Mhairi Black takes on Douglas Alexander. Illustration by Andy Watt
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The battle for Paisley: will 20-year-old Mhairi Black defeat Labour’s chief election strategist?

Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary and Labour’s election strategy, is fighting to hold on to his seat against Mhairi Black. 

It’s raining in Paisley, great slicing sheets that turn the sky grey. Everyone I meet seems perversely proud of this, as though the bad weather in other places just doesn’t try hard enough. At one point, when a momentary break in the clouds exposes the sun, a Labour activist turns to me and says: “See, people go abroad for this kind of weather.”

The fight for Paisley, Johnstone and the surrounding villages west of Glasgow is a microcosm of the broader election battle in May. Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary and Labour’s chief campaign strategist, has been the MP here since a by-election in November 1997 (the seat then had slightly different borders). If Ed Miliband ends up in Downing Street, the life of his foreign secretary will be a whirl of red boxes, ministerial Jaguars and negotiations with world leaders.

That’s already one big if. There’s another: Douglas Alexander will be Labour’s foreign secretary only if he gets re-elected as the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

In any other recent election, that would have been a foregone conclusion. Labour took 60 per cent of the vote here in 2010, with the SNP trailing in second with 18 per cent; the Tories and Lib Dems tied on third with 10 per cent each. Douglas Alexander’s majority was 16,614 – way past “safe seat” and heading into “impregnable”.

Then on 4 February this year those assumptions were turned upside down. The Tory former deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft published a series of polls showing the SNP on course for a landslide in Scotland. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Lib Dem Danny Alexander, was a goner, as were nine of his party colleagues; Gordon Brown’s old seat of Kirkcaldy looked likely to be an SNP gain, along with several constituencies in Glasgow, a city that narrowly voted Yes in last September’s independence referendum. In Paisley, the poll showed that Douglas Alexander’s 60 per cent vote share had fallen to 40 as the SNP surged 8 points ahead of him to 48 per cent.

The same day as Ashcroft released these polls, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, announced the party’s latest round of candidate selections. If Ashcroft’s data was right, the next MP for this Paisley seat would be a 20-year-old politics student called Mhairi Black.

In the two months since then, the contest between Black and Alexander has come to feel symbolic of the trends in Scottish and British politics. The SNP would like us to see it as a duel between a “career politician” and the party’s fresh blood, a young woman fired up by the referendum and ready to challenge a broken system. As James Kelly wrote on the nationalist website Bella Caledonia: “This would arguably be the sweetest moment of election night – Labour’s Sultan of Smugness being humbled by a 20-year-old SNP candidate who has been demonised in the unionist press.” The MSP for Paisley, the Scottish Nationalist George Adam, tells me: “Douglas Alexander is a major player in Westminster, let’s not kid ourselves. I may find the fact he doesn’t care if it’s Paisley, Penrith or Perth that he represents – I might find that repulsive, but he is a major player.”

But the fight for Paisley is also illuminating in other ways. The SNP’s ascendancy is inextricably bound up with opposition to a Tory-led government in Westminster and its austerity policies. Where Ed Miliband sometimes seems to oppose George Osborne half-heartedly, in deference to his cautious English voters in Tory-facing seats, Nicola Sturgeon is free to condemn him utterly. It is hard to overestimate the depth of anti-coalition feeling in Scotland: Ashcroft’s polls found that 75 per cent of respondents said they would definitely not vote Tory at the next election, and 73 per cent said they would not vote Lib Dem.

One other figure from that poll should give us pause: 77 per cent said they would definitely not vote Ukip. With a deeper love for Europe, fewer immigrants and fewer terrifying headlines about migrants, Scotland has not been receptive to the overtures of Nigel Farage’s People’s Army. As we went to press, Ukip had not selected a candidate to fight Paisley and Renfrewshire South, and Ashcroft puts the Tories on just 6 per cent. Here, the solution to the growing poverty and inequality that followed the financial crisis is sought on the populist left rather than the populist right.

