The far right thrives on global networks. They must be fought online and off

The far right thrives on global networks. They must be fought online and off

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2017-05-02

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Nationalists across the world are sharing knowledge and reinforcing messages of hate. The fightback begins with social media companies, and all of us

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‘The far right has gained influence on all levels: from far-right populism to white supremacist terrorism, from alt-right movements to neo-Nazi groups.’ Photograph: Ben Stevens/PA

“Muslims are like cockroaches. An infestation that needs to be eradicated. Immediately. Permanently”, reads the tweet by one of thousands of anonymous far-right Twitter accounts that spread hate against ethnic and religious minorities each day.

Meanwhile, National Action calls for a “White Jihad”, right next to a tweet about their Miss Hitler 2016 competition. After National Action became Britain’s first far-right group to be banned, its web page was taken down. Yet, until a few days ago its official Twitter profile has been operative and hosts an arsenal of dangerous propaganda.

The home affairs committee’s new report released today, called Hate Crime: Abuse, Hate and Extremism Online harshly condemns social media companies for their failure to identify and remove illegal content. They are “shamefully far from taking sufficient action” to safeguard online users from harassment, abuse and promotion of violence, it warns. The report comes at a crucial time. Our research at Quilliam into far-right extremism and hate crimes, which contributed to the report’s findings, shows that the far right has gained influence on all levels: from far-right populism to white supremacist terrorism, from alt-right movements to neo-Nazi groups.

Challenge everything you think – democracy depends on it
Cass Sunstein

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Over the past year, anti-immigrant rhetoric has grown and anti-Muslim hate crimes have surged. The government’s Channel programme, which aims to reach people at risk of being radicalised, is receiving more far-right referrals than ever before, and online hate speech against ethnic and religious minorities has reached unprecedented levels. The Metropolitan police even warned that the threat from far-right groups is as severe as the jihadist threat.

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The British far-right landscape is increasingly splintered and leaderless. But low membership numbers of street protest movements such as the EDL and Pegida UK are hardly comforting. Some of their former cohort have joined smaller, more militant groups while others have focused their efforts on spreading hate online. Increasingly, far-right movements show signs of collective learning and create powerful multiplier effects for their messages. As early adopters of new technology, they have been exceptionally good at using social media to widen their echo chambers and foster ties with like-minded groups abroad.

British “counter-jihadis” have stepped up their cooperation with American alt-righters, French and Austrian “identitarians” and even German and Polish neo-Nazis. This is the paradox of modern-day nationalists: they capitalise on the opportunities of globalisation to spread their anti-globalist views globally.

It is within this context that EDL founder turned Pegida UK leader Tommy Robinson features prominently on Alex Jones’s conspiracy theory show, Infowars, and receives support from American alt-right leaders Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. Platforms such as Gates of Vienna, the FrontPage Mag and Jihad Watch provide outlets for all of them.

Once their ideas are carried into social media echo chambers, hateful rhetoric quickly turns into crime and calls for violence. Some far-right pages have become melting pots for misogynistic, racist, anti-Muslim and antisemitic hate speech, where #Manosphere activists meet conspiracy theorists and alt-right trolls. These online nexus points have enabled British far-right activists to mobilise young people, hijack online subcultures and obfuscate the 24-hour media circle by spreading hyper-partisan and alternative news.

It would be wrong to claim that we have not made any progress in challenging far-right hate crimes and extremism. In the past year, Twitter has started removing neo-Nazi accounts, the media has begun calling far-right-inspired attacks “terrorism” and Prevent efforts increasingly focus on rightwing radicalisation. But with an American president who conflates Islam and Islamist extremism while blurring the lines between fact and fiction, efforts have been somewhat impeded. The election successes of populist politicians across Europe and the US have further normalised extremists’ rhetoric and given credence to the perception of an inevitable conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims.

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That the far right has moved from the fringe into the mainstream demonstrates the massive support that white supremacist movements have attracted from digital natives. Their online followership often exceeds that of mainstream political parties: with over 200,000 followers, Tommy Robinson’s Twitter account has almost the same number of followers as Theresa May’s.

Neo-Nazis outperform Isis in nearly every metric, a 2016 report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found. In my evidence to the home affairs committee, I warned of the link between online hate speech and offline violence. The murder of Jo Cox by far-right terrorist Tommy Mair in the run-up to the Brexit referendum was a sad reminder that dehumanising words can inspire and translate into violent action and self-starter terrorism. My conversations with members and ex-members of the EDL, Pegida and Combat18, as well as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Al-Muhajiroun and Isis, confirmed that jihadis and far-right extremists use each others’ rhetoric to reinforce their common narrative that a final battle between the west and Islam is inevitable.

This is why the far right celebrates every terrorist attack as a victory for their narrative of “all Muslims are terrorists”, while jihadis rejoice at the election of far-right politicians. Robinson reacted to the Westminster attack by going on an anti-Muslim rant, while Marine Le Pen instantly exploited the Champs-Élysées attack by giving her anti-immigration line a final pre-election push. Likewise, Isis-supporting Telegram channels cheered at the news of Donald Trump’s victory and expressed their hope that Le Pen will become France’s next president.

To prevent radicalisation, hate crimes and violent extremism, we will need to tackle the source of reciprocal radicalisation: the vicious circle of hate driven by “us against them” narratives. Disbanding groups and removing extremist online content is the first step. But, more importantly, we will need to strengthen civil society-led efforts to dissect binary world views and replace them with credible, more nuanced alternatives.

• The Rage: The New Vicious Circle of Extremism by Julia Ebner will be published by I.B. Tauris in September 2017

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