The Online Ecosystem of the Far Right

I've been researching right wing extremism for the better part of the last 3-5 years. I've written web scrapers to monitor online social media sites, written thousands of words of mostly unpublished analysis of right wing extremist tactics, groups and associations and historical events. Much of this research has concerned both online and "meatspace" activity, and I often believe that the delineation between IRL right wing extremist gatherings and online right wing extremist gatherings is useless, at best, and dangerously reductive at worst. It can be useful to explore the explicitly online communities and their relationship with IRL activities, especially to show correlative relationships between discussions online and real life activities.

This is the first in a series of articles that will delve into exploring the dark depths of the right wing extremist (RWE) online ecosystem. I am dubbing this Project Hydra, because the only way to defeat the beast that is RWE is to cut of each of its heads and cauterize the stumps by shedding light on the dark places they in which they dwell and exposing the true nature of the beast itself.

A simple introduction...

Right wing extremist activity online can be characterized similarly to most niches and dark spots on the web: there is a fairly large presence on "surface-level" mainstram social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and a bustling underbelly of typically more violent, extreme and often anonymous discussion on "alt-platforms" like Gab, Gettr and Parler and various, more-or-less decentralized forums, blogs and communities. The last several years saw a fairly significant move toward mostly mobile-based chat applications like Telegram and WhatsApp as well.

The way these disparate sites are used is quite telling. Twitter and Facebook are primarily useful as an interface with the "normie" world for the purpose of propaganda, viral marketing and recruitment. As such, it is quite important that extremists stay on the platform without being banned, and that they can spread their messaging as far as possible without being "shadowbanned." If they cannot get their messaging across, if they cannot make it go viral, the whole purpose of their existence on these sites, a culmination of a lot of work and capital, in many cases, is pointless. This typically means the messaging is toned down, the swastikas replaced by American flags, "Jews will not replace us" itself replaced with "rising violent crime and lowering standards of living for white folks."

The racism is not missing on these platforms, as anyone who has waltzed through the nastier corners of Twitter can tell you. It just looks nicer, and skirts the fine line between normie political discourse and outright calling for genocide. Sometimes, it crosses over that line, but most of the time the language used on these platforms is toned down enough to avoid a ban but still obvious enough to those who are looking to signal their true colors.

Because the recruitment is the point, these surface-level social media sites are intended to grab potential radicals and pull them under water to the places where discussions can take a more explicit turn. The Proud Boys, for example, typically reserved the more violent and racist content for their Telegram channels. They would recruit with the facade of being a Conservative, God Fearing almost Exclusively All-White fraternity with a bit of a violent/punk-ish nature, and then reveal their character as a violent street gang with more extreme political views than social and fiscal conservatism in their Telegram groups.

Some groups didn't bother recruiting on mainstream social media to begin with. Atomwaffen, a right wing extremist group known for a handful of murders, a Nazi death squad training camp and the acquisition of chemicals and materials with intent to make a nuclear/dirty bomb of some sort, did most of their recruiting on sites that were explicitly for white nationalists and right wing extremists, as well as more interpersonal methods of outreach and postering campaigns. This is likely because Atomwaffen was too extreme and edgy to pull off recruiting their target demographic on mainstream social media.