Neo-Nazis and white supremacists march in Charlottesville on 11 August. The rally and subsequent death of a counter-protester were decried as real-world consequences of far-right online movements. Photograph: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Back in 1990, the American lawyer and author Mike Godwin proposed a law of early internet behaviour: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
In short, the more you talk online, the more likely you’ll be nasty. Godwin’s Law was in fact only half the story: it turns out talking online didn’t only make people think their opponents were Nazis. Some of them actually had become Nazis.
The apparent success of the “alt-right” and broader radical right movements in Europe and the US has plenty of analysts baffled. An incredulity that these nationalists are using the internet – supposedly the very essence of openness, progress and tolerance – to promote an agenda which agitates for the precise opposite. But the radical right has frequently been the most avid and enthusiastic adopters of shiny new technology, and have long found the internet a uniquely useful place.
It all started with the Italian Futurists, who were proto-fascists at the turn of the 20th century. They dreamed of tearing up tradition and history so to better rush headlong into a future of technology, violence and masculinity. The technologies of their day were weapons, cars and radios, but the same dynamic holds true with digital technology today. As long ago as 1990 – before you were online – the white supremacist movement Stormfront spotted that networked computing would be a boon for their movement. They were perhaps the first political movement in the US to set up a bulletin board system (BBS) (they were a cross between a forum and a website, and were the main way people got online in the 80s). By 1995 Stormfront had turned their BBS into a proper website. In a now familiar flourish Don Black, the former KKK leader who ran the site, said it was to “provide an alternative news media” and create a virtual community for the fragmented white nationalist movement.
“Is hate young and new on the web?” asked one slightly stunned article back in 1998.
That question has been asked almost every year since. But the answer was and remains no. Stormfront is the rule rather than the exception. For most of the 2000s, the far-right British National Party had the most active and best designed website in UK politics. (Back in 2013 they were the first party to gamify their website – offering prizes for mentioning keywords in posts in order to drive up engagement).
In the years leading up to his murderous attacks in 2011, Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik wrote a 1,516-page manifesto titled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. In it he makes clear his belief that social media – especially Facebook – would help the white “resistance movements” fight back against multiculturalism, because it offered new opportunities to push propaganda and connect with like-minded individuals around the world. He even made a plea to all patriots to “create a nice website, a blog and establish a nice-looking Facebook page … to market the organization”.
This is precisely what all “patriots” – whether mild or radical – have done. If you look in almost any western democracy, typically the most active political movement online is the radical right: posting manically, creating new groups, and messaging with the newest encrypted apps. I’m not suggesting a moral equivalence between all these groups. The British National Party doesn’t advocate Breivik-style murder. The point is this: radical groups, especially those on the radical right who dislike openness and worry about diversity are extremely comfortable on the platforms that are meant to promote exactly that.
According to Dr Maura Conway, a specialist at Dublin City University, last year saw a significant uptick in radical right activity online. And why not? Many of them believe – as Trump does – that the internet is a revolutionary way to tap into the voice of the people, that mythical “general will” that all tyrants purport to represent. If Mussolini were alive today, he would be an avid cheerleader for social media. He would say it was a route around the crooked media, a way to rise above narrow straight-jackets of left/right politics and connect with the common man.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Back in the 90s, when the internet was tiny, the digital prophets confidently informed us that limitless information and total connectivity would make us wiser, less bigoted and kinder. Harley Hahn, an influential technology expert of the time, predicted in 1993 that we were about to evolve “a wonderful human culture that is really our birthright”. Nicholas Negroponte – former Director of the illustrious MIT Media Lab – declared in 1997 that the internet would bring about world peace, and the end of nationalism. John Perry Barlow, author of the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, thought “just, humane and liberal” societies were finally coming into view, far superior to the “weary giants of flesh and steel”. It was all based on the incorrect, arrogant, and professorial assumption that more information and more connectedness would somehow banish all misunderstanding and bigotry, rather than fuel it by playing to base instincts.
We’re still wedded to this optimism because all new technology is naturally imbued with the exciting spirit of progress. That’s why the latest iteration – alternative facts, fake news, TrumpTwitter, the “alt-right”, Brietbart – has taken people by surprise, despite being utterly predictable.
Nothing represents the predictable blend of internet subculture and radical right thinking more exactly than the “alt-right”, the loose movement which includes streaks of free-speech fundamentalism, trolling, misogyny and white supremacy.
And yet. Although only a small wedge of the broader radical right in the US, the “alt-right” has had influence beyond its size. Sprinkling KKK crackpots with some useful subversive digital counterculture, has given white supremacy a new lease of life. And because the “alt-right” is so nebulous and policy-lite, the more hardline groups are starting to fill the vacuum: witness Charlottesville. “What will be the real-world consequences,” wondered author Angela Nagle in a recent article, “of forcing such figures out of their semi-ironic anonymous online fantasy land, and potentially thrusting them into a toxic flirtation with violent offline tactics?” This is an excellent question, and one which all internet-based movements eventually ask.
All this offers good and bad news for those worried by the current iteration of radical-right politics. They are presently emboldened, but suffer from the same characteristics that blight most internet heavy movements: poor long-term organising, a drifting and listless support base, and lack of clear leadership. This is a recipe for in-fighting, which is already happening. Moderate and extreme branches are already at each other’s throats. According to Nagle, Charlottesville, far from uniting the right, might spell the end of the uneasy alliance of in its current messy form.
But never forget that the internet is as much the friend of the radical right as self-styled progressives. To embrace the new is natural to a movement that wishes to overthrow the established order. Where better than cyberspace to build the new utopia? They will grab on to whatever dazzling new technology Silicon Valley throws up next and run with it.
There has been a recent push against the radical right from social network companies who’ve been accused of giving a them a platform – they build or find alternatives. Several internet companies have banned users, shut down sites or blocked access. Perhaps this will limit their influence. But history suggests the internet is part of the radical right DNA and they will morph and reconfigure quickly enough.
And just when you think that maybe, just maybe, the internet is becoming a hostile place for these groups, some new forces of reaction will be mutating, evolving and planning in a subversive obscure forum that you’ve not even heard of yet.