Since the rise of the internet, and especially since the diffusion of the internet through all parts of everyday life, the far right has scattered, diversified and stuck itself back together. The internet has facilitated these tendencies, filtering and contorting familiar forms of activity and ideology, and pushed far-right groups to adapt, causing the decline of some formations and the break-up of others. Despite the lack of formal mass organizations, the far right has not gone away — instead it has produced new configurations of tactics, priorities and goals.
These changes are still little understood, either in the popular consciousness or among left-wing movements. In its online presence, the far right has sometimes been portrayed as a faceless swarm, because a great deal of far-right activity over the last ten years has come out of a mass of anonymous posters. Gamergate was perhaps the first wave of such a construction, and the alt-right, following quickly after, is the most important.
But even the distributed chaos of the online far right has needed to push forward nodes around which to coalesce, nodes which we in our book Post-Internet Far Right: Fascism in the Age of the Internet call “far-right influencers.” It is not command that they centralize, but command’s substrate: attention. Their appearance as figures distinct from the swarm is an aspect of their power. The alt-right coalesced around an “influencer” of sorts in the figure of former US President Donald Trump, but it had many other lower-level influencers throughout its intersecting layers.
Traditional fascist leadership was certainly unstable. The history of fascism cannot be told without the bloody purges, leadership coups, internal strife and acrimonious splits. However, episodes of instability among the leadership punctuated years of relative unassailability and often came in the wake of defeat. Not so now. The far-right influencer, lacking a formal position, has a constant need to find his footing in the movement, to maintain a grip on an ever-shifting network.
Of course, both the anonymous online swarm of posters and commenters and the social media influencer are not unfamiliar, indeed they are ubiquitous to the internet. Similar dynamics have played out on the online left. However, it is only the far right that has so readily adopted the swarm and influencer as a model for political organizing. In 2016, the Republicans accepted, or at least accommodated, their radical online flank. The Democrats, on the other hand, crushed theirs.
It is necessary to consider how far right influencers appear, how they maintain their position within and above the swarm, and what structural function they fulfill in perpetuating the online ferment.
The emergence of the influencer from the swarm is inherently full of tensions: too distinct and they become detached from the group that gives them power; too indistinct and they lose traction, dissolving back into the swarm. Their relationship with the swarm is therefore, ultimately, tense, and their status relies on their ability to give it continual stimulation and articulation. They are the key nodes of what Steve Bannon has called “a politics of mobilization,” are less and less concerned with the organization of a coherent group with a stable agenda, and more and more concerned with the incitement of feeling. Far-right influencers are the main dealers in a culture of dosing on outrage.
Novelty plays a huge part in the question of how outraged someone can feel. Outrage is built on the sudden shock of new, unwelcome, information. It is difficult to maintain outrage — even fabricated outrage — without a sudden revelation. However, only a very small number of topics really hit the mark. Thus, novelty comes not from broadening out the politics to other issues, but from stating more and more extreme positions on a select few fixations.
The swarm’s conventionalism is the conventionalism of extremism, a progressive narrowing of focus. If influencers stray even a little too far from its narrow set of beliefs, the swarm will reject them. Between these two demands — the demand that you say something unique and the demand that you stay with what everyone already thinks — lies the thin path of the successful influencer, but it sets in motion a pattern of radicalization which frequently runs afoul of the platforms on which it depends.
Conventionality without novelty can lead to the redundancy of the influencer. Usually, the influencer provides for the swarm a degree of articulation of their politics. They make explicit what their members believe but are unable to articulate themselves. When an ideology is too obvious or too general, the influencers become irrelevant, as we saw with the 2020 “statue defender” protests in the UK. When the politics consist entirely in defending a statue of Winston Churchill, influencers lose one of their main functions. Churchill is “our boy.” Everyone knows it. Influencers were no longer needed to articulate the underlying politics and so were discarded.
How then do influencers secure and maintain their positions in such an unstable environment?
Clearly some individuality is essential for each influencer. But this is an individuality that is not built on ideas, but on an affective connection to the swarm. In terms of the emotional motor of far-right politics, far-right leaders today follow rather than lead. They do so through sensing and orienting the mood of the swarm, developing an instinct for its movements, learning its underlying transformations of emotion, and confidently embodying its desires.
