The Dangers of Pushing Fringe Elements Back to the Fringe
By Christopher Whyte
In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. by an insurrectionist mob, government agencies and private companies across the U.S. were forced to grapple – indeed, are still grappling – with the realities of deep-seated subversion in the nation’s information environment and the potential for further acts of seditious violence. In the weeks and months since, commentators both inside the Beltway and in beyond security communities beyond likened these efforts to challenges inherent in the mission of counterterrorism forces, as well as in actions taken to restructure the politics of nations emerging from conflict.[i] In other words, debate on the paranoia of American politics[ii] rapidly shifted to envisage fringe elements less as countercultural advocates and more the unsophisticated, alternately-capable force often found in America’s small wars.
Nine months on, analogies to major terrorist threats continue to play a particularly significant role in setting the tone of security policy discourse around America’s domestic extremism problem.[iii] One not-unpopular analog to the events leading to Jan. 6, for instance, likened key Republican figures to the leadership of al Qaeda—that is, as the mouthpieces of a dispersed extremist movement that set the agenda but don’t directly command anyone. Another equivalency that has received some attention is the idea that the Republican Party needs to undergo a process of de-Ba'athification to strip the decades-old influences of far-right political interests from the core conservative platform.[iv] And this narrative has only gained popularity as elements of the party continue to characterize themselves as agents of a Trumpian political revolution.[v]
As some experts have written or taken to social media in reply, however, there are issues with these parallels, among them the politically charged context in which they’re often made and the unique context of a vibrant democracy in America that has nevertheless produced extremism. Simply put, the United States isn’t Iraq, Pakistan or any of the other authoritarian states from which historical examples are most commonly being drawn. And the shape of what both government and private stakeholders are now trying to wrangle isn’t as neat a fit with so many of the parallels to state-sponsored counterterror operations currently being made. The broader backdrop of the events of the Capitol insurrection certainly involves radicalized persons, diverse militia organizations and explicit intent to incur change through violence. But it also involves regular Americans, a congested and fragmented media environment, and a culture of paranoid narratives normalized by the political right going back beyond Reagan.[vi] Very few terrorism analogies are thus likely, in short, to hold up beyond a first glance.
Targeting Key Players Vs. Entire Communities
This being said, one parallel that might be worth considering is the experience of states who have attempted to fight terror, insurgency and sedition by simply suppressing those most apparently responsible. The Russian experience in Chechnya provides a good example. After some years of de facto independence from the Russian Federation, rebel activities in neighboring Dagestan drove the government in Moscow towards war and a concerted counterterrorism campaign in Ichkeria, the Chechen republic. This turn towards coercion represents an obvious recourse of any government faced with insurrection – to directly neutralize key players and create disincentives for others to turn towards extremism via direct acts of repression. A number of terrorist organizations, from Peru’s Shining Path to Russia’s Narodnaya Volya, have been effectively dismantled or outright destroyed this way over the past century.[vii]
Russia’s opening of the Second Chechen War did not lead to the end of insurrection, however.[viii] Though the intended result was a disruption of the rebels’ abilities to operate and a quelling of popular support in Ichkeria, Russian engagement ultimately widened the conflict. Not only did military operations not create disincentives towards radicalization and rebel support, but they also actually created incentives for Chechen forces to redefine the scope of their grievance. In the decade after Russian occupation, Chechen attacks across Russia and political operations in neighboring republics like Ingushetia dramatically increased.[ix] It’s arguable that Russian actions also directly drove Chechens towards al Qaeda and, eventually, Islamic State. In short, suppression tactics so often don’t work because terrorists often re-consider the scope of the struggle and scatter across borders, making them much harder to pin down.[x]
Policymakers and practitioners would do well to consider the experiences of state efforts to suppress and repress terrorist movements at this moment. To be clear, this is not because the U.S. is dealing with something altogether similar to even those significant terrorist threats in decades past that enjoyed great popular support – the Irish Republican Army or the Palestinian Liberation Organization, for instance. Rather, it’s relevant because the people, communities and organizations now in the sights of status quo forces are defined by common access to the web and because the immediate recourse of government and private companies – already substantially underway – is to shut down sedition online.[xi]
In this vein, the preponderance of focus in major media outlets in the days following January 6 was on President Donald Trump’s permanent ouster from services like Twitter and Instagram,[xii] as well as the effective shutdown of right-leaning social media forum Parler via Amazon’s refusal to continue hosting the platform.[xiii] But numerous other conspiratorial accounts and hate-tolerant virtual communities have also felt the banhammer or have been dropped by hosting companies. Major platforms like Facebook have banned QAnon-linked accounts and pressure has built for small sites like CloutHub and MeWe to follow suit. In truth, these kinds of crackdowns aren’t a particularly major development. True, this is a weightier and more widespread cluster of ousters than has typically occurred in the past. But at various points in the past few years, spaces like Reddit’s r/The_Donald have been quarantined to prevent sensationalist speech from leaking into other sections of the site[xiv] and hosting companies have booted clearly hateful publications like the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, which subsequently found a new home on the dark web.[xv] This recent suppression of subversive spaces and voices is just the most recent iteration of backlash following an incident involving individuals who’ve been radicalized in such spaces.
