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The rise of the far right- building a trade union response

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Research and reports
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Far-right media, online networks and subcultures

We have already explored, in section 1, the role of the established media and traditional parties in mainstreaming far-right narratives, movements and parties. Here we focus on two further aspects of the process of right-wing radicalisation. The first is that of radical right-wing media. The second focuses on the online communities that make up the audiences for these brands and carry the ideologies and narratives into the real world. It is by looking closely at these right-wing propaganda operations that the labour movement can understand how, in precise practical terms, to build equivalent operations that match and then surpass the far right’s capacity to shape opinion.

3.1 Right-wing media organisations

Right-wing media organisations can be subdivided into two categories: large, established media institutions on the one hand and relatively smaller digital media organisations on the other. Until recently, right-wing media broadly supported the project of the traditional centre right, while the digital media pushed the agenda of a more radical right.

The story of right-wing media over the past decade or so has been how the radical right has seized the narrative from the centre right. This process is one in which powerful media organisations, chiefly Fox News in the US, have facilitated a radicalisation of the American right by acting as a conveyor belt for bringing ideas and political projects manufactured by radical right-wing digital media into the broader public sphere.

A study published in 2018 looked at approximately four million individual news stories and social media posts from across the US right-wing media universe. The conclusions came as a surprise to many, who would have assumed that the ‘rise’ of insurgent digital media would have meant the ‘fall’ of old media. Instead, old media has been ideologically transformed and given renewed significance by new media.[1] Established right-wing brands, in order to maintain relevance, have increasingly come under the influence of an insurgent digital media, and recognised the need to adopt (and thus massively amplify) more extreme right-wing views. Today, Fox News is more influential among right-wingers in America than ever. A new generation of Fox hosts led by Tucker Carlson promotes the most clearly fascistic stances in the network’s history. This has created a self-reinforcing relationship between bigger and smaller media suppliers, a ‘propaganda feedback loop’, the consequences of which have been plain to see in American politics.[2]

The same kind of propaganda loop has been shown to be part of the radicalisation of right-wing politics in Europe, though we lack the comprehensive quantitative data that we have in the American context. In Austria, which has given Europe one of its most frightening instances of far-right success in recent years, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) provides the best example. An investigation by Vienna’s Der Standard shows how successful the FPÖ’s digital media operation has been at influencing Austrian public opinion: crucially, it does so in quiet partnership with established media like Austria’s biggest newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, making possible a “process for taking over national media”.[3]

In 2016, FPÖ and AfD propagandists compared notes at a ‘Defenders of Europe’ conference organised by the pan-European Identitarian Movement, led by Austrian Martin Sellner.[4] The German-speaking far-right, one of the most powerful in Europe, takes propaganda very seriously. It is how it has built a movement, became powerful enough to turn leading Austrian media into accomplices and gone on to underwrite an integrated right-wing media machine that crosses European borders. The Austrian far-right digital presence is huge, and has inspired similar ecosystems in France and Germany, with the FPÖ explicitly working to spread its model to sister parties in these countries.[5]

We can see that with support from old media, far-right groups and their digital media outlets have made a qualitative leap from the margins to the centre of politics in the US, Austria, Germany and beyond.[6] In the UK, right-wing ideologues like Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, have called for a British Fox News equivalent in order to help supercharge the propaganda feedback loop here.[7] They will soon have their equivalent in Andrew Neil’s GB News, a project that powerfully demonstrates the extent to which right-wing propagandists take cues from each other internationally.[8]

3.2 Independent content creators

Parallel to the right-wing media organisations are independent right-wing content creators. YouTube has been the main platform for the growth of these personal brands, with new ‘anti-censorship’ platforms like BitChute and Parler taking on an increasingly important role. The list of such independent creators is long, but at the top in terms of influence in the English-speaking world are commentators like Stephen Molyneux, Jordan Peterson, ‘Tommy Robinson’, Stephen Crowder and Paul Joseph Watson. Under these sits a deep layer of more niche influencers, some of whom are the leaders of active far-right organisations like Anne-Marie Waters of ‘For Britain’. Independent creators largely operate on social media platforms creating interactive, self-expanding right-wing digital communities, as opposed to creating content for passive consumer audiences.

