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Gendered Narratives, the Online-Offline Nexus and the Far-Right in Australia

Gendered Narratives, the Online-Offline Nexus and the Far-Right in Australia
1st December 2022 Dr Alexandra Phelan
In 16 Days, Insights

This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).

Introduction

Radicalisation within online environments has been noted as an important dimension when examining far-right extremism and terrorism more generally. Due to increasingly inhospitable traditional social media sites, the far-right’s engagement in online activity has transitioned toward alternative platforms and has been noted as a potentially contributing dynamic in the process of extremist ideological diffusion, community building, and member recruitment and participation. The far-right is a diverse ecosystem with varying motivations and calls to action; within this online space, there is growing evidence that highlights the importance of gender and misogynistic beliefs in shaping perceptions of appropriate behaviour for both men and women within the far-right. However, the relationship between the online space and offline activities remains under-theorised. Specifically, although gendered narratives among far-right actors often outline perceived legitimate behaviour for both women and men in online communities, the extent to which these online views shape offline behaviour is not clear-cut. Examining these dynamics in the Australian context, we ask: ‘to what degree are the offline activities of Australian far-right actors impacted by online gendered narratives?’

Online Gendered Narratives Among the Australian Far-Right

Globally, far-right extremist groups often adopt a worldview that promotes male dominance, where hyper-, hegemonic- and toxic masculinity are employed as rhetorical frames that ideologically endorse traditional gender norms. An assumption held in existing scholarship is that far-right extremist organisations have a broadly masculine, patriarchal culture and habitus which promise a homosocial brotherhood of male belonging. This consequently dictates and limits the way both women and men can participate in the extremist movement. 

In Australia, gendered far-right beliefs espoused online are most clearly seen when actors discuss what they view as the ‘ideal man’ and ‘ideal woman’ within the movement. Among Australian far-right actors, the ‘ideal man’ typically centres around the aesthetic requirements of being physically fit and strong, willing to use violence. For example, a prominent Australian far-right organisation, Antipodean Resistance (AR), posted on their now-defunct website that, “you cannot be pure and moral and yet be inactive. It’s not enough to be white, or a nationalist, or even a high quality, white, nationalist. You must be all of these, and ACTIVE [emphasis added by the original author]”.

There further exists an underwriting logic of white women as caregivers and mothers within far-right online narratives. On Australian far-right online channels, the repeated promotion of images of pregnant women, loving mothers, and traditional family units sets boundaries of passive participation for women. This passivity should not be underestimated it still contributes to the socialisation of both women and men within these groups whilst simultaneously normalising misogynistic and sexist beliefs.

Moreover, gender norms, ideology and power relations act as intrinsic values for a vast majority of Australian far-right actors more broadly. For actors and organisations that subscribe to the Great Replacement theory, which outlines a perceived ethnographic extinction of the so-called white race as the direct result of the malicious intent of non-white communities and complicit governmental forces, a primary solution is the production of more white children. As above, although such actors may not explicitly state that a women’s sole role is that of a mother, the promotion of this tactic as a solution inherently implies this belief. 

Australian far-right communities regularly outline the perceived destructive nature of feminism and LGTBQ+ rights. These sentiments are treated with hostility as they represent, at least for far-right adherents, a move beyond the boundaries of appropriate behaviour for ‘true’ white individuals. According to such communities, the normalisation of these sentiments either creates weak-willed men unable to fight the existing threat to the white race, or fosters an environment that moves women away from their required motherly duties. Even though there are gendered narratives present in Australian far-right online chats, how do these gendered online narratives impact offline behaviour?

Public-Facing Offline Activity

We argue that offline activity undertaken by the Australian far-right can be broken down into two general categories; activities that are public-facing, and inward-facing, community-centric activities. Public-facing offline activities are centred around ideological diffusion and the simultaneous (attempted) mobilisation of the general public towards the far-right agenda. For instance, Australian far-right actors have favoured stickering campaigns which involve members placing white supremacist propaganda stickers in public locations across Australia, such as high school and university campuses. Celebrated as a favoured tactic among far-right propagandists, these stickering campaigns often serve as a potential avenue into extreme online ecosystems as they include pathways for further engagement within these communities.

