Anthony F. Lemieux, Georgia State University
Background: Our research team at Georgia State University (Anthony Lemieux, P.I., Dror Walter, Rebecca Wilson, Katherine Kountz, John Hendry, Allison Betus, and Mor Yachin) and the University of Cincinnati (Michael Loadenthal) have been working on analyses of a corpus of leaked interviewing and vetting calls provided to our research team by the Southern Poverty Law Center ( n = 127) for membership in the white supremacist, neo-nazi accelerationist group The Base.
The calls included in this data set took place between November of 2018 and January of 2020, and were primarily conducted as vetting interviews for potential members (i.e., candidates), while some focused on core readings (i.e., James Mason’s Siege). Transcripts of the calls equal approximately 780,000 words over 1,500 pages. Some of the members, particularly those in leadership roles including Rinaldo Nazarro, the leader of The Base (using the pseudonyms Norman Spear and Roman Wolf), are present on multiple calls.
A series of posts have been created for the VOX-Pol blog to complement forthcoming journal articles, whereby members of the research team discuss various aspects of these interviews, examining such issues as motivation, catalysts for joining (so-called redpilling), survivalism, media, and concerns related to organizational and operational security.
Part 4: Social Media & Engagement Trajectories among Candidates: Initial Observations
By John Hendry and Anthony Lemieux
Internet Radicalization and The Base
Radicalization relies upon a number of personal, local, and social factors, among which is a discursive and media environment which ignores, tolerates, or endorses radicalizing communication. One potential pipeline for radicalization exists in the online discursive environment. Websites like Facebook and Twitter, which have global audiences and reach, are only two of many vectors for encountering radicalizing discourse, and extremist groups take advantage of this potential recruiting tool.
The Base, a white power survivalist-accelerationist group founded in 2018, is one of the groups which identified, targeted, and recruited potential members using social media apps, content-sharing websites, and public chat forums. In a series of recruiting calls taking place from 2018-2020, potential recruits met with The Base’s leadership to determine their fit for the organization. These calls included discussions of online media which radicalized, or redpilled, the potential recruits.
Here, we provide a brief examination and overview of how recruits discussed their use of and engagement on several social media platforms and its implications for their trajectory toward joining the group.
Content and Community
Across various platforms, online radicalization has multiple vectors. Two that we wish to highlight here are content and community. First, websites often host far more content than they can moderate effectively and at scale. Websites like Twitter have incentives to occasionally purge some extremists due to the negative attention they receive being anathema to advertisers. Many other sites have neither the same incentives nor the resources to accomplish such a purge. Even on a well-moderated site, extremist content can slip through the cracks or be coded such that moderators are unaware of the extremist implications of some content. As a result, many users will be exposed to extremist content sooner or later, and extremist groups can capitalize on these points of contact to expand their reach to potential recruits. Second, members of extremist groups are present on these sites, and are looking for engagement with this content. Once a user has expressed interest, an experienced member of an extremist group can lead them to more content and sustain a relationship.
Some of these websites have been discussed and implicated for their potential facilitation of online radicalization. For example, in our data, 7 speakers mention 4Chan or 8Chan, websites commonly known to house an extremist element. The pipeline from content to community is summarized by one potential recruit, who says “I moved on to like lurk in 4Chan and 8Chan boards. And uh I met a good friend over there that uh showed me a lot of things…put the puzzle pieces together.” Ten speakers mentioned YouTube, which hosts a massive range of content, including private content which is challenging to moderate. Eighteen speakers mentioned Gab, which has become a haven for extremist content. Nine speakers mentioned iFunny, an app for sharing memes.
These websites and apps have different user interfaces, content specializations, and userbases. However, they all feature content hosting and the ability to connect with other users. As a result, they have the potential to serve as useful tools for extremist groups looking to connect to potential new recruits. When members of the group are present to follow up with users interested in the content, they can be directed to sites where extremist discourse is the norm rather than the exception. At that point, there are fewer points of moderation, redirection, or intervention to prevent further and deeper engagement with content and individuals that may accelerate a trajectory toward radicalization.
Private communications channels, such as The Base Discord server, Wire chat, and Telegram channel, provide a much more concentrated dose of radicalizing content. In addition to the content not being diluted by non-members, the private nature of these communications channels allows for more violent and hateful rhetoric to circulate unchecked by moderation. Additionally, the low user count encourages more in-depth conversations across time, meaning that the specifics of an accelerationist, white nationalist ideology are allowed to be discussed more in-depth.
The Move Toward More Extremist Content
The extremist content mentioned by the potential recruits to The Base mostly fell into 2 categories: Discrete images and long-form audio/video content. Discrete images are often represented as the first step in their radicalization narratives. These images soon prove to be insufficient, and the recruits move on to more complex content. One recruit described this shift as, “just like sharing like Pepe memes…I need a…step up from that”. Another recruit echoes this by saying, “just like look at like memes and shit and like all that. And eventually, like, I kind of like delved a bit deeper”. Perhaps the most telling is a recruit who said, “[I looked at] memes and bullshit on iFunny…and so I read into Mein Kampf a little bit”. This transition serves to anecdotally highlight these introductory images, and the process they may serve to put in motion, where potential recruits may be nudged toward engagement with foundational texts (i.e., Mein Kampf or James Mason’s Siege).
Long-form content such as podcasts and YouTube videos serve as another type of stepping stone toward radicalization (anecdotally, we see these mentioned alongside books like Siege). Several recruits mention Mike Enoch and The Right Stuff podcast, the Common Filth YouTube channel, the Radical Agenda podcast, and Mr. Bond, an Austrian neo-nazi rapper and video producer. Such long-form content provides its audience with argumentative tactics, interpretations of history, and coverage of current events that provides an epistemic framework for radicalization.
These media products may contribute an important aspect of the radicalization process, namely that they provide seekers with an epistemological framework to explain, justify, and accelerate their radicalization. By providing common argumentative tactics, interpretations of history, and responses to current events, they help inculcate the common attitudes and beliefs that enculturate a person into the white power discourse community. When this is paired with discussions, as The Base provided with its vetting calls and book club meetings, these nascent views are allowed a space to be narrativized, thereby reinforcing the beliefs. Instead of a disconnected series of inclinations, provided by engagement with media products, this process of narrativization helps to concretize and reinforce nascent beliefs, which can then be further reinforced by ongoing discussions and contact with other members of the group as we see throughout the conversations among leadership and recruits for membership in The Base.
John Hendry is a Ph.D. Candidate in Georgia State University’s Department of Communication and a Presidential Fellow at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative at Georgia State University. His work focuses on how extremist rhetoric circulates and finds audiences online.
Anthony F. Lemieux is a Professor of Communication, founding co-director of the Atlanta Global Studies Center, and a lead researcher in the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative at Georgia State University.
Image Credit: PEXELS