Perhaps what’s most unique about this year’s crackdowns is the targeting of so much speech that might previously have been considered merely risqué or sensational by social media platforms and hosting services alike. Now, after Jan. 6, so much speech is being removed beyond the clear-cut incitements towards hate and violence that would previously have got someone banned. The QAnon conspiracy, in particular, has being targeted,[xvi] as have specific groups like the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters that played some visible role in the insurrection at the Capitol.[xvii] How widespread-yet-also-targeted these crackdowns are makes for a uniquely dangerous period of flux and reformation in the far-right fringe ecosystem.
The Forced Migration of Extremist Voices
Though any parallel illustration can be taken too far, this situation in many ways mirrors the manner in which terrorist organizations are often forced to change how they operate as they move to occupy new physical and societal spaces. As digital crackdowns occur, users in the U.S. and elsewhere are being forced into alternative spaces and mediums. On the surface, it’s easy to imagine how such moves will inevitably be correlated with an intensification of those features that make extreme social movements dangerous. Individuals with a political agenda that are forced out of public spaces will gather in more private spaces where the incentive to mask more extreme ideas, ideologies and intentions is much reduced.[xviii] In eras past, this process has taken the form of extremists forced by police crackdown or bad publicity to retreat to rural locales or insular communities. With forced migration between spaces in the age of the Internet, the situation is likely even more worrisome.
In recent years, what’s made social media and associated online spaces such a powerful catalyst for the sensationalist, often subversive narratives that contributed to the Jan.6 insurrection is a combination of service providers’ business interests and platform architecture that puts power over discourse in the hands of agenda-setters. Moderator control of access to content and the framing of news sets up conspiratorial spaces to “capture” new members, while echo chambers fueled by repetition and social pressure to conform perpetuates even outlandish perspectives with minimal pushback.[xix] Many of the spaces that are now being shut down are more cult than public forum, bolstered by lacking commercial interest in losing even fringe audiences. These dynamics amplify beyond mainstream social media platforms and hosting services.[xx] With the move to smaller services, business interest is often less willing to reject even extreme content as each user is more valuable and backend design, being generally weaker, makes it easier to restrict and shape speech. These constraints become even less relevant or entirely irrelevant if extreme communities move to utilize technological protections like peer-to-peer encryption or migrating to a darknet location, given that such tools can shield companies or even provide an entirely independent ability to operate.[xxi]
One good thing about crackdowns and forced migration of extreme voices from mainstream digital spaces, of course, is the reduction of potential audiences for extremism. In particular, banning certain prolific accounts and continuing to pursue particular individuals across platforms is arguably akin to killing the leadership of a terrorist organization. With the current situation, however, things are likely to be at least somewhat different. The broad appeal and long exposure of the sociopolitical messaging that led to Jan.6 will produce greater incentives to go looking for new spaces to discuss rightwing positions on national events, as well as guaranteeing greater than normal receptivity to any messaging that invites such migration.[xxii] It also seems likely that large numbers of individuals inculcated in the far right media ecosystem will adopt an even greater distrust of mainstream media than previously as a result of crackdowns across the web and willingly turn to novel methods of creating new “spaces'' for rhetoric and discourse more reflective of the fringe than the mainstream. QAnon believers have already turned to cascading text message networks to spread word about the evolving nature of the struggle against mainstream leftist forces along these lines.
Possible Alternatives to the Current Crackdowns
The result of this dynamic is quite likely a diverse far right information ecosystem dispersed by the current spate of ongoing Internet crackdowns, but not necessarily substantially reduced in scope or fervor. While many conservatives caught up in the frauds perpetuated by certain high-ranking Republican officials and right-leaning news organizations were sobered by the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol to a degree, many more have failed so far to come around to the dangers of the insular narratives emerging in rightwing media spaces. To those individuals, the options for information consumption will be harder to see, but still readily more readily available than one might imagine. And perhaps most significantly, within the context of these developments, even rhetorical leaders – from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. to Charlie Kirk or former Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio – aren’t as individually significant as the spaces that provide succor to the deep-seated anxieties that fueled insurrection in Washington. This is, in so many wars, the organic digital age manifestation of leaderless resistance first envisioned by white supremacists in the 1980s.
