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How do you kill a set of ideas that affect social cohesion when the online environment creates an infinite number of opportunities for people irrespective of age to access extremist material and become radicalised?

This dilemma is at the core of what the federal parliamentary committee delving into extremism and radicalism is grappling with as it tries to understand what makes individuals follow ideologies that can lead them down a destructive pathway.

An illustration of this is the frequency with which people giving evidence to the committee refer to the availability of the manifesto of the Christchurch shooter and how the manifesto, which was first circulated in March 2019, has inspired further violence from individuals who have been radicalised online.

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That manifesto appears in multiple locations and it would be an exercise in whack-a-mole to attempt to get rid of every single possible copy, given the ease with which a file can be shared within a platform, downloaded and forwarded to others.

Removing the manifesto from various sites relies on a range of factors, including people being prepared to complain to messaging platform owners as well as administrators of those platforms taking the initiative to remove such material.

Far-right chatter

One of the favourite homes for far-right chatter is the encrypted app Telegram, and Telegram’s administrators have shown they have the technical capacity to remove channels that host specific content.

It sends out messages each day about the number of Islamic State-related or child abuse-related channels it shuts down.

The encrypted platform’s ISIS Watch channel advises that it has booted 66,273 groups or channels that had jihadist-related content for the year to date, while its Stop Child Abuse channel tells Telegram users it has flushed 89,152 channels or groups during the same period.

Booting channels that have specific content is not a foolproof strategy, however, because some individuals or groups have private channels from which they post material into publicly accessible channels they control.

A national socialist network with adherents in five European countries has five channels that are publicly viewable, but a channel that appears as the source of much of its artwork and propaganda that is common to all channels remains hidden from public view.

Adherents to far-right ideologies also create channels where like-minded groups have photographs posted to demonstrate the breadth of global activity.

One channel recently seen by Crikey consists almost solely of photographs of extremist groups standing in various locations in different countries such as Ukraine, Serbia, Italy, Russia, Poland, Estonia and even Australia, holding up flags with insignia, flashing tattoos and engaging in banner drops over highways.

A smorgasbord of bigotry

What channels like this do is build a picture of a common view or solidarity across jurisdictions among those that adhere to bigoted ideology such as anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny, among others.

This is something that the United Nations addressed earlier this year when it noted anti-Semitism was increasing, and it went more viral as people spent more time online while in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Propaganda linking Jews with the pandemic, for example, by accusing them of creating the virus as part of a bid for global domination, would be ridiculous if it were not so dangerous,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said earlier this year.

One of the regulatory tools that is used to deal with what certain governments believe to be credible terror threats is proscription of a group or an individual in order to make an ideology less attractive and minimise the likelihood of violence.

Canada proscribed 13 groups on February 3, 2021 that included a mix of al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates but its media release highlighted four groups it describes as ideologically motivated violent extremist groups: Atomwaffen Division, the Proud Boys, the Russian Imperial Movement and The Base. It listed two other such groups, Blood and Honour and Combat 18, in 2019.

The UK has also banned groups in recent years that peddle similar ideologies such as Feuerkrieg Division, the Sonnenkrieg Division and National Action. Atomwaffen Division was proscribed by the Old Dart last month.

Australia has proscribed only one group, the Sonnenkrieg Division, that comes from the far-right of the political spectrum, with the current parliamentary inquiry exploring whether Australia’s laws on proscription should change so banning might be easier.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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