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Rise of the keyboard fascists: how the internet enables radicalisation

In Going Dark, Julia Ebner goes undercover online to study the dynamics and tactics of far-right extremist networks. 

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A few Saturdays ago I was walking through central Dublin with my wife and our two small children, when we fell into step with a crowd that had just dispersed from a protest around the corner at Leinster House, where the Irish government sits. Beside me, a woman with very large sunglasses and very large hair was saying something to another woman about how “the Somalis” were all being given five-bedroom houses. I looked around and saw a number of people carrying placards with messages about defending free speech, and branded with the logo of a fringe hard-right party whose leader had publicly advocated the “Great Replacement” – a conspiracy theory, popular among white nationalists, claiming that ruling elites are for some reason planning to replace white European populations with immigrants of colour. I turned to my wife, and informed her in a low voice that I feared we might be surrounded by fascists.

Though there was no sense of any real danger, the mere presence of these people was disturbing, as though some squalid, hate-filled corner of the internet had materialised in the real world, its denizens breathing the same air as our children. This dichotomy between “the internet” and “the real world” has, of course, been unsustainable for a while now. But it was still disturbing – distinctly creepy, in this case – to see these particular bits of the online realm so concretely manifested as atoms, not least because the “real world” for these people might not be the streets, where they present themselves as humble advocates of free speech, but the internet, where the true viciousness and paranoia of their inner lives is on full display.

I thought a lot about this false dichotomy, and about my minor and fleeting experience of it, as I read Julia Ebner’s Going Dark. Ebner, an Austrian counter-extremism researcher at London’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue think tank, spends a lot of time in places where the notional border between “the internet” and “the real world” is especially porous. Her job involves studying the dynamics and tactics of various far-right extremist networks; this work, she says, offers “only a feline view of the cat-and-mouse game between those who try to disrupt and destabilise our democracies and those who protect them”. She writes that, “To comprehend what is causing the havoc around us one needs to be inside, where the engines of the movements can be observed and studied.”

To facilitate this observing and studying, she assumes a range of different false identities, infiltrating both the offline and online spaces of various far-right movements (and one pro-Isis hacking discussion forum). In theory, this affords her a level of access she would likely be denied were she openly to approach them as a journalist, let alone a counter-extremism researcher. Presenting herself as one of these people should allow her to gain the trust of extremists and bring to light information about their social world that would otherwise remain obscure.

But in practice, this approach leads to a shallowness of engagement. A lot of the book’s action, as a matter of strict necessity, consists of Ebner sitting at her computer, reading (and occasionally making) posts on far-right forums or social media platforms. She goes through an online vetting process – basically a Skype chat – to join Reconquista Germanica, an online far-right group she describes as “Europe’s biggest trolling army”. She lurks in a video game chat group in which the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville is being planned. She joins a white supremacist dating site called WASP Love.

This is all written in the style of first-person immersive reportage, but the reported material is often too thin to support the weight of the form. When reading Going Dark, I thought often of Jon Ronson’s 2001 book Them: Adventures with  Extremists. Ronson succeeded in illuminating the human strangeness and bizarre beliefs of his subjects precisely by presenting himself as the journalist Jon Ronson (as opposed to Ebner’s approach of using various false identities). This approach allowed him a degree of control over the journalistic encounter, an ability to interview his subjects and have real and revealing exchanges with them. Ebner, on the other hand, undergoes a lot of initiations – via Skype chats, via discussion groups – without ever really leveraging those beginnings into any sort of deeper engagement.

There are moments in which the tension is ratcheted up with the sort of details you might find in an espionage thriller. Meeting a group of far-right Generation Identity members in a pub in Mayfair, one of them suggests walking down the road to visit the offices of the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, and Ebner bites her tongue “so hard that I can feel it start bleeding”. Elsewhere, we find her reading posts on a forum, and spilling hot coffee all  over her keyboard in shock at a particularly upsetting post. At such moments, you can hear the propulsive orchestral score swelling on the soundtrack of the cat-and-mouse movie.

