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Radical Right Activities in Nusantara’s Digital Landscape: A Snapshot

Radical Right Activities in Nusantara’s Digital Landscape: A Snapshot
19th April 2022 GNET Team
In Report-Gnet

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In November 2020, law enforcement officers detained an unidentified 16‑year‑old teenager under Singapore’s Internal Security Act for allegedly plotting to kill Muslims in two mosques on the second anniversary of the deadly 2019 Christchurch attacks. An ethnic Indian of the Protestant faith, the Singaporean youth had made plans to assault the Assyafaah and Yusof Ishak mosques, both of which are located in the Woodlands residential neighbourhood. This gesture was meant to pay tribute to Brenton Tarrant, the gunman who broadcast his massacre at two Christchurch mosques in New Zealand in 2019 live on Facebook. The Singaporean teenager had bought a military vest as well as a machete over the internet. Following the arrest, regional security experts described the case as an instance of “reciprocal radicalisation”.

It is essential to note that contemporary extreme right ideologies have an extensive pre‑war history; their current revival is gaining momentum because they are seen as the rational explanation of and solution for today’s political and social crises. Because of this, right‑wing extremism and its concomitant far‑right ideologies is the least understood type of ideologically motivated violent extremism in the Southeast Asian region. As much as it is very tempting to suggest that contemporary right‑wing extremism is a form of reaction or response to militant Islamist extremism and violence that has been troubling this region, that would be an oversimplification of a more complex issue. This report analyses the types of far‑right narratives shared among members of different online sociopolitical movements in Southeast Asia using sample datasets collected from popular social media platforms frequented by each group’s followers.

When it comes to the war of words, narrative is always central – whether in the form of extremist messaging to appeal to potential recruits, or state‑crafted campaigns designed to undermine political opponents or economic rivals. As such, in today’s digital and inter‑connected world, the media space has been transformed into a battlefield of narratives and counter narratives. There are numerous diverse hateful ideological movements online across the ideological spectrum, ranging from the far‑right to the militant left, and they do not simply exist in one space or a single platform. Different groups and movements have very different preferences for the platforms they want to frequent.

The most common and visibly dominant online hate group largely consists of politically‑conservative nationalist actors using tactics such as concerted online hatemongering, gas‑lighting, and targeted harassment to simply overwhelm detractors with numbers. They target and “swarm” (or pile‑on) anyone online who is bold enough to publicly criticise their favourite politicians, candidates, or political parties. This is an all too common way to intimidate and silence their opponents and at the same time allow themselves to speak over others in promoting their own core values and beliefs. Many social media platforms are failing to curtail this toxic behaviour by allowing malicious actors, both real and bots, to thrive and promote their bad politics in these spaces. The main challenge here is largely due to the nuanced language and cultural context i.e., dog whistles; social media’s artificial intelligence (AI) and support staff members can only do so much to manage the problem.

There are also various pan‑Asian movements online that resemble many fascist white supremacist groups in the US and Europe. While the membership of these movements tends to comprise a mix of identities and nationalities, they must nonetheless be of Asian ethnicity to be part of the “in‑group”. Their core ideology is their desire to establish a fascist Asian ethno‑state with nationalist Asian chauvinist values regardless of religion. They share certain global geopolitical aspirations that is not too dissimilar from Japan’s “Asia for Asians” policy of the late 1930s and 1940s which not only led to war in the Pacific and serves now as the primary inspiration for these contemporary fascist nationalist Pan‑Asian movements. These groups also have preference‑divergence for various matters, much like “conventional” militant groups, and are embroiled in in‑fighting drama through bitter meme wars among themselves. Some of them even splinter to form new movements or align to other, better established groups. These groups tend to belong in more covert chat spaces where they can monitor those joining their channels and who’s who within the ranks of their membership to ensure their support is genuine.

This study analysed three social media movements linked with extreme right‑wing activities online. Such activities were carried out by right‑wing extremists and those who support their philosophy of nationalism and religious conservatism, whether actively or passively. This study also investigated how themes and narratives from across the globe, such as US political discourse, Russian disinformation and conspiracy theories, are combined with real‑life local grievances in order to appeal to similarly aligned followers to help to disseminate and legitimise reactionary speech.

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