The far right are relying on a lot more than banners and leaflets to disrupt society
Activists employ a range of methods to engage in political action beyond straightforward marches, demonstrations and rallies, and conventional flyering, stickering and leafleting.
Direct actions, in particular, seek to disrupt social life and bring about a political end more abruptly (for example, through unused housing occupations), or at least to simulate that end (as with street performances and art).
Activists across the spectrum know that in periods of political instability such as the present, direct actions that create a public spectacle, garner attention and which are tied to well-coordinated media campaigns, can have a significant effect on capitalising on or initially kickstarting change.
Direct action has for many become associated with the left, particularly with progressive environmental movements, but the far right has had a growth in this area.
A prominent recent example has been the pan-European identitarian youth movement Generation Identity, and their Defend Europe mission to disrupt humanitarian NGO vessels in the Mediterranean as well as their Defend Alps mission which saw 100 activists block a border pass to immigrants coming into France from Italy.
Their patrol used drones, multiple 4x4s, two helicopters and a light aircraft. With this level of activity, it is no surprise that the movement – whose German branches co-leader has described as “the Greenpeace of the right-wing” in reference to their use of direct actions – has been an influence on far-right street movements across the globe.
Far-right direct action has seen growth beyond such theatrics, however. From the resurgence of community-oriented actions such as litter picking and feeding the (solely white) homeless, to disruptive on-the-ground trolling, the live broadcasting of violence and carefully orchestrated online mass action, the far right are attempting to adopt new tools and repurpose old ones to express their demands or, in some cases, attempt to achieve them through force.
Outside of elections, the majority of far-right activism is focused on direct action and in many cases it is their main interest. It is here that they attempt to lay the groundwork for wider influence and, away from more high-profile marches, campaigns and media appearances, it is where the harms of their hate affect people on the street, in their communities and online day-to-day. To help tackle this in all its breadth, below I’ve looked at some of the current trends in the far-right’s direct actions.
Broadcast violence and gamified activism
Political violence is nothing new, but the present possibility for an individual to broadcast it around the globe and shape its reception is, and with direct action inherently an effort to garner attention, this development has only heightened its potential value for far-right extremists.
Coupled with the media’s often irresponsible coverage of such violence and the pressures on and frenetic pace of the contemporary news cycle, broadcast attacks are a dangerous tool the far right have to spread their hateful messages far and wide.
As my colleague Patrik Hermansson noted recently, “far-right terrorists integrating something akin to a social media strategy into their attacks has become commonplace”. Elliot Rodgers, who killed seven people in California in 2014, published several videos, including one right before his attack, whilst the Pittsburgh synagogue attack in October 2018 similarly saw an announcement shortly before on the social media platform Gab.
Yet, as Patrik noted following the Christchurch attacks, what stuck out in this case was the degree of planning. The perpetrator didn’t just announce the attack online, they also appeared to have considered how their manifesto and the far-right keywords graffitied onto their weapons could exploit dangerous ‘data voids’ online which, through viewers’ curious searching, would lead them down radicalising rabbit-holes and thus aid the propagandising inherent to their violence.
This points to a particularly shocking element of the attack, namely that the murderer livestreamed it and in a manner that appeared intended to ‘gamify’ the footage.
As Graham Macklin of the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism has noted, the camera appeared to be set-up to imitate the perspective of a first-person shooter game. These aren’t entirely new developments for terrorists as Macklin highlights, but with the ever-greater infusion of social media and tech into people’s lives, they are being exploited by the far right more than ever before.
More explicit gamification of activism can be found in Europe in a long-delayed project of the aforementioned Generation Identity movement. Namely, the still under-construction app, ‘Patriot Peer’: a location-based social networking app which encourages users to visit cultural landmarks, meet other activists by attending events and meetings, and engage in activism, to gain points and climb a leader board.
The unsettling blurring of direct action with “entertainment” has extended to other areas too. The Daily Beast in May reported on how US militia groups were livestreaming their encounters with immigrants at the southern border, an act that Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) described as akin to letting supporters be part of the “reality TV” action.
(Media) Disruption and (media) display
Closer to conventional political action are far right efforts at intervening, if not necessarily violently, in spaces they oppose.