Outside of these advertising initiatives, Australian far-right actors have also sought to engage in protests and counter-protests. In recent years, these protests have sought to exploit anti-government sentiments rooted in COVID-19 lockdown mandates. However, protest initiatives have also been established as a response to single-issue grievances, including gendered grievances. Most recently, the far-right organisation National Socialist Network (NSN) was involved in a protest against a drag-queen performance at a school-holiday event in Melbourne, Victoria. The motivations for this initiative, outlined in an Odysee video by the movement’s leader, are telling. A performance during a child-friendly event was demonised due to its involvement of a drag-queen a grievance rooted in the movement’s perception of the normalisation and promotion of ‘deviant’ cultures.

Further justification for this mobilisation was directed at the local council members who authorised and promoted the drag-queen performance in the first place. The NSN leader explained in the video that the performance was permitted due to the council’s predominantly female team. He went on to state that the female council members, described as “obvious subversive entities”, recruited a “Jewish transgender entity”, or “literal demon”, as part of the “age of Kali”. The age of Kali, according to the far-right leader, represents an “age of chaos” and an “age of the sl*t”. In other words, it was this combination of, and collusion between actors who, for the NSN leader, represent the cultural degeneracy of the modern age and the collapse of civilisation, as outlined in the Kali Yuga mythology. The specific use of the word “sl*t” as interchangeable with the Kali Yuga indicates that for the creator of the video, women who disregard their motherly duties in favour of multiple sexual partners are key contributors to this civilisational destruction.

The gendered motivations and rationale for this particular protest are explicitly clear, and in line with gendered messaging espoused on Australian far-right online channels more broadly. This “counter-protest”, according to the NSN leader, was specifically targeted to combat perceived deviant cultural elements which are contrary to their idealised version of gender, as well as government forces who allegedly promote such practices.

Inward-Facing Offline Activity 

Alongside these public-facing activities, Australian far-right actors concurrently engage in inward-facing offline activities that are similarly highly gendered, particularly in promoting hegemonic, hyper-, and in some cases toxic masculinities. Unlike, their public-facing counterparts, these activities are designed around internal community-building initiatives and often involve activities such as group hiking and combat-centric fitness camps, to increase solidarity and homosocial bonding. While these activities are designed to foster internal cohesion and membership ties, the focus on physical activities as a means to achieve these goals is no accident. As mentioned previously, for these communities, the ‘ideal man’ is one who is physically fit and ready to use violence; their decision to engage in these particular communal activities is representative of this ethos and mentality.

The importance of these activities is highlighted when one considers how the far-right group AR framed such activities as the means to achieve ‘self-realisation.’ For AR, “physically arduous hiking and the pursuit of mountaineering is a much loved and avowed pastime of many of us”, as it counters the modern-day “sedentary lifestyles devoid of any true struggle”. Importantly, while women are not explicitly excluded from engaging in such activities, and while the absence of female participants in these activities may be due to the lack of significant female membership, the internal messaging and imagery paint a different picture. The gendered messaging around such activities further establishes the boundaries of legitimate female participation as inherently supportive and passive. For example, an ‘interview’ detailing the reasons behind a hiking activity conducted by the NSN specifically notes that this activity was designed to advertise “an alternative lifestyle” for “white men of courage and conviction.” Moreover, this same video promotes the idea of building “men from the ground up” by establishing “strong bonds and strong communities.” When advertised internally, the use of the words ‘lads’, ‘brother’, and ‘men’ highlight the use of gendered language by in-group adherents, which in turn illustrates a belief system resting on patriarchal power relations.

Gendered Narratives: Why do they Matter?

Gendered views, often rooted in misogynistic narratives, espoused by Australian far-right extremist actors have justified and motivated both inward- and public-facing extremist activities. This spill-over effect from the online to the offline space can most visibly be seen in inward-facing offline activities designed to ensure male adherence to internally defined boundaries of manhood. Likewise, the most recent ‘counter protest’ in Melbourne staged by the NSN highlights the connective tissues between the online and offline spaces, as well as the dangers of the misogynistic beliefs held by these communities. 

Furthermore, these observations have implications for policymakers – the amplification and adoption of misogyny online can act as an indicator of far-right radicalisation. As revealed by Australian far-right activity, individuals who adhere to extreme conceptualisations of manhood and womanhood can be motivated to act in the promotion or defence of these beliefs. However, it should be noted that these gendered motivations cannot be said to act in isolation from wider far-right concerns, particularly those surrounding an ethnocentric perceived existential threat. That is to say, the promotion of these hostile misogynistic beliefs in online platforms cannot be pointed to as the sole motivating factor for offline activity. Nevertheless, the specific events that have motivated offline activity and the specific ways Australian far-right actors have engaged in offline activity, both of which are clearly gendered, highlight the importance of considering and understanding the movement’s gendered worldview as espoused online.