Even after publishing a book and being a distinguished research fellow advising the higher echelons of counter-extremism circuits, Julia Ebner still felt like she’d hit a wall when it came to insights into extremism. So, she decided to go undercover to understand Far Right recruitment and mobilization strategies.
In October of 2017, Ebner assumed what would become one of five identities to meet with a recruiter for Generation Identity (GI), a Far Right European group that promotes white nationalism and sees diversity and immigration as a threat to the sacred values of the “homeland.”
That threat is called “The Great Replacement Theory,” and it’s inspired at least two extremist attacks in 2019 including the Christchurch mosques attacks in New Zealand and the Walmart mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.
GI targets European men and women in their 20s and 30s primarily through social media, making the 20-something Ebner a ripe recruitment prospect.
As part of a layered pseudo-identity, Ebner also spent time talking online with other Far Right groups, including Discord Group, which helped coordinate the 2017 Charlottesville rally. She also connected with Traditional Wives (Tradwives), a network of 30,000 Far Right women who “perceive gender roles in terms of a market place where women are sellers and men are buyers of sex.”
In her undercover work, Ebner learned:
- Social media is vital to Far Right recruitment, expansion and fundraising strategies
- The groups recruit in schools, public baths and other public venues frequented by their target demographic
- Some groups have tightly-organized hierarchies, others have military-like structures and others mirror our current culture of politics where whenever carries out the most successful attack is the personality that is most admired
- Creation and launch of group-focused apps are part of a strategy to exploit online destinations to create digital watering holes as social media clamps down on extremist presence online
Ebner also notes that social media and tech algorithms serve to favor extremism. As Ebner phrases it, “Content that maximizes attention” and “content that causes anger or indignation” is given priority.
“It’s like handing a megaphone to extremists … allowing fringe views to get a much bigger audience,” she says.
Ebner also learned that Far Right groups have undergone branding changes and reframed their ideas to better integrate in the current climate without being called out as Nazis. Speaking with Time magazine, she noted,
“Generation Identity use euphemisms like “ethno pluralism” instead of “racial segregation” or “apartheid,” and combine video game language with racial slurs, creating their own satirical language.
Not only are extremist groups better at spreading their real ideologies behind satirical memes, they’re also being given a platform by politicians.
Language which mirrors that used by proponents of conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement are retweeted by politicians and repeated in their campaigns.
This is likely to become more prevalent in the next few months in the run up to the U.S. presidential election. The 2016 U.S. election proved to be one of the key turning points in uniting far right groups globally.”
Ebner’s latest book titled Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists details solutions for challenging extremism which calls for an integrated response that marries technology and social constructs.