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Behind the Instagram Posts: The Role of Female Influencers on the Far-Right

Behind the Instagram Posts: The Role of Female Influencers on the Far-Right
3rd November 2023 Jordan Chapman
In Insights

Within the study of terrorism and extremism, women remain an overlooked subject group, especially when considering women as perpetrators or facilitators of violence. Early research limited to public portrayals of the involvement of women in terrorism and violent extremism showed as being victims rather than active participants. Yet, the increased visibility of far-right activism driven by women often shrouded in aesthetic Instagram posts or Tweets pushing rhetoric just as violent as men, renders the study of women as perpetrators of violence more critical than ever.

This Insight features an interview with Eviane Leidig, author of the new book The Women of the Far Right: Social Media Influencers and Online Radicalization, published by Columbia University Press (2023), whose research focuses on the role of women in far-right politics and how they have adopted a primary role not only in recruiting future far-right activists but also platforming themselves online as credible messengers for the movement. 

Hi Eviane, thank you for being here today. Can you tell us more about what drove your research for The Women of the Far Right, and specifically, why you decided to focus on the role of women? 

What drove my interest in this topic was how much attention was being devoted to men as visible leaders within the alt-right at the time, particularly those producing content on YouTube. There were also some very prominent women being visible faces of the movement then, but few people were highlighting their importance. 

While these women posted political commentaries or ‘hot takes’ on current events no different from their male counterparts, they also covered other issues like dating and relationship advice, motherhood, or homemaking because they were trying to frame themselves and their politics more holistically. This caught my attention in terms of their framing of both themselves and the ideology in relatable ways – something the men did not touch upon. In 2019, when I started writing this book, it was still relatively uncommon for men to discuss these more personal issues. However, I think this has changed somewhat, as we are seeing more of these ‘masculinist’ influencers like Andrew Tate, for example, who push gender stereotypes as an answer to today’s social and economic problems. So that was one impetus: trying to debunk many stereotypes people had about the far right and the role of women within it.

The second reason was that the last time that I had read a book about women in the far-right, besides the journalist Seyward Darby’s book, Sisters in Hate, which was published while I was writing my book, was Kathleen Blee’s Inside Organized Racism from 2002. It had been about twenty years since an academic book about women in the far-right was published, and I thought there needed to be an update for today. 

Third, seeing these women using platforms differently than men in the far-right was interesting. In particular, as I write in the book, with Instagram and how much they use what is a highly feminised influencer culture to their advantage. This goes back to my first point, specifically, how they would position themselves more holistically on different platforms compared to the men. These three factors are what led me to write this book. 

GNET frequently looks at the role of gender in radicalisation, but as you note in your book, there is often a lack of focus on the role of women specifically. Why do you think the study of radicalisation still discounts the role of women in extremist movements? 

Despite studies of women as perpetrators, women are generally not taken as seriously. Many people have sexist ideas about why women would support the far-right. Still, there’s a long history and legacy of the role of women as politically active in conservative movements, mobilising around things like education, schooling, or social issues. Regardless, when they’re not explicitly calling for violence, they are acting as vectors. What I found is that many far-right women influencers tend to recruit men or have a lot of male viewers. When I mention this, people are often surprised by it because there’s this assumption that these women are only influencing other women into the movement. Still, when I started to research who their audiences were, they had many male followers. This is potentially an area for future research around the gendered effects of radicalisation narratives. 

How do you think our perception of the innocence of white women plays into the perception of relatability and as credible messengers? More specifically, how do specific influencers exploit this perception and create parasocial relationships with their followers? 

It’s an interesting phenomenon, perhaps more specific to the US, Canada, or white settler societies than other contexts. White women’s vulnerability and simultaneous complicity characterise these structures. There’s a dual tension that these influencers play into in the sense that white women are traditionally framed as under threat or vulnerable through societal constructions of race and gender in mainstream society, so they must be protected by white men as they lack agency and voice. At the same time, these influencers promote the notion within the far right that motherhood is empowering and provides agency, which provides this representation of femininity. For example, the online community of “Tradwives” looks at the importance of motherhood in raising the next generation, and women can empower themselves through traditional gender roles to accomplish these goals. 

Do you think deplatforming works to combat these influencers, especially as many push followers to follow across multiple platforms? What else can these platforms do?

