27 Feb 2020
Far-right groups and conspiracy theories are being brought together through the internet
By Elise Thomas
In ASIO's first-ever annual threat assessment, delivered in Canberra this week, director-general Mike Burgess warned of the rise of right-wing extremism in Australia.
Describing it as a "real" and "growing" threat, he emphasised the role of online communities in fostering international connections between far-right groups.
"Extreme right-wing online forums such as the Base proliferate on the internet, and attract international memberships, including from Australians," Burgess said.
"These online forums share and promote extremist right-wing ideologies, and encourage and justify acts of extreme violence."
Far-right extremists have been quick to recognise the potential of fringe and shadowy online spaces as an opportunity to promote their propaganda, communicate with one another and win others over to their cause.
But they're often not alone in these spaces.
Transnational conspiracy theories
Any serious attempt to grapple with the threat posed by the modern, digital-native and increasingly transnational far-right movement will also have to reckon with its weirder but equally disturbing twin: transnational conspiracy theories.
Several days before he would go on a shooting rampage in Hanau, Germany, killing nine people, 43-year old Tobias Rathjen posted a 24-page manifesto and videos to his personal website.
While much of the focus since the attack has been on the far-right elements of Rathjen's ideology, the documents reveal a noxious mess of conspiratorial beliefs.
The twisting and incoherent narratives are a smorgasbord of online conspiracy movements from both Germany and the United States.
In one English-language video which Rathjen calls "my personal message to all Americans", he makes claims about the existence of underground US military bases in which children are tortured and killed. (This video has been removed from mainstream platforms but has been reuploaded to fringe video-hosting platforms. The version I found had been uploaded by an Australian user).
This conspiracy has distinct echoes of QAnon, an increasingly transnational pro-Trump conspiracy movement.
QAnon adherents believe that Trump is waging a secret war with a "deep state" cabal of elite paedophile cannibals, alongside an undercover operative known as "Q" who posts coded messages on 8chan, now called 8kun.
Its genesis, at least in part, is drawn from the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed several US restaurants and high-ranking officials of the Democratic Party were linked to an alleged human trafficking and child sex ring.
In 2016, a gunman attacked a pizza restaurant in Washington DC in an attempt to rescue the children he believed were being held captive and abused in the basement (the restaurant did not have a basement).
QAnon has been linked to violent incidents
The QAnon conspiracy theory was closely tied to the community of users on 8chan, the now-infamous online forum where multiple far-right extremists have posted manifestos before launching their attacks (8chan was briefly driven offline in 2019, but has since reincarnated under the name 8kun).
These manifestos also contain strong conspiratorial elements. Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant even titled his manifesto "The Great Replacement" in reference to a white supremacist conspiracy theory about a plot for the "ethnic replacement" of white people.
Patrick Crusius, who killed one person and injured three others at a synagogue in Poway in 2019, wrote about how "Hispanics … will turn Texas into an instrument of a political coup which will hasten the destruction of our country".
QAnon itself has been linked to multiple violent incidents. In the US, a QAnon supporter recently plead guilty to a terrorism charge for blocking the Hoover Dam with a homemade armoured vehicle and multiple firearms.
The crossover of extremist and conspiracy movements
In my own research into how QAnon is seeking to influence the US 2020 presidential election, I came across numerous posts hinting that, if their efforts should fail and Trump loses the presidency, some QAnon followers might be willing to consider more violent tactics.
Even on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter, there is a growing overlap between the use of QAnon hashtags and far-right hashtags like #boogaloo (which refers to a supposedly impending civil war) and gun rights activist hashtags like #2A.
A QAnon flag was flown at a gun rights rally in Virginia. The governor declared a state of emergency in advance of the event over threats of violence and anti-government conspiracy theories, including QAnon.
It is no coincidence that extremist and conspiracy movements often occupy the same online (and sometimes offline) spaces.
Their paranoia, aggression and propensity to violence are two sides of the same coin.
Conspiracy theories play a complex and fluid role
This nexus between conspiracy and far-right extremism is not new. The original Nazis were infamous for their conspiratorial thinking.
What is new, however, is the ease with which technology enables ideas, rumours and misinformation to cross-pollinate between transnational strands of conspiracies and far-right groups as they mingle in the same online spaces.
Recognising the complex, fluid, often symbiotic role which transnational conspiracies play in modern far-right movements will be crucial to addressing the threat from extremists in the years ahead.