Jan 6 series: The new face of transnational extremism 

By: Ciarán O’Connor

3 February 2023

This Dispatch is part of ISD’s series marking the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection. Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring themes including accountability for big tech, extremists’ digital footprints, and the landscape of election denialism going forward. 

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Transnational extremism poses a significant threat to democracies and societies across the world. Driven by shared extremist ideologies and conspiracies, these informal and formal networks, groups and movements, can easily connect and adapt ideas to local context regardless of borders thanks to social platforms. 

While extremist networking may not be a new phenomenon, the rate at which current tactics are able to amplify extremist narratives is unprecedented. Communication and calls to action, cross-pollination of ideas and conspiracies, and even direct forms of support between diverse ideological movements are now commonplace. At the heart of these changes are social media and messaging platforms that, through negligent policies or permissive features, create space for these dynamics to thrive.

The January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol set a high water mark for the threat far-right extremists pose to democracy and US civil society. Fueled by conspiracy theories, disinformation and hate, the events of the day were months in the making.  In the lead-up, far-right extremists and militia supporters came to the forefront of various COVID-related anti-government protests, while QAnon supporters grew increasingly aggressive and merged with other pro-Trump groups under the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement.  Months of polarizing and misleading narratives, repeated by these groups, many originating from Donald Trump himself, culminated in the Capitol insurrection. 

Since January 6, many of the tactics and narratives that have been developed in the US have been adopted and adapted by other movements worldwide. The US is now an exporter of extremism.

ISD analyzed online activity in a number of countries and identified three themes that illustrate the new face of transnational extremism: 

  1. Support between international extremist factions online – Social media and online platform features are allowing extremists worldwide to directly support and finance local movements. 
  2. Reciprocal conspiracy inspiration – Conspiracy theories born in the US empower extremists in other contexts, and vice-versa. )
  3. Freeflow of US tactics and reciprocal inspiration – Extremists in other countries are now adopting and adapting tactics developed by US extremists. This is also reciprocal. 

 

Direct support between extremist factions online: The truckers convoy

Since January 6, ISD has witnessed direct interaction and support between extremist communities online influencing and sustaining movements and conspiracies across borders.

In January 2022,  a truckers convoy arrived in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, to protest vaccine mandates after several weeks of organizing primarily on Facebook. Born out of opposition to COVID-19 measures, the convoy movement morphed into a wider anti-government protest, where attendees voiced opposition to the perceived authoritarianism and corruption of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ wasn’t originally extremist, but as the blockade continued it attracted interest from extremist figures in Canada, the US and further abroad. 

The Canadian convoy evolved into a unifying moment for far-right individuals and groups, anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protesters, and extremists and conspiracy theorists around the world. ISD tracked how support and attention from the US right-wing and far-right political figures and content creators helped the protest reach a global audience online. Most notably, former President Trump endorsed the convoy and referred to Prime Minister Trudeau as a “far-left lunatic.” Trump’s sons also joined in. Donald Trump Jr. praised the convoy on Facebook, while Eric Trump claimed that the media, whom he described as the “enemy of the people,” were deliberately not covering the convoy. The convoy also enjoyed widespread coverage and promotion from partisan, right-wing and far-right content creators including Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, Glenn Beck and Franklin Graham.

GoFundMe was key to the convoy’s initial popularity with over $10 million CAD ($7.5 million USD) eventually raised through the platform. But it also became an online gathering point for hatred and hostility. Per reports, the convoy’s GoFundMe page hosted many comments from donors calling their “political enemies” communists and Nazis, while threatening violence and promoting QAnon. 

GoFundMe was slow to act. The crowdfunding campaign was launched on January 14, 2022 and quickly received millions of dollars in donations. It wasn’t until January 25 that reports emerged that GoFundMe had frozen the campaign, though conflicting media reports noted the website was still accepting donations. GoFundMe temporarily froze the money, then released $1 million to convoy organizers, and finally announced a total refund to all donors. Social networks and messaging platforms were essential in spreading the GoFundMe campaign online and the subsequent campaign on alternative fundraising platform GiveSendGo.

Across the world, convoy protests began to take place in Australia. An abortive protest was planned in Europe, and another poorly attended convoy moved through the UK. Each received support from the US.  A local protest movement evolved into an international anti-government network, mediated through the internet. ISD observed how country-level groups and accounts were organized in a matter of hours in late January 2022, using the tools provided by Facebook and Telegram to promote their own convoy protests. At one point, a French convoy Facebook group had over 297,000 members.

Groups across countries and continents were in constant communication, exchanging accusatory, inflammatory content targeting politicians. In the EU, online groups coordinated an– ultimately unsuccessful– cross-continental convoy intended to descend on Brussels and bring the European Parliament and Belgian capital to a standstill, emulating Canada.