The effectiveness of deplatforming is very complex and nuanced. Concerning the women in this book, they have talked for a long time about how they will get banned from a platform any day now, but they’ve been saying this for years, and very rarely do we see action being taken on their accounts. I think part of it is claiming this perceived sense or anticipation of censorship that they will be targeted. That becomes a rallying cry for their followers, invoking a sense of solidarity and community. 

They do tend to cross-post across platforms, often with videos originally posted on a mainstream platform that are reposted onto fringe or ‘alt-tech’ platforms as a type of backup library in case the original video is removed. It’s an interesting question because sometimes platforms act on these influencers, but other platforms won’t. Efforts to regulate far-right influencers differ depending on the platform. For example, on Instagram, Brittany Sellner is prohibited from showing photos of her husband, the leader of the Austrian branch of the Identitarian movement, Martin Sellner’s face. So, she uses the Austrian flag emoji to cover his face. You can tell it’s still him, so she’s skirting the edge of Instagram’s takedown policies. At the same time, she posts the same unfiltered and undoctored photo on her Telegram account. Platforms are responsible for coordinating, not always at the level of individual pieces of content, but regulating through an actor or behaviour-based approach. Sometimes, platforms are hesitant to focus on specific individuals compared to proscribed groups, organisations, or designated terrorist entities.

Influencers vary across platforms, so any policy fix is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Are there specific things social media platforms can do to combat the particular kind of content you have observed in your research, such as health mis/disinformation and radicalising content, that fits under the umbrella term of ‘lawful but awful’?

Platforms are increasingly aware of the harmful effects of borderline content and want to take action. There is a base layer of sensitivities that inform how they act, however. Platforms have the tools, but they decide whether they want to use those content moderation tools on specific accounts.  They are often restricted because each time they change a policy, there is an almost immediate backlash from users.

It’s especially hard to get platforms to coordinate when it comes to taking action against borderline far-right content.  Additionally, recent layoffs in the content moderation or Trust and Safety teams indicate that it’s clearly not a priority for the leadership of these platforms. I did notice a shift during the pandemic where some of the far-right women influencers had never previously been sanctioned or subject to takedowns until they started posting COVID-19 disinformation. Then, they began to have their content removed or flagged, which indicates platforms taking action after years of these influencers posting and spreading hateful ideologies and ideas. 

In your book, you have a conversation with a young man who had been radicalised about his deradicalisation journey. What lessons from your conversation do you think could be applied to others in a similar circumstance? 

There are three key lessons. The first would be to not underestimate women on the far-right’s influence over young men. As discovered during my research, the influencers I studied push specific gendered narratives that affect an individual’s radicalisation journey, regardless if it is tailored to women around health and wellness, cooking, or breastfeeding, or towards men to embrace their masculine traits such as aggression and dominance, which they can exercise in far-right movements. 

Secondly, it is important to examine the period in a person’s life when they become radicalised, which is a common aspect in studies of radicalisation. The individuals I studied described a moment of isolation or vulnerability. This is a recurring theme in an individual’s susceptibility to radicalisation – or their ‘red pilling’ experience – which can intersect with gender and identity. 

Finally, we must recognise and permit the expression of grievances during this moment of heightened vulnerability, so as to prevent these grievances from evolving into hatred. Early-stage intervention is not only crucial at the individual level but also within the context of social support networks. This approach has been proven to be highly beneficial and effective. 

During your research, you found yourself immersed in this radicalising content. How did you maintain ethical distance? How can others researching in this field avoid falling into rabbit holes?  

Some say that ethnographic work is only when you’re physically present and engaging with participants, but digital ethnography can be an incredibly immersive experience. I tried to keep my boundaries as much as possible using fake profiles on Instagram and YouTube so I could limit notifications and recommendations on my personal accounts. 

At the same time, I used the same phone for my personal and fake accounts, so inevitably, I found myself constantly in this liminal space between the two. I wrote most of this book during the pandemic, so I was isolated and spending so much time online. Because of this, having boundaries became even more important. This goes into broader conversations around ethics, care, and well-being, such as engaging with friends and colleagues in this space, having support networks to provide balance, and keeping distance and perspective, which helped. 

Eviane Leidig’s new book, The Women of the Far Right, is available from Columbia University Press. GNET will host a book talk on Thursday 16 November, at King’s College London. To attend in person, please RSVP here