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).
The role and activities of extremist mothers online is a present, yet under-explored topic in extremism studies. This status quo is steadily being challenged in recent years by researchers such as Mattheis, Leidig, and Kisyova, Veilleux-Lepage, and Newby, who have increased our understanding of how far-right female influencers empower hateful content and digital communities. However, an in-depth examination of extremist women influencers – let alone those who are mothers – across different ideological communities online remains lacking. In particular, whilst there have been studies and accounts of various online harms perpetuated within certain ‘mommy blogs’ and other mother-centric digital communities, its intersections with extremist influencers still remains to be seen. To encourage greater interest in studying extremist motherhood as a central point of analysis, this Insight provides a brief overview of how extremist mothers perform and rally their parenthood in relation to their respective extremist ideologies. In so doing, we seek to analyse how motherhood is understood and weaponised by extremist mothers themselves.
Extremist Influencer Moms: The Digital Spread of Hate
Parenting can be isolating, and the search for community can take many forms. As mothers seek camaraderie and community with other mothers online, they may confront a significant amount of extremist content. Where non-extremist mothers find this content – and where extremist mothers may seek to engage with them – varies. Generally, women tend to prefer Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok, and Instagram over sites like Twitter, Reddit, or Tumblr. The terms ‘influencer’ and ‘content creator’ are often used synonymously to describe someone who creates content for social media or web platforms for their audience, wielding a large amount of influence over them. Influencer marketing is the practice of monetising this work, rather than just posting for personal enjoyment. Through this, some use social media for financial gain, with 77% of those being women. Though most visible on mainstream platforms, activities are also present on ‘alt-tech’ spaces like Gab, Telegram, TechHaven, Hoop, and Element.
On both alternative and mainstream tech platforms, influencer marketing creates both desirable financial incentives and online communities for interested mothers. Sometimes called ‘momfluencers’ or ‘mommy bloggers,’ these users draw upon their identity as mothers to sell products (self-created or promotional) and engage with followers – a culture that extremist mothers enthusiastically exploit. And, since extremist content that peddles inflammatory, aggressive, and controversial ideas receives more engagement by algorithmic design, the influencer route has become a desirable avenue for extremist mothers to pull hateful content from the fringes.
It is important to note that not all content produced by extremist mothers is overtly extremist. As a means to avoid deplatforming on mainstream platforms, extremists utilise various content moderation evasion techniques or elect to cloak their extremism with the language of faith, family values, and seemingly banal aesthetics. Successful and sustained evasion of content moderation, then, allows opportunities for radicalisation and extreme community-making. In this, extremist influencer mothers are not passive participants in extremism, but active participants in violence, providers of new ideologies, and masterful facilitators and distributors of extremist rhetoric.
Complementarianism & Motherhood in Religious Extremist Circles
For many religious extremists, mothers are understood in divine and sanctified terms. Motherhood is not seen as a reproductive choice, but a woman’s divinely ordained role and duty to ensure the community’s survival. Here, complementarianism – a theology that argues men and women should uphold distinct but complementary social roles – is often used to bolster this worldview. Followers of this belief create myths, iconography, and activities that embrace childbearing and rearing as women’s main (if not only) contribution to the community. Drawing on this, religious extremists compensate for women’s exclusion from activities associated with masculine power, e.g. preaching or participating in combat, with promises of belonging and empowerment through childbearing. In turn, motherhood often becomes an all-encompassing and consuming identity for women within religious extremist communities. The way that these mothers express and wield this identity, however, differs across communities and platforms.
Mothers of the Islamic State
As with many other religious extremist communities, the Islamic State’s (IS) messaging on womanhood places heavy emphasis on rigid gendered societal roles, and frames motherhood, spousal duties, and homemaking as religious obligations.
In its official propaganda, [Dabiq, Rumiyah, and Al-Naba], IS instruct women to support their husbands, guard their own modesty, and ultimately be “the teacher of generations and the producer of men.” Overall, their online magazines and newspapers do not dedicate much space to discussions about women but the content that does address them establishes well-defined gendered expectations rooted in IS’ theological interpretations – expectations which are equally reflected in offline realities. For example, during the period of the so-called Caliphate, regulations limited women’s independent physical movement by requiring them to be accompanied by a mahram (male relative) and dictating that they abide by an austere dress code.
Despite stringent offline environments, the internet offered opportunities for female IS members to directly promote their own accounts about life in IS territory and carefully-constructed pro-IS narratives to large public audiences. Their messaging often sought to recruit other women by encouraging them to travel to the Caliphate or support the IS cause in other ways. Although IS has since lost its last pocket of territory following the Battle of Baghouz, decentralised online activities from individuals continue. Much of the content remains focused on gendered narratives and it often incorporates victimhood framings to bolster fundraising efforts for women and children in the camps in Eastern Syria. It is important to state that the ongoing fundraising efforts are often self-initiated by these pro-IS women. In terms of online communication, female IS supporters, including individuals in the camps, have created chats on Telegram, Instagram, and Facebook, among other platforms, to communicate privately while also openly interacting in these spaces by commenting, sharing, and liking each other’s posts.
