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Right-Wing Extremists’ Use of the Internet: Emerging Trends in the Empirical Literature

Right-Wing Extremists’ Use of the Internet: Emerging Trends in the Empirical Literature
8th September 2022 Dr. Ryan Scrivens

Introduction

Close attention by journalists and policymakers to the widespread use of the Internet by violent Western (i.e., American, Canadian, Australian, and European) right-wing extremists (RWEs) and terrorists is relatively recent. Yet the RWE-Internet nexus has a much lengthier history than this, and so too does the empirical research on RWEs’ use of the Internet. In this blog post, we highlight the emerging trends in the literature in this regard, organising the research into five core terrorist and extremist uses of the Internet identified by Conway in 2006: information provision, networking, recruitment, financing, and information gathering. Highlighted throughout this post are key gaps in the empirical literature and suggestions for progressing research.

Information Provision

A growing body of literature is taking shape on how RWE propaganda via social media platforms enters the mainstream in on- and offline environments. At present, evidence suggests it is the result of the rising popularity of far-right politics and ideologies in the Western world, as well as the role of conspiracies in helping to move these messages. While researchers acknowledge that the racist ‘old guard’ continues to maintain its presence in traditional online spaces (e.g., web forums), a major focus in recent literature is on how a newer generation of adherents – though not unfamiliar with websites and online forums – are using digital platforms that they are more familiar with, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

There has been comparatively less researcher attention directed at RWE on Facebook as compared to Twitter, due at least in part to the much more public nature of Twitter than Facebook. This is slowly changing albeit in a post-Cambridge Analytica context in which researcher access to Facebook data is getting more difficult. Similarly, research on RWE propaganda found on YouTube, a platform described by some as “a radicalisation machine for the far right”, is almost exclusively focused on individual users as the main protagonists in RWE cyberspaces. Fortunately, there is some empirical work on how YouTube’s recommender system facilitates the spread of RWE content.

The RWE Internet scene is distributed beyond these high-profile platforms and includes a selection of relatively new and highly accessible communication apps (i.e., software programs designed to run on mobile devices, such as phones or tablets). Many of these fit into the category of so-called ‘dark social’ networks, which refers not to the ‘dark’ nature of the content necessarily, but to the difficulties of researching content shared via, for example, messaging apps and other forms of encrypted chat (e.g., Telegram, Discord). These difficulties at least partially explain why less research has been conducted on RWE use of these spaces and apps than may be warranted; the relative newness and niche status of some such apps may be other explanations. Fortunately, some research has considered the spread of RWE misinformation on Telegram and Discord, but much more empirical work is needed in this regard.

Networking

In recent years, researchers have become increasingly interested in generating knowledge on the development of RWE networks online and their transnational nature, both within and across platforms. To illustrate, while empirical work on RWE online networks has largely explored the extent and scope of communication networks primarily on websites and discussion forums, recent efforts have been made to assess the formation of RWE communities on platforms such as YouTube as well as estimate the volume of RWE content within specific RWE networks on Twitter. In addition, some recent empirical work has also considered the impact of trigger or galvanising events such as the effect of riots, rallies, presidential elections, and terrorist attacks on the development of hateful content and RWE networks online. The role of elections as trigger events has become a growing area of research in this regard, with the primary focus of this scholarship on the relationship between tweets about the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the spreading of hatred on Twitter as well as the growth of alt-right networks on Twitter and 4chan in response to Trump’s election victory. A growing emphasis has also been placed on understanding the transnational links and exchanges between far- and extreme-right organisations and movements, with the most recent focus on the transnational links found on social media

Given that RWEs maintain a presence on multiple online platforms, recent efforts have been made at comparative research across platforms. This research has been carried out based in large part on calls by practitioners and policymakers concerned with how extremists network across platforms. Of the limited cross-platform studies that have been conducted, Davey and Ebner explored the connectivity and convergence of the ‘new’ extreme right in Europe and the U.S. on 4chan, 8chan, Voat, Gab, and Discord. Davey and colleagues also assessed the scale and scope of Canadian RWE activity within and across various platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, 4chan, Gab, Fascist Forge and Iron March (see also Hart and colleagues). Zannettou and colleagues measured the spread of anti-Semitic content across 4chan and Gab. Holt and colleagues examined the ideological sentiments expressed across several right-wing extremist forums. Lastly, Scrivens and colleagues quantified the existence of extremist ideologies, personal grievances, and violent extremist mobilisation efforts found within violent RWE forums Iron March and Fascist Forge. Together, these studies highlight the connected nature of RWE movements as well as distinctions in their online communications, both within and across platforms. Regardless, this emerging evidence base remains in its infancy and requires further exploration.

