Fibre optics hardware (Photo: Getty Images).
Fibre optics hardware (Photo: Getty Images).

MediaMarch 28, 2019

How the swarm of white extremism spreads itself online

Fibre optics hardware (Photo: Getty Images).
Fibre optics hardware (Photo: Getty Images).

A synthetic white victimhood is generated by a swarm of social media users that centre on a core belief and consistent narratives, writes Bharath Ganesh, an expert on extremism at the Oxford Internet Institute

The Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto began with a refrain: “It’s the birthrates.” His concern was the death of the white “European” people. This is a familiar trope, common to the far right across the world, from the so-called “race realists” in the United States to Identitarians in Austria. In French, introduced by Renaud Camus, it is called Le Grand Remplacement (The Great Replacement). It comes in different guises, such as the Eurabia thesis that argues that Muslims are “invading” Europe and are a fifth column waiting to take control of the continent. In English, the most famous iteration is “white genocide”, which claims that declining birth rates in Western countries, support for purported “mass immigration” by centrist Western governments, and the settlement of non-white populations in Western countries will lead to the eradication – by “genocide”, used metaphorically – of European culture. Europe, this myth asserts, will be rendered unrecognisable, its culture replaced by that of migrants.

Synthetic white victimhood

The “white genocide” worldview is synthetic, produced by a swarm that fears the impending death of white “Europeans ” across the world. I use the word “swarm” to capture the online form taken by the transnational far right. Castelli Gattinara and Pirro have used the notion of a “galaxy of nativist actors” to account for the extreme right (social movements that do and do not use violence) and the radical right (into which populist right parties fit). Online, this galaxy presents itself as a swarm of users who centre around themes that fear the death of Europe and the white race. Their content attempts to spread “evidence” of the purported “invasion” of Europe by Muslims and refugees and (at least in American English, they all have their own words) the “cucked” politicians and leftists that appease them by letting them live in Europe. While there are serious internal differences between the different groups that make up the swarm – racism and fascism have never operated as monoliths and have always had internal contestation – the core belief, the impending death of the “white race”, is reinforced through this dispersed network.

One could spend hours describing all the places online in which the swarm manifests itself, from 4Chan to pockets of Reddit, to the comments sections of major news outlets. My focus here, however, is the way white victimhood is synthesised by the swarm. In this sense, what is being produced by the swarm, through its repetition of memes, unbalanced news stories stressing the criminality of migrants and minorities, and the degeneracy of liberals is the constant reinforcement of the idea that white identity is under attack.

Online, synthetic white victimhood is generated by a swarm of social media users that repeat narratives about white genocide. Visual materials are a core part of how this process works. The three images above represent a few ways in which the white genocide myth is represented by members of the swarm. The images are from an ongoing research project in which I am studying the role of rage in the communication of the far right in the US and UK. They are among those images that were repeated more than 10 times in a sample of 248 users.

On the left is a reproduction of Nazi propaganda that refers to an extreme vision of white genocide in which the “native,” white French will be reduced to zoo animals. In the middle is a meme which is claimed to document how the ‘liberal’ West has, due to political correctness, only recognised the beauty of black women. This serves as documentation of the so-called “anti-white” bias that is “oppressing” white people in their “native” countries. The one on the right is perhaps the most familiar, a picture (presumably) of a market in a British city with a group of visibly Muslim women in the foreground.

These images synthesise white victimhood because they invent and reinforce the myth that European culture is being destroyed by preying on anxieties that the audience may already have (as the image on the left does) or using half-truths to produce “evidence” of the death of Europe. This is synthetic because the apprehension of such pain is predicated on the belief that white women are entitled to represent European culture, not black women. This proposition has no basis outside of the psychology of he or she who believes that white women are entitled to win because they are “natives”. Similarly, with the image on the right, it is only outrageous if we take seriously the notion that the presence of Muslims is an offence on the public. In order for the “pain” that is caused by the apprehension of the death of Europe to even be registered depends on a myth of white superiority and the belief that whites should have priority in their “native” countries. Synthetic white victimhood is rage at recent gains in equality in which entitlement to power and recognition is shared, rather than accrued solely to those belonging to a white ethnicity.

Synthetic white victimhood can lead to violence

The tweet associated with the image on the right asks viewers to retweet the message to get people to “wake up.” In the parlance of the Anglophone alt-right, this is referred to as taking the “red pill,” a trope borrowed from misogynistic digital subcultures. It is reference to the film The Matrix, when Neo decides to take a red pill instead of a blue pill. In taking the red pill, Neo learns the truth that the world he lives in is in fact a simulation that hides the oppression of the human race by intelligent machines. In the present context, getting red-pilled means becoming aware of the pain and danger caused by white genocide. It serves as a totalising worldview which becomes a starting point for a deeper exploration of extremism.

In synthesising a form of white victimhood focused on a paranoid delusion about the extinguishing of white culture, the swarm contributes to a worldview that justifies and encourages violence.

This violence is not simply expressed through terrorist attacks like that which rocked New Zealand a few weeks ago. Hate speech expressed online also justifies a climate of everyday abuse that Muslim women and men experience as they commute to work, shop for groceries, and apply for jobs. It was expressed in a spike of violent anti-Muslim attacks in Britain in the week following the Christchurch attack. But this discourse has had an effect over time, particularly in the United States, in which Donald Trump’s rhetoric contributes to a climate of anti-Muslim sentiment and clear increases in hate crime.

We know the harms that this speech can cause with the significant growth of right wing terrorism in the last decade. Yet, despite the obvious hateful elements embedded in the myth of white genocide, social media companies have been slow to counter this content. While the image on the left above is Nazi propaganda which makes it easier to define as hate speech, the other two images are much less clear (though Twitter shut down the accounts that originally tweeted those images). For the middle image of the black women that won beauty pageants in European countries, we see how the white genocide myth can appear in more innocuous forms. By asking “why?”, the image functions as a racist dog-whistle. The image on the right, of the (assumed) market in Britain, uses language about “mass immigration” that has found a home in neo-conservative thought expressed by writers such as Douglas Murray in his book The Strange Death of Europe.

Research shows that simply trying to challenge or fact-check these arguments is unlikely to cause those that are convinced of white victimhood to change their minds. But taking down content and suspending users has not only miserably failed to challenge these groups, it has also led to the widespread (and equally synthetic) notion that “conservative” voices are being silenced by “liberal” social media companies, pushed by Senator Ted Cruz and MEP Nigel Farage (to name just two of many). The principle of free speech has thus been folded into the narrative of white victimhood.

What makes the connection of free speech and white victimhood particularly pernicious is that it maintains the notion that the pain that comes from taking away the right to express hateful rhetoric and anti-immigrant dog-whistles is greater than the pain that this rhetoric causes on minorities. This content, which was until the end of 2017 proliferating on Twitter and Facebook before the companies started taking more strict action on it, is central to the digital hate culture that has driven attacks on Muslim communities, such as the 2017 attack on Finsbury Park Mosque in London, and now the shooting at mosques in Christchurch.

Countering the white genocide myth requires strong political coalitions that are willing to take assertive measures to pressure social media companies to take down such content, limit its spread, and sanction those who spread it (and profit from it). It is crucial we ensure that arguments about free speech cannot be twisted to give oxygen to hate and extremism. This argument is premised on the belief that protection of the right to express prejudice, hate, and extremist is more of a priority than protection of minorities from the direct harms that this content causes. It is more important than ever before that our understanding and disruption of the hateful swarms that repeat and legitimise white extremist myths be guided by the protection of those groups – black communities, immigrants, Jews, and Muslims – who bear the pain that the expression of synthetic white victimhood produces.

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