Countering far-right ideology

by BYRON CLARK. From the new issue of Fightback magazine on “Ideology” – please subscribe.

American fascist media operator Steve Bannon interviews far-Right NZ MP Jami-Lee Ross in 2020

The growth of far-right ideology over the past decade has been undeniable. The rise of populist leaders like Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has been accompanied by the rise of hatred and misinformation online, not just on fringe websites but on social media platforms operated by some of the world’s biggest companies.

American sociologist Jessie Daniels has described the rise of the alt-right as “both a continuation of a centuries-old dimension of racism in the U.S. and part of an emerging media ecosystem powered by algorithms.”[1] This is also the case for Australia and New Zealand, both of which were outposts of an empire that believed in the superiority of the white race to the indigenous people whose lands they colonised, and whose governments maintained policies to exclude non-white immigrants for most of the twentieth century.

In the two decades since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the US, Islamophobia has been stoked by negative depictions of Muslims in both news media and entertainment (think of shows like 24 and Homeland). In 2009 the Canadian conservative commentator and best-selling author Mark Steyn published Lights Out: Islam, Free Speech and the Twilight of the West, in which he claimed that Muslims have no investment in the western societies where they live, and that Muslims in Europe were abusing welfare programmes and having more children than the native population. In 2011 the French writer Renaud Camus published Le Grande Replacement (“The Great Replacement”), claiming that a global elite is colluding against the white population of Europe to replace them with non-European peoples, specifically Muslims.

Fears of a Muslim other have stoked the rise of populist parties on the continent during a global refugee crisis, where desperate people try and reach Europe for asylum and are met by militarised borders and detention centres. The man who murdered 51 Muslim worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand prepared for his terrorist outrage by penning a manifesto that shares its name with Camus’ book.

Systemic white supremacy did not end with the defeat of Nazi Germany – its most genocidal implementation – but following the Second World War, overtly fascist ideas were denied a platform in mainstream media. Of course, the bar for what constituted overtly fascist ideas was high, as shown by some of the examples above.

Social media has, however, provided the far-right with an audience for their ideas that was much larger and wider than the little they could get through older media formats. The Royal Commission report into the Christchurch shooting noted that the perpetrator was influenced by content creators on YouTube, some of whom he donated money to.

YouTube has been often associated with far right content and radicalisation. There has been much debate about the way YouTube’s recommendation system works. One theory is that this system drove users to ever more extreme material into what is sometimes said to be a ´rabbit-hole´. An alternative theory is that the way in which YouTube operates facilitates and has monetised the production of videos that attract viewers and the widespread availability of videos supporting far right ideas reflects the demand for such videos. What is clear, however, is that videos supporting far right ideas have been very common on YouTube.[2]

While a number of far-right YouTube personalities have been deplatformed from the service, the problem has not gone away. A working