Far-right extremism in the digital era

January 11, 2023

Image created with photo by Antonio Florentini from Pexels

Eff talks to Mark (names changed) about his experiences of being radicalised

Over the past 10 years there has been an increase in right-wing extremist groups using online platforms to indoctrinate young people with their ideologies. You can read more about this here.

The alt-right pipeline has been commonly described as extremist right-wing groups preying on young people, particularly socially isolated boys. This is done by luring them into online spaces where they feel understood and accepted. Predators capitalise on feelings of insecurity to convince these victims that they can provide the solution.

These online spaces, aligned with right-wing ideologies, target vulnerable individuals who are brainwashed by this set of beliefs, altering their everyday behaviour and perspective of the world.

To understand this further, I interviewed ‘Mark’ who was groomed when he was 11 years old by anti-feminist extremists. He is now 20, and escaped this community when he was 16.

Eff: What was your life like when you first got involved with extreme groups online?

Mark: Well, I’d just started at a new secondary school. I’d moved schools twice in two years. I was a year younger than everyone in my year and I was much more noticeably autistic at the time, and with this I became isolated. I think I needed some sort of affirmative social network of like-minded people to get involved with, as that wasn’t happening anywhere in my life. So, of course, I turned to the internet.

Eff: How did you get indoctrinated?

Mark: I would have been between 11 and 12 when I started getting into something called the ‘rational community’. I was pretty disillusioned with my families’ strong Christian beliefs. The online group started with the classic debunking of Christian arguments. My family are very traditional Christians, and I would be severely punished for speaking out against the Church or attempting to distance myself from the church community. However, this group made sense to me and understood my doubts.

Eff: So, where did you go from there?

Mark: By this point I was already deeply entrenched in the ‘rabbit hole effect’ and I’m not sure exactly where the ‘Christians getting owned’ video-watching turned into watching ‘feminists getting owned’ material, but I was immediately a big fan of the sort of rapid and sharp wit of types like Ben Shapiro and Carl Benjamin.

Eff: And then what happened?

Mark: My apparent hatred for ‘feminism’ eventually turned into a hatred for ‘social justice’ in general. Essentially I was keeping-up with the various content creators I aspired to.

Eff: What was appealing about the content you were watching and influencers you were following?

Mark: The kind of easy-to-make hateful content I was seeing is marketed at people that don’t need to think very hard and are quick to anger, which was obviously where I was at back then. As I’ve said, I was very isolated at school and didn’t feel connected to my family at the time with their staunch religious beliefs.  I understand now how this material takes so much less time to create than the researched, informed rebuttals that you’d often see leftists and feminists make.

Eff: What were the extremist views that you held at this point in your life?

Mark: I was very much against political correctness. Arguments by alt-right creators are often centred around the idea that social justice movements are restricting people. A good example is the viral comment by Jordan Peterson in 2018 where he argued that respect for people’s pronouns was restricting ‘free speech’. As I get older and have a deeper understanding of life, I realise that these views are dangerous. They associate basic human rights with something negative and steer impressionable people into unexplored, narrow views that disrespect people’s basic autonomy and rights.

Eff: What was the appeal of the extremist groups?

Mark: The sense of community these extremist groups offered me made me feel like I was part of something, some kind of movement which gave me an identity that I was clearly lacking at the time. I didn’t really get involved in online discussion, but those creators and the community were always present. Online grooming from extremist groups may not always be in the form of direct contact but can be in the form of a ‘parasocial’ relationship, completely one-sided, with a manipulative content creator. It is important to be aware that online interaction can be grooming, even if it is not in the form of direct communication.

Eff: How aware were you of how harmful and extreme the content was that you were watching?

Mark: That’s another thing: the anti-feminist lot often called themselves ‘sceptics’. Sceptical of the progressive, modern feminist movement as it pertains to the lives of those who are already quite well off. ‘Sceptic’ was just a label they used to distance themselves from the connotations of being ‘anti-feminist’, something they 100% were.

Eff: What do think kept you hooked into this kind of content?

Mark: I’m not sure why I stayed with those influencers (Shapiro and Benjamin) and their sentiments for so long but I was very impressionable at that age. I’ve revisited a few of the old videos recently and what they spout is almost entirely unresearched, based on lies and disinformation.

Eff: How did you get away from this movement?

Mark: I think I stopped watching content from the anti-feminist rabbit hole after I started making friends and interacting with young women a lot more, when I was about 15. I began watching more content on YouTube that was distant from the ‘rational community’. In a video on YouTube, someone expressed an idea that I would have heard from the alt-right, but without distorting it, just an honest expression of moral interest, and I liked that.

After that I kept coming across the ideas that had been represented so poorly in the anti-feminist videos. In one instance I even watched a video by a popular leftist YouTuber that completely obliterated a video I’d previously watched by one of those ‘rational’ guys. This showed me the importance of well-researched content that counters these alt-right, extremist views.

Eff: What advice would you give to young people while online?

Mark: This alt-right content is unresearched and its main objective is to groom and indoctrinate vulnerable people. Check facts for yourself and investigate citations. Fact-checking and looking at multiple sources is very important to not get groomed into extremist communities. Watch out for manipulative language in content such as the vilifying of social justice movements.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, Mark. I now understand in more detail the dangers of online extremist groups and how they prey on young people.

Overall, online grooming by the alt-right is a very serious issue that must be stamped out. Recognising the manipulative techniques used by this community is an important step to understanding grooming and preventing it.

You can read more here about how Shout Out UK’s Extremism and Media Literacy programme gives young people the opportunity to confront the issues of right-wing extremism and radicalisation.

Barnet Council offers comprehensive advice for staying safe online.

Part of Exposure’s Extreme Caution campaign, enabling young people to tackle online grooming and hate, supported by Young Barnet Foundation. Due to the sensitive nature of this project author names have been anonymised.

Exposure is a youth communications charity enabling young people to thrive creatively, for the good of others as well as themselves.

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