The rise of online right-wing extremism:  an interview with Lise Waldek from Macquarie University

The Step Together helpline provides support and advice to community members about how they might help others avoid the path towards using violence for change.  We also aim to keep the NSW community informed about current trends and research into violent extremist interest. 

This month, Step Together met with Lise Waldek, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie university, to discuss her latest research undertaken with Dr. Brian Ballsun-Stanton and Associate Professor Julian Droogan, into the rise of online right wing extremism in Australia.

We have also provided further information on how you can access support to help people you may be concerned about.

Step Together:  Lise, can you tell us how you tracked right-wing extremism online and for how long?

Lise Waldek: We have been examining violent extremism in all its various guises for almost twenty years. Our work focusing specifically on right-wing extremism started around 2016 and in 2019 we received funding from the New South Wales government to examine online right-wing extremism in Australia. Working closely with our digital solutions expert at Macquarie University, our research uniquely drew from multiple different online platforms to examine right-wing extremism. These platforms included Twitter, Gab, Reddit, 4Chan, and 8chan (now 8Kun). You can find the report at https://zenodo.org/record/4071472

Step Together:  What has been the influence of global interest in right-wing  extremism on Australian users?

Lise Waldek: We have repeatedly seen how American populist politics and American media have influenced the online right-wing extremist environment. Events relating to the former President Trump and to the QAnon conspiracy theory repeatedly sparked interest and engagement across the various platforms we examined. On both Twitter and Gab, we frequently saw the use in our Australian aligned audience of hashtags such as #MAGA, #Patriot, #Trump alongside hashtags pointing to the conspiracy theory QAnon such as #WWG1WWA. These sorts of nationalistic, patriotic, and conspiratorial narratives were far more prevalent in our dataset than specific Australian focused events and topics.

Step Together:  What was the most surprising or interesting things you found in your research?

Lise Waldek: A key finding in the report that we all found interesting was the articulation of two connected, but different threats generated by online right-wing extremism. The first is what we called the creeping threat. This threat is caused by shifting the acceptable window of social and political discourse towards an extreme end point that threatens Australian liberal democracy. In the highly social online environments users draw on appeals to critical thinking, a rejection of political correctness, humour, and satire to generate engagement.

The second threat was that of real-world violence and we did see examples, particularly on less moderated platforms such as Gab, of increasingly radical and extreme rhetoric. However, we also noted the significant challenges faced when seeking to separate out examples of bragging, irony, and fantasy from real violent capability and intent. This makes identifying potential violent actors solely on their social media postings very challenging.

Step Together:  What is the focus of the next stage of your research in this area?

Lise Waldek: The findings around the presence of the creeping threat and conspiratorial thinking in the online environment we looked at sparked a great deal of interest. We have been funded to explore the impact of the creeping threat across the online environment to explore how effective (if at all) this creeping threat has been across broader mainstream online environments. Our research examines these threats and the growth more generally of right-wing extremism in Australia in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Step Together: Thank you Lise, and we look forward to meeting up with you again to learn more about the next phase of this research later this year.

If you are concerned about someone, you may also like to explore some of our other related blogs for ways to help:

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, call our Step Together helpline workers on 1800 875 204, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

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