Inside camps, Gina Vale reports that pro-IS women are focusing on indoctrinating children with the IS ideology via homeschooling, and are also “organically policing other residents’ dress and behaviour” in a manner similar to the all-female hisbah [morality] units that would monitor women’s conduct during IS’ territorial period. Vale also highlights that the continuing indoctrination of the next generation is primarily being led by pro-IS women in the camps – a situation that can be succinctly described as, as one IS woman herself reportedly states, “a ticking time bomb.”
Mothers in White Christian Nationalist Communities
Scholars have written at length about the gendered roles, organising power, and massive resistance of white women in radical right politics. Their works note that politically active white supremacist mothers engage with their maternal identity to “depoliticize” and soften their extremist ideologies, cloaking their language of exclusion and violence with claims of protecting (white) family autonomy and parental rights. Concurrently, some white supremacist mothers employ a rhetorical tactic that Mattheis calls “alt-maternalism”, which presents traditional mothering roles as natural, good, and empowering for women. These traits are embodied by many white Christian nationalist mothers on Gab, an alternative technology platform known for its limited content moderation, strong far-right user base, and self-proclaimed Christian nationalist founder. These mothers usually do not explicitly self-identify as ‘Christian nationalist’ or ‘Christian supremacist.’ Still, they espouse beliefs consistent with Christian nationalism, claiming that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and decrying perceived sociopolitical gains by non-white and non-Christian populations.
Their online discourses are often geared towards opposing an array of movements, beliefs, and lifestyles that they believe are threats to the values and interests of a white Christian America. For instance, the anti-vaccination movement prevalent across the American far-right is also popular among white Christian nationalist communities and Gab Christian nationalist mothers. Where relevant, Christian nationalist mothers engage with like-minded ‘mommy influencers’ and mother-centric affinity groups to oppose school vaccination mandates, share medical disinformation about vaccine development and suggest unfounded COVID-19 treatments for afflicted children (e.g., essential oils, ivermectin).
Women are often understood to be victims when it comes to radicalisation and extremism. As researchers often point out, while misogyny is rampant within extremist groups, there are female extremists who nonetheless exercise considerable agency in their extremist behaviours and play a vital role in the extremist ingroup’s continuation. In particular, there is a need to rethink how we characterise the role of the caretaker, which is often portrayed in a passive and submissive role, divorced from the ‘kinetic,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘forward-facing’ and traditionally masculine elements of extremist activity.
One example of this is the emerging affinity between ‘Crunchy/Trad(itional) Mom’ spheres and their intersections with the far-right. Crunchy moms self-identify as mothers “willing to go against the grain and do what is best for her child”. Their discussions include the type of research mothers should do before sending their child to schools, buying certain beds, giving them essential oils to promote certain traits, or refusing to give their children vaccines. Although the views and aesthetics of the crunchy mom movement are presented as simple and ‘natural,’ it has been adopted by some far-right extremist mothers as a defining aesthetic for their online persona and content. In particular, they interpret the “organic, holistic, all-natural” clean-living values of the crunchy mom movement as a manifestation of far-right utopian propaganda that emphasises ‘purity’ and ‘tradition.’ These values are framed to not only include organic foods and products free of chemicals, but also pseudoscientific and ahistorical ideas of white racial purity and traditions. To support these themes, extremist crunchy mom influencers peddle various misinformation and conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement Theory and anti-vaccine misinformation. Circulating conspiracy theories can have violent offline consequences like Pizzagate, when a man fired shots into a Washington, D.C. pizzeria based on unfounded claims that the Democratic Party elite was running a child exploitation ring out of the shop.
Not all crunchy mothers are proponents of far-right supremacist ideologies or violent conspiracy theories. However, the presence of these ideologies in the broader ‘traditionalist’ online sphere creates ample opportunity for curious users to be exposed to extremist content while entering banal keyword searches such as ‘femininity.’ Once exposed, continued incremental exposure from networks of extremist influencers may lead audiences to “trust ever more extremist political positions.” Additionally, as some former trad-wives have pointed out, some influencers in this space have condoned white supremacy or claimed that rape does not exist within marriage. Whilst acknowledging that these aesthetics are not inherently extremist, we must be mindful of how they are being leveraged by certain extremist mothers to mainstream hatred, disseminate conspiracy theories in the name of protecting children, and monetise other mothers’ parental concerns and insecurities.
The critical role of motherhood in sustaining extremist groups and ideologies in digital spheres has, so far, been underestimated and under-researched. Women often form the basis of these communities’ connective bond, and mothers wield their parental identity and authority to sustain these connections. As we argue, extremist influencer mothers’ skilful use of social media spaces plays an important role in connecting users to extremist and hateful content. At the same time as increasing digital literacy and improving content moderation measures, researchers should acknowledge and further study the diverse ways these extremist influencers deliberately choose their mothering identity over many other intersecting identities.