Online mobilization strategies by right-wing extremists

graphic: White supremacist podcast network (SPLC link)

The surge of right-wing extremism has been evident in the United States for the past five years, including the spread of white supremacist language and activism, armed demonstrations by right-wing militia organizations, violent threats against public officials in health and education agencies, and — of course — the violent insurrection that took place in the US Capitol Building January 6, 2021. But how does this work? What are the processes through which movements and groups that had been on the extremist fringe in the US are now coming into mass politics and are being embraced by Republican leaders from local to national? Is this just organic growth, or is it more deliberate and intentional than that?

The Souther Poverty Law Center has provided information — increasingly alarming information — about the growth of racist and extremist groups around the country for decades, and its research provides very important for all citizens who care about democracy to study. SPLC researchers have also highlighted the fact that hate-based groups and activists make extensive use of the internet to spread their ideas and values. Crucially, Megan Squire and Hannah Gais have documented a very rapid rise in mobilization and proselytization strategies through podcasts — low-cost, readily disseminated productions that spew White Supremacist hate along with “shock radio” irony (link). They write that “the role of podcasts in the world of far-right extremism has been largely understudied.” Producers of these hate-based podcasts can rely on dozens of podcast outlets provided by Apple, Google, and dozens of other internet mainstays, and the hate-based podcast can generate its audience at almost no cost. The article demonstrates graphically how these networks of extremist podcasts have grown in a very short time. They summarize the use of a wide network of hate-based podcasts for extremist purposes in these terms:

Podcasts have been exploited by far-right extremists in three distinct ways. They represent an important vehicle for radicalization to extremism and recruitment into extremist groups. Podcasts are also a bridge from online to on-the-ground organizing, specifically in the context of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Finally, extremists use podcasts to build contacts abroad and introduce their movements to leaders in other countries. (link)

Squire and Gais use a number of valuable analytical tools to describe the audiences of these podcasts and the important role that the podcast network has played in orchestrating events like Unite the Right. Through this research the SPLC report helps to capture the current structure of the White Supremacist movement today:

Both communities constituted two distinct poles within the white power movement, with Iron March representing its violent, terroristic ambitions and 504um typifying its efforts to build a white ethnostate through the existing political system. For a time, some users retained membership at both sites, while members of each site’s core leadership engaged in dialogue on their respective podcasts and occasionally republished one another’s work. However, after members of 8chan, a far-right image board popular with white supremacists and far-right conspiracy theorists, outed TRS leader Peinovich as married to a Jewish woman, the two communities fractured. “Slavros” and those groups, such as the Atomwaffen Division, that carried on the forum’s legacy of violence long after it disappeared from the web in fall 2017, expressed contempt for TRS and other factions of the alt-right. For “Slavros,” the alt-right represented “appeasement” to the current political order, as he argued in the September 2017 text “Zero Tolerance.”

Squire and Gais find a weird kind of narrative complexity in the stories of contemporary fascist beliefs that are represented in the various podcasts. This is important because it goes some way to explaining the virulence and appeal of these movements to some profiles of vulnerable individuals.

Another important angle that SPLC researchers have uncovered is the role played in hate organizations by cryptocurrencies (link). Michael Edison Hayden and Megan Squire show that cryptocurrency speculation has provided a very substantial source of funds in support of right-wing extremist mobilization. Here is a summary of their findings:

Hatewatch identified and compiled over 600 cryptocurrency addresses associated with white supremacists and other prominent far-right extremists for this essay and then probed their transaction histories through blockchain analysis software. What we found is striking: White supremacists such as Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents, race pseudoscience pundit Stefan Molyneux, Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer and Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, and Don Black of the racist forum Stormfront, all bought into Bitcoin early in its history and turned a substantial profit from it. The estimated tens of millions of dollars’ worth of value extreme far-right figures generated represents a sum that would almost certainly be unavailable to them without cryptocurrency, and it gave them a chance to live comfortable lives while promoting hate and authoritarianism.

This research depends on the use of blockchain analysis software. Here is a definition of this kind of tool: “Blockchain analysis is the process of inspecting, identifying, clustering, modeling and visually representing data on a cryptographic distributed-ledger known as a blockchain. The goal of blockchain analysis is discovering useful information about the different actors transacting in cryptocurrency. Analysis of public blockchains such as the bitcoin and ethereum is often conducted by private companies. Bitcoin has long been associated with the trade of illegal goods on the dark web; this has been the case since bitcoin became the standard currency on the now closed ” (link). Tools like these provide a window into the magnitude and disbursements made by some of these specific individuals. Speculation in Bitcoin and other currencies created a great deal of wealth for many of the leaders of far-right extremist organizations. And these cryptocurrency platforms provide relatively anonymous vehicles for transfer of funds from donors to organizations and their leaders. 

Interesting and important as these analyses are, the job is still unfinished. We need a similarly detailed and technically sophisticated analysis of the use of Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms by very intelligent right-wing extremists in pursuit of their goals of fundraising, mobilization, proselytization, and activism. What volume of videos on Youtube, and how many viewers, are connected to right-wing extremism and racist ideologies? How are Facebook groups used to transmit and amplify hate-based messages to followers? How is Twitter subverted with lies about immigration, covid, or government action? And what about online video game communities — what role do these communities play in the amplification of hate-based values and beliefs? (Here is a New York Times piece about young teenagers being targeted in multi-player online games by neo-Nazi and white supremacist activists; link.)

When we consider the disproportionate role that false information, conspiracy theories, and outright lies about the coronavirus have played in the rapid incorporation of Covid into right-wing extremist grievances, the online networks described here are of great importance. These are some of the highways through which dangerous lies and mobilizing political narratives are conveyed by right-wing extremists. Hate-based extremists exist in real, concrete organizations and geographical locations; but they also exist in online communities. And the sophisticated data analysis provided by SPLC researchers is one of the tools we need if we are to fight effectively against the kinds of violent mobilization that occurred on January 6, 2021.

graphic: SPLC hate group map 2020 (link)

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