These creators and the communities that grow up around them are genuine forces for the recruitment of individuals to the far right. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm really does create ‘radicalisation pathways’, also known as ‘rabbit holes’ down which individuals can and do fall.[9] Popular right-wing YouTubers like Stephen Molyneux create videos about depression and loneliness, for example, in order to be discoverable by people looking for help. People search YouTube for videos about these problems, which leads them to Molyneux, who then introduces progressively more extreme ideas as people spend more time with his channel, and also introduces viewers to more explicitly right-wing figures.

Whereas mass right-wing media can impact public discourse and broadly shift the idea of what is politically acceptable in the mainstream, the online pathways that individuals follow create active and dangerous far-right militants, from the Identitarians and the English Defence League to the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division and more. An army of dedicated content creators and their digital footsoldiers are building a movement that largely emerges from these niche online communities.

3.3 Online networks, subcultures and groups

At the most basic level, the community side of the far right online is structured as a network within social media space. While many of these groups have been named and their actions and words analysed, the actual communities that surround and sustain them in the UK and Europe have yet to be comprehensively explored with the same level of digital mapping as elsewhere.[10] Only by having a detailed understanding of how the far right organises online can we design and implement appropriate responses, because it is in these online networks that a militant far right is growing.[11]

Once we can see the networks, we can visualise how the groups and subcultures within them attempt to exert influence, both within their own communities and in the wider world, using online networks as an organising platform. The Identitarian movement provides the most striking European example of the ways in which far-right activists online have shifted political outcomes to the right, working in tandem with more ‘public’ right-wing media and political parties. Led by Austrian Martin Sellner, the Identitarian movement has influence that far exceeds its size. While it is estimated to have only 300 members in Austria, 600 in Germany and a similar number in France, the Identitarians’ media and tech savvy make it one of the most significant far-right groups in Europe. In 2017, it was credited with helping tilt the German federal election in the AfD’s favour, allowing that group to be the first far-right party to enter the German parliament since the Nazi era:

  • …AfD’s massive vote gains reflect the extreme right’s ability to conquer online space and win the information war with sophisticated obfuscation and disruption tactics. By scheduling a time each evening and agreeing on hashtags, they forced the Twitter algorithms to prioritise their posts… In the two-week run-up to the election, not a single day passed when #AfD was not in the top two trending hashtags in Germany.[12]

The Identitarians achieved their success on the basis of close coordination between members of dedicated teams specialising infokrieg – information warfare. Infokrieg groups flourish within far-right communities using platforms like Discord and Telegram to plan and execute their campaigns. This tactic mirrors AfD Bavaria’s Facebook campaigns, which actively targeted people with messages specifically tailored to their grievances.[13] Meanwhile, American neo-Nazi propagandist Andrew Anglin maintains a ‘troll army’ led from the Daily Stormer community. The right takes information warfare seriously.[14]

They do this because evidence is growing that more people now get their news from social media than from traditional sources. Such actors know that these methods do not guarantee political success, but are a necessary step in laying the groundwork for future success. Governments and political groups across the world sponsor online information campaigns led both by bots such as those used by Breitbart to promote Donald Trump or by JJ Rendon’s hackers to boost right-wing parties in Latin America.[15] Research by the Knight Foundation has quantified the influence of human-assisted cyborgs and bots across a number of information campaigns, again mostly in the US context.[16] In Mexico, political bots are a major industry. In each case, the fact of whether accounts are run by bots or humans is less important than the coordinated way in which they spread information in specific directions, towards specific people targeted for influencing.

3.4 Methods of communication and organising

We also need to understand the methods of communication used within right-wing online communities and the channels through which ideas travel. On relatively ‘open’ platforms like Twitter, communications spread outward in all directions: hashtags artificially forced to the top of the trend list will be seen by everyone, making it essential for propagandists. Twitter is different to Facebook, where networks are more closed – we generally see only what our Facebook friends or fellow group members share.[17] This means that attempts to stimulate demand for right-wing ideas on Facebook tend to be led by major parties and political organisations with money to spend on Facebook’s ad platform.

