When Donald Trump told US-based white supremacist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”, right-wing extremists in Australia were listening.
Groups such as Reclaim Australia and The Lads Society — which are strongly influenced by Trumpist rhetoric — have always been monitored by security agencies, but the scope of their influence has been unclear.
Today’s launch of a landmark study, Mapping Networks and Narratives of Online Right-Wing Extremists in New South Wales, changes that.
Published by Macquarie and Victoria Universities, the report uses data from social media platforms to delineate a network of online communities which radicalise individuals and introduce extreme rhetoric into Australian politics.
On unregulated platforms such as Gab, Reddit, 4chan and 8chan/kun, along with the poorly-moderated Twitter and Facebook, there is a plethora of messages advocating violence, the report found. However, the actual threat of violence was difficult to distinguish from ironic and exaggerated posts.
“We know that individuals with violent intentions exist on these platforms. However, this environment is full of bragging, irony, and fantasy, meaning identification of violent threats is difficult,” the report says.
Right-wing extremists are defined by the researchers as communities and individuals committed to an extreme social, political, or ideological position that is pro-white identity and actively suspicious of non-white others.
In these social media echo chambers, anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic messaging and far-right conspiracy theories such as QAnon are used to recruit and engage users.
QAnon was the major influence on the Christchurch terrorist who live-streamed the fatal shooting of 51 worshippers at two mosques in 2019.
The dangers of these narratives are that, as well as fostering violent extremism, they serve to “polarise political debate and undermine trust in institutions and democracy,” say study authors Dr Julian Droogan, Dr Brian Ballsun-Stanton and Lise Waldek.
COVID-19, of course, has made everything much worse. Right-wing extremists have been exploiting the fear about the virus by promoting conspiracy theories and misinformation.
“Conspiracy theories regularly play a critical role in the development of extremism through the formation of crisis narratives. These narratives offer individuals a framework to identify an enemy that can be held accountable and that requires decisive actions against so as to protect the believers from destruction,” the report says.
For instance, people who are nervous about using vaccines are told that pharmaceutical companies are in the pocket of politicians and are therefore part of a powerful cabal, Droogan says. Believing this gives people a sense of agency in a time of crisis and an explanation for acts such as refusing a vaccine.
In 1996, One Nation’s Pauline Hanson referred to Australia being “swamped by Asians”. According to the Macquarie University report, racist rhetoric in this country transitioned from a mainly anti-Asian discourse to an anti-Islamic one in the early 2000s. This was triggered by 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of Islamic State, and the 2014 Martin Place siege.
With less than four weeks left until the US election, the extremist language on these social media platforms will only get worse. Recently, Donald Trump tweeted a conspiracy theory about ballot fraud, fuelling fears he will refuse to stand down if he loses.
“THE MEDIA IS CORRUPT, JUST LIKE OUR DEMOCRAT-RUN BALLOT SYSTEM IS CORRUPT. Look what’s happening with Fake, Missing and Fraudulent Ballots all over the Country??? VOTE” he tweeted. His supporters are preparing to vote, but the Proud Boys heard something extra. They are standing back and standing by, with arms.