Julia Ebner

I went undercover among the fascists and this is what I found

Extremists have spread antisemitism from hidden corners of the web into the mainstream. Four clear trends explain how


LEEDS, United Kingdom: British National Party chairman Nick Griffin (2nd R) and co-accused BNP activist Mark Collett (L) celebrate with party supporters outside Leeds Crown Court in Leeds, 02 February 2006. Griffin was acquitted Thursday of two of four race hate charges and Mark Collett was also cleared of four race hate charges by a jury at Leeds Crown Court. Griffin faced charges of using words or behaviour intended to stir up racial hatred and two alternative charges of using words or behaviour likely to stir up racial hatred. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)

June 29, 2023 12:55

Welcome to the Ministry of Home-schooled Education.” The group I had just joined on Telegram used to be the “National Socialist Book Club” but during the pandemic was given a new purpose: becoming a home-schooling chat for white parents. “This is a Christian Aryan channel to help build and facilitate independent homeschooling”. It had created a homeschooling curriculum: Books such as Anti-Semitic Legends and An Aryan Classic Education featured on the reading list.

This was just one in an ocean of antisemitic and racist online communities I encountered during the research for my new book Going Mainstream: How Extremists are Taking Over.
Over the past eight years, I have been studying extremist movements and radicalisation. Initially, most of the antisemitic conversations were confined to the extreme fringes, the darkest corners on the internet or the most secretive meetings. Today they seem to have conquered what we used to call the political middle.

Celebrity influencers propagating antisemitic tropes, neo-fascist parties such as Fratelli d’Italia winning elections in Europe and widespread conspiracy myths blaming Jews for today’s polycrisis are just a few examples. The US rapper Kanye West, now called Ye, has spread dangerous antisemitic ideas with his 30 million followers — almost double the size of the global Jewish population.

My undercover investigations brought me to the inside of neo-Nazi groups, QAnon conspiracy theorists, US Capitol rioters, violent misogynists and radical anti-LGBTQ activists.

Many find common ground in overt or covert antisemitism. There is no clear profile for people who spread extremist ideas anymore: anti-minority and anti-democracy movements are recruiting from left, right and centre. What has happened?

1) Exploitation of grievances and crisis narratives

In 2021, I was on the phone with Mark Collett, founder of Britain’s largest white nationalist movement, who has praised Adolf Hitler and was arrested for threatening to kill a politician in 2010. He was playing an association game with my avatar Claire Lafeuille, a British-French free-speech warrior whose identity I invented to go undercover. Whatever keyword I gave Mark, from climate change and Covid to Black Lives Matter and feminism, his replies linked everything he considered evil to “the great replacement”.

The great replacement is the conspiracy myth that white Christian populations are gradually being replaced by non-whites as part of a bigger plan designed by a cabal of global elites (often explicitly or implicitly described as Jewish). Climate change, according to Mark, is “a manufactured problem used to raise taxes and to guilt-trip white people into not having children”, while Covid is “a fake pandemic used to spread fear and to institute draconian new legislation which takes away the rights of people all over world”.

Today’s extremist movements have skilfully tailored their narratives to tap into widespread societal fears, grievances and frustrations about globalisation, disease and rising energy prices. Throughout history, Jews have repeatedly served as scapegoats. Antisemitic crisis narratives have reoccurred during pandemics, economic troubles and wars: from the 14th-century Bubonic Plague, to the 1929 Great Depression, the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. The idea that Jews had poisoned the wells was a myth used to explain the plague.