So, what does the parallel of pushing terrorist organizations and extreme movements too hard tell us? One lesson to be considered is that suppression of entire organizations and their membership is damaging in a way that repression of key leaders, ideological advocates and organizers is not. Neutralizing those individuals that activate a broader followership can often be more effective than broad crackdowns that scatter members far and wide, particularly if neutralization involves cutting deals with extremist figures to discredit their causes in exchange for legal leniency. Another lesson is that generational and sub-cultural differences can kill the viability of fringe extremism over time. In the modern era, this suggests that technology firms might want to focus more on ensuring diverse engagement in social service spaces and tweaking content-linking algorithms to limit the formation of echo chambers among like users. And finally, extremist perspectives must be decoupled from the bases of social approval that give them broad hold over citizen audiences. In the United States today, on the one hand, that likely means accepting that the paranoid style of American politics has fed a broad platform of anti-liberal sentiment that is fundamentally separate from the tenets of conservatism. On the other, it also means that mainstream purveyors of right-leaning content must be persuaded to abandon support of those practices and perspectives that have empowered the extreme right. Unfortunately, of course, such persuasion must happen in the context of entrenched commercial interests in continuing to support paranoid – if not extreme, necessarily – modes of political activity. As such, it will not be an easy task.
[i] Much of which took place in real time on Twitter and other social media platforms, as well as in the days that followed in think tank pieces and op eds. For instance, in Byman, Daniel. (2021). The assault on the US Capitol opens a new chapter in domestic terrorism. Brookings Institution; Jenkins, Brian Michael. (2021). Don't Muddy the Objectives on Fighting Domestic Extremism. RAND; and German, Michael and Harsha Panduranga. (2021). How to Combat White Supremacist Violence? Avoid Flawed Post-9/11 Counterterrorism Tactics. Brennan Center for Justice.
[ii] A reference to the famous and oft-revisited characterization of American politics by Hofstadter. Hofstadter, R. (2012). The paranoid style in American politics. Vintage.
[iii] Including by the President of the United States. See (2021). Jan 6 a ‘violent attempt’ by ‘terrorists’ to hold ‘power’: Biden. Al Jazeera.
[iv] Sasse, Ben. (2021). QAnon Is Destroying the GOP From Within. The Atlantic.
[v] Milligan, Susan. (2021). Trump’s GOP Drives Out Reagan Republicans. U.S. News and World Report.
[vi] Van der Linden, S., Panagopoulos, C., Azevedo, F., & Jost, J. T. (2021). The paranoid style in American politics revisited: An ideological asymmetry in conspiratorial thinking. Political Psychology, 42(1), 23-51.
[vii] See Cronin, A. K. (2009). How terrorism ends. Princeton University Press for a robust history of such efforts.
[viii] See Kramer, M. (2005). Guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency and terrorism in the North Caucasus: the military dimension of the Russian–Chechen conflict. Europe-Asia Studies, 57(2), 209-290.
[ix] Cronin, A. K. (2006). How al-Qaida ends: The decline and demise of terrorist groups. International Security, 31(1), 30.
[x] Jordan, J. (2014). Attacking the leader, missing the mark: Why terrorist groups survive decapitation strikes. International Security, 38(4), 7-38.
[xi] A growing trend in the past five years that has only got more pronounced after January 6. See Rogers, R. (2020). Deplatforming: Following extreme Internet celebrities to Telegram and alternative social media. European Journal of Communication, 35(3), 213-229.
[xii] For instance, Messenger, Haley. (2021). Twitter to uphold permanent ban against Trump, even if he were to run for office again. NBC News.
[xiii] Bali, Meghna. (2021) Why did major tech companies deplatform Parler after the US Capitol riots? ABC News.
[xiv] Robertson, Adi. (2019). Reddit quarantines Trump subreddit r/The_Donald for violent comments. The Verge.
[xv] Lavin, Talia. (2018). The Neo-Nazis of the Daily Stormer Wander the Digital. The New Yorker.
[xvi] Culliford, Elizabeht. (2021). YouTube cracks down on QAnon, banning conspiracy content targeting individuals. Reuters.
[xvii] Booker, Brakkton. (2021). Facebook Removes 'Stop the Steal' Content; Twitter Suspends QAnon Accounts. NPR.
[xviii] Ribeiro, M. H., Jhaver, S., Blackburn, J., Stringhini, G., De Cristofaro, E., & West, R. (2021). Do Platform Migrations Compromise Content Moderation? Evidence from r/The_Donald and r/Incels. Science Magazine.
[xix] Whyte, C. (2020). Of commissars, cults and conspiratorial communities: The role of countercultural spaces in “democracy hacking” campaigns. First Monday.
[xx] Zelenkauskaite, A., Toivanen, P., Huhtamäki, J., & Valaskivi, K. (2021). Shades of hatred online: 4chan duplicate circulation surge during hybrid media events. First Monday.
[xxi] Urman, A., & Katz, S. (2020). What they do in the shadows: examining the far-right networks on Telegram. Information, communication & society, 1-20.
[xxii] This is clear in data produced for a range of recent research projects, for instance Kor-Sins, R. (2021). The alt-right digital migration: A heterogeneous engineering approach to social media platform branding. New Media & Society, 14614448211038810; and Ali, S., Saeed, M. H., Aldreabi, E., Blackburn, J., De Cristofaro, E., Zannettou, S., & Stringhini, G. (2021, June). Understanding the Effect of Deplatforming on Social Networks. In 13th ACM Web Science Conference 2021 (pp. 187-195).