US-inspired rightwing extremism an 'insidious' threat to Australia, study finds
Rightwing extremism poses a “creeping threat” to liberal democracy in Australia, according to a new study that investigates how extremists are using online networks to spread radical narratives.
The study – which focuses mainly on New South Wales because it was funded by the state government – identified networks involving mostly male and under-35 users who were attracted to “the theme of white identity under threat”.
It noted the influence of American populist politics – including Trumpism – in rightwing extremist discussions in Australia.
Researchers from Macquarie and Victoria universities said rightwing extremists were “very good at appropriating the language of conservative political opinion” and called on Australian politicians to ensure “our system of politics is protected from these very insidious and ongoing threats”.
The research examined 30 Australian rightwing extremist group pages on Facebook and 37,422 tweets from 3,321 users identified as being in NSW on Twitter.
It also examined archived message boards focused on NSW and Australian issues on Reddit, 4chan and 8chan, and looked at thousands of interactions on the platform Gab.
The report, published on Friday, said while most rightwing extremist groups that had formed over the past decade had done so in Victoria, many had “chapters” or associated groups in NSW and maintained an online presence.
The communities in NSW consisted of “networks of socially connected individuals that engage and share content across diverse media platforms”.
“We identified a trend towards mostly male and young (under 35) users. This is not to say that these communities are completely homogeneous, but that other demographics appear to be in a minority when compared to young males,” the report said.
The narrative of “white identity under threat” – shared throughout Australia, North America and Europe – provided a “transnational focus and identity for otherwise complex, diverse, and fluid communities”.
The networks also promoted narratives that sought to delegitimise liberal democratic government and dehumanise other groups, in particular Muslims, Asians, Jews, women and liberals.
Researcher Lise Waldek, from Macquarie University, said rightwing extremists were “appropriating conservative politics and appropriating Trumpism” to expose potential recruits to their narratives.
Fellow Macquarie researcher Julian Droogan said many of the discussions in Australia drew on imagery and themes from American politics.
“Trump is really held up as an example of a defender of white identity by many in this extreme subculture. However, we also see it being presented in a distinctly Australian way,” Droogan said.
Droogan said the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre, the Australian Brenton Tarrant, was “celebrated in some of these online platforms, in particular platforms like 8chan and 4chan and Reddit”.
“Certainly we did see Australian characteristics such as the Akubra hat and the look of Crocodile Dundee and so on have been superimposed onto the Christchurch perpetrator’s image on some of these platforms, and that’s used to sort of sell an Australian stereotype within these communities.”
Researchers found differences in how extremist views were expressed, depending on the platform.
For example, they said users on Twitter found ways of referring to the “defence” of a “white identity under threat” without violating platform moderation policies.
On newer platforms such as Gab, however, this theme was “framed in far more explicit terms that consistently draw on antisemitism, Islamophobia and more”.
On the 4chan and 8chan messaging boards, the messages took on “a stronger extremity of expression including a willingness to explore and speculate about the need for (at times violent) action”.
Researchers also identified two risks that emerged from rightwing extremist networks in NSW and Australia more widely.
The first was the “shifting of the acceptable window of social and political discourse towards an extreme end point … that challenges the fundamentals of liberal democracy”.
The second risk was of individuals adopting violent and illegal tactics in an effort to trigger sudden social change.
Waldek said some people were attracted to conspiracy theories – such as QAnon - “because they are crisis narratives and they provide structure and security in times of crisis”.
“In our report we talk about the creeping threat and how that is the aim of rightwing extremism. When you look at its end state, yes, there’s a violent aspect, but they’re also trying to make it acceptable for people to talk about Islamophobic things,” Waldek said.
The researchers said politicians should take the lead in raising awareness of the threat from rightwing extremism.
“We spend a lot of energy within a democratic system, as we should, with the two different teams arguing and competing against one another,” Droogan said.
“But maybe we should also be spending some more time just protecting the rules of those games … so that our system of politics is protected from these very insidious and ongoing threats through rightwing extremism and others.”
The research was funded by the Countering Violent Extremism program of the NSW Department of Communities and Justice.
In the wake of the Christchurch massacre, the domestic spy agency Asio has been blunt about the risk from far-right terrorism, labelling it an “enduring threat” that is “real and growing”.Last month Asio revealed rightwing violent extremism now constituted between 30% and 40% of the agency’s counter-terrorism caseload, an increase from 10% to 15% before 2016