***

Mhairi Black (“It’s pronounced like ‘Will you marry me?’”) was born in September 1994, by which time Douglas Alexander had already spent time working as a speechwriter for the then shadow trade and industry secretary, Gordon Brown, before returning to Edinburgh to study law. She cannot remember the Major government at all; she is a child of the Blair years, although the economic boom had a muted effect on the area of northern Paisley where she grew up. Her family was not well off, and former schoolmates have struggled with drug addiction and the search for a stable job.

Black’s first vivid political memory is of being taken to march against the Iraq war – chiefly because her aunt gave her a huge cherry lollipop called a “frying pan” that hadn’t been available in Scotland for years. “That’s my memory: marching was magic! But what I did notice was, with Labour it had always been, ‘Oh, they’re the good guys.’ And I remember seeing that change.”

Her father, Alan, now 54, who acts as her unofficial taxi service, had begun to feel disillusioned even before the invasion of Iraq. “The first thing that made him raise his eyebrow was how Tony Blair, one of the first things he did was build the Millennium Dome. He thought: what? We’ve just had however many years of Tory rule, this place is decimated – and you’re building the Millennium Dome?”

Black tells me this over a cup of tea in a Paisley café. Her supporters have abandoned canvassing a local estate, as the rain was ruining the sheets on which the party records voter intentions. On the doorsteps, she mixed wry friendliness with a passionate polemic against austerity and marginalisation of Scotland at Westminster. It wasn’t always an easy sell. One woman informed us: “I don’t like how Nicola Sturgeon’s been going on, just annoying everybody with her attitude.” (Alex Salmond fared even worse: “He’s really a wee plonker.”) But before we left, the prospective voter had conceded Black’s point that decades of backing Labour had not protected Scotland from Tory governments for which it didn’t vote. “I think the English despise us Scots, basically,” the woman said. “You get all these English folks going: ‘Ooh, they’re banging on, ugh, they’re getting too much money.’ Blah blah blah.”

***

As we walked away, Black insisted that this was the first person who had brought up England on the doorstep, but nonetheless this sentiment was a recurring theme of my time in Scotland. There is a distinct lack of sympathy at the thought of the SNP “holding Westminster to ransom” from people who feel Scotland has suffered from successive Tory governments it hasn’t wanted. Once, Labour was the sole vector for opposition to the Right. Under Sturgeon, the SNP's rhetoric has moved decisively left – opposing austerity in a much more full-blooded way than Labour, and delivering its message via a much more popular leader.

Over a hot drink in the backroom of the café, Mhairi Black tells me that her family were always Labour supporters. “My grandpa, he worked on the shipyards in Clydebank – he comes from proper Red Clydeside, socialist roots and all the rest of it. Our whole family’s just been brought up like that from both sides, you know? Even my aunties and uncles: a year ago they were all Labour, and they were all No voters as well.”

That must have made for interesting chats at family occasions, I say. “Eventually, they all swung to Yes. And then the minute it was a No vote, and they seen how Labour were conducting themselves through the referendum, agreeing with the Tories on so many things. . . The whole host of them have joined the SNP now.”

Black’s conversion to the power of politics came during the referendum, when a woman walked into a Yes campaign office with her little boy. “She was dead kind of shifty and that, I thought – she’s nervous, she’s an undecided. I went, “do you want some leaflets or anything?” and she went, ‘Naw, I’m looking for food.’” She sips her drink. “We were scrambling, trying to get stuff together, just teas and biscuits. . . I was just thinking: that’s Victorian.”

If elected, Black could be the youngest MP in the Commons – although she is not the youngest candidate, as Labour are fielding a 19-year-old called Ollie Middleton in Bath. She is a third year student in politics and public policy at the University of Glasgow, with a final exam on 25 May, for which I suspect she is not currently doing much revision. 

The biggest threat to her candidacy came on its second day, when the Daily Record found a video of her addressing a Hope over Fear rally in George Square. On the night of the referendum, she told the crowd: “We had to walk past all these fat cat Labour councillors goading us, clapping sarcastically, saying ‘better luck next time’ or ‘hard lines’. It took everything, every fibre in my being, not to put the nut in one of them.” Cue enthusiastic applause.

The newspapers also found posts from her Twitter account – the one she had since she was 14 – which read: “Smirnoff Ice is the drink of the gods - I cannae handle this c*** man” and “I’ve only just realised - I really f***** hate Celtic”. (As one wag commented on a Reddit discussion thread: “To be fair, that does really represent the people of Paisley.”)

