The prime minister’s inability to discipline backbenchers, News Corp’s extremism-based business model, and complacency are increasing the risk of right-wing terrorism in Australia as we fail to learn the lessons emerging in the United States about what drives extremists to violence.
President Joe Biden identified the challenge of right-wing terrorism in his inaugural address, saying “we must confront and we will defeat” it. One of his early actions was to ask US security agencies to evaluate the threat of domestic terrorism.
US police forces have long recognised that the most serious threat they face is right-wing terrorism, which has surged dramatically in recent years to the point where, before the pandemic, it accounted for 90% of terrorist acts in the US. The January 6 attempt to seize the Capitol and its fatal consequences only demonstrated a long-term trend enthusiastically encouraged by Donald Trump.
Here, despite warnings from ASIO about the growing threat of right-wing terrorism, the Morrison government has repeatedly downplayed the risk, even after Labor forced it to conduct an inquiry in December and despite Australia producing one of worst terrorist mass murderers of recent times in Christchurch in 2019.
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The aftermath of the January 6 coup attempt, however, has illustrated how Scott Morrison and his government facilitate the conditions for far-right violence.
Those events demonstrated a key link long understood by counter-terrorism researchers: misinformation is crucial to radicalisation. Narratives of Western aggression against Muslims (which the West often did its best to confirm) or Islamic triumphalism are central to Islamist terrorism. The spread of myths and lies about Muslims via social media are a crucial driver of Hindu violence against Indian Muslims. And the conviction that Trump had been deprived of a landslide victory drove tens of thousands of white Americans — many armed and some plotting the murder of politicians — to attempt to overthrow Congress.
That’s why the “free speech” narrative peddled by right-wingers after Trump’s removal from Twitter and Facebook was not merely false but deeply disingenuous (and intellectually incoherent, as NSW’s Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean demonstrated in an excellent piece skewering his federal colleagues). Preventing the spread of misinformation designed to radicalise is as crucial in relation to right-wing terrorism as it is in relation to Islamist terrorism.
Deplatforming has been shown to work in relation to Islamist extremism, both in removing material intended to incite violence and hate, and in removing platforms by which extremists can recruit, egg each other on and organise violence (which is why, driven offline, far-right social media site Parler has been offered a home by the Russians, eager to continue to try to destabilise the West).
But for many Morrison government ministers and backbenchers, it’s fine to deplatform incitement and hate intended to drive Islamist violence, but an outrageous attack on free speech to deplatform incitement and hate intended to drive right-wing violence.
This is a small example of a bigger problem: that right-wing extremism is normalised in a way that could never possibly happen in relation to Islamist extremism. Not merely normalised by the media, but by the perpetrators themselves: Islamist terrorists would never regard themselves as part of any “mainstream” in Western societies. Yet right-wing terrorists and the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol believe they are the mainstream, that they form part of some invisible, silent majority tyrannised by liberal, woke, blah blah elites. It’s a variant of the unspoken media rule that white people don’t do terrorism, only brown people do.
Morrison’s refusal to do what many other national leaders have done, what even senior Republicans have done, right up to former Senate leader Mitch McConnell, and specifically criticise Trump for inciting insurrection — a refusal driven by Morrison’s desire to pander to right-wingers and, perhaps, his own strong personal connections with a prominent Australian QAnon supporter — further normalises extremism.
So too does his refusal to criticise in any way the Trumpist lies and QAnon conspiracy theories peddled by Craig Kelly and George Christensen. How can Australia deplatform misinformation when prominent backbenchers use substantial social media presences to spread it, with no pushback or criticism from the government? The government can’t even bring itself to criticise Kelly’s potentially lethal wingnuttery about vaccination.
Labor’s Anthony Byrne, the deputy chair of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, who professes a passionate loathing of right-wing extremists and who has been briefed by ASIO on their activities in his own electorate of Holt, warns of the consequences of letting MPs go unchecked. “If members of the government advocate the sort of right wing conspiracy theories that are the drivers and enablers of extremism, and you fail to criticise them, you’re sending a signal that you tacitly support them,” he says, “and you’re energising the people who take their cue from them.”
Of course, it’s even harder to deplatform misinformation when the country’s biggest media company continues to spread it. News Corporation — the world’s premier spreader of extremist propaganda — continues to broadcast conspiracy theories, extremist propaganda and Trump lies via Sky News, as detailed here. It’s not confined to the fascist fringe of Sky after dark — The Australian’s senior columnists cheered what they claimed was Trump’s win after November 3.
News Corp’s business model is based on extremism: the only way it can make money is to pander to an increasingly detached, deluded right-wing audience that believes itself to be the victim of a host of conspiracies. And in doing so it spreads exactly the kind of misinformation that leads to violence and terrorism.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. Christchurch showed us what destruction a single, delusional, radicalised white male could wreak. But the Morrison government and its chief media arm refuse to listen. What will be the price of their refusal?