On 14 May, 18-year-old Payton Gendron shouldered an automatic assault rifle, drove to Buffalo, New York, and massacred 13 people at a supermarket while leaving others injured. He livestreamed the atrocity on the video platform Twitch. Only a few days later, Salvador Ramos, also carrying an AR-15, walked into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and brutally murdered 19 children and two teachers. Both individuals, along with prospective future terrorists, had at least some familiarity with the alt-right grooming process.
Gendron was found to have been browsing gamer forums filled with racist rhetoric and hate speech and was heard mumbling in his livestream about how “black people are trying to replace us”. It has been established that Ramos’ digital footprint includes poorly moderated online forums like 4chan – notorious for its extreme content.
What is the alt-right?
The alt-right – an abbreviation of ‘alternative right’ – is a far-right ideological movement characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics. They engage in the use of online media to propagate hate-filled content – often aggressively opposing racial diversity, LGBTQ+ rights, and feminism. Alarmingly, the YouTube algorithm seems to inadvertently amplify far-right values and ideals, exposing susceptible individuals to material that furthers radicalisation and acceptance of alt-right ideas.
One Reddit user told me:
“I watched ONE episode of Joe Rogan on YouTube when Bernie Sanders made his appearance. It took YouTube TWO YEARS to realize I was not also interested in Ben Shapiro or Steven Crowder.”
Joe Rogan is a UFC commentator and podcaster, who has garnered a large audience over the years and has been accused of platforming individuals with hateful ideologies. Ben Shapiro is a right-wing political commentator on YouTube. Once you watch one of their videos YouTube will recommend other videos with the same political bent, the videos the YouTube algorithm recommends accounts for 70 percent of the time spent on the website and encourages deep dives into rabbit holes.
What is the alt-right pipeline?
The alt-right pipeline is used to describe a process that disproportionately radicalises supposedly ‘disenfranchised’ white males into the ideology of the far/alt-right. Desensitisation to hateful material often begins through the YouTube recommendation algorithm leading individuals into a proliferating network of far-right echo-chambers.
The alt-right often target lonely young men: “I fell down the pipeline during Gamergate. I was 18 and just graduated high school. My friends all went away to college, while I stayed local and started working.”
The authoritarian personality
Authoritarian psychology has been a subject since World War 2 and has been studied ever since; from Theodor Adorno’s basic F-scale (or fascist scale) personality test to more nuanced depictions of contextual factors such as Robert Altemeyer’s right-wing authoritarianism scale.
Despite criticism, those who have built on Altemeyer’s theories still use three key areas to describe the authoritarian mindset. These can be characterised as submission (often to a leader, to ideals, to the state), aggression (towards foreigners, the LGBTQ+ community, feminists…) and conventionalism (tradition, morality, social conservatism).
The alt-right pipeline tends to target those with an authoritarian disposition, and therefore feeds into those three characteristics. It is important to mention that, although based on right-wing ideology, authoritarian psychology is not exclusive to conservatives or the far right and can be seen and theorised in leftist and more liberal groups – captured by Altemeyer’s left-wing authoritarianism scale.
The three phases of the alt-right pipeline
The grooming process of the alt-right pipeline happens in three cognitive phases: normalisation, acclimation, and dehumanisation.
Coverage of online ‘far-right’ radicalisation often depicts swathes of the internet loaded with extreme content turning innocent youths into angry neo-Nazis. However, most people are turned off by extreme bigotry. Concepts like the ‘Jewish question’ or ‘great replacement theory’ are too blunt for most well-adjusted people. Instead, this ideology needs to be distilled and repackaged in the visual language of the internet – such as memes, GIFs, and references. Memes are often insidiously disseminated under the guise of humour and the defence of free speech against ‘wokeness’.
In 2012, the term ‘SJW’ entered the mainstream. Social justice warriors were those who held deeply liberal beliefs and were often the subject of ridicule online. From 2013 to 2016, anti-SJW videos formed some of the most popular content on YouTube and soon were a huge part of internet culture. This is usually the first step into the alt-right pipeline. SJWs are easy targets, especially if perceived as self-righteous, obnoxious, and subversive. The term SJW has now been replaced with the term ‘woke’ and, of course, the precursor to these terms was ‘political correctness’.
One Twitter user said: “When you see cringeworthy embarrassing videos of an overweight person with dyed hair and a trans flag, they feel such second-hand embarrassment that they think ‘man, that’s so bad. I could never be like that, that’s so cringe’. It makes it easy to disregard anything the person said, they could be saying the earth is flat – it wouldn’t matter.”
The next stage – acclimation – is like the first phase, merely a more incrementally extreme step along the pipeline. This is an important phase in turning individuals against liberal viewpoints. Anti-feminist and anti-SJW influencer Carl Benjamin once had over a million YouTube subscribers. Also known as ‘Sargon of Akkad’, Benjamin played a huge part in instilling extreme socially conservative views via his YouTube channel.
Once an individual becomes acclimatised to rhetoric from YouTubers like Benjamin, it becomes easier to get used to the atmosphere of more extreme environments such as the /pol/ forums on 4chan, a place that often contains neo-Nazi viewpoints – usually in the form of memes.