Black apologised for the comments, and the SNP stood by her. Now, she says: “I can’t condone anything I said. I look at it and I’m embarrassed by some of the daft things.” But she adds later: “My pal was saying to me: you swore on Twitter; Tony Blair started a war. What bothers folk more? The thing that’s been said most to me is: ach, we all did daft things.”

Nonetheless, the scandal has shaped perceptions of her. It is at the top of her Google results, and one Scottish journalist I mention the constituency to assures me “the Nat is a maniac”. Black is unperturbed, suggesting that it helps her campaign if Labour underestimate her. “That’s their mistake: they’ve got used to power and they’ve taken it for granted, and then when you’ve got anybody making any kind of argument, that’s when the patronising judgements come out. You’re just a daft woman. You’re just a wee lassie, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Does she think she’s going to win – or is Scottish Labour facing a version of the “Shy Tory” affliction, where its voters are reluctant to out themselves to pollsters? “The obvious answer is I don’t know. I don’t. But don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant being ahead in the polls . . .what is definitely coming across is that people are hungry for change.”

***

It is not raining in Johnstone, the next largest town in the constituency, on the following day. It is hailing. Combined with the high winds, this is like having handfuls of gravel thrown into your face. Again, this doesn’t seem to be denting anyone’s enthusiasm for being outside: as I get out of the car, Labour councillor Iain McMillan starts singing “Jingle Bells”.

As we tour Ulundi Road and Hagg Cres with bags of leaflets, Douglas Alexander doesn’t look like a man who has given up hope of winning the seat. He is in good spirits following the release of Labour’s latest party political broadcast, starring Sherlock actor Martin Freeman. The day after its release, the simple straight-to-camera piece is well on its way to a million views.

Alexander dashes round the houses without hat or gloves, a puffa jacket over his workwear, sprinting off at one point to say hello to a woman who worked with his mother at the local hospital. It’s the early afternoon, and many of the retired residents are at home, although no one seems to want to argue politics on the doorstep.

The operation hums with easy smoothness, with former Better Together director of operations Kate Watson acting as air traffic controller of the dozen activists’ movements. She does this with an increasingly soggy clipboard; iPads are one Obama campaign innovation that has not yet made it to British politics, despite Labour’s hiring of American guru David Axelrod. Back at party headquarters, all the data collected on the doorsteps will be fed into Labour’s specialist software Contact Creator, a key part of its get out the vote operation. One of the party staffers tells me that the software suggests the SNP lead is nothing like as solid as the Ashcroft poll suggests.

In the past, Labour could rely on its greater organisational strength and activist base to dominate Scottish politics, but that has changed as SNP membership soared in the wake of the referendum. The nationalist party now claims 105,000 members, with 2,022 joining during the seven-way leaders’ debate on April 2. By contrast, Jim Murphy suggested Scottish Labour had “about 20,000 or so” members in December. (The party claims 190,000 nationwide.)

I suggest to Douglas Alexander over tea in Papamacs deli that he has another disadvantage. The SNP has a compelling narrative for this campaign: at 20, Mhairi Black has become a cipher for a new kind of politics, against which he can be painted as the old, discredited establishment. What is his counter-narrative?  How does he see this election? “Renfrewshire needs to get rid of the Conservative government, and get changes that Labour can offer. An end to zero-hours contracts, more nurses for our local hospital, the changes that working people need. The real risk would be to see the Conservatives back in office after me, and not secure the practical changes that people want.” 

As Labour’s chief election strategist, Alexander is obviously a professional politician – in both the positive and negative senses of the word. We don’t complain if plumbers or brain surgeons are “professional”, after all – but equally, it’s possible to see how his landmine-tested answers can seem less authentic than the youthful chattiness of his opponent. Unlike Mhairi Black, he pays close attention to what can be said “in front of your tape recorder” – but then he wouldn’t have survived for more than a decade at the top of politics if he put too trust in journalists. Eileen McCartin, the Liberal Democrat candidate who first ran against him in 1997, tells me over the phone: “In a personal sense, he is always a gentleman. Like most Labour politicians, he toes the party line and says what needs to be said for his party.”