***

Across the various groups Ebner writes about, the process of radicalisation invariably begins in loneliness and isolation. If there is one thing QAnon conspiracy obsessives – with their bewilderingly complex theories about deep state plots to unseat Donald Trump – have in common with, say, a pro-Isis group chat for “jihadi wives”, it is the desire for connection to some broader and deeper cause. Extremist world-views are persuasive to the extent that they offer isolated individuals a means of turning their confusion and loneliness into a sense of shared identity and purpose.

The Trad Wife scene, which Ebner intersects via a discussion group early in the book, is one of the more bizarre far-right subcultures she encounters. These are young women who believe that their “sexual market value” (SMV) is the most important thing about them: “The heterosexual community, they believe, should be seen as a market place, where women are sellers and men buyers of sex. A woman’s single most important resource is therefore, according to them, her SMV.” Their preferred relationship model, Ebner relates, is something called “Taken in Hand (TiH)”, whereby the male partner is unquestioningly deferred to in all matters of life and sex. She quotes the following tips, offered to men by a self-declared TiH Trad Wife:

Don’t delay discipline any longer than is absolutely necessary. If you think she should be spanked for a sarcastic remark, it is infinitely more effective if you take her by the arm, and lead her to the bathroom, the bedroom, the garage, and administer the swats right then.

This is clearly a very extreme interiorising of the logic of patriarchal oppression. But you don’t need to be a Freudian analyst to suspect that we have drifted into the arena of the psychosexual. The whole thing, in other words, can come across as basic sadomasochism masquerading as a commitment to regressive gender norms. But Ebner seems mostly uninterested in examining the roots of this strange subculture, or for that matter the deeper contexts of contemporary fascism more generally.

She relates a moment in her interaction with the Trad Wives where, hands trembling over her keyboard, she feels herself in danger of being persuaded that she should forget her career and concentrate on her looks and cooking skills, and on showing “submission and respect”. “What if I had been doing everything wrong?” she writes. “I can see how easy it would be to get drawn into this community. These redpillers [people who believe that women rather than men are the privileged group in society] first make you question everything, then radically twist your world views. Don’t let them do that to you. But. What if? I have to get out of here. Now. I log out of Reddit and shut down my computer.”

This moment seems to serve two purposes. The first is to illustrate Ebner’s thesis that “everyone can be exploitable in moments of weakness”, and that “the only effective guard is information”. But it struck me as a weird move to suggest that an actual extremism expert might suddenly find herself on the perilous verge of Trad Wifery just from reading too many Reddit posts, and also that the only thing that prevents her from going over the edge is her expertise in the area. (“What ultimately helped me to walk away from the Trad Wives was knowing the steps and signs of radicalisation before joining The Redpill Women forum.”) I found myself reluctant to follow the implication that were it not for Ebner’s solid grounding in counter-extremism research, she would stand before us today a Trad Wife.

The second purpose is to inject, once more, a little kinetic energy into a basically static scene of people logging on and logging off, posting and reading posts. And in terms of narrative non-fiction, this impulse points towards a deeper problem. So much of what happens in the world now – including a lot of the most politically and culturally important stuff – takes the form of people sitting at their desks or hunched over their phones. People making posts, and reading posts, and then standing up from their computers and behaving in ways that are informed by all that posting. But it’s hard to write compellingly about people being online all the time – about all these atoms interacting with all these bits, and vice versa – even if what they’re doing online is being actual Nazis, and even if it results in real violence.

The cat-and-mouse approach is, in the end, a self-limiting one, a chase pursued at the expense of deeper analysis. 

Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists 
Julia Ebner
Bloomsbury, 368pp, £16.99

Mark O'Connell is the author of To Be a Machine (2017), and Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back (2020). He writes for the Guardian, Slate and the New York Times.

This article appears in the 13 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down