How right-wing extremists are using the internet to ignite intolerance

February 25, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

Hatred. Violence. Fear. The internet. What do all of these things have in common? According to research by social scientist Dr. Ryan Scrivens, a professor in the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice, they are all tools that far-right extremist groups use to recruit and radicalize their members. 

Creating a hate-based community 

According to Dr. Scrivens, who studies right-wing extremist (RWE) activity predominantly in a Western context, RWEs have used the internet since its creation to spread their ideology From mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter to closed, exclusive discussion forums, RWEs continue to adapt to changing rules and regulations to maintain their community. 

In the 2018 article Measuring the Evolution of Radical Right-Wing Posting Behaviors Online, Scrivens demonstrates how the use of online forums allows far-right extremists to not only share their ideas, but build an identity around them. By “othering” groups of people based on their race, religion, sexuality or political identity, radical extremists foster a unified community based on this “us versus them” mentality.

Becoming an extremist requires radicalization, which usually evolves as an individual feels increasingly more at home among RWE communities. And, according to Dr. Scrivens, becoming an extremist also requires sacrificing all other aspects of the individual’s personhood.

“What defines a person as an extremist is the ideology’s consumption of their entire identity,” explains Dr. Scrivens. “It’s an obsession with further ‘othering’ the other group.”

How the internet fosters radicalization

According to  Scrivens’s research, individuals become increasingly radical over time the more they interact with online extremist groups. The groups that are most targeted reflect social movements gaining strides at the time - meaning the more a marginalized community achieves rights, the more they become the target of extremists’ online hate. 

While less popular online forums harbor many extremist discussions, many of these groups use mainstream sites such as Facebook to spread their hateful rhetoric.  Scrivens’s 2020 article, Haters Gonna Like: Exploring Canadian Far-Right Extremism on Facebook, found that the site was doing little to remove the pages, allowing them to continue sharing posts and memes derogatory to religious, racial, and ethnic minorities, as well as the LGBTQ+ community.

“Far-right extremists paint themselves as the victim, and ‘other’ groups as the violent perpetrators they have to defend themselves against,” explains Dr. Scrivens. “By doing so, they are able to circumvent Facebook’s community guidelines against violent content.”

Scrivens’s research warns that while participation in online RWE behavior doesn’t always lead to violent action, it should still be taken very seriously. By adapting their messaging to different platforms, RWEs are able to reach different audiences, recruiting individuals and radicalizing them with violent, hateful messages. 

Dr. Scrivens notes that while removing all RWE activity from the internet is logistically impossible, limiting the scope of their influence on the most popular sites could inhibit further growth: “The smaller their audience is, the lesser the amount of traction they can get. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be watching these groups extremely carefully.”

Find more of Dr. Scrivens’s research here.