: “We want young normal people, who want to get involved and we train them.” And they are.
While millennials and generation Z are, in the main, more progressive than the generations before them that does not mean that they are free from being indoctrinated by fascists. There is still a small core of young white people (mostly cis men) who are at risk of becoming radicalised and are being targeted by something that the media likes to brush off as “meme culture”. The BBC also presented far right memes without any criticism because journalists didn’t understand what they meant after the attack. There is a culture online where young people are being radicalised and far right jokes are taking place, but journalists are missing them in favour of focusing only upon the politics of Westminster – and this includes left wing journalists. There is a snobbish attitude from the establishment who are reluctant to engage with online discourse. Yet, if they want to tackle hate they need to step away from Parliament and log onto YouTube.
A common complaint among right wing gamers is that they are an ignored population and they are right – we have ignored the dangerous threat this population has posed due to its seething resentment of a world that they are losing control over. Gamers as a political force may seem a farcical idea, but for years marginalised writers – led by women of colour – have pointed out that fascism will rise because of these malevolent geeks and that is exactly what has happened.
Gamergate, the targeting of women and marginalised people by gamers which included death threats and acts of violence, was not an isolated incident. It has left a lasting cultural legacy. Comicsgate is ongoing, but there has also been an organisation by right wing geeks to widen their audience and to spread hate further afield. This has even seen a curious link up between the far right and feminists – because both have been joined by their hatred of trans people. This is how a website in the UK which was designed for mums to connect over childcare has been taken over by right wing anti-trans hate. This may seem bewildering to some but it has been on the cards for a long time.
This is because the far right has worked hard to infiltrate any online spaces it can, and it has been facilitated by social media platforms who are sluggish to act on any concerns. This is why we still can’t get Nazis off Twitter, why Mumsnet has done absolutely nothing about transmisic hate speech and why YouTube will recommend far right videos as quickly as it can to users. YouTube has been a particular route of radicalisation. It isn’t hard to find a far right video by watching absolutely nothing relevant. I game every single week and often I’ll go online to watch walkthrough videos whenever I get stuck on a quest. Despite being an ardent supporter of social justice, I am regularly recommended videos by far right figures and I am not alone in that. It is easy for teenagers and people in their early twenties, who may be vulnerable or feeling isolated in society, to stumble upon this content often with nothing to balance it or criticise it. People watch these videos alone and get sucked into the world of the ‘alt-right’.
“The far right has worked hard to infiltrate any online spaces it can”
In 2011, white supremacist terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered eight people by a bomb detonation, and then murdered a further 68 participants of a Workers’ Youth League. Breivik said that he was motivated by white supremacist ideals and a hatred for feminism and “cultural Marxism”. Just before he carried out the attacks, he released a manifesto where he cited certain well known right wing figures as his inspiration. Some of the figures were associated with the hard right, while others, such as Jeremy Clarkson, were known more for their personalities and tendency to mock marginalised people for cheap laughs. A similar order of events took place in New Zealand, however, we can see the ramifications of being at a time where social media has become more entrenched in politics. Brenton Tarrant also sent out a manifesto before his attack, but social media was more thoroughly embedded in his actions. He live-streamed the event, and told people to subscribe to PewDiePie’s YouTube channel. The parallels with Breivik are eerily familiar and unsurprising.
It must be stated that nobody blames PewDiePie or Clarkson or anyone cited for either the Norway or New Zealand attacks. This is simply an examination of a wider issue of how the far right are working to radicalise people. But there are tactics being employed by white supremacists which must be investigated as well as whether we are doing enough to combat the far right.
So, why was PewDiePie cited? PewDiePie is an online personality, popularised for his YouTube videos, which have gained huge followings (some 76 million followers) and notoriety. PewDiePie has continued to use racist slurs in his work and has repeatedly engaged in anti-Semitism. Those he associates with and recommends also have histories of engaging in bigoted rhetoric.
Fans have argued that PewDiePie has apologised for (some of) the acts he has been called out for. However, a person can’t unring a bell. He has an extraordinary platform and continues to engage in divisive and harmful rhetoric. It is not simply enough to apologise afterward.
There are also those who argue that his speech is “ironic” but ironic fascism is still fascism. Many people watching and listening will not be able to differentiate between jokes and what PewDiePie actually intends. Furthermore, marginalised people may be able to joke about their own identities and oppression in an act that is known as ‘reclaiming’. Those who are privileged cannot. It is not their place. They are merely punching down. But that is the intent of bigots: to confuse people while the right mobilise. Are they sincere? Was it a truthful recommendation to PewDiePie’s channel? Does it even matter?
