1st December, 2020
By Jacob Davey & Cécile Guerin
ISD researchers conducted a joint research study with the Institute for Sustainable Industries & Liveable Cities at Victoria University into activity in the far-right and far-left Facebook ecosystems in Australia between January and July 2020. Researchers sought to understand how the far-right and far-left interact online, and to examine how central opposition to the ‘other side’ is to their self-definition. This understanding is an important element of assessing the nature of far-right and far-left movements and their mobilisation.
The authors recognise that far-right and far-left ideologies and movements are radically opposed in values, ethical standpoints and goals and are not meant to be considered as equivalents at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
The interplay between different forms of radical ideologies and movements is a subject of growing academic interest. The way in which opposing radical movements interact and at times fuel each other has frequently manifested in clashes between far-right activists and anti-fascist groups in many parts of the Western world. Ideological antagonisms between right and left have spilled into violent confrontations in the streets, which have seen a revival in recent years with the intensification of ideological culture wars. Australia, and in particular the state of Victoria, has not been immune to confrontations and at times violent escalation between far-right and far-left anti-fascist groups during a number of street clashes between 2015 and 2019.
The global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent local lockdowns in Australia have led to limited opportunities for offline confrontations between these opposing political movements. Instead, mutual attacks on the political enemy have retreated online, where the interplay between opposing movements has become more rhetorical-ideological rather than action-oriented in nature. For this study, researchers examined how the far-right and far-left discuss each other on Facebook, reflecting in particular on how each reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and the global revival of anti-racism Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in June.
What the study found
The volume of output on far-right and far-left Facebook pages and by groups remained relatively consistent during the period of study, but with a notable increase in June, coinciding with worldwide anti-racist protests and the resurgence of the BLM movement. The far-right’s discussion of the far-left increased sharply during that period, as did discussion of the far-right by the far-left. The simultaneous increase in mentions concerning the other side of the political spectrum shows that the events of June–July 2020 led to spikes in antagonistic mobilisation online.
Discussion about the far-left accounted for 7% of the output of far-right pages and groups over the research period, while discussion about the far-right accounted for 17% of the output of far-left pages. This suggests opposition to the far-right is more central to far-left discussions than opposition to the far-left is to the far-right in the online space in Australia.
A limited number of far-right and far-left pages accounted for most content produced about the other side. This suggests that, while reciprocal far-left and far-right activity online is present across different groups, this content is mainly driven by a small array of particularly active pages.
Discussions about COVID-19 increased significantly across the far-right and far-left in March-April 2020, although the ideological focus was radically opposed. While content of far-right pages and content from far-right groups blamed China for the spread of the virus and expressed support for border closures, the content of far-left pages and by groups focused on the impact of the pandemic on workers’ rights and the economy.
China was a rallying topic for the far-right and represented a key theme on far-right pages and far-right groups, with popular posts expressing hostility towards China and Chinese people. Increased discussion about China coincided with a rise in cases of COVID-19 in Europe and President Trump’s description of COVID-19 as a ‘foreign’ and ‘Chinese’ virus. Discussion about COVID-19 also led to anti-minority mobilisation on far-right pages, including anti-Muslim narratives, showing that international events were weaponised by the far-right to promote exclusionary agendas.
Discussion about the left and the BLM movement increased sharply in far-right groups at a time when protests against institutional racism spread internationally. The Australian far-right’s interest in BLM protests in the US reflects a broader and increasingly studied trend of internationalisation of the far-right, whereby nationalist groups draw on international events to support their agendas and build relationships with far-right groups in other countries. Popular posts on far-right pages attempted to discredit BLM and depict the movement as violent.
The BLM movement was also central to the discussion among far-left groups through the lens of police violence. Discussion of police violence increased sharply in June in response to the BLM protests, with popular posts documenting police brutality against protesters and minorities in Australia and beyond.
What role does interaction play?
While far-left activism has long defined itself through an internationalist lens, the internationalisation of the far-right is a more recent phenomenon. The Australian far-right’s engagement with international events such as COVID-19 and the BLM movement reflects this trend. It points towards the importance of recognising international trends in the analysis of radical and extremist groups, and has potential implications for practitioners and policy makers seeking to identify flash-points in activity on both the far-right and far-left.
The rhetorical-ideological nature of interaction observed in this study may change in the future as tactics and actions of movements shift in response to various external and internal circumstances, which affect the ‘ebb and flow’ of the interaction between opposing movements. It is therefore crucial to gain evidence-based insights into the interplay between the far-right and far-left online in order to enhance understanding of the mobilisation patterns, narratives and tactics of both movements.
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 in depth analyses, can be found here.
Jacob Davey is a Senior Research Manager at ISD, leading research into the far-right. His research focuses on the role of digital communications in inter-communal conflict, internet culture, online hate speech and the international far-right. You can find him tweeting at @jacob_p_davey.
Cécile Guerin is a Research Coordinator at ISD, working on digital analysis projects related to disinformation, hate speech and extremist content online. She holds an MSc in International History from the London School of Economics and an MA in English from the École Normale Supérieure in France.