Conspiracies born in the US empower extremists abroad: the adoption of QAnon

A core component of how transnational extremism has changed thanks to the internet is in the movement of conspiracy theories, disinformation and harmful ideologies from one country to another through online ecosystems. Elements of a conspiracy theory are modified or simply ignored, while other parts are appropriated and retained to fit local institutions. Recent events in Germany featuring a coup plot and QAnon-related beliefs illustrate this dynamic in action.

QAnon is a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that claims that an elite group of child-trafficking pedophiles have been ruling the world for a number of decades, and Donald Trump has a plan to bring them to justice. At its core, QAnon is an American conspiracy, but over time it has evolved and become a threat to democracies in other countries around the world. 

During the pandemic, particularly in 2020, QAnon exploded from the political fringes of the US into the global mainstream as people spent more time at home and sought to fill information vacuums about COVID-19. ISD research found that  in March 2020, there were clear spikes on multiple social media platforms showing a significant increase in conversation volumes mentioning QAnon, coinciding with periods when lockdowns were mandated in response to the pandemic.

Recommendation systems (algorithms) that helped push people towards QAnon-related groups, accounts and content, as well as insufficient platform policies that failed to limit or prohibit conspiracy-fueled extremism, helped exacerbate the problem. For example, Facebook recommendation algorithms kept leading potentially interested users to QAnon content despite its own policies, resulting in QAnon groups garnering tens of thousands of users.

Separately, ISD research (carried out with NewsGuard) documented the extent to which QAnon narratives grew internationally during 2020. Research noted that the QAnon conspiracy had gained a foothold in numerous countries outside the Anglosphere such as Russia, Indonesia and Germany. The spread of QAnon across the world also illustrated the glaring issues regarding gaps in content moderation on social media platforms for non-English languages. This remains an ongoing challenge for technology companies.

By the time Facebook and YouTube finally announced in October 2020 sweeping bans on QAnon-related content, accounts and communities, it was too late. In hindsight, the bans were largely successful once they were in place, but up until that point, the conspiracy had enjoyed years of unrestricted, algorithmically-assisted amplification. Communities were forged, bound together by their shared belief in the conspiracy. When they were forced to move to new platforms, they were able to transplant themselves almost whole. They still live on those alternative platforms today, enjoying almost non-existent content guidelines.

Outside of the US, international adherents to the conspiracy showed interest in Trump-related narratives, while simultaneously adapting QAnon to criticize their own elites. This was particularly evident during the pandemic as QAnon blended with COVID-19 misinformation, and the conspiracy was used to target local governments’ response to the pandemic.

A coup plot uncovered in Germany in 2022 provides a helpful illustration of the new face of transnational extremism. Last December, extremists linked to the Reichsbürger movement were arrested in connection  with a plot aiming to overthrow the country’s government. They were motivated by a belief that they were fighting against the ‘Deep State’ elites who rule Germany. The Reichsbürger (‘Citizens of the Empire’) movement is a German-focused ideology with a similar skeleton to the ‘sovereign citizens’ movement found in the US, Canada and the UK. Although not all followers of the Reichsbürger movement are right-wing extremists, roughly five percent of adherents do fall under this category, according to the German domestic intelligence services. The movement encompasses a patchwork of ideologies centered around a wide-range of conspiracy theories. This QAnon-adjacent narrative had nothing to do with the core QAnon theme regarding Trump, but it highlights how the conspiracy was adapted to local context as a result of grievances against the German government.

It was reported that members of the Reichsbürger movement were radicalized during the pandemic through their links to the Querdenken (‘lateral thinking’) COVID-denialist movement. This movement both gained a substantial number of followers on Telegram and other social media platforms, and mobilized major numbers of protestors on the streets. ISD noted how the rise of the anti-lockdown Querdenken also forced major tech platforms to take action: ten days ahead of the Federal Election, on September 16, Facebook announced that it removed almost 150 accounts and pages linked to the movement in Germany. In February 2022, amid increased pressure from the German government, Telegram also blocked dozens of channels, including an account belonging to a prominent conspiracy theorist. Germany additionally issued Telegram with a $5 million fine in October 2022 for failing to comply with German law.

Reciprocal tactical inspiration: anti-LGBTQ+ hate

The neo-fascist Proud Boys group, one of the leading actors in the US Capitol riot, is also one of the main drivers pushing anti-LGBTQ+ narratives online today. Once a fringe group,  the Proud Boys soon became one of the most prominent far-right networks in the country, with chapters of varying sizes active in most states. In recent years, ISD has tracked how tactics used by the Proud Boys to target members of the LGBTQ+ community have been adopted by overseas groups, most recently incorporating the ‘groomer’ slur into their narratives.  This has further exposed serious gaps within social platforms’ so-called community guidelines.

