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Plug-and-Play Propaganda: Understanding Production Quality in Atomwaffen Division Videos

Plug-and-Play Propaganda: Understanding Production Quality in Atomwaffen Division Videos
23rd July 2020 Ashley Mattheis

After discovering a cache of eighteen Atomwaffen Division (AWD) propaganda videos on archive.org last year, our research team – comprised of members who study both Salafi Jihadist and right-wing extremism – decided to use our evaluative tool (previously developed to measure the quality of Islamic State (IS) videos) to assess the videos we found. Very quickly, the members of the team skilled at evaluating the quality of video production in IS videos came back with the assessment that our evaluative tool would not be particularly useful for the AWD cache as all of the videos, even the videos with the best production, clearly demonstrated less than 50% of potential quality in the tool. This indicates that ‘Hollywood’-level production quality is not an apparent goal of extreme right-wing propaganda producers and that they are generating a persuasive effect by other means. While disappointing, the observation was not unexpected by the member of the team focused on online propaganda from right-wing extremists because of differences between IS and AWD organisational structures and the heavy reliance on meme culture and aesthetics in extreme right-wing online cultures. Discussing the factors that contribute to the problems with applying the IS quality model to the AWD propaganda videos provides insights into the range and difference of materials, and offers pathways forward for working with extreme right-wing visual materials.

The primary factor in the low quality we see in AWD propaganda videos as compared to IS propaganda videos, we believe, is tied to their aspirational goals of apocalyptic violence ultimately leading to chaos and the destruction of Western, liberal governments. IS videos inclusive of structure, narrative, and quality, are differently framed because their goal is clear, to develop and support the idea and existence of the caliphate – a nation state – which requires a relatively utopic aspirational frame. Certainly, there are very violent IS videos, but the overarching goal of such violence is to bring about the utopia of the caliphate. In the AWD videos, the overarching goal of violent imagery is accelerationist in nature. Such imagery is meant to incite the violent overthrow of nation states and to bring about a period of chaos, mayhem, and death from which they can undo the damage – particularly movements for racial and gender equality – resulting from liberalism. This difference in purpose also highlights two other significant factors in the production quality that must be attended to in a review of extreme right-wing materials: the production norms of internet media in Western milieus and the right-wing extremist attempt to utilise the horizontal and diffuse organisational model of ‘leaderless resistance.’ Neither of these factors comprise aspects of IS propaganda production given that their production norms follow a Western ‘Hollywood’ model and their organisational structure is vertical and strongly bounded. Ultimately, the research team has decided to work on generating an evaluative model specific to extreme right-wing visual propaganda (inclusive of video and memes) that can account for these variances in aspirational goals, production norms, and organisational models.

The full number of videos that we have found to date includes the original cache of eighteen videos and several individual videos posted on archive.org. Many of these videos are also accessible on sites such as 4Chan and 8Chan, although the full set of videos has not been found in a cache together on those sites. The majority of videos are US-based content, and four are international content including from Germany, an unnamed Eastern European country, Brazil, and Sweden. In the US-based content, regular imagery includes campfires and burning or stabbing flags of enemy organisations, urban warfare practice such as clearing rooms in ruined buildings, and members shooting automatic rifles either as individuals or as squads practicing together. Fourteen of the videos show field-based imagery and six of the videos are targeted ideological propaganda. One video in the cache blends the ideological components with the field produced material for the purpose of doxing AWD members which the group founder has identified as apostates.

The four international videos all represent messages of solidarity with the US-based AWD groups. The German video is unique because it presents cuts of non-US group footage cut together with imagery common to the US videos and uses a voice-over narrative. This dual-language voice-over with same-language subtitles further indicates that the message is intended for wide consumption across multiple audiences, because viewers can easily translate either language online making the video’s message available to viewers globally. The videos from Germany, Brazil, and Sweden use markers to indicate their geographic authenticity.

The primary facets of the AWD videos which make using the original quality-based evaluative model difficult are: 1) the low volume of raw/source video materials; 2) the use of ripped – copied – material as primary content of ideological videos; and 3) the low-skill level of production of the video compilations (as measured using quality metrics). In thinking about why these features are prevalent in the videos, certain types of reasoning from a production standpoint make sense. While such decisions could be tied to an overarching strategy and aesthetic, it is more likely that these decisions for the field-recorded videos are rooted in the limited skill of group members producing material. For the ideological videos, it seems likely to be a combined skills-and-branding based decision. This means that for AWD video propaganda, key benefits of lower quality production include 1) a sense of authenticity, 2) alignment with internet sub-cultural media norms, and 3) distributed production enabled by the reuse of content that meshes easily with limited production skills.

