11th May 2021
New research by ISD and the Institute for Sustainable Industries & Liveable Cities at Victoria University (VU) analyses the interplay between far-right and far-left groups in the state of Victoria, Australia on the alt-tech social networking platform Gab.
The research examines disinformation around COVID-19 as well as the impact global racial justice protests and COVID-19 lockdowns in Melbourne had on the activity of Australia’s far-right.
The research also details how the Australian far-right uses oppositional narratives targeting left-wing actors and movements in order to reinforce their supremacist and conspiratorial world views, and evidences the role Gab plays as a hub for often explicitly antisemitic far-right extremism and radicalisation in the Australian context.
Gab is a social networking and microblogging platform that was launched in 2016. The platform bills itself as a champion of free speech and has gained notoriety in recent years for hosting a range of far-right extremist communities. Following the Christchurch attack in March 2019, Gab became a rallying place for many far-right figures who had been banned from mainstream social media platforms.
The Gab subgroup ‘Australia’ saw a drastic surge in new members after Christchurch, increasing from around 4,500 members in mid-March 2019 to over 11,000 in June 2019, and has over 45,000 members as of March 2021. The most recent surge in membership – when the number of group members skyrocketed from 18,600 to 29,000 within two weeks (6-20 January) – occurred in the aftermath of the 6 January storming of the US Capitol building in Washington, DC.
However, the wider role that Gab plays in the Australian context is still poorly evidenced. Tobuild an understanding of how Australian far-right actors use the platform, ISD and VU researchers analysed the content of Australian far-right users on the platform between 1 January and 30 September 2020. Their study is based on the analysis of the activity of 40 Australian-based Gab accounts.
Far-right accounts in the researchers’ network produced a total of 45,404 posts over the period of study, with conversation seeing a sharp uptick from June to August 2020. The volume of posts recorded during this period (7,500) represented a 90% increase when compared to May, and coincided with global racial justice protests and the second COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne. The increase in posts during the period of global anti-racism protests mirrors observations made by ISD and VU researchers on the activity of Australian far-right communities on Facebook.
Far-right mobilisation was driven by a small number of highly active accounts, with the top-three most active Gab accounts producing a combined total of 34,597 posts during the period of study: the equivalent to 75% of the total posts made. COVID-19 featured as one of the key topics of interest in the dataset (13% of posts). Other prominent topics included China-Australia relations (over 8%) and Black Lives Matter (over 7% of posts).
White identity was a central element of most active Gab accounts. One of the top-ten most active accounts’ self-description and imagery explicitly endorsed white supremacy, while six out of the top-ten most active accounts repeatedly promoted white supremacist, ethnonationalist or antisemitic views in their posts.
Antisemitism appeared as a significant marker of the most active accounts in the network. Researchers found that Gab provided a platform for overt hate speech targeting Jewish people, with over 11% of posts in the dataset including explicitly antisemitic terms and slurs. Broader discussion about Jewish communities and Judaism provided a gateway to the production of explicitly antisemitic and white supremacist content, including calls to remove Jews from Western civilisation – with implications for the risk of violent mobilisation.
Discussion about political opponents on the far-left represented a notable subset of conversation, with such posts accounting for over 4% of the total posts made. The most dominant narrative took the form of conspiracy theories alleging a Marxist-socialist or communist plot to infiltrate institutions such as the media, schools and universities in order to destroy Western civilisation and implement a communist-socialist (and anti-white) regime. As a response to this alleged threat, posts regularly advocated for white separatism or violence as a way to defend “our culture”.
Alt- platforms & far-right mobilisation
As mainstream social media platforms increase their content moderation and scrutiny of far-right extremists, the role of alternative social media and online platforms in driving extremist mobilisation of the far-right has been the subject of growing concern. Assessing the activities of far-right actors on alt-platforms such as Gab is of key importance to understanding the nature of contemporary far-right mobilisation online.
Across the data collected and analysed by researchers, white identity and antisemitism were central topics. Antisemitic beliefs often intersected with discourse about the far-left, with both Jewish people and the far-left accused of plotting to ‘bring down Western civilisation’. In turn, this fuelled calls for separatism and violent action. Such discourse underscores the potential security threats posed by online far-right mobilisation and its potential to spill over into (violent) offline activity.
Existing research has shown that antisemitism as an ideological belief system can serve as a gateway to violent radicalisation and provide a linkage between non-violent and violent extremism. Understanding the ideological features of online far-right mobilisation across platforms is important to inform law enforcement efforts at preventing violent extremism, and provides insights into how platforms with little to no content moderation such as Gab provide a space where exclusionary and extremist beliefs are not only shared but amplified.
This article is an abridged version of a collaborative briefing paper by researchers at ISD and the Institute for Sustainable Industries & Liveable Cities at Victoria University. The full paper, which provides an in depth analysis, can be accessed here.