Just this week the city of Denton, Texas saw much of this. As Dalton LeFerney of the Denton Record Chronicle highlighted, within a few blocks of one another two bars in the city saw far-right activity, one from neo-nazis who engaged in physical violence against staff and another from a demonstration by fascist group, Patriot Front, outside a further venue. Despite the latter involving activists outside the space in question, footage in LeFerney’s report shows that the display clearly was meant to intimidate and disrupt those inside.
As with broadcast violence, the online world has thoroughly shaped the intended audience of demonstrations and displays like that carried out by Patriot Front. Indeed, its effect has been to emphasise how much these efforts are about creating a lasting, affecting display beyond disrupting others in the moment and in the immediate vicinity.
US identitarian group, American Identity Movement (AIM), have recently engaged in a number of actions that have disrupted progressive events. In April AIM activists demonstrated in the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. during a talk by Jonathan M. Metzl on his new book Dying of Whiteness, whilst in the same month activists in New Orleans walked into a library’s Drag Queen Story Hour event dressed as clowns to mock it.
As The Washington Post reported following the bookstore action, a statement from AIM leader Patrick Casey highlighted how he considered “Disruptions like this [as] a great way for [AIM] to insert our ideas into the discussion on race and identity”. Getting media spots is, of course, a deliberate end to such actions and elements of the far right are now well-versed in media manipulation strategies.
Moreover, with social media an entrenched and easily exploited domain of political activity, the larger intended target of such disruption is arguably the media cycle and our political discussions themselves.
This combining of street activism and media strategy has been enhanced by transatlantic far-right collaboration in recent years. Visiting US alt-right activists in September 2017, Austrian Generation Identity (GI) activist Martin Sellner stated in a video that the exchange between Europe and America was at this point “really about tactics” rather than ideology. Reaffirming that it is indeed an exchange, US vlogger Brittany Pettibone (now engaged to Sellner), replied that “We’ve mastered the online activism and you’ve mastered the in-real-life activism”.
Nor is Pettibone alone in this assessment. Nathan Damigo, the founder of AIM’s original iteration, Identity Evropa (IE), told US white nationalist Greg Johnson in 2016 that in creating IE he had deliberately adopted the activist approach of GI (he also cited the now proscribed British neo-nazi group National Action as an influence).
Whilst engaging in more familiar actions such as banner drops and leafleting, IE imitated GI’s focus on, for example, more eyecatching, media-attentive street theatre (such as “die-ins” where activists pretend to be victims of Islamist terrorism or anti-white attacks in public places). GI themselves are well aware of how integral the larger internet and media audience is beyond the initial witnesses to an action. As Sellner told an Australian journalist in 2017, “we’ve seen that a good video that can go viral […] it’s almost as efficient as an action [itself].”
In the community
Direct actions are often as much about demonstrating political alternatives to potential new recruits, as they are about directly protesting in opposition to what one perceives is the present political reality.
A clear example of this in recent times has been the popularity for far-right street movements to do food drives for, or deliver food to the exclusively white homeless. The far right carry out these racist direct actions into communities but with a cynical charitable cover that sanitises their image to those unfamiliar with their views, and usually avoids mention of their exclusion of non-whites during the action.
Such is its recent popularity in the UK, the country’s Charity Commission even launched an investigation into the phenomenon in 2018, whilst in mainland Europe the neo-Nazi, pan-Nordic group the Nordic Resistance Movement similarly have engaged in such efforts in the winter and GI notoriously distributed pork soup so as to not be able to offer it to Muslim and Jewish homeless people. In the US, groups have similarly taken up this community-oriented approach, with AIM doing a weekend of campaigning in June 2018 under the banner “#weekendofservice”, that involved feeding the homeless and litter picking across 12 states.
These actions reflect an effort to co-opt concerns, such as social welfare and care for the environment, that the far right know are associated by many largely with the left. Such a co-option goes beyond issues to tactics too.
Core recommended texts for GI members include Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution, a guide to nonviolent action which draws from the author’s involvement with progressive movements, and similarly, members of the US alt-right community have explicitly adopted the strategies of central left-wing community organising text Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. Damigo of IE even stated that he had followed left-wing internet discussions and saved comments that people made in order to rework and rephrase them to promote white nationalism.