This increase in online threats arising from the anti-LGBTQ+ ‘groomer’ slur, which is used to justify hate, discrimination and violence against the queer community, highlights tech companies’ failure to effectively safeguard vulnerable communities, and often their failure to enforce their own guidelines.  Within the US, the Proud Boys have been at the center of promoting the ‘groomer’ narrative, part of a larger shift among US right-wing and far-right communities openly spreading anti-LGBTQ+ hate online. 

For years, the Proud Boys have portrayed queer people as predators or a danger to children at their offline protests, though most recently they’ve targeted drag shows. This activity from the Proud Boys and similar groups increased in 2022, as reflected in ongoing monitoring by ISD, as well as recent research by GLAAD, an LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization. Online, many Proud Boys chapters use Telegram to incite hatred, direct threats and use harmful language against LGBTQ+ people. Separate ISD research has highlighted how platforms like Facebook were used to push dangerous ‘groomer’ references in response to the December shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado that left five dead. The Twitter account Libs Of TikTok (1.8 M followers) also frequently uses the term “groomer” to identify individuals and portray them as a threat to children. The account’s followers are then motivated to harass and target those identified. In another similar tactic, the group Gays Against Groomers operates a network of pages across multiple platforms including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Rumble, Gettr and Telegram that directs groomer-inspired threats against the LGBTQ+ community.

GLAAD recorded 141 incidents in the US targeting drag events throughout 2022. This involved not only the Proud Boys but also armed protesters, members of militia groups and neo-Nazis showing up at events to intimidate attendees and organizers, instigating harassment against them, accusing them of ‘grooming’ children and attempting to shut the events down. A core component of this activity also involves recording the confrontation or harassment and disseminating the footage online afterwards too. 

Outside the US, this propaganda has proved popular in far-right circles. Throughout 2022, events involving drag queens were also targeted and have been the subject of threats in Canada, Ireland and Australia. Likewise, in the UK, extremist activity based around repurposed US-born tactics and narratives has been central to the targeting of drag queens and the LGBTQ+ community .

In London, per news reports, footage from one such protest in August 2022 showed a prominent anti-vaccine campaigner berating parents outside the venue for a Drag Queen Story Hour. The campaigner accused the drag queen hosting the event of being a pedophile before a banner was unfurled outside the venue that read “Welcome groomers.”

Right-wing and far-right groups have successfully leveraged hate- and fear-based anti-LGBTQ+ conspiracies to intimidate this community and expand the pool of protesters against LGBTQ+ events. The online ecosystems inhabited by right-wing extremist networks are currently flooded with various forms of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred. It is no surprise these tactics have moved beyond the US as there are few safeguards in place to stop the spread of content online that incites or celebrates violence against the LGBTQ+ community.

Conclusion

As outlined in the truckers convoy, QAnon and anti-LGBTQ+ cases, transnational extremism today is multifaceted and not confined to one geographical point. It can involve direct cooperation or support, the sharing and repurposing of conspiratorial narratives and disinformation or the sharing of skills and tactics to foster hate, harassment or hostility against another group, all thanks to online functionalities.

For the US, January 6 illustrated the dangerous end point of where conspiracy theory-fueled extremism can lead, threatening the peaceful handover of power and democracy itself. Ultimately, the online communication and collaboration that led to the violent events of January 6 was domestic in origin, but it was symptomatic of a wider shift in extremist mobilization and has helped to shape the international extremist playbook as seen in recent election denialism abroad. Specifically in France, Germany, Australia and, most recently, Brazil, these movements now pose a threat to democracies worldwide, as covered in a previous ISD dispatch from this series. Abroad, January 6-adjacent themes also continue manifesting. Movements and networks, often fueled by US-based ideologies and conspiracies, are implicitly and explicitly supporting one another through social media platforms, messaging apps and online ecosystems.  They pose a direct threat to vulnerable communities across society, as seen through the uptick in targeting of LGBTQ+ communities.

Both in the US and internationally, the threat of transnational extremism places many communities at risk. While this piece has detailed how dynamics present in the US have influenced events abroad, this threat moves in multiple directions. US right-wing extremists have been heavily inspired by the white nationalist Great Replacement conspiracy as well. The theory, coined by French writer Renaud Camus, has inspired respective identitarian movements in Europe and North America, often directing hate and intolerance toward immigrant populations.

Ultimately, it seems extremists will always seek new ways to learn from each other’s playbooks. But the role platform product features, failing policies and social media business models have in this is undeniable. And just as social platforms, messaging apps and technology companies are central to enabling this dynamic, they must also be central to preventing it. Digital policies in the EU may accelerate how platforms respond, but policies in the US will likely play an even more pivotal role in prompting effective platform accountability due to their central role in the development of extremist trends. A global threat like transnational extremism will require a global solution  And until then, extremists will continue to cross borders with ease.

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