2) Marriage of old and new conspiracy myths

During a roundtable discussion hosted by a consortium of white nationalist movements, one speaker with the tag line “Name the Jew or Die” spoke up: “We know what the problem is. It’s this parasite that follows us around nation by nation and uses and abuses us.” He went on: “They dominate all of our media, they push paedophilia and homosexuality onto our children”. Antisemitic layers are common in conspiracy thinking of any kind. The far-right buzzword “Cultural Marxism” is directly linked to the idea that the political left — controlled by the Jews — is trying to undermine Western culture. Reaching a climax of absurdity, the “transhumanism” conspiracy myth has accused Jews of wanting to use trans rights as a gateway to robotic transhumanism. Some anti-LGBTQ activists have singled out Jewish philanthropists who apparently donated to trans rights campaigns. Other than that both terms use the Latin prefix “trans”, the myth makes no sense but conspiracy myths are hardly ever based on rational explanations.

Today’s antisemitism combines old tropes with new narrative patterns that can be linked to current affairs and top news agenda items. The idea that Jews were harvesting the blood of Christian children for use in religious rituals is not new. It was widespread in the Middle Ages and has regularly reoccurred with different mutations. A modern interpretation has re-emerged and found millions of followers: QAnon. In the 2022 US Congress Elections, at least 24 candidates endorsed the idea that the global elites are blood-sucking Satanists. Research shows that once people believe in one conspiracy myth, they are much more likely to buy into others. That’s part of the success recipe of the master conspiracy myth movement QAnon, which integrates old conspiracies ranging from the 9/11 Truther movement to ideas about the Moon landing, Princess Diana’s death, Hollywood elites, aliens and the WHO.

3) Gamification, rebranding and code words

“Hello friends”, a user with the handle “Adolf Hitler” greeted players in the Call of Duty tournament hosted by Patriotic Alternative. Combining entertainment with political indoctrination is a tactic that has allowed the movement to attract even minors who wrote in the group chat they would have to attend school the following day. The US alt-right has pioneered gamified recruitment and propaganda, which is now increasingly used by the European far-right as well as Islamist extremists. Insider codes and satirical subculture references have been deployed alongside gamification to camouflage extreme ideologies. The Happy Merchant cartoon is by no means new but has been reinvented as memes and satirical social media visuals. For example, it has been widely used in the context of Covid, suggesting Jews created the pandemic (referred to as “plandemic” or “Jewflu”) to profit financially.

Code words with antisemitic connotations have been adopted. For example, concepts such as NWO (“New World Order”), “Great Reset”, “global elites”, “deep state” and “globalists” have an antisemitic undertone. Others are more explicit, such as “ZOG” (“Zionist Occupied Government”), which propagates the idea of a Jewish world government that controls the large parts of politics and business. The brackets ((( ))) around a person’s name, the abbreviation “YKW” (you know who) or term “blue” are used to speak about Jews without it being explicit. Antisemitic campaigners sometimes refer to themselves as “Jwoke”, “good goys” (goyim) or “Noticers”.

4) Social media and algorithmic amplification

Slick social media campaigns and powerful influencers such as West have exponentially amplified extremist campaigns and brought fringe conspiracy myths to mainstream audiences. While social media platforms have become better at removal policies and content moderation, some of these developments have been reversed recently. Our research at the ISD found that antisemitic content increased by more than 100 per cent on Twitter after Elon Musk’s takeover of the platform. Twitter has restored hundreds of accounts of far-right and QAnon activists who have spread hatred against minorities.

Extremist groups have created viral content based on crowdsourced (dis)information. QAnon propaganda includes charts of banks, media outlets, pharma and tech firms, where top employees are marked with a Star of David to claim (often wrongly) that they are Jewish. These trends fuel violence and they promote a mainstreaming of antisemitism.

Countermeasures should include educational initiatives that allow digital natives and digital migrants to understand and counter subtle manipulation techniques used by extremists, such as the twisting of language, the exploitation of grievances and the hijacking of online hobby communities. Some users are unaware of antisemitic undertones in their online communities and are easy targets. Others don’t know how to respond.

Examples of promising initiatives include the project “Decoding Antisemitism” by Berlin’s Centre for Research on Antisemitism and the ISD’s pan-European Coalition to Counter Online Antisemitism.

‘Going Mainstream: How Extremists are Taking Over’, by Julia Ebner, is out now

June 29, 2023 12:55

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