Examining Online Indicators of Extremism in Violent Right-Wing Extremist Forums

This article summarises a recent study published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

By Ryan Scrivens, Amanda Isabel Osuna, Steven M. Chermak, Michael Whitney, and Richard Frank.

Although many law enforcement and intelligence agencies are concerned about online communities known to facilitate violent right-wing extremism, little is empirically known about the presence of extremist ideologies, expressed grievances, or violent mobilization efforts that make up these spaces. In response, we conducted a content analysis of a sample of postings (n = 4,000) from two of the most conspicuous right-wing extremist forums known for facilitating violent extremism, Iron March and Fascist Forge. The goal was to quantify the extent to which online indicators of extremism were found in the open access sections of these violent right-wing extremist (RWE) forums. Several noteworthy posting patterns were identified within and across platforms.

First, a large proportion of ideological posts targeting RWEs’ out-group were identified in both violent forums, which comes as little surprise, given that previous reports have found that both extremist platforms contain a sizable amount of explicit and overt white supremacist activity targeting the in-group’s perceived adversaries (see Table 1).

Table 1. Presentation of ideological posts across forums.

The results of the current study also suggest that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories were among the most frequently observed ideological discourse in both online forums, which aligns with research suggesting that anti-Semitic conspiracy discussions are rooted in RWE ideologies and in much of the RWE rhetoric expressed online, including in RWE discussion forums, social media sites, and fringe platforms. Interestingly, alt-right posts were also among the most frequently observed ideological posts across both platforms, with a majority of the posts including negative sentiment towards the alt-right. This finding is supported by previous work which found that Iron March and Fascist Forge users opposed the alt-right and took active steps to distinguish themselves from alt-right adherents because they were seen as the mainstream and non-violent white supremacist movement. But perhaps most surprisingly is that Fascist Forge contained a much larger proportion of ideological posts than those observed in Iron March. Previous research found that the ideological formation on Fascist Forge was narrow and that users on Fascist Forge were more ideological homogenous than those on Iron March. Although the focus of the current study was not on forum users’ self-declared ideology or their introductory posts and subsequent responses similar to previous research in this space, our findings suggest that forum users discuss a wide range of extremist ideologies as well as post a larger volume of messages against the out-group on Fascist Forge – and much more so than on Iron March.

Second, a much larger proportion of personal grievances were observed in Fascist Forge than in Iron March. There were also substantial differences in the scope of the grievances expressed across both forums, with many more grievance types observed in Fascist Forge than its counterpart (see Table 2).

Table 2. Presentation of grievance posts across forums.

Furthermore, the most prominent grievances that were observed across forums were distinct from one another; the most pressing grievances in Fascist Forge related to personal relationships and being the target of an act of prejudice, while the most pressing grievances in Iron March related to the educational system and general health. More importantly, there was an especially small proportion of personal grievances observed in both discussion forum in general. This is a noteworthy finding because it suggests that violent RWE forums – such as Iron March and Fascist Forge – may not be online spaces for extreme right-wing adherents to express their personal grievances, as has been found to be the case in generic (non-violent) RWE forums. Yet while Iron March and Fascist Forge have been largely understood as gathering places for the most extreme right-wing adherents – who only support the most extreme ideologies – to discuss and promote a race war, the extent to which users’ personal grievances are expressed in these violent forums require further exploration.

Third and perhaps most notably was the extent to which violent extremist mobilization efforts were observed in both RWE forums in general and in Fascist Forge in particular. Much of the sentiment that we observed in the forums, especially those in Fascist Forge, suggested that posters were preparing to engage in extremist violence or were making efforts to mobilize others to extremist violence. Interestingly, we also found that advocating and encouraging violence was the top mobilization indicator in both Iron March and Fascist Forge, with the proportion of these posts increasing in the latter forum. This is an indicator that law enforcement and intelligence agencies should look further into as they examine these online communities (see Table 3).

Table 3. Presentation of violent extremist mobilization posts across forums.

Previous reports have uncovered similar discussions in both forums, where it was common for forum users to make direct, violent calls to take action – and all in the name of their extremist cause. Together, our assessment of the extremist indicators observed in Iron March and Fascist Forge suggest that the latter of the two forums contain the more potentially threatening posting patterns that law enforcement and intelligence agencies may deem worthy of further investigation. To some extent, this finding comes as a surprise because, on the one hand, previous research found that Iron March consisted of a higher number of potentially high-risk posting trajectories compared to those in Fascist Forge. On the other hand, reports suggest that Fascist Forge was structured around a ‘multi-stage application process’ wherein forum administrators vetted new users before allowing them to post on the platform. Here new users were required to introduce themselves and explain why they registered to the site, as well as read a list of extremist literature and then complete an ‘entrance exam’ before participating in the space. This was done to ensure that only the committed were participating in the forum, and not potential infiltrators or non-conformists. Posters on Fascist Forge were also subject to relatively strong content moderation on the site, wherein users who posted content that did not align with the extremist views of site moderators were banned from the site. This may have impacted the content posted on the site and the results of the current study. In short, posters on Fascist Forge may have been concerned with being banned from the platform if the content that they posted was not extreme or violent enough. Further, it is reasonable to assume that a large proportion of posters on Fascist Forge were also posters on its predecessor, given that the purpose of Fascist Forge was to “fill the void by the takedown of Iron March” and “continue where they left off”, according to a post made by a Fascist Forge founding members when the site first went online. In turn, it may be case that users who posted on Fascist Forge were more extreme or radicalized than posters on Iron March as a result of their previous involvement in Iron March before it went offline for undisclosed reasons. While our study highlights an increase in violent extremist mobilization efforts from one violent RWE forum to its successor, this finding requires further exploration.

Ryan Scrivens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University (MSU), an Associate Director at the International CyberCrime Research Centre (ICCRC), and a Research Fellow at VOX-Pol. Follow him on Twitter: @R_Scrivens.

Amanda Isabel Osuna is a Ph.D. student in the School of Criminal Justice at MSU.

Michael Whitney is an MSU graduate with a dual major in Criminal Justice and Psychology.

Steven M. Chermak is a Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at MSU. Follow him on Twitter: @s_chermak.

Richard Frank is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University and the Director of the ICCRC. Follow the ICCRC on Twitter: @ICCRC_SFU.

Image credit: Unsplash.

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