We use two terms to describe how this material is produced to persuasive effect: 1) ‘Content bricolage’ or the use of multiple existing materials (images, memes, taglines etc.) to generate content, rather than the primary use of group generated original content and 2) ‘Visual vernacular,’ or the repetitious use of content, colour, and style effects to create a visual, subcultural language that can be shared across a wide range of geographies and related group affiliations. In terms of production, we use the concept of content bricolage to describe the practice of suturing together images, video, and materials from a variety of sources, even other Atomwaffen propaganda, to generate a visually persuasive narrative. Importantly, bricolage as a framework for producing content allows for the admixture of ideological components with visual components in ways that are easily replicable with limited production skills. The replication of particular content, visual objects, and colour palettes constitutes the visual vernacular that can be identified as belonging specifically to AWD (and related groups such as the Feuerkrieg and Sonnenkrieg Divisions) as well as where it fits within the larger visual rhetoric of right-wing extremism and accelerationist ideology online.

In using these terms, we highlight the nature of these videos – moving images – as functioning in ways highly similar to memes. In fact, many of the videos found in the cache seem, from a production standpoint, to work as a series of still images strung together and unified through sound (music, commentary, and even noise).  Moreover, reused images sutured into the content often appear posterised, with flattened detail and depth, a production choice that limits and controls the range of meaning for the image. These production features further the meme-like sensibility of the videos. This understanding is further supported by theorisations of memes as communicative visuals. According to Ryan Milner, bricolage as a production technique ‘is essential to memetic participation,’ and ‘In Dawkins’s terms multi-modal bricolage and poaching are ‘vehicles’ for the transmission of internet memes.’ Milner also goes on to note that while memes are intended to spread, “memetic vernacular” (along with logics and grammar) they ‘are employed in subcultural conversations to differentiate insiders and outsiders, and to distinguish members of the collective from the uninitiated.’ Thus, content bricolage assists in the development and maintenance of the specific visual vernacular used by AWD as both a form of branding to project group identity, and to enable individuals to identify with the diffuse online world of AWD as a community. Therefore, a variety of producers can use this visual vernacular and content bricolage to assert their identification with, and participation in, the community even if they have never come into direct contact with other members.

The use of content bricolage in the ideological videos, specifically videos built by connecting a string of clips and still images with a sound overlay, make the reuse of materials easy within the visual rhetoric of the propaganda. The repetitive reuse of imagery and this style of video making also generate the visual vernacular shared by members of the group regardless of geographic location, which acts through repetition to provide emphasis, reinforcement and enlarged context. The skull and crossbones avatars used to hide participant faces in some videos link to the half or full skull face masks worn by participants in others. This presents a visual marker that can easily be used by other producers to signal community engaged identification. And this marker works whether it is the cartoon avatar, an individual wearing a mask, a posed mask (on a flat surface), or simply a skull image on a blog, meme, or cut into a video. This visual marker along with other visual markers from font, to colour palette, to taglines, and images lifted directly from other AWD material work together to shape the scope of the visual vernacular. This can be seen most clearly in the video from Brazil where the producer cut together images from AWD propaganda videos with images of a person walking on a street with a Brazilian flag to indicate solidarity and support through the visual vernacular and reuse of ideological propaganda images.

Although this data set is limited, the included videos are nonetheless sanctioned by AWD as ‘on message’ and on ‘target audience.’ And, while there have been discussions about the continued existence of AWD due to the prosecution of their members, these videos are still available on the surface web, and are very likely still shared on closed platforms, where they can influence other right-wing extremist participants, media producers, and potential violent actors. As Cassie Miller notes, ‘Other groups with similar aesthetics and rhetoric appear to be forming online – in some cases, it is unclear whether they exist simply to produce propaganda or they are forming actual organizational networks.’ Thus, the utility of these materials for spreading accelerationist messaging remains.

The findings from our attempt to use the quality-based evaluative model for this set of videos are significant because they highlight distinct differences in production between right-wing extremist propaganda videos and Salafi Jihadist propaganda videos such that the quality markers of one form of propaganda do not translate to the other. One might dismiss this as ‘obvious,’ but that does not mean such distinctions are unimportant. The uses of content bricolage and visual vernacular indicate that broad norms from online media cultures are embedded within the production and enhance the circulation of extreme right-wing materials. Moreover, our interpretation of the reasons related to these production choices indicate the importance of group and ideological world views – visions of the future – to digital forms of propaganda such that these materials are not simply reflections of each other. Both are persuasive, although they satisfy different expected forms. In identifying that a different form of evaluation is necessary, we have laid the groundwork for developing a new tool specific to right-wing extremist practices and goals. In developing this model we are seeking to create an evaluative tool that can work across a variety of right-wing extremist frames including, but not limited to accelerationist propaganda. To achieve this, we are focusing on aesthetic and narrative components that will allow our team to analyse materials (videos, memes, and posters) specific to particular groups and ideologies as well as comparatively between different right-wing extremist frames. We hypothesise that such a model will allow us to begin to understand how propaganda is produced in relation to political (elections, protests) and juridical (increasing arrest patterns) events.