Exploring Far-Right Community Building through Netnography

By Jonathan Collins

This piece examines how far-right online communities on the social media platform Gab Social are built through identity-building narratives. It is also part of a recently published article in Terrorism and Political Violence.

Introduction

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are taking steps to counter harmful far-right content and pandemic-related misinformation on their sites. They actively block, suspend, and remove posts and users associated with the far-right to tackle hate speech, conspiracy theories, and extreme anti-government views. However, these actions have inadvertently led to the rise of smaller online social networks (fringe platforms) which cater to those seeking specifically right-wing content, safe spaces, and unfiltered communication. As a result, a significant amount of content has been removed from popular platforms, conversely creating an increase in self-contained far-right content.

I focus on these alternative spaces of far-right collectives. Often, we give them the name alt-tech (alternative technology), as they mimic mainstream affordances but provide the space for extreme perspectives. While there are many such platforms, I research the site ‘Gab Social’ for its transnational nature, popularity, reach, and publicly available content. My dissertation centres around concepts like identity, community, attraction, belonging, and mobilisation to tell a story of the behavioural dynamics on the social media platform. These are unpacked through online cultural anthropology (netnography), where I can spend months immersing myself in these radical spaces.

Despite the growing number of alt-tech users, our understanding of far-right fringe websites remains limited, with researchers predominantly focusing on the alt-community’s negative outputs. This gap in the research raises an essential question: how can we analyse the content of these platforms without first comprehending the characteristics of their user base, and their shared identity? My work aims to address this lack of understanding, and lay the groundwork for future research, by examining the methods employed by the far-right to establish an alternative sense of community on fringe platforms.

Unifying Factors of Belonging

To comprehend fringe social media networks, it is essential to delve into the elements that unite its diverse users. This prompts the question: how do various narratives unite participants from different backgrounds for a cohesive sense of belonging? I identify three main themes that foster unity in the Gab far-right community: (1) shared grievances, (2) shared beliefs, and (3) an alternative view of reality.

Online, participants connect by sharing relatable grievances with other community members. These stories, blending experiences of supposed social oppression and isolation, create a foundation for discussions. For instance, users describe a society on the brink of collapse, eroded freedoms, and cities resembling those in “less developed” countries. Often, these narratives intersect with conspiracy theories about replacement and genocide, suggesting that shadowy elites/Jews promote ‘diversity’ to destroy the white race. However, the community’s grievances are purposefully diverse. Individuals grappling with issues like “vaccine side effects”, bans on social media, job loss, and family estrangement find comfort in the community’s similar experiences.

Linked to the discourse of collective grievance and the platform’s support system is the mindset of its users. When social alienation prevails, Gab becomes a space to rebuild a fresh sense of identity and self-worth. Users often refer to this social media platform as their source of “authentic truth”, a space that feels like “home,” a place to forge connections and a site marked by enthusiastic participation. Notably, terms like “friends”, “family”, “community”, and “like-minded” appear frequently, highlighting the platform’s ability to foster connections. Additionally, participants view their community as one of freedom fighters, united as free speech advocates, grounded in shared principles of “sovereignty”. Expressions of collective empowerment in the face of challenges intertwine with calls to “challenge the unacceptable”, “join the front lines” against “medical tyranny”, “resist manipulation”, and “embrace rebellion”.

Central to the dynamics of collective grievance and the search for like-minded companionship is an alternative view of reality—a unique interpretation of the world that underpins the far-right community’s worldview. The shared conviction that its users are truth-seekers is at the core of Gab’s network of beliefs. Users distance themselves from the label “conspiracy theorists”, instead positioning themselves as explorers of new perspectives on established narratives. This idea often goes hand in hand with being “awakened” to the complexities of the world, using terms like “truth”, “reality”, and “facts” to justify their alternative interpretations. These “revealed” pseudo-realities form a fundamental part of the platform’s communal fabric.

Establishing the Worldview

What exactly are these alternative reality views that shape the collective worldview of fringe platforms? And how do these stories contribute to their sense of community? Gab hosts a wide range of conspiracies.  For instance, one user claims, “Jews openly admit to their ritualistic baby killings”. Another asserts, “I’m not letting my kids get the vaccine; more people need to realize there are metal particles in it”. While these might seem unrelated, they are neither random nor confined to small corners of the platform. Instead, they play a crucial role in building a collective mindset.

Users on the platform share a common goal: to reshape Gab’s virtual landscape into a new way of understanding reality, using current events as a starting point for reshaping mainstream narratives. Here conspiracy theories serve to challenge mainstream perspectives, all the while reinforcing group beliefs. One user states “Our country is now in a state where doctors harm health, lawyers corrupt justice, universities suppress knowledge, governments restrict freedom, the media conceals information, and banks damage the economy”. Another community member declares “People are too distracted by Russia/Ukraine now. We must never forget the past two years! Politicians, media, doctors, and teachers need to be held accountable for their actions”. These narratives frequently emerge when users talk about health and science. A common tactic is to present information as if they were health professionals: “The surge in cancer cases is unprecedented”, “It makes no sense scientifically to take the vaccine”, “Doctors are urging parents not to give deadly COVID-19 vaccines to their children”, “I’ll provide undeniable evidence of how and why the COVID vaccines are causing harm and death”. The foundation of their community is built around scepticism of mainstream sources, instead placing trust in Gab’s virtual space and its like-minded users – an effective way to foster group consensus.

Who We Are and Who We Are Not

My work reveals a distinct pattern of belonging within the Gab community, characterized by a clear division between “us” and “them”. Gab users emphasize their group identity through comparisons; for instance, rejecting the COVID-19 vaccine, separating the ‘marked’ from the ‘pure’. This conviction is strengthened by claims of physical superiority over individuals who have received the vaccine. Simultaneously, the community solidifies its identity by attacking various out-groups, including the left, Jews, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

Identification often leads to a sentiment of superiority among members. Some individuals even distance themselves from conventional social circles, such as their jobs, friends, and family, in pursuit of a more profound connection within the Gab community, which they reverently refer to as “their people”. This collective identity extends beyond individual attributes, and spills into discussions comparing Gab to mainstream and fringe social media platforms. Participants applaud Gab’s commitment to free speech while criticizing mainstream media. Enthusiastic voices celebrate Gab as a breath of fresh air, offering a more transparent environment compared to the perceived constraints on platforms like Facebook. For many, Gab represents an opportunity for a fresh start after facing restrictions on other platforms.

Future Directions

What areas should upcoming research on far-right internet spaces investigate? I propose shifting our focus towards fringe social communities and the people within them, instead of just their adverse effects or toxic by-products. By using immersive online methods, we can reveal the complex workings that govern people’s connections and feelings in being part of these groups. Ultimately, methods like netnographies or online ethnographies will help us better understand what motivates the popularity of these platforms, and the best ways to sever these deep-seated connections.


Jonathan Collins is a PhD candidate at Charles University & Leiden University, concentrating on the rise of the far-right as both a social movement and threat for violent mobilisation.

This blog originally featured in the Centre for Research on Extremism’s (C-REX) RightNow! Blog Series.

Image Credit: bert b on Unsplash