Recruitment

In an effort to raise awareness and convince individuals to join an extremist group or movement, violent extremists and terrorists – including RWEs – use the Internet to increase the possibility of interacting with potential recruits, as well as roam online spaces looking for potential recruits (usually young people). Research in this space – much of which has typically focused on dedicated hate sites and forums – suggests that some of the recruitment materials include very graphic and disturbing texts, images, and videos, while other recruitment materials are subtler. Regardless of the recruitment material type, research suggests that RWEs have attempted to recruit through eye-catching and visually appealing content, oftentimes in a multimedia format, featuring audio files, digital videos, interactive chat rooms, bulletin boards, cyber-cafes, and webpages featuring caricatures and children’s stories, as well as video games, music, technology, art, dating advice, and humour pages.

A ‘visual turn’ in research is also now apparent, due to humourous and sarcastic ‘memes’ being used by RWEs to spread propaganda online to a more mainstream audience, and for the larger purpose of recruiting new adherents. RWE ‘humour’ and their use of sarcasm to poke fun at adversaries is not new, however; racist cartoons were a central component of the propaganda found on a number of then-popular RWE websites in the early 2000s. Similarly, in one of the many examples of such that can be found on RWE websites, Stormfront users created a number of ‘Joke of the Day’ threads, with one popular thread dating back to 2007 that includes countless jokes with racist, sexist, and xenophobic overtones. Together, the use of humour, sarcasm and similar types of discourse have historically been used by RWEs to (openly) parade their hateful views by defending the material as “just a joke”, and therefore spread propaganda for recruitment purposes.

What is new is RWEs’ heavy co-opting of meme culture. Memes can take a variety of forms, including catchphrases, easy-to-digest captioned images, and quirky animated GIFs. On Twitter, for example, researchers have found that memes, particularly those expressing anti-Muslim sentiments, were being used by RWEs as a rallying cry and a strategy for recruitment. Other empirical research identified similar strategies used by RWEs on Facebook, Instagram, 4chan, and Gab, among others. Empirical studies suggest that such easy-to-digest captioned images are increasingly popular among a new generation of RWEs, particularly those targeting Muslims. In light of this emerging evidence base, future research is needed to better understand why such propaganda is so popular among the younger generation, as well as whether the use of humour and sarcasm represents the future of RWE recruitment efforts, especially on an international scale.

Financing

Due to its immediate, interactive and global reach, the Internet has greatly increased the potential for extremists and terrorists to raise funds for their activities. However, very little empirical research has emerged on how violent extremists and terrorists, including the extreme right, attempt to raise funds online. Of the limited empirical work available on how RWEs raise funds online for their activities, researchers generally suggest that funds are raised via (1) merchandise sales and (2) donation solicitation.

Regarding sales of merchandise, empirical research suggests that RWEs sell a wide variety of extremist merchandise online as a way to support particular groups or movements. Previous research in this area has paid close attention to merchandise sales through ‘shop’ pages found on dedicated extremist sites, but the extent to which this content is sold and the volume of the merchandise found there is unclear. Gerstenfeld and colleagues, for example, in their content analysis of RWE websites (142 of which were operated by groups or individuals in the U.S. and 15 internationally based) found that 56.4% of the sites sold various far-right merchandise, including books, CDs, videos, clothing, flags, jewelry, and patches, with much of this merchandise appealing directly to youth. Also uncovered was that the merchandise sold on these sites not only financially benefited the extremist groups but also helped advertise the group and spread propaganda.