The Boogaloo movement, America’s largest network of extreme right-wing militias, uses paid Facebook ads to recruit.[18] Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Brad Parscale earned his status as global right-wing propagandist-in-chief on the basis of his incredibly effective targeted Facebook campaign. His methodologies have been adopted everywhere by the right, including by the team that ran the Conservative Party’s 2019 election campaign.[19] These campaigns are effective because they also act as information-gathering systems: propagandists run many small campaigns at first, to gather feedback from target audiences about their preferences, and then pour money into the campaigns that work.

Elsewhere on Facebook, major right-wing media outlets like the Daily Wire have effectively gamed Facebook’s system by using a networked approach to media distribution. They have done this by secretly operating a web of apparently unrelated pages that share stories from the central brand, tricking the algorithm into assigning the brand and its posts greater priority. More broadly, far-right propagandists use Facebook groups to organise and as an information battleground. Research into the role of online communities during the pandemic has found that far-right groups in the UK have been linking discussions of immigration, Islam, Judaism, LGBT+ and, in particular, ‘the elite’ to the COVID-19 outbreak, the resulting lockdown and speculation around the existence of a cure. Thousands of the links posted in these communities directed users to websites run by fringe political groups, ‘medical’ groups or groups representing a combination of both.[20]

Meanwhile, specialised platforms like Telegram and Discord as well as more explicitly right-wing social media sites like Parler, Gab and BitChute have also taken an increasingly large role in supporting far-right communities and media. Discord still hosts numerous ‘nationalist’ channels, despite press reports suggesting it has cleaned up its act.[21] 4chan remains an influential incubator for far-right ideas and conspiracy theories such as QAnon.[22] Niche forums like the now-defunct Iron March have given rise to some of the most violent far-right terror groups in existence, such as Atomwaffen Division.[23] Even video game networks have been targeted by far-right groups for recruitment.[24]

Understanding the forms of communication such as ‘meme culture’ is also useful as it helps explain how the far right overcomes some of the barriers to political persuasion faced by all propagandists: politics is serious and can be boring to many working people whose lives are serious enough already. Memes make politics (even right-wing politics) funny, and therefore fun.[25] Without memes, the rise of the contemporary far right would be inconceivable. Meme culture is the substance out of which subcultures are built and their significance in right-wing political communication can be found everywhere. They provide a way of creating in-group identity within distinct far-right subcultures as well as a method of influencing broad political outcomes.

This is a disciplined process: digital activists are provided with sets of carefully crafted memes and told when and where to post them. Contrary to what we expect when we hear the word ‘meme’, they are tools in the hands of conscious political actors, not self-propelling units of culture that spread and multiply organically. This is something few outside the right have ever understood. In recent times, the New Zealand political consultants Topham Guerin made strategic use of a ‘boomer meme industrial complex’ in both the 2019 UK general election and the same year’s Australian federal election.[26]

Meanwhile, research has shown that members of far-right audiences on YouTube relate to content and to content creators in unique ways, with few parallels on the left. The communication methods used by YouTube’s most popular right-wing personalities have been compared to online courses, a learning experience that tells a story and brings people back to their channels over and over again.[27] Contrary to what one might expect, militants on the right are not just looking for short answers to a few simple questions: many see their ideology as comprehensive and coherent. Some of the largest right-wing channels, like that of Dr Jordan Peterson or the influential PraegerU implicitly trade on this theme, creating educational videos in series format or as one-offs.[28] An air of academic authority is meant to surround their ideas and give them legitimacy, which in turn influences mainstream discourse.

The far right today is adopting increasingly sophisticated, disciplined and effective methods of radicalisation, which are heavily concentrated online yet carry significant real-world implications, not least the incitement of violence and terrorism.[29] These methods are not yet fully understood, but what we do know about them offers lessons and warnings for the labour movement in the fight to organise workers and communities and combat radical right-wing narratives.

[1] Benkler Y, Faris R and Roberts H (2018). Network Propaganda: manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics. Oxford.

[2] Vox (2017). “Why white supremacists love Tucker Carlson”. 21 July 2017. Available at:

[3] Maan N and Schmid F (2016). “’Zur Info’: Das Facebook-Universum des Heinz-Christian Strache”. Der Standard, 4 October 2016. Available at:; Horaczek N (2019). “Propaganda in Europe: the far right media”. Falter (Published by European Press Prize). Available at:

[4] Bartlau C (2016). “Austria's FPÖ cozies up to extreme right”. DW, 28 October 2016. Available at:

[5] Ibid.

