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The election will not be televised

The internet will revolutionise the parties’ general election campaigns. For our leading politicians

For politicians and journalists, British general election campaigns are the equivalent of playing an album they have not heard for a few years. A prime minister names the big day and all of them discover that the old tunes are still there. They know instinctively how to dance to them.

Over recent decades, the music has started up each day at the morning press conferences. The Liberal Democrats offer their latest soundbites
at about 7am; they get an early hit on the media outlets, and the conscientious journalists drink some strong coffee. After the Labour and Conservative morning conferences, the leaders buzz around the country delivering speeches in key marginal seats. They also give interviews to an army of broadcasters and newspapers in which they more or less repeat what they have declared a thousand times before. The disciplined choreography is rarely punctuated by discordant or upbeat notes. I suppose John Major appearing in Luton on a soapbox in 1992 was odd, a little silly, but not a spectacular, game-changing moment. Neil Kinnock getting carried away at the Sheffield rally during the same election fuelled prejudices against him, but the wariness was already present. Since that campaign, elections have come and gone, with Labour predictably winning them - the reverse of the 1980s, when formulaic election campaigns were brief pauses during Margaret Thatcher's long reign.

But with the next election only months away, everything is about to change. The rhythms we have come to know so well are seemingly gone
for ever, like a distant waltz that is no longer played. Across the parties and within the mainstream media, there is a widespread assumption that the internet will transform the campaign in revolutionary ways. There is plenty of evidence for this, from the main parties' obsessive interest in the way Barack Obama used the internet to raise cash and engage more directly with voters to the increasingly influential political blogo­sphere, where news and comment are available around the clock.

Gordon Brown's close ally Ed Balls has told the Prime Minister to stop worrying so much about the newspapers and focus instead on what's online. Brown has followed this advice in part. He has shown a greater interest in the internet, not least with his infamous appearance on YouTube, in which he put the case for changes to the arrangements for MPs' expenses, although his awkward delivery gave him the air of a man trying out his new camcorder with an experimental monologue. He has also twittered about the National Health Service while on holiday.

The other part of Balls's advice has not been followed. Brown still reads the newspapers when he wakes up, which means by the time he's had his first cup of tea he is probably pretty miserable. Labour strategists are spending a lot of time working out how to engage with the voters on the internet and thus bypass the largely hostile conventional media.

Senior Conservative strategists expend much energy in the same quest, but they are also nervously ambivalent, wondering what this great leap into the campaign unknown will really mean. They are haunted by a fear that, for all their intense advance preparations, they are no longer in control of the agenda: instead, the internet will control the so-called political control freaks.

One of the Tories' media advisers tells me of a possible nightmarish sequence that could wreck their carefully laid plans. After an early-morning press conference in which David Cameron and George Osborne deliver their latest slogan, news reaches them that an obscure Conservative candidate has gone outrageously off-message with some spontaneous remarks at a local meeting.

In the past, the chances were that such a casually reckless intervention by a nonentity would go unreported. But in the era of mobile-phone cameras and YouTube, the Tory adviser suspects that film of the candidate delivering the calamitous words will be available almost immediately to every broadcaster in the land and become a major news story, derailing the party's agenda for the day, possibly for several.

The Conservatives have even more cause for worry after Alan Duncan's supposedly private comments about the poverty of MPs were posted on YouTube and the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (profiled on page 32) reminded voters in his rant against the NHS about the narrow reach of Cameron's modernising leadership. If the Conservatives have lost control in August, by far the quietest month of the political year, they could be in deeper trouble during an election.

Labour is fearful, too. Brown and Peter Mandelson were architects of the highly disciplined 1997 victory, even though they hardly spoke to each other at the time. They are used to operating in the old ways and will probably find it harder than the more youthful Tory leadership to adjust to the wildly unpredictable impact of YouTube and bloggers giving their round-the-clock analysis, more potent in some ways than 24-hour broadcast news, where the reporters are heavily constrained by strict rules of impartiality.

The next election will therefore feel unrecognisably different for political leaders, newspapers and broadcasters, the trio that, in their diverse ways, are used to planning the campaigns without having to take into account other external factors. In a curious way, although competing with each other noisily, they are all desperately trying to adapt to the impact of the internet. There are parallels between the decline in political parties and the crises facing conventional media outlets. They suffer similar questions of identity as they seek to extend their appeal beyond a declining core audience. They are troubled by the internet, but they are tentatively aware of its potential.

Yet, for all their difficulties, newspapers and magazines continue to play a distinctive role, in print and on the internet. Those writing for the mighty (and mightily subsidised) BBC website can offer only news and a very limited degree of interpretation. No broadcaster has the freedom to write the equivalent of the informed columns available on newspaper and magazine websites. We need informed comment as much as ever.

As usual, most of the influential newspapers will be on the right during the election campaign. The Times has wisely moved upmarket over the past year or so, aligning its news pages with its already impressive comment pages. But politically it opts for a narrow range; most of its columnists skate between ultra-Blairism, disdain for the current government and strong support for David Cameron and George Osborne. The Telegraph could move into the Times's old position of being a broadly centre-right paper of record with a wider range of voices that includes Mary Riddell, a well-informed columnist on the centre left. Nonetheless, the Telegraph is recognisably rooted on the right. They are joined in different ways by the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express, the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday and quite a few of the other Sunday tabloids.

In contrast, the Guardian's political voice is far from clear. Recently, three of its columnists and a lengthy editorial screamed for Brown to go, without explaining what would follow and how. The newspaper's leader writers evidently have no feel or sympathy for Labour or the centre left, happily proclaiming recently that "Labour is toast", as if that were the end of the matter. They are more generous to the Cameron project, taking at face value claims that the party has modernised. I am reminded of an observation Harold Wilson's old friend Marcia Williams made to the Guardian's senior political columnist in the 1970s: "While the Conservative papers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party, the non-Conservative papers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party."

Similarly, some of the strongest - or at least loudest - voices in the world of political blogging are on the right. They vary in range and tone from the libertarian-right Guido Fawkes to the more traditional ConservativeHome. There are also the relentlessly Thatcherite economic pro­clamations on the Spectator's Coffee House forum, where the spending axe is wielded with unnerving relish. All are addictive; I read them several times a day. More importantly, so do BBC producers, frequently inviting the authors on to their outlets. The recently relaunched New Statesman website reads like a breath of fresh air as writers dare occasionally to put the case for a government policy and to challenge the notion that Cameron and his party are the crusading progressives in politics. But they are the exception, and I note that some of the contributors are hammered over this, attacked by other columnists and bloggers for being cowardly in their subservience, when they are being brave in challenging popular fashion.

Without much of a constituency in the media, Brown becomes more insecure, which is why, up until the summer break, he kept announcing daft initiatives in the neurotic search for a rare good headline. Cameron and the Conservatives will be under much more pressure from their supporters in the media to move rightwards, ­especially in relation to economic policy. I recall Tony Blair observing to me during his first term that the Conservatives' supporters in the media were not helpful to their party, as they always urged the leadership to move to the right. They are still doing so. Brown, like Blair, seeks to woo these mighty battalions, too, which is partly why his leadership has been of uncertain sound.

So, everything has changed and nothing has changed. The next election will be a roller-coaster ride during which no one will be entirely in control. At the same time, the news will be beamed largely through a Eurosceptic, small-state and anti-public-spending prism - a familiar challenge for a Conservative leader seeking support from voters whose political sympathies are not necessarily shifting rightwards, and for a Labour leader who needs to get a hearing from media that remain largely hostile to the centre left.

Steve Richards is chief political commentator for the Independent and a contributing editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

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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.

“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.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

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 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?