Recommendation: I would probably pick this over Culture Warlords as a general introduction into the deeply fucked up world of online extremism and terrorism
Where to read: Under the bed, ideally
Read with: Hellfire gin
In brief: Christ this is depressing. I do really appreciate, however, Ebner’s efforts to explain the tactics employed by extremists, from the various techniques used in radicalisation to how gamification blurs the line between trolling and terrorism. She also moves beyond the generally unsavoury nature of these spaces into how they foster actively criminal conduct.
Nazis and ISIS are, in all honesty, a recipe for miserable reading but if you accept that knowledge is power, the contours of this online movement are worth understanding. As Ebner states, the ‘aim is to make the social dimension of digital extremist movements visible.’
I always applaud a good structure in non-fiction work, so allow me to adopt Ebner’s:
- Recruitment: In the first part of her narrative, Ebner dives into online chatrooms, Telegram and Discord servers, looking at the technology which underpins the spread of these extremist movements. Part of this is about anonymity and international networking – people are able to hide their identities and avoid “real world” consequences and seek confirmation or encouragement for views which they would not get from their social circle. But the internet also drives “red pilling” and radicalisation more generally, for example through the introduction of race war ideology into pre-existing racist worldviews.
- Socialisation: We tend to think of white supremacists as largely male, but this second section focuses mostly on the recruitment and enculturation of women – both as “trad wives” within white supremacist movements and as ISIS brides. The key technique here is “situational estrangement”, or the idea that it is totally normal for a young white/Muslim woman to be alienated and excluded from her friends and community and seek belonging through a different community.
- Communication and media strategies: Welcome to InfoWars and internet memes. Ebner talks about the creation of an information landscape where ‘fact and illusions merge, a kind of wilderness of mirrors‘ and the idea of a post-fact, death of truth internet is not a new one. More usefully, however, she goes into the actual techniques, or the “4Ds” – Dismiss the opponent, Distort the facts, Distract from the actual issue and Dismay the opponent. She also points out that most of the hate on the internet comes from a small minority of accounts, which creates a highly distorted view of the world for those who encounter it online.
- Mobilisation: Here, we move off the internet and into the real world, at meet ups in cafes and at Nazi heavy metal music festivals in Germany. I don’t know why that is a thing, but apparently it is.
- Attack: Now we come to the world of black-hat hacking for pleasure and profit. Ebner learned the rudiments from ISIS via Telegram (which is a bizarre sentence when you think about it) and traces the history of Weev on the nationalist side. She then turns to the gamification of terrorism, using the New Zealand attack as a case study of live-streamed, LARP murder-trolling. As she notes, ‘from the beginning to the end the terror spectacle was orchestrated to entertain a specific audience: the 8chan shitposters.’ Later, some turned the livestream video into a first-person shooter, displaying “scores” and ammunition levels for every person murdered. It’s all absolutely horrendous and, as Ebner points out, a powerful argument against the fallacy of ‘digital dualism’ (the idea that the online world is separate from the “real world”).
There are also broader lessons to be drawn from this and Ebner provides a framework for interpreting other instances where the dynamics of the digital world spread beyond Discord and Facebook. The attempted coup in Washington can, for example, be understood not only as a blinding demonstration of white privilege, but also of consequence-free, anonymous trolling spilling into physical spaces. Attempted-coup-as-shitposting might sound like a stretch, but it makes sense when you compare the bizarre mix of serious violence, callousness, pathetic insouciance, and glee at “owning the libs” displayed by the insurrectionists to the kinds of tactics used to disrupt a message thread or Reddit page.