[6] Heft A, Mayerhöffer E, Reinhardt S and Knüpfer C (2019). “Beyond Breitbart: comparing right-wing digital news infrastructures in six western democracies”. Policy & Internet, vol 12, no 1, pp 20–45.

[7] Stubley P (2020). “Dominic Cummings’ think tank called for ‘end of BBC in current form’ and creation of Fox News equivalent in UK”. Independent, 22 January 2020. Available at:

[8] Wilson E (2020). “Andrew Neil's GB News will test whether there is appetite for a Fox News-style news channel in the UK”. City AM, 2 October 2020. Available at:

[9] Ribeiro MH, Ottoni R, West E, Almeida VAF and Meira W (2019). Auditing Radicalization Pathways on YouTube. Cornell University, 22 August 2019. Available at:

[10] Guhl J, Ebner J and Rau J (2020). The Online Ecosystem of the German Far-Right. London/Washington/Beirut/Toronto. Available at:

[11] Hope not Hate (2020). A Better Web: regulating to reduce far-right hate. Available at:

[12] Ebner J (2017). “How Germany’s far right took over Twitter – and tilted the election”. Guardian, 26 September 2017. Available at:

[13] Engert M (2017). “Fans von Merkel, FDP oder NachDenkSeiten – so sieht der Wahlkampf der AfD auf Facebook aus“. BuzzFeed News, 22 September 2017. Available at:

[14] O’Brien L (2017). “The making of an American Nazi”. The Atlantic, December 2017. Available at:

[15] Bloomfield S (2019). “This Is not propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev review – quietly frightening”. Guardian, 10 August 2019. Available at:; Worley W (2017). “FBI ‘investigating role of Breitbart and other right-wing websites in spreading fake news with bots’”. Independent, 21 March 2017. Available at:; Robertson J, Riley M and Willis A (2016). “How to hack an election”. Bloomberg, 31 March 2016. Available at:

[16] Hindman M and Barash V (2018). Disinformation, ‘Fake News’ and Influence Campaigns on Twitter. Miami. Available at:

[17] Especially since Facebook de-prioritised posts from pages in 2018.

[18] Beckett L (2020), “White supremacists or anti-police libertarians? What we know about the 'boogaloo’”. Guardian, 8 July 2020. Available at:

[19]  Karp P (2019). “Isaac Levido: the Australian political strategist credited with Boris Johnson's victory”. Guardian, 15 December 2019. Available at:

[20] Miller C (2020). “Coronavirus: far-right spreads Covid-19 ‘infodemic’ on Facebook”. BBC News, 4 May 2020. Available at:

[21] Glaser A (2018). “White supremacists still have a safe space online”. Slate, 9 October 2018. Available at:

[22] Tuters M (2020). “The birth of QAnon: on how 4chan invents a conspiracy theory”. OIL, 7 September 2020. Available at:

[23] Ross AR, Bevensee E and ZC, “Transnational white terror: exposing Atomwaffen and the Iron March networks”. bellingcat, 19 December 2019. Available at:

[24] Kamenetz A (2018). “Right-wing hate groups are recruiting video gamers”. NPR, 5 November 2018. Available at:

[25] Hakoköngäs E, Halmesvaara O and Sakki I (2020). “Persuasion through bitter humor: multimodal discourse analysis of rhetoric in internet memes of two far-right groups in Finland”. Social Media & Society, vol 6, no 2.

[26] Fisher C (2019). A Look Inside the Topham Guerin Boomer Meme-industrial Complex. University of Canberra. Available at:

[27] Cea M (2017). “Where is the YouTube left? There, elsewhere and unfocused”. Salon, 13 August 2017. Available at:

[28] Oppenheimer M (2018). “Inside the right-wing YouTube empire that’s quietly turning millennials into conservatives”. Mother Jones, March/April 2018. Available at:

[29] Bjørgo T and Ravndal JA (2019). Extreme-right Violence and Terrorism: concepts, patterns, and responses. ICCT Policy Brief, September 2019. Available at:

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