On the other hand, Wong and colleagues, in their analysis of discussion threads on five RWE forums and hyperlinks directing users out of the forums, found that just 6% of thread discussions related to financing the sites and very few hyperlinks directed users to merchandise sites. Moving beyond dedicated extremist websites that sell extremist merchandise, recent reports suggest that RWEs have exploited popular online retailers and marketplaces to sell merchandise to raise funds for their activities. For example, an anti-hate watch group reported that hate groups advertise qualifying Amazon products on their websites to earn a commission of up to 10% on their sale. Journalists have also reported that members of Atomwaffen Division, an extreme right-wing terrorist group linked to a series of murders in the U.S, raised funds by selling Siege, a book by neo-Nazi activist James Mason that forms the basis of Atomwaffen Division’s ideology, on Amazon’s CreateSpace. Such sales made on online retailers and marketplaces are unlikely to generate a significant amount of funding for a group or movement, but they do enable them to spread their message and serve to keep propaganda available to new recruits as well as maintain a network of like-minded individuals.

For the latter, empirical research – although limited in scale – suggests that crowdfunding and peer-to-peer direct transactions are among the most common methods that RWEs use to solicit donations online. Empirical research, for example, found that the RWEs, among other movements, have exploited crowdfunding platforms to finance their own activities with some success. For example, the IndieGoGo campaign of the group ‘American Freedom Defense Initiative’ raised approximately 50% of the funds required to place anti-Islam advertisements on 100 buses in New York City.

A report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) similarly found that crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe, Patreon, IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, have enabled RWEs to solicit donations for projects, products, or for general support. In the wake of the deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally in 2017, mainstream crowdfunding platforms made efforts to remove RWE accounts, causing many adherents to migrate to alternative crowdfunding websites that cater specifically to them, such as Hatreon and WeSearchr. To illustrate, empirical research found that leading members of ‘Generation Identitaire’ solicited funds through WeSearchr for their ‘Defend Europe’ campaign, which sought to charter a ship in order to disrupt the flow of migrants crossing from Libya into Europe and interdict NGO vessels. The Defend Europe campaign received funding from a ‘cross-border’ network of 3,208 global supporters located in the U.K., France, Germany, the U.S. and several other countries.

Similarly, empirical research suggests that peer-to-peer direct transactions in the form of cryptocurrencies have become the popular method for RWEs to send and transfer funds, largely because it is anonymous and relatively easy to use. Some reports also suggest that RWEs use cryptocurrencies as a “political statement” because it is an alternative to the traditional banks that are widely believed to be controlled by an elaborate Jewish conspiracy (i.e., ZOG conspiracies). Bitcoin and Monero appear to be the most common forms of cryptocurrencies used by RWEs, especially those who are faced with ongoing concerns about being de-platformed from sites using traditional payment processors, to finance their activities. Research suggests that the far-right European group ‘Order of Dawn’ solicited Monero donations on their website to finance their activities, while other research indicates that some RWE websites, such as The Daily Stormer, publicly solicited donations via Bitcoin. While these examples and studies shed light on RWEs’ use of the Internet for financing purposes, the evidence base remains quite thin and requires much more empirical attention.

Information Gathering

Given that the Internet contains an overwhelming amount of information, violent extremists and terrorists can collect intelligence on specific targeting opportunities, learn about anti-terrorism measures, share online training manuals about how to make homemade bombs, plan assassinations, and avoid surveillance, among other things. The anonymous and private nature of the Internet has enabled them to strategise and execute their objectives with little risk of being apprehended by law enforcement officials or receiving legal sanctions. And because of the availability of information on the Internet, violent extremists and terrorists can open-source search documents for information about potential targets. Some research, for example, suggests that Google Earth is a useful tool for choosing and planning how to attack a target. Yet, similar to the empirical research on how violent extremists and terrorists in general – and RWEs in particular – attempt to raise funds online, little is known about how such individuals gather information. Of the limited empirical work available, researchers have unpacked how information is gathered via (1) data mining, which consists of collecting and assembling information about specific targeting opportunities, and (2) information sharing, which is more general online information collection.