What does matter, and what is clear, is that we have a culture of far right politics which is flourishing online. Infowars and Breitbart are media outlets which have boomed, but they are just part of a rising right wing culture which is being led by Discord groups, Streamers and YouTube vloggers. PewDiePie is not alone in his content. He is just one of the most successful people at it in a market where millions are trying to create the same ‘edgelord’ content.
The internet is set up to reward controversial figures. Creators get more support for the more outspoken they are. It is known as ‘clickbait’ and does not just apply to journalism. We see it in video content too. But ‘controversial’ in this society has meant the abandonment of facts and reason. It has meant going to ever more extremes in right wing rhetoric, to say the things that those pesky “PC supporters” would gasp at. This is how Twitter has an entrenched problem with Nazis and why YouTube will recommend far right videos to just about anyone who goes onto its website or app. People talk of “dark corners” of the internet allowing far right groups to mobilise but they are wrong. The far right isn’t hiding. It’s being supported and empowered in plain sight. We just haven’t opened our eyes to it.
“People talk of “dark corners” of the internet allowing far right groups to mobilise but they are wrong. The far right isn’t hiding”
Gamers fit into this because they began to resent the increased push for representation in their products and within their industry. But they were also ahead of everyone when it came to tactics. Gamers realised quicker than anyone just how they could access audiences – through memes, gifs, streaming, videos. They were able to target vulnerable angry young men who felt ignored by society, and everyone but marginalised people (who are so often silenced in society) missed it, and nobody then listened to those who saw it.
In the immediate hours after the New Zealand terror attack, Valve removed over 100 tributes to the suspected shooter. Valve has had increasing problems with its platform of late. This month, Valve was forced to remove a game called ‘Rape Day’, where players could essentially rape women, after increasing pressure. Twitch is arguably one of the biggest social media platforms around. As of April 2017, Twitch had 22 million users and around half of those users watch streams for more than 20 hours a week. For a video broadcaster, that’s staggering. Twitch was so popular that an entire new sports series has come directly out of the popularity of people watching each other game, and now Esports is a global industry. Yet, Twitch, has huge problems with racism. Even when streamers themselves don’t engage in racism, chats become spammed with it. Twitch prefers to give freedom to its users, but those hosting a stream are often reluctant to have moderated chats because it can hurt the engagement they get. Platforms are increasingly ignoring major issues of safety and white supremacy on their platforms, and nobody is making them step up. This is perhaps most clear with the popular chat site, Discord, which is used by gamers across the world. Discord has roughly 150 million users, and there are servers filled with white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Even when these servers are flagged, Discord are either slow to take them down or just don’t take action at all. The prevalence on Discord of such bigoted discourse is deeply worrying because on Discord it is so easy to remain hidden. People can be rejected from servers and it is easy to remain anonymous. Anonymity is a hugely important tool because it can protect marginalised people online. However, it’s also being weaponised by those engaging in hate, but because Discord are not acting robustly the anonymity has allowed hate figures to connect with one another.
Terrorists who are white supremacists are often referred to as a “lone wolf”. They are portrayed as isolated figures who needed guidance and then such tragedies that they carried out could have been averted. This is a dangerous line, because it is (usually) completely untrue. Overwhelmingly, white supremacists are not lonely or alone. They are engaging with the world and they are engaging online. They talk about their hatred online, they talk about their violent fantasies and they talk about how to make the world a more dangerous place for marginalised people.
The suspected shooter of Christchurch after his arrest was photographed as he made what used to be known as the “okay sign”. It is now a symbol of white supremacy. Pepe the frog has now become a symbol of white supremacy, and white supremacists even went through a phase of downing milk. These symbols and actions were everywhere online, and are even well known by students in schools. They are not trying to hide. They are trying to connect and make people share their content. You cannot start a right wing uprising by hiding in the shadows, and they stepped into plain sight over half a decade ago, emboldened as it became clear that mainstream journalists were struggling to hold them to account or even identify the risk they posed to society.