Compared to the fascist leaders of the past, who mythically embodied the nation, today, in our much more atomized world, it is more often a question of who does the best job at appearing to be your friend. In this way, a far-right influencer is functionally similar to non-political influencers. What they market is different, but their methods are the same.
This affective power raises the stakes of radicalization for influencers. Because they must seem to be really present, and therefore authentic, to maintain their power, influencers have vastly more skin in the game than their followers. Radicalization thus has very different stakes for the individuals who appear on the screen, whose individuality is particular and whose presentation has a necessary consistency, than it does for the anonymous swarm who rarely need to appear as themselves.
As participation in far-right movements declines, these highly particularized and “authentic” influencers are less likely to be able to exit the movement. Thus, radicalization often burns their ability to exit the far right cleanly, whereas it has very few consequences for swarm members — a difference that intensifies the tension between the demands of the two.
One of the main tensions between the swarm and influencer lies in the former’s thirst for more and more radical statements, and the latter’s resistance to them. For many social media platforms, radicalization beyond a certain point is verboten. To become an influencer thus requires the ability to produce content that is acceptable to three distinct audiences: the swarm, potential recruits and the platform. The influencer must not be so radicalized by the swarm’s demand for more edgy content that they get deplatformed. The extremist’s dilemma — between greater openness and greater security — is transformed from a dilemma inside a single group into a tension between the swarm and the influencers.
Influencers can, however, present themselves as faking it in one very specific way: they can disguise their own radicalism. Indeed, this very obvious disguising of extreme beliefs like antisemitism can seem to the audience like a shared secret: a mark of a personal connection. In doing so, influencers can cultivate cults of personal loyalty.
Mark Collett of Patriotic Alternative has finessed this style, splitting his content across platforms according to its radicalism. Collett’s videos on YouTube, with its “three strikes” policy, are carefully scripted and checked before publication in order to stick to the letter of the terms of service. On smaller platforms with fewer restrictions, such as Dlive and BitChute, his antisemitism is much more explicit — although recently BitChute began a crackdown on him as well. Presence over a range of platforms also provides a level of built-in redundancy for influencers.
If an intimate personal bond, and a careful balancing act between extremism and conventionality is how influencers maintain their position as influencers, then how do they maintain the swarm?
The maintenance of the online swarm is vital for influencers. Money is an important part of swarm-influencer dynamics. Although some influencers have money from elsewhere — rich patrons or regular jobs — many rely on audience donations.
The system of superchats, in which livesteam watchers pay to have a comment read aloud by the host, and the normalization of a political tipping culture has allowed for the production of “professional racists” who live entirely off donations. Thus, the financial incentives pull more strongly towards audience production and less towards street actions, since no one will pay to attend a demonstration. At times when the far right is ascending, this can be exceptionally lucrative.
One of the most effective ways of densifying the network of influencers as a whole are public livestreamed debates, known as “internet bloodsports.” In these online debates between two or more influencers, the swarm pitches in, rooting for their guy in the comments section. These bloodsports simultaneously fulfill a number of different functions: they connect disparate groups of the swarm through the meeting of multiple audiences; they quickly produce a vast swathe of video content for the swarm to consume; and they provide the sense of a vibrant and diverse intellectual culture.
The constellation of content creators and accounts forms a self-supporting network with a high degree of audience crossover: if one creator is banned from a particular platform they can relocate to another, while fellow creators help their reestablishment by directing their followers to the new outlet. We also cannot discount the visceral excitement that is common across the internet of seeing someone you do not like getting owned, watching them post cringe, or picking on the losers within your side.
Bloodsports allows for members of the swarm to become influencers, a possibility that must forever be held open. It is through becoming an influencer that at least some of the hopeless-feeling men of the far right will come to feel important. In terms of their composition of social capital, far-right influencers present themselves as the stark opposite of their audience. However, it cannot be made too easy for the swarm to become financially viable through influencing – being an influencer is, after all, a lucrative role.