“So, I’d go to 4Chan to talk about Fire Emblem, and scroll down a bit and see a thread about how (((they))) are subtly propagating white genocide.” The use of multiple parentheses is a means of referring to Jewish people in an antisemitic context, one of a myriad of ways to espouse antisemitic conspiracy theories without being banned or ‘censored’.
Benjamin came under fire when he joined UKIP after joking about raping MP Jess Phillips. He then claimed his freedom of speech was being attacked when he was criticised for racially slurring an Asian woman.
Other popular ‘social commentators’ platformed at various times by YouTube include Paul Joseph Watson, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – or as he is more commonly known, Tommy Robinson – and Alex Jones. Jones’ channel was removed from YouTube after he lost a defamation trial concerning him spreading misinformation about the Sandy Hook shooting, claiming it was faked.
These channels would often spout anti-immigration myths such as ‘not wanting white people to become a minority’ – a simplified version of the great replacement myth. Frequently expounding conspiracy theories firmly rooted in antisemitism such as imagined cabals of shadowy elites directing world affairs, figures like Jones would also use arguments from widely discredited racist literature such as The Bell Curve to further their narratives.
All this results in the dehumanisation of select minorities and individuals, with forums and chatrooms advocating violence against these people with no care for rights or liberties. Dehumanisation is an important prerequisite to justify a form of violence similarly practised by the Nazis.
Gendron’s descent into white supremacy is documented in a 180-page manifesto that he posted on the Discord and 4chan platforms. During his Twitch stream, Gendron can be heard muttering about ‘white replacement theories’ – his horrifying actions in Buffalo the culmination of being funnelled down the alt-right pipeline since the onset of the pandemic.
Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto, similar in substance to Gendron’s, describes hordes of one-dimensional ‘enemies’ with no thought given to their humanity: “Any invader you kill, of any age, is one less enemy your children will have to face.”
Dehumanisation is vital to increase aggression to the point of violence, this is the inevitable result of consuming this type of content over a long period of time, increasingly stoking hatred through jokes, prejudice and eventually vitriol towards those they consider enemies. Once a section of society is not human to you, their lives hold no human value.
Where has the alt-right gone now?
The alt-right can use seemingly harmless imagery and ideals. Often in the form of ‘traditional lifestyles’, these accounts frequently share values of community, family and rigid morality. On the surface this may seem fine – but take a glance at the tags, which include words such as #immigrant, #white, and #anti-white. Included are images of exclusively white, Aryan-looking people; a nostalgic vision of what Europe looked like before the immigrants came – distressingly, comments sections are flooded with loaded language and sometimes outright racism.
Alternatively, they insert themselves in spaces such as Norse spirituality, holistic care, what might be dubbed ‘whitewashed’ spirituality, and anti-vax discussion groups. All of these have common characteristics – they are often white-dominated spaces, they often encourage fear and claim certain people are superior to others.
Incels and the language of misogyny
Another target for alt-right online radicalisation are the so-called incels (an abbreviation of ‘involuntary celibate’), a group of men who believe they cannot find a partner due to female hypergamy (the proclivity of some women to be attracted to so-called ‘alpha’ or ‘high-status’ males, leaving a significant majority to be ‘alone forever’). The language used by incels normalises misogyny and dehumanises women. Black men are hated in the community since they believe they are out to ‘steal’ women from all races (mostly white women).
This ‘dog whistle’ type of content has been permitted on mainstream internet platforms post-2019. YouTube also changed its policies following the 2021 Capitol riots. Most of the dehumanising racism has moved to unmoderated gamer forums or Telegram.
Migrations to new platforms
Many of the figureheads of the YouTube alt-right pipeline have fizzled out on the platform but have found a new home on Telegram. Tommy Robinson News has 155.5k subscribers, Paul Joseph Watson has 56k, and Alex Jones’ Info Wars has 57k – healthy numbers for an encrypted chatroom. Their chatrooms are filled with hatred of immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and feminists. There is also a growing prevalence of many smaller chatrooms dedicated to far-right beliefs and values.
It’s important that we understand how communication, especially humour and irony, is used to normalise bigoted thoughts and behaviour. Ricky Gervais has unleashed another special onto us, in which most of the content is transphobic. Comedian John Mulaney, whose core fan base comprises LGBTQ+ members, let Dave Chappelle open for him and tell a series of transphobic jokes. Both of these productions are widely available to audiences through mainstream platforms.
Recognising the narratives of hate
Last week’s shocking events in Uvalde have sparked disbelief, indignation and horror across the globe. The alt-right have already tried to pin the blame on an innocent trans woman – another attempt to lock into that ‘fear of the other’ and provoke hatred of vulnerable minorities. This seems to have worked, as since then a trans woman has been attacked in Texas following the disinformation campaign by the far right.
Trans rights seem to be the next gateway bigotry for the alt-right to insert themselves into the public consciousness. Urgently recognising the manipulative disingenuity of such hate-fuelled narratives, the untruths that fester in their wake, and the havoc they wreak upon the innocent and vulnerable has never been more vital. Perhaps only then would it be possible to imagine a world where the likelihood of another Christchurch, another Buffalo, another Uvalde, becomes vanishingly small.
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