“White supremacists are not trying to hide. They are trying to connect and make people share their content. You cannot start a right wing uprising by hiding in the shadows”
It is frustrating that platforms and journalists refuse to take responsibility when it comes to specific popular far right figures. Laurie Penny may stand by their “lost boys” piece on Milo Yiannopoulos (one of the early leaders of the ‘alt-right’ movement designed to make Nazism popular again), but it was only be refusing to give Milo the attention he so desperately craved that he stopped being in any position of influence. De-platforming worked, and one of the most right wing media figures has fallen into near obscurity.
But figures and outlets are so unwilling to de-platform for one big reason: they miss out on the clickbait and the subsequent attention themselves.
Perhaps such an issue should fall to our politicians but both Labour and the Conservatives have said relatively little on the rise of radicalisation of the right – and if they do, they usually forgo any deeper understanding of what is actually happening. Just look at Amber Rudd’s nonsensical comments on WhatsApp. Our politicians are unfit to tackle this issue because they are not representative. Westminster is old, pale and male and it is pale males who are being radicalised through technology young people engage with. MPs don’t understand what to do, and they aren’t trying to. They themselves can be victims of right wing fake news propaganda machines, if you listen to some of the most right wing members of Parliament who spout inaccuracies on a regular basis.
Additionally, efforts to tackle any hate speech are often met with calls from the centre and the right about protecting free speech. However, it is important to remember that we do not have free speech laws in this country. Our speech is curtailed the second it veers into areas of hate. Yet, this is rarely enforced well because speech is treated as a singular entity and there is still no responsibility of platforms for what is published on their sites. Our governments often don’t want to interfere too much with capitalism or businesses, particularly when it comes to businesses they don’t understand. Yet, capitalism is destroying free speech. The way the internet operates elevates fake news, biases and hate speech through clickbait while reason, compassion and accuracy get thrown out of the window. To protect free speech then, we must start to tackle the radicalisation tools and processes online.
Words matter and words alone can be violent, which is why we have hate speech laws. If people speak hate, then people who listen are more likely to carry out acts of hate. There is a link between the media we consume and our beliefs, and then to what actions we take in life. These are not random acts. It’s why atrocities are not carried out by pacifists and why acts of racism are carried out by racists. When our culture has become so extremely right wing both online and offline, that has an impact and it will allow those who are violent to feel empowered. We must tackle how the far right are mobilising and connecting. Whenever Islamic hate comes up, people are quick to want action and to shut down hate speech, but when the figures spouting hate are white, we are slow to call for the same response.
“Words matter and words alone can be violent”
“Welcome, brother” are words which have echoed since the news of the Christchurch terrorist attack took place. A man set upon committing mass murder was greeted with open arms and love. A community has been besieged by hate across the world, but Muslims are overwhelmingly the victims of hate and society has done little to figure out how to challenge it. We are in the midst of a surge of far right popularity, where hate is diminished as being ‘edgy’ or as just a joke. But this pernicious ideology has consequences. It all comes together to create a world where the politics of hate are flourishing.
We don’t truly understand what the rise of the right means. We heard regular complaints about Nigel Farage’s multitude of appearances on the BBC in the run up to the Brexit referendum, but how many young people was that swaying? How many cared about Farage? Some, it is true, but it is not the whole story. It’s the YouTubers and streamers who are also making an impact. It’s the Tommy Robinson’s who rarely get TV appearances but make their money online. Mainstream media allowing people of hate to have platforms is only one part of the problem – we cannot ignore the role of the internet too. The pair go hand-in-hand. All of the commentators becoming more right wing, all of the debate topics of trans people and Begum, all of the memes and edge ‘jokes’ for hits and clicks all add up and create a world where people are being warped against supporting equality, communities and solidarity.
Young white men are being radicalised online. Geekdom is no longer just associated with people who are fans, but an audience who are susceptible to becoming tools for the far right. Radicalisation is not just about making people want to hate the world or to go out and do horrible acts – it is about making radically evil ideas mainstream, such as normalising slurs or diminishing the true impact of streamers who feature hate speech like “death to all Jews”. It is about fundamentally trying to shift society, and millennials and gen z have been targeted by those who seek to make this world a far worse place to live. To change politics, we must look away from Parliament and look to YouTube, Twitch and Discord. We must follow the reactions to games like Battlefield. We must examine fandom, and learn just what certain memes mean and why they are so rarely just a joke. It may seem strange to political journalists to do this, but politics is about people and what society wants and therefore the greatest influences in our society must be examined. It’s online where we will learn more about culture. Activism and politics have changed, and it’s about time commentators caught up and realised just where the problems were truly coming from and they won’t have to look far.