For decades, terrorists and extremists have been harnessing the affordances of media in general, and the internet, specifically, for their needs. Such applications ranged from recruitment, guidance, networking, financing, and mobilisation, to propaganda and psychological warfare, or what Gabriel Weimann has dubbed “the theater of terror.” More recently, thanks to ease of access, lack of regulation, perceived anonymity, fast information flows and huge potential audiences, much of their online activity has migrated to social media platforms -including mainstream ones like Facebook, and more obscured, less-regulated, alternatives. In recent years, our research teams at the University at Buffalo, Georgia State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Northwestern University have collaborated extensively on learning about the activities of the far-right, specifically white nationalists (WN) and neo-Nazis on one such website, Stormfront. We found that WN have been exploiting existing social tensions around science and medicine to legitimise their racist and misogynistic conspiratorial ideology. In light of the worrying politicisation of science in the United States, across Europe and elsewhere— evident during COVID-19 and throughout the debate around abortion— we believe WN exploitation of science on Stormfront could potentially utilise these scientific debates to promote extremist rhetoric beyond traditionally closed WN circles, eroding trust in science further.
In a series of studies, published in the peer-reviewed journals Information, Communication & Society and Social Science & Medicine, we showed how the WN movement has co-opted two heated scientific debates, around abortion and around vaccines, to promote racialised (and gendered ) narratives that legitimate their misinformed and bigoted cause and ideology. Examining Stormfront, which was one of the first and most popular platforms serving the WN movement since the early 2000s, allowed us to track discourse over almost 20 years. We argue these extensive online discussions tend not to stay contained within ‘fringe’ websites at the dark corners of the internet but instead have the capacity to spill over into mainstream discourse with real-world consequences. For example, conspiracy theories around demographic changes, connected to issues of reproductive rights and abortion specifically, fuelled the horrific massacre at a Buffalo grocery store in May 2022. Similarly, the alarming implications of mis- and dis-information were on display during COVID-19, evident in intense, often violent resistance to public health efforts and vaccines, particularly among conservatives and Republicans, contributing to the catastrophic effects of the crisis.
Scientific discourse, specifically around abortion and vaccinations, is weaponised and extremist views are ‘mainstreamed’ by WN and adjacent far-right groups. Anti-abortion campaigning is becoming a political tactic to address racial preservation (for whites) and also a weapon (against non-white people) wherein regulation is crucial and, importantly, wherein calls for strategic violence to uphold such regulation become a fear tactic to keep targeted individuals in line. These arguments and our findings are in-line with and extend earlier scholarship on abortion in the service of nationalism, colonialism, and racism. Similarly, vaccine-related conspiratorial thinking on the forum highlights the recent politicisation of vaccine acceptance broadly and specifically to containment measurements related to COVID-19.
Despite being published around the recent U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling which granted reproductive freedom to U.S. citizens, our study focuses on discussions that preceded that historic moment. Our mixed-method analysis of nearly 31,000 Stormfront posts between 2001-2017 containing the term ‘abortion’ demonstrated the key role abortion plays in the alarming Great Replacement conspiracy theory. Like other conspiracies such as QAnon, the replacement theory serves as an example of the mainstreaming of extremist ideologies in recent years. Its echoes – and sometimes direct references – can be heard on Fox News and from Republican politicians. At the heart of the conspiracy is the notion that politics of liberalism, feminism and multiculturalism are employed by a nefarious coalition of adversaries who aim to limit the dominance of whites in the West, and even eliminate the white race altogether. As believed and expressed by Stormfront users, abortion is thus yet another Leftist ploy to prevent white women from fulfilling their biological and social reproductive role of maintaining a white demographic advantage and encouraging the maintenance of family structures led by normatively strong cis white men. In the discussions, we analysed WN blaming feminists, supported by Jewish elites, for plotting to increase abortion among white women. Importantly, while users strongly condemn abortion among white women as murder and a sin, they often accepted and even encouraged abortion among non-whites. The cognitive dissonance that this contradiction creates was solved by Stormfront users through ‘politics of difference’ that signals non-whites as immoral and irresponsible to the point where population control through abortion is needed and justified.
