Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists by Julia Ebner

Extremists were among the first to grasp the power of the internet as a medium for radicalisation. Stormfront, a popular white nationalist online forum, was started nearly a decade before Facebook was founded. Encrypted apps such as Telegram have become favoured ways of communication for Isis and affiliates.
The use of the internet by terrorists and their sympathisers has generated a significant number of books in recent years. Julia Ebner, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, makes a compelling attempt to understand how these groups work. Going Dark is based around her infiltration of several extremist communities, where she poses as an adherent to get others to open up.
Ebner’s comparative work across groups including Isis-aligned hackers, far-right QAnon conspiracy theorists and proud neo-Nazis shows the same sense of community that they offer beyond their ideological differences. It is easy to dismiss extremists’ thinking as irrational or inexplicable to moderate society. The reality is both more mundane and more concerning. These groups offer a chance to belong, a chance to have fun and an “antidote to loneliness”.
The resulting narrative is more engaging and visceral than many other works on the topic. At times, Ebner’s undercover work reads like a thriller. While embedded with European far-right “identitarians”, she is nearly discovered when her credit card is picked up by the partner of an Austrian far-right leader with ties to the Christchurch shooter. Later, while waiting to enter a neo-Nazi festival in Germany, Ebner worries that a police background check will lead to her identity being revealed.
In one case, she is not so lucky. After an article she wrote on white supremacists mentioned English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson, the far-right activist arrived at Ebner’s office along with a camera crew. The video, which went out to Robinson’s thousands of followers, led to threats of violence and death towards Ebner and her colleagues.
Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists by Julia Ebner
© Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Going Dark pulls back the facade of invulnerability and remorselessness that extremists promote with glossy propaganda, to understand those they recruit. Europe’s identitarians may look to educated, well-dressed members as their vanguard, she says, but “a recurring theme . . . is identity — a troubled self-image, a broken self-esteem”. Similar “profound identity crises” play out on a white nationalist chat group on the gaming app Discord. Ebner finds multiple far-right extremists there who are struggling with non-white ancestry disclosed by DNA tests.
It might be expected that members would be pushed out for failing racial purity tests, and that this might change their world view. Instead, extremists often turn to mental gymnastics, including “even more absurd conspiracy theories”. One member of the Discord chat who calls himself “Mr White” claims that the DNA tests are simply a tool of the “Zionist Occupied Government”, a classic anti-Semitic canard. “Distrust is one of the key constants that brings individuals to extreme-right channels,” says Ebner. She finds similar patterns in Islamist groups: recruiters encourage “situational estrangement” in order to win over would-be supporters.
“Subversion over confrontation”, a phrase taken from an identitarian book, is another recurring theme. its implications are clearest when Ebner talks to “trad wives”, a group that sits at the intersection between male supremacist and white nationalist ideologies. The language it adopts — attacking feminism and “modernity” — has a certain allure even to Ebner. “It was far too easy to get drawn into this strange place,” she admits.
Despite the bleakness of Going Dark, Ebner does offer solutions for the problems. Those range from finding ways to “immunise” activists against intimidation attempts to improving algorithmic transparency. Her final recommendation, “education against extremism”, is perhaps the most important. Ebner is right to argue that these issues deserve a “human-centred approach” rather than treating them as primarily technological flaws. “Questions around identity, trust, friendship in the online world must be raised if we want to break through the ‘us and them’ thinking that all extremist movements have in common.”

Source: https://www.ft.com/content/15e8f3ba-5a1c-11ea-a528-dd0f971febbc


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