Empirical research, though very limited, suggests that RWE extremists collect and share a wide variety of information online with the like-minded, including but not limited to such things as white supremacy-related online books or publications or manuals on avoiding forensic tracing of fingerprints, blood, and hair found on discussion forums. Some research has also found a small group of users within a popular RWE forum who possessed advanced technological skills, acting as a ‘key resource’ for less skilled users and answering questions about online security.

On the more extreme end of the spectrum are what Hale describes as tutorials on “building bombs, firing weapons, physical fitness training, plotting assassinations, and how to organize and manage an extremist cell.” In-depth investigations from journalists have similarly found a library for would-be RWE terrorist cells on the now defunct Fascist Forge, an online discussion forum that served as a hub for neo-Nazis to connect for the purpose of committing real-world violence. Here, this content featured a guide on militaristic tactics for ethnic cleansing, manuals for making homemade weapons, and instructions on how to dispose of a body. Also uncovered in this space were details about the most effective weapons to use during urban combat as well as discussions about how to pull off an assassination. Recent research has also explored RWEs’ use of newer online platforms for information sharing, such as the encrypted messaging platform Telegram. Guhl and Davey, in their assessment of 208 Telegram channels used by RWEs, identified several ‘tactical’ channels and ‘one-to-many’ content banks that were dedicated to sharing tactical information. Tactical channels, for example, included bomb-making instructions, firearm maintenance and improvisation materials, and combat tips. Other channels linked users to manifesto documents of high-profile right-wing terrorists, as well as literature in support of terrorist activity.

Data mining is facilitated by freely available information about potential targets on the Internet in amounts described by some as a “gold mine” for planning a terrorist attack. But what we generally know about RWEs’ use of the Internet for data mining is more of a journalistic description or accounts from anti-hate watch groups than an academic analysis. The ADL, for example, found that users on the now defunct Fascist Forge – an online discussion forum that served as hubs for neo-Nazis to connect with the like-minded and for the purpose of committing real-world violence – engaged in discussions about targeting infrastructure, such as communication lines and electricity grids in the U.S. Investigative journalists similarly found that materials and discussion on Fascist Forge included calls for direct action such as a race war and targeting public infrastructure. As helpful as these accounts have been in understanding information gathering efforts of the extreme right online, it remains unclear if Fascist Forge users collected information about potential targets. Indeed, empirical research is needed to further explore RWEs’ information gathering efforts, not only on Fascist Forge, but indeed on other platforms that the extreme right frequent.

Concluding Remarks

The trends in the empirical literature on RWEs’ use of the Internet suggest it can be segmented into five core areas as identified by Conway. While we have highlighted a number of key research trends in this growing space, it is clear that this work remains in its infancy, especially the empirical research on the link between RWEs, financing and information-gathering efforts online. It should also be apparent that researchers who have explored RWEs’ use of the Internet have typically focused their attention on dedicated hate sites and forums. As a result, the nature of RWEs’ use of online platforms that are outside the mainstream has gone mostly unexplored by researchers, despite the fact that lesser-researched platforms have provided adherents with spaces to anonymously discuss and develop ‘taboo’ or ‘anti-moral’ ideologies. Very little is also known about the link between the on- and offline worlds of violent extremists, whether it involves their efforts to network or recruit. Lastly, there a dearth of research on the extent to which RWEs are cultivating expertise to utilise cyberspace as a platform to attack computer systems and data. Our hope is that this blog post sparks interest among those working in the field to consider filling these gaps in empirical research.

For more on the emerging trends in RWEs’ use of the Internet, we encourage you to read the full manuscript which was recently published in Barbara Perry, Jeff Gruenwald, and Ryan Scrivens’ ‘Right-Wing Extremism in Canada and the United States’ (Palgrave).

Ryan Scrivens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University (MSU). He is also an Associate Director at the International CyberCrime Research Centre and a Research Fellow at VOX-Pol.

Tiana Gaudette is a PhD student in the School of Criminal Justice at MSU.

Maura Conway is Paddy Moriarty Professor of Government and International Studies in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and Professor of Cyber Threats in the School of Law at Swansea University. She is also the founding Coordinator of VOX-Pol.

Thomas J. Holt is a Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at MSU.