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Australia Is Not the United States, But We Cannot Dismiss the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism

01 Jun 2022
By Dr Michael G. Zekulin
A protestor holds a sign outside the White House in 2018. 
Source: Senator Tim Kaine, Wikimedia Commons,

Shootings motivated by far-right extremism continue to dominate the media cycle. Though there are patterns in the attacks, combatting them is no easy task.

On May 14 2022 eighteen-year-old Payton Gendron, walked into a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, and proceeded to shoot and kill ten people, wounding another three. It quickly became clear that this attack was motivated by ideological-inspired extremism. From Patrick Crusius, in El Paso Texas to Brenton Tarrant in Christchurch New Zealand, mass shootings based on far-right ideology have become increasingly common. The underlying narrative motivating these individuals is the “great replacement” theory. It suggests there is a conspiracy to change the demographics of states, disempowering white people with people of colour and immigrants. For the shooters and people “like them” this is an existential threat.

Beyond the motivation, these attacks are terrifyingly similar in their planning and execution. Gendron, like Crusius, travelled a significant distance to target his victims. Gendron, like Tarrant, livestreamed his attack and decorated his weapons with names and symbols of the far-right movement to celebrate previous individuals and attacks. Each wrote a lengthy manifesto and each referenced Anders Breivik, responsible for the 2011 Norway attacks. In fact, Gendron has been accused of plagiarising large segments of Tarrant’s document, echoing many of his claims. There is little doubt that each new attack emulates those which preceded them, but these incidents cannot be understood independent of the ideas driving them. They are the output of an ever-growing international far-right community that has supporters in countries all around the world. This leads to several important questions we must examine.

First, how should Australians understand the threat of attacks motivated by far-right extremist ideology? The short answer is that we cannot dismiss the possibility of similar incidents in Australia because we have witnessed them previously. Remember that Tarrant, an Australian inspired by extremist ideology, orchestrated such an incident in neighbouring New Zealand in 2019. At the same time, we must keep things in perspective. Underlying causes, particularly historical and cultural factors make Australia distinct from America in two important ways. First, accessing weapons, especially the types used in attacks conducted in the US, is much more difficult in Australia. Second, America is unique given its formative experiences of slavery, racism, and ongoing struggles with race-relations. It also has an entrenched and institutionalised legacy of far-right ideological narratives and groups which subscribe to them. Still, Australia is not immune to individuals identifying or sympathising with these ideas and movements, and evidence shows that law enforcement and ASIO are spending more time and resources monitoring Australian individuals and groups endorsing and propagating far-right extremist ideas. Simply put, this is a threat we cannot ignore.

Second, how should Australia counter this potential threat moving forward? There are no simple solutions to this problem. It is both difficult to identify and stop lone actors and to regulate the extremist ideas which may ultimately motivate them. Despite our best efforts, we remain limited in explaining the process of radicalisation, particularly why, and how, some individuals progress from radical thought to violent action. One common theme which emerges in the aftermath of these incidents is the role technology plays in driving this phenomenon. Scrutiny is directed towards the internet and social media, highlighting how easily extremist ideas can be shared and opportunities for like-minded people to find one another and interact. While this connection intuitively makes sense, it quickly becomes evident that we are limited in our ability to effectively monitor or prevent either of these scenarios. Discussions about monitoring and regulating what people post immediately becomes a debate about free speech and whether governments, or corporations should be making these determinations. This is further compounded by the challenges of disentangling aspects of extreme ideology from mainstream ideology. Mainstream ideas and values often serve as a basis for extremist versions but may be purposefully manipulated or distorted to fit an extremist narrative and agenda. For example, the degree to which government should involve itself in the day-to-day affairs of its citizens and to what end. Groups have become sophisticated in crafting their messaging and narratives taking advantage of these grey areas.

Setting aside the debate about whether we should remove certain ideas and content, a more pointed question is whether it is even possible. Gendron livestreamed his attack on Twitch and despite moderators identifying the feed and blocking it in under three minutes, millions continued to view it on other sites because someone had downloaded it while it was live. Despite best efforts, Twitch was unable to prevent the initial capture allowing others to continue re-posting the attack. The increasing numbers of chatrooms and forums where individuals meet and share extremist ideology is also impossible to monitor. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies allot significant resources to monitor activity in these spaces but cannot keep-up. For many, the solution is to educate online users to look for warning signs or clues that someone may conduct an attack. This proposal is rooted in a belief that “leakage” occurs among those preparing to conduct attacks, suggesting that potential attackers ‒ consciously or subconsciously ‒ signal their intent. Educating people to look for language, phrasing, or specific statements multiplies the number of eyes and ears online, providing a greater likelihood that someone will tip authorities and allow them to intervene prior to an attack. This strategy has been successful in preventing some school shootings in the United States, but questions remain about its effectiveness with ideologically motivated audiences. Often those congregating in these types of chatrooms and forums are members of the same belief community. Gendron spent weeks online asking about weapons, but no one reported him. Gendron posted the link to his livestream minutes before he started his attack. Dozens of people were aware of the link and its purpose, and again, no one reported him. It raises the possibility that these individuals were either indifferent to the possibility this individual was preparing an attack, or they supported it. Our efforts to monitor and remove extremist content should continue, but we must recognise its limitations.

The final question revolves around possible alternative strategies to confront this growing threat. First, we must continue to debate, clarify, and codify a distinction between free speech and hate speech. This should be an ongoing and evolving discussion in this new social media environment where ideas travel wider and more quickly than ever before. Second, we must tone down the rhetoric and engage with our fellow citizens, even those we do not agree with and especially those whose ideas make us uncomfortable. It is counterproductive, and dangerous to drive individuals, groups or ideas from societal interaction, the larger public square and further out of reach. Banishing them to the shadows of the internet reinforces the echo chambers which likely isolate them and radicalise them further. Instead, challenge them, force them to confront and defend their ideas and values in full view of everyone. It also removes the possibility that people misconstrue or mistake what most extremist ideology embraces, de-mystifies it and negates the allure it might have for some individuals. Third, we must always emphasise and focus on what we have in common. Despite the current climate, Australians are more alike than different. Emphasising likeness prevents opportunities for “othering,” and the emergence of an “us” versus “them” narrative. This narrative is powerful and divisive and contributes to societal polarisation and fragmentation. Finally, we must remain optimistic and confident. Confident that the number of Australians who embrace extreme right-wing ideology remains a tiny fraction of all Australians, and confident in our ability to tackle this challenge head-on.

Dr. Michael Zekulin is a senior lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. His research focuses on terrorism, radicalisation and CVE strategies.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.