Our second study looked at the discussion of vaccines in Stormfront over the same time period. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the misinformation surrounding vaccinations since their invention at the end of the 18th century, acceptance and rejection of vaccines did not fall into politically partisan lines in the United States until relatively recently. In fact, Republicans and Democrats exhibited similar behaviours when it came to the flu vaccine, and conspiratorial rejection of vaccines such as the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine was formerly often associated with the liberal left. However, in recent years, and to a large degree due to the politicisation of COVID-19 by the 45th president, the Republican party, and the conservative media, the picture has changed dramatically. Epidemiological surveys found striking differences in acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine between counties and states that voted for Trump and those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. This effect was not limited to COVID-19 jabs, as recent polls have shown increased resistance to the flu vaccine among Republicans as well.
Our analysis of almost 9,000 Stormfront posts about vaccines found higher levels of anti-vaccine sentiment, compared to other more mainstream social media platforms. Generally speaking, about half of the discussions of vaccines on Stormfront exhibited anti-vaccine sentiment. Users’ resistance to vaccines relied on anti-vaccine tropes used by non-extremist opposers, such as the (refuted) link between the MMR vaccine and autism. However, once again, Stormfront users showed support for vaccines when they believed it complemented their collective narcissism. It is in these arguments specifically that Stormfront users introduced new arguments that are not prevalent in mainstream discourse. For example, many users celebrated vaccines as a white innovation; others emphasised the importance of vaccines due to their perception that non-white people are spreading diseases among white countries.
Taken together, our studies demonstrate how WN Stormfront users co-opt social tensions and debates around scientific and medical issues. This is a dangerous phenomenon for two reasons: first, WN are using these tensions to justify and extend their racist and misogynistic ideology in ways that could attract newcomers and help ‘redpill’ the masses. Second, by using these tensions WN are contributing to the polarisation of science and erosion of trust in science. Thus, our findings raise urgent questions about the need for regulation online. Research on extremism and terrorism online has shown great challenges to censorship attempts, as platforms taken offline quickly resurface elsewhere, and groups learn how to adapt to detection mechanisms. The removal of extremist content also introduces challenges to those surveying their discourse, including academics and governmental agencies.
Instead, we believe that regulation should focus on spillovers into extremist amplification through mainstream media, including social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. While not a perfect strategy, the removal of extremist content from social media has the potential to disrupt the amplification process. However, social media platforms are currently primarily self-regulated, to the point where senior individuals in companies like Reddit, Facebook, or Twitter make opaque and at times almost-arbitrary decisions about which content to keep and which to remove. Such a haphazard and inconsistent approach allowed conspiracy theories like QAnon to spread freely online, and surface in mainstream discourse. Our research points to a future risk coming from the politicisation and co-optation of scientific discourse by extremists in ways that polarise citizens, erode trust in science and scientific institutions and open up the door for radicalisation and recruitment into violent groups.
Yotam Ophir is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University at Buffalo. His work combines computational methods for text mining, network analysis, experiments and surveys to study media content and effects in the areas of political, science, and health communication. Dr. Ophir is the head of the Media Effects, Misinformation, and Extremism (MEME) lab, a member of the Center for Information Integrity (CII) at the University at Buffalo, and a distinguished fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dror Walter is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Georgia State University. His research is centred on the intersection between traditional media effects theories and novel computational social science methods. His current research involves two interrelated contexts: extremist forms of political discussion and health misinformation. He is a member of the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative at GSU, and a distinguished fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ayse D. Lokmanoglu is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Communication & Public Policy at Northwestern University and a member of Vox-Pol. Her work focuses on malign digital campaigns (hate speech, extremism, disinformation) and utilises computational methodologies to examine harmful narratives and digital messaging. Her research agenda intersects machine learning with qualitative textual and visual analysis to examine information in the digital world that is intended for harm, hate, and violence. She has published in journals including Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, International Journal of Communication, Health Communication, Social Science and Medicine, and many others.
Dr. Meredith L. Pruden is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication and Media at Kennesaw State University. She is also a Fellow with Institute for Research on Male Supremacism and an affiliate with Media Effects, Misinformation and Extremism Lab. Meredith was previously a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP) at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after earning her PhD in Communication and certificate in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies from Georgia State University. Meredith’s research is rooted in feminist media studies and uses a combination of quantitative computational and qualitative techniques to explore and critique supremacism, far-right media and politics.