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The Nexus Between Political Distrust and Online Extremism

The Nexus Between Political Distrust and Online Extremism
27th April 2021 Isaac Kfir
In Insights

We are living at a time when trust in established politicians and political institutions is at an all-time low, a rather odd development considering the progress that has taken place over the last few decades in terms of expanding civil and political rights, economic growth, and development.

And yet, the ‘2020 Trust Barometer’ highlighted the continued loss of trust in the contemporary political-economic system, with more people seeing it as the cause of inequality, unethical behaviour, malfeasance, corruption, and abuse. The report underlined that many believe that the current political-economic system empowers the wealthy to exploit the system, and that less than 50 percent of the respondents trust government or the media (58% said they trusted business and NGOs).

Political trust refers to how people evaluate the performance of political actors and institutions vis-à-vis their expectations. The greater the trust, the likelier the cooperation and societal harmony. However, the more politicians and established institutions fail to meet expectations, the likelier people are to distrust them.

Persistent distrust or unhappiness encouraged people to look for alternatives, including turning to political violence to bring about change.

Several elements lie at the base of any discussion about political trust and the increase support for extremist positions. Firstly, experience shapes trust. If the person had a positive experience, they tend to trust more. If they had a negative experience, it is probable they would be distrustful. Secondly, the willingness to trust or not stems from social relationships and social capital as these shape a person’s perception. Put differently, if one inhabits a world where individuals express a positive view of society, it is expected they would share such sentiments. Conversely, if one is surrounded by negative perceptions, one is more likely to share such views. The Evangelical community in the United States is a good example of this as studies indicate that Christians tend to distrust a secular government and be attracted to conspiracy theories particularly ones predicting doom as such assertions are common in Christianity.

It is challenging to counter such sentiments and promote trust as individuals across the community share these views and thus mutually reinforce belief that a secular government is not to be trusted.

Online homophilic relationships that build on real and assumed grievances (frustration with political, economic and/or social conditions) play an important in the undermining political trust. These online communities operate as echo-chambers, encouraging supporters to socially isolate so that they remain ideologically pure. The networks that emerge out of these homophilic relationship tend to encourage support for non-traditional movements and leaders that offer unorthodox solutions to what the disillusioned see as the problem with the political-economic-social system.

The communities and networks accelerate the radicalisation process because they augment the ‘them’ versus ‘us’ mentality, ensuring members hear the same thing over and over again, thus reinforcing assumptions, beliefs and prejudices. For example, Richard Spencer’s alt-right garnered support through online engagements based on the claim that immigrants, globalists, feminists, snowflakes, journalists, elites, and interventionists have compromised the political-economic-social system. The alt-right seized on a narrative the resonated with individuals who believe traditional politicians no longer represent them or looks out for them. To its adherent, the alt-right offered a way, albeit through the established political system and through identity politics, to claim that they know how to make American society great again. On the other hand, groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) took on a different approach, though one aimed at a similar goal, as they too want to restructure society. The EDL focused on a victimisation narrative, presenting their supporters and members as victims of a liberal, internationalist, elite that empowers minorities at the expense of white, English working-class and in doing so destroy Englishness. In developing their victimisation narrative, they look to exploit the lack of trust in politicians.

Online Communities and Palingenesis: The Neoreactionist Network

The decline in trust in the political and economic system corresponds to a growing trend among millennials who no longer see democracy as essential to their lives. Instead, they look to technocrats, in part because they believe that technocrats and business people are data-driven as oppose to interest. Evidently some millennials see technocrats and business as driven by the scientific method and not political ideology.

One strand of online right-wing extremists looking to exploit political distrust, grievances and encourage support for a business-driven technocracy are the neoreactionists whose ideas seem to garner increased interest.

What makes the neoreactionist interesting and appealing is that through The Dark Enlightenment, A Formalist Manifesto, and such online documents, proponents identify a set of problems in society that help perpetuate the belief that one could not nor should trust the establishment.

Where they differ from other extremist networks is that in their writing they offer a future, one based on technology, an imagined, romanticised past, and the ‘sad puppies’ sci-fi community that resonates with a constituency looking for a different political order. Interestingly, a similar strand is found in Russia through the work of Aleksandr Prokhanov “the founder and editor-in-chief of the extreme right-wing newspaper Zavtra, one of the leading ideologues of the putsch against Gorbachev’s regime in August 1991 and the author of more than 60 novels, which mix esoteric, conspirationist, anti-Semitic and neo-Stalinist themes.”

Neoreactionism (NRx) appeals to those distrusting the contemporary political, economic, social, cultural system for several reasons. Firstly, NRx provides a distinct identity giving rise to an in-group / out-group dichotomy. The in-group rejects democratic ideals, equality, political correctness, and meritocracy. These values are regarded as the cause of the pervasive insecurity as they are culturally alien, and reject the national order, understood through the rubric of nineteenth-century eugenics, which neoreactionists see as scientific.

In terms of the body polity, for many neoreactionists, political leadership is supposed to be based on power, competence, trustworthiness, accountability, strength (and race). Power is viewed through the lens of leaders willing to challenge political correctness and the establishment by saying out loud things that contemporary society regards as offensive, but whom neoreactionists claim is truth that has been hidden under the veil of political correctness. Trust and accountability are assessed through a pseudo-corporate paradigm where the underline assumption is that the CEO is a strong leader who focuses on achieving quantifiable results: a prosperous, united, strong, city-state (referred to as gov-Corp). Under this paradigm, CEOs are replaceable if they fail to meet the expectations of the inhabitants who can exit and move elsewhere if they are no longer satisfied with the leadership.

The danger of NRx is in its pseudo-intellectualism (Curtis Yarvin, a key neoreactionist had claimed he spent $500 a month on books) and its ability to construct an imagined past and a hopeful future that draws on sci-fi, which many of its adherents embrace and long for as it meets their imagined expectations.

The sci-fi world of the gov-Corp appeals to the neoreactionists, digital libertarians, transhumanists, and many other young, tech-savvy individuals who believe that politicians and established political institutions are self-serving. These reasonably educated individuals want an end to “confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability,” because they recognise “the body politic has become a fool’s errand” leading them to reject the assertion that freedom and democracy are compatible because of the infusion of liberal, international, un-scientific, ideas.

It used to be a truism that in modern, liberal, democratic societies, grievances could be addressed and remedied through a peaceful change of a policy or a government. However, because distrust in the political system is prevalent as is the assumption that all politicians are untrustworthy, interest in the mainstream political system and also in peaceful transition is in decline. People search for alternatives, which is where neoreactionary attitudes emerge and gather momentum. In other words, some turn to political violence because they feel that it is the only way to bring about change.

One way to address the decline in trust is through improved cooperation between sectors such as government and community activists, as such action could help address the lack of transparency, accountability, and access. Mainstream politicians and political institutions must work together to recognise the distrust, requiring better engagement with an increasingly disillusioned public, particularly the younger generations, who are generally ignored because they cannot vote and because they lack real economic power.

Studies such as the Trust Barometer highlight that optimism in the political-economic system has been falling annually, although many still have faith in the ideals of liberal economic policies, including the claim that through hard work one can have a good and secure life.

There is also a desperate need to reform the relationship between big business and government, providing for more transparency and accountability, as many increasingly feel that no matter how hard they work, the system is stacked up against them.