Taking it online
Much has been written about the use and centrality of social media and technology more generally to the contemporary far right’s actions, including organised harassment campaigns such as Gamergate, mass reporting to get social media accounts suspended, and in means veering into the offline, including swatting. Indeed, as the foregoing highlights, even in their on-the-ground actions the far right have increasingly wedded the web closer. Yet, an element of their campaigning, as opposed to direct action, brings home why this merging has occurred.
An integral tool for far-right activists today is knowledge of how to game social media algorithms, something which offers them a way to increase the popularity of their messages, or conversely decrease someone else’s visibility. When this practice is used with political motives Cardiff University’s Emiliano Treré has dubbed it, “algorithmic activism” or “algorithmic resistance”.
This may involve decisions as simple as the choice of a particular set of keywords, all the way up to much more intricate schemes. A report by Data & Society analysed the alt-right’s presence on YouTube and found that key accounts use common practices to increase their reach on the platform but with the difference that they “also explicitly […] promote reactionary ideology”.
These activists employ tactics such as “search engine optimisation” (techniques to make search engines favour a web page), link to each other’s accounts and manufacture controversies and conflict to be favoured by recommendation algorithms. Examples include figures such as vloggers Stefan Molyneux, Colin Robertson (AKA Millennial Woes), Lauren Southern and Andy Warski.
This example of what is effectively a campaigning or media tactic points to the fact that attention online is a crucial and scarce commodity. Given that our online world increasingly permeates our offline one, therefore, the fact that the logic of online strategising has drifted into how far-right activists conceive and enact direct actions on-the-ground should be of little surprise.
Perhaps no better example of this drift is in the trend in recent years for far-right activists and commentators to engage in speaking events on university campuses, with an agenda of “triggering” students and protestors into responding with anger or violence, which conveniently provides material for viral content.
Steven Crowder, the vlogger whose homophobic and racist harrassment of Vox reporter Carlos Maza was recently covered in CARD, has become known for a segment on his show entitled ‘Change My Mind’ that runs along these lines. It is a tried-and-tested means of action following numerous far-right activists’ university speaking engagements, notably Milo Yiannopoulos, who effectively made it the bulk of his career for sometime.
The underlying rhetorical phenomenon has even garnered a name: ‘sealioning’. As Amy Johnson of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society describes it:
[…] sealioning fuses persistent questioning—often about basic information, information easily found elsewhere, or unrelated or tangential points—with a loudly-insisted-upon commitment to reasonable debate. It disguises itself as a sincere attempt to learn and communicate. Sealioning thus works both to exhaust a target’s patience, attention, and communicative effort, and to portray the target as unreasonable. While the questions of the “sea lion” may seem innocent, they’re intended maliciously and have harmful consequences.
Crucially, as Lancaster University’s Claire Hardaker notes, the perpetrator “takes on the wronged victim of abuse role” if the target responds with frustration or anger. Given the far-right’s cynical attempts to position themselves as martyrs for free speech in recent times, it’s easy to see how sealioning could thus be a useful tool to set-up the perception of such victimhood.
An engine of activism
Be it planning the pick-up of violent livestreams, ensuring a demonstration catches a journalist’s attention through spectacle and algorithmic gaming, running a cross-country hashtagged PR campaign on a weekend of actions in communities, or doing on-the-ground internet trolling, the far right perhaps more than ever are operating in a political arena in which their direct actions are concerned with their (news and social) media reception.
Some of the examples discussed also bring out how far-right actors have intentionally adopted tactics from the left and from others on the right, with US activists looking abroad to Europe in the latter case, for example. Whilst the level of variety is not itself new, there is a clear desire to innovate and push back against successful deplatformings, exposures, and disbandment of far-right groups.
To tackle the threat of the far right we must remain a step ahead, and we must focus on the most effective means of opposition at hand rather than being wedded to tactics themselves.
Direct action – violent, nonviolent, and the areas in which one bleeds into the other – remains a core engine of far-right activism. Done well, it can maintain morale, disseminate messages, intimidate opposition and encourage recruitment. Whilst we can often rely on the far right to do it badly (and we should certainly ridicule their efforts), we should continue to pay close attention to the changing methods they employ if we are to successfully fight back.