28th October 2021
Following the March 2019 attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand by an Australian white supremacist, the threat of far-right extremism and violence has been the object of growing attention from government and policymakers in Australia. Whether a risk of cumulative violence between far-right and far-left actors exists, however, remains contested and inconclusive.
New research from ISD and the Institute for Sustainable Industries & Liveable Cities at Victoria University (VU) seeks to address this gap. It analyses the reciprocal nature of far-left and far-right activity on Twitter between 2016-2021, exploring whether Australia’s far-left poses a material security risk, and the potential for cumulative radicalisation or violence to manifest in the real world.
Australia, and particularly the state of Victoria, saw a number of violent clashes between far-left and far-right groups between 2015 and 2019. Since then, and in particular throughout the duration of COVID-19, the level of violence between these groups has remained relatively low. However, ISD and VU’s joint research series has shown that mobilisation of political fringes has increased online during this period, including on Twitter.
We found that conversation about each side’s respective political opponents was a key driver in both far-right and far-left mobilisation on Twitter, suggesting that oppositional narratives are fuelling the activities of both sets of actors on the platform. Far-left users tend to condemn the actions of far-right groups and associate the politics of the far-right with broader world events, particularly the Israel-Palestine conflict. In contrast, far-right users focus their attention on institutions they consider to be promoting far-left agendas, such as the mainstream media.
The far-right were more likely to share hyper-partisan sources. Far-left accounts tended to link to mainstream media sources such as the Australian public broadcaster ABC. Far-right users instead favoured highly ideological right-wing sources including Alex Jones’ InfoWars.
While COVID-19 was a significant topic of discussion for both the far-left and far-right, far-right accounts were far more likely to express scepticism over vaccine effectiveness, mask mandates and lockdown policies. Many far-right accounts also used COVID-related conspiracy theories to share anti-minority views and rail against political opponents. By contrast, far-left accounts discussed the detrimental socio-economic impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups and inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and government restrictions.
Far-right Twitter users were substantially more likely to engage in hostile narratives about minority communities. A small number of tweets meeting the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism were found amongst far-left tweets mentioning Israel, comparing the state’s actions to Nazi Germany. These were dwarfed in number by far-right hostility to ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community (especially trans people), and Muslims.
When discussing politics, far-right users focussed on Australia-China relations and US politics. China’s global expansion, alleged influence on Australian society and theories associating China with COVID-19 were dominant, as well as pro-Trump rhetoric when users discussed the US. Meanwhile, political discussion by far-left accounts focused on economic and social justice, particularly workers’ rights, institutional racism and police violence, with the latter particularly prominent in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests.
Oppositional narratives are driving activity on both sides
Our analysis shows that the far-left and far-right are using Twitter to build oppositional narratives against each other. Discussion of political opponents was essential to driving online activity and engagement, mirroring our previous findings from research of the far-left and far-right on Facebook.
Reflecting on the findings of our Facebook analysis, we found that far-right actors online are far more belligerent in their narratives than far-left actors. They used international events such as the pandemic and BLM protests to attack and demonise marginalised communities and political opponents. This materialised primarily as an attack on multiculturalism, with a strong anti-Muslim theme emerging alongside skewed discussions over ‘black on white’ crime, especially in the context of the George Floyd murder. The LGTBQ+ community were also targeted, with anti-trans hate speech appearing alongside conspiracy theories over the LGBTQ+ ‘agenda’.
The research also found that the far-right are frequently linked to an atomised media system with limited interactions with more balanced news sources. This highlights a potential risk of further polarisation and political radicalisation while suggesting a greater threat posed by the far-right. This finding is important when considering how to discuss the far-left and far-right political movements, and warns against attempting to draw false equivalences between them in terms of harm or threat.
Understanding the interplay between the online communities of either side of the political divide is crucial in preventing real-world violence and provides insight into what narratives and topics are most likely to precipitate mobilisation. Examining their online activities on Twitter allows for better understanding of the reciprocal dynamics between the groups and better informs the relevant stakeholders in how to counter this threat both online and in the physical world.