Guest post from Will Black, anthropologist, journalist and author of Veneer of Civilisation, Psychopathic Cultures, and Beyond the End of the World.
With each new far-right group that emerges, it becomes clearer that the cultural and technological habitat in which they grow has to be tackled, in addition to the groups themselves.
The internet has made it easier for such groups to be established and groom devotees. Social media has become a key habitat for the growth of far-right movements.
In Shane Meadow’s first This Is England film we see young men and a boy at a National Front meeting in an isolated pub, which they were encouraged to attend by a manipulative and aggressive older member of their circle. The group was taken from their run down urban environment and driven some distance to hear a white nationalist address a small mob.
Contrast this with the development of modern groups like Britain First, the English Defence League and National Action, which harnessed the powerful and free weapon of social media to reach large numbers of susceptible people easily. The far-right is so dependent on social media to amplify its messages that it went into meltdown when Twitter took the step of removing the verified ticks of some prominent hate pedlars.
Other social media platforms such as Gab are still providing fertile ground for far-right adherents to share their extremist views.
Another significant development was the Nazi group National Action being proscribed as a terror group after it praised the murder of MP Jo Cox by far-right extremist Thomas Mair. A number of people associated with National Action have since been convicted.
This hasn’t put off those who share the abhorrent views of the white supremacist network. Recently the new far-right group System Resistance Network (SRN) was infiltrated by an undercover reporter and its recruitment tactics exposed. The group advocates the expulsion of minorities and views homosexuality as a disease. The ideological links to National Action are clear.
Ironically, the opportunity that social media affords such groups has also proven a vulnerability for SRN. The BBC Wales journalist was able to infiltrate the group by creating a fake online profile and communicated with the group for months to gain their trust. They then asked him to carry out acts, such as putting up SRN posters at night in public spaces. He has said that the group also told him to read Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf and other extremist material.
One of National Action’s founders, Alex Davies, has mentioned SRN via far-right broadcaster, Radio Aryan. He said on a show that he was encouraged by racist posters and graffiti daubed on walls in Cardiff earlier this year, and he stated: “It’s like a fire. As long as you’ve got some embers burning all you need is to put some fuel on that fire and it can turn into something big very quickly.” Radio Aryan has denied that Davies was promoting SRN or vandalism.
Stephen Doughty, MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, said SRN should be outlawed. Security Minister Ben Wallace stated: “The government will not hesitate to proscribe any organisation that poses a threat and work is underway with tech companies to combat extremist propaganda online.”
This last point is important, but it is not as easy as it might sound. Since the emergence of the internet, what has enabled companies to host messaging boards and chat rooms, and develop social media empires like Twitter and Facebook without being sued or prosecuted for content created by users, is that they have not been deemed publishers. While an established news site could be sued if a contributor wrote something defamatory, Twitter would not be if the same words were posted there by the same person.
There isn’t an easy answer to this situation. If social media companies were deemed publishers, then to ensure ‘their’ content isn’t defamatory and doesn’t incite hatred or prejudice legal proceedings, posts would need to be moderated by legally aware editors. This would not be cheap and could take the dynamism out of social media. It could also, ironically, strengthen the narratives of far-right extremists who capitalise on martyr status by claiming they are being silenced by the establishment.