Alexander admits that “people are pretty scunnered with politics” and draws attention to what he sees as the failures of the government in Holyrood – run by the SNP as a minority administration since 2007, and with a majority since 2011 – in handling devolved healthcare. He argues that far from offering an end to austerity, the fiscal autonomy proposed by the Nationalists – and the consequent end of the Barnett formula – would result in spending cuts. “The SNP’s economics are all over the place.”

There have been suggestions that Alexander would have preferred to run a less overtly left-wing general election campaign, with one friend telling the Financial Times: “Douglas knows in his heart that the most effective way of winning for Labour is the Blairite way, but he will run the campaign Ed’s way.” Yet the 47-year-old seems genuinely passionate when he talks about tackling poverty in his constituency. The Renfrewshire foodbank is one of the five busiest in Scotland, according to the Trussell Trust, feeding 6,000 people a year.

On Sunday 29 March, as the SNP were holding their spring conference, Alexander had written a piece for the Scotsman which argued that Labour’s “vision for the common good is one that ends the need for food banks”. But there are two in your constituency, I say. “I helped established them, with the local churches,” Alexander shoots back. “I’ve never believed in revolutionary impoverishment. If my neighbours are in need, then I feel it’s right that we work together to help them. But it’s a moral obscenity in the twenty-first century that a community like Renfrewshire is having to rely on foodbanks.” (Ewan Gurr from the Trussell Trust disputes this account: “He came along, he cut the ribbon, he said some fantastic words about the fact his dad had been a Church of Scotland minister and had been involved in providing food for people as well. Douglas is a good guy, I think he's got a good heart, but I think it's a bit disingenous to say he was involved in the set-up of Renfrewshire foodbank. That is factually inaccurate.")

Alexander sees the battle between Labour and the SNP as a contest between solidarity and division. “I’ve contested elections against the SNP for 20 years, so in that sense I know what the SNP are and I know what they represent,” he says. Which is? “It’s a politics of identity rather than a politics of ideas. . . My politics isn’t premised on a sense of grievance and other, which is at the heart of a lot of nationalism.” He is dismissive of Alex Salmond’s grandstanding about the SNP’s importance in a hung parliament. “He’s in the business of suggesting that the way to get a Labour government is to vote SNP. Alex Salmond said in 2010 to voters in England: ‘vote Liberal Democrat’. Nicola Sturgeon said last month to voters in England: ‘vote Green’. They seem to have an ‘anything but Labour’ strategy in order to get a Labour government, and that doesn’t make sense to me.”

His next sentence foreshadows the Telegraph’s claim, on 3 April, that Nicola Sturgeon told the French ambassador she wants David Cameron to remain in Downing Street (a claim she denies). “Salmond and Sturgeon are both trying to drive down the Labour vote in Scotland and drive up the Tory vote in England. Why? Because as Alex Salmond said just last week, he wants Scotland to have a “second chance”. This is a man who said, just last year, this was a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’.”

Alexander admits that many people he speaks to on the doorstep see the general election as a chance to “re-litigate” the referendum, and they are very hard to persuade away from the SNP. But he still thinks he will win: “I’m confident, but not complacent. My majority in 1997 was about 2,700 and it’s increased at every election since then. That’s because I have never taken this community or this electorate for granted. I never have, and I never will – because they’re the people I grew up with.”

This is the view also taken by the Lib Dems’ Eileen McCartin. When I ask her who she would bet on to win the seat, she laughs. “I'm not a betting person, but I have said publicly that I don't think the SNP will take the seat from Labour. I wish it were the Liberal Democrats that were winning the seat! I don't think the SNP are nearly as strong in the country as it would be suggested, and I have my doubts.” 

As saccharine as it sounds, from what I could see, the fracturing of British politics has been good for anyone in Paisley and Renfrewshire South who thinks of herself as progressive. The constituency has a choice between two principled, committed politicians vying to represent it at Westminster, campaigning on a platform of fairness in the welfare system and greater equality. And whether its next MP is Douglas Alexander or Mhairi Black, I doubt either of them will take their victory for granted.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

King's 1999 mugshot

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other woman in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming like males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015