The Guardian keeps exaggerating the threat of online extremism
The late, great George Carlin has a legendary bit about ‘Airline Announcements’, a brilliant deconstruction of the absurdity and imprecision of modern language. “Please check around your immediate seating area for any personal belongings you might have brought on board”, he drawls, imitating the lifeless delivery of a flight attendant before cocking his head to the side in chummy defiance. “Well”, he winks. “I might have brought my arrowhead collection. I didn’t… so I’m not going to look for it! I’m going to look for things I brought. It would seem to enhance the likelihood of my finding something, wouldn’t you say?”
Carlin had obviously never met an extremism researcher, because in that occupation, part of the thrill of the hunt is the promise that one will emerge triumphant, with the head of a neo-Nazi accelerationist incel to mount proudly over the mantle. It’s not a question of “if” — these experts simply never come home empty-handed.
Yesterday, the Guardian ran two full pieces about the masterful extremists currently preying on our children online. Both quoted all the usual suspects, doling out the usual warnings about the savvy machinations of ‘professional trolls’ who hang around gaming platforms to ‘ensnare’ unsuspecting children into the far-Right ecosystem.
An analysis of ‘far-right activity on [gaming app] Discord,’ conducted by Jacob Davey of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue suggested that these Right-wing extremists use the platform to form communities, copying the ‘strategies used by mainstream social media influencers.’ This may sound nefarious, but it’s how everyone uses social media, and most ‘extremists’ want followers for the same vapid reasons we all do.
Julia Ebner, whose online undercover work has conferred on her some authority on the matter, warned, however, that this is a deliberate and organised effort with the explicit goal of “attracting young people and radicalising them to support, or carry out, extreme acts”.
Supposedly, these shadowy extremists infiltrate gaming networks by starting their own video game tournaments, slyly distributing racist literature, and embarking on coordinated campaigns to bully the kids into agreement.
In my experience, it really doesn’t work this way. Legitimately dangerous, violent extremist collectives are cautious and very conscious of their OpSec. It requires sophistication and resolve to penetrate their private groups, as evidenced by the fact that even talented experts, like Ebner herself, must try so hard to “infiltrate” them. Most researchers wouldn’t even know where to start. Why would it be so easy for little Billy from the Call of Duty chat?
Equally far-fetched is the notion that these groups hire and pay ‘professional trolls’ to spend hours ensnaring anyone. The truth is, they don’t have to. Some young people are desperately attracted to darkness — to evil, danger, death, and it is often innocent, and quite natural: human darkness is intriguing. It is also ubiquitous. Kids don’t need to be lured or manipulated into seeking it out; they see it on the news every night. They even read about it in the Guardian.
According to the piece, somebody from the Home Office agrees with me. “You’ve got to know where to start looking for that stuff, you’ve got to know the right accounts”, they told the Guardian. “They’re not being tricked into being rightwing extremists. And there isn’t some mastermind at the centre pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes.”
Oddly, however, this individual declined to be identified — a descriptor often reserved for spooks or whistleblowers. Why? Is it now career suicide to make such an anodyne statement of unadorned fact? To suggest that maybe, just maybe, the cartoon villain isn’t responsible this time?
Both pieces, to the credit of the authors, explicitly acknowledged that the number of young people involved with the far-Right in Britain “remains tiny” (though of course they couldn’t resist tweaking the parameters for maximum effect until something sounded bad). But it’s not until after the headlines and all those expert soundbites to get to that bit, three-quarters of the way through the story — by which point readers have probably already been convinced that the experts have done all the research in the world and must be right.
Somehow, they always find exactly what they’re looking for. It is almost uncanny. Maybe it’s because they, too, only look for what they brought.