Conversely, important skills for influencers in moments of decline, are the ability to motivate the swarm and sustain activity, meanwhile presenting things as more hopeful than they actually are. In the Telegram chats of the far right, stopping the tendency of the swarm to “blackpill” — posting depressing, pessimistic content that makes its audience believe there is nothing to do but commit sporadic violence — takes on an existential importance to the influencer. On the livestreams and videos around which the swarm congregates, influencers constantly encourage “whitepilling” — an opposite to the pessimism of the blackpill in which posters are optimistic of eventual victory of white supremacy. They encourage the swarm to raise their racial consciousness as whites and do something — and continue giving money — rather than fall further and further into inactivity and despair.
In the post-Charlottesville world, as the less radical influencers fell away or were sucked back into mainstream Trumpism, the more extreme ones doubled down as they competed for reduced supporter donations. Mostly, however, they have struggled.
In recent years, founder of the Daily Stormer Andrew Anglin has been in hiding from multiple civil judgments on his campaigns of harassment. The Daily Shoah, the most prominent podcast of the alt-right, which once commanded significant audiences and spawned a network of fascist shows, was deplatformed by podcast providers and has retained only a niche following, although its influence has not collapsed completely.
After Charlottesville, the style of mainstream journalism keen to trade on the novelty of “dapper” white nationalists such as Richard Spencer also waned, as the movement’s deadly consequences became evident even to the least perceptive liberal. Some, like Spencer and disgraced alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolis, were rejected by the swarm themselves: failure decapitates the movement.
As the internet continues to give rise to newer, more ephemeral forms of far-right leadership, it is incumbent for us on the radical left to understand their peculiarly specific capacities and weaknesses. How to oppose the influencer? Deplatforming influencers has proved effective in breaking their connection to the swarm: witness the precipitous demise of Tommy Robinson when, over the course of 2018 and early 2019 was banned from Twitter, Facebook and Youtube for inflammatory statements about Muslims. However, placing the power to regulate discourse in the hands of Facebook and the like is fraught with danger, and campaigns for deplatforming need to be judicious and highly selective.
Part of the answer must lie in the influencers’ particular politics of mobilization and disrupting the deep emotional bond that connects influencers and the swarm that was so effective in mobilizing the alt-right. Emotion is a strong motivator, but it can easily be undone, especially when bonds of loyalty are replaced with feelings of resentment or betrayal, or when the righteous determination that animates many street movements is politically undercut.
Over the last few years, many on the left have launched effective campaigns to do just that: not to replace the thrill of radicalization on the right with a staid centrist stability, but to reorient the fundamental sense of wrongness that the far right taps into towards the politics of the radical left. When doing so, it is important not deny the deep alienation from, and misery of contemporary society many experience, but to provide better explanations for its existence and to offer solutions building towards mass liberation rather than further oppression.
Although the right still dominates much of the independent political space online, in recent years it has begun to be contested by left-wing content creators. In one particularly notable video left-wing streamer Hasan Piker and anti-fascist youtuber Three Arrows spend hours debating the writings of Jordan Peterson with one of his fans, eventually persuading him to look into other sources. The stream was watched by tens of thousands live and attracted hundreds of thousands of views when it was uploaded to Youtube.
Another cogent example can be found in the opposition to the Islamophobic Democratic Football Lads Alliance by the Feminist Antifascist Assembly in which they declared: “The enemy does not arrive by boat, he arrives by limousine.” At a counter demonstration to the DFLA in 2018, anti-fascists successfully blocked its march. But the real innovation was in directly countering the DFLA’s racist propaganda with a compelling leftist response.
Ultimately, to contend with the swarm, the left should contend with its own political methods: contest online audiences and bring those audiences into political movements as organizers or activists. This means breaking away from the fundamental weakness of the audience model and connecting content to real life campaigns and movements with which audience members can get involved. Building anti-fascism from here means integrating this task into the left as a whole, not as a specialized niche of a broader political agenda, but recognizing that the far right poses a threat to us all, and that we all need to be involved in its defeat.
The crowdfund campaign for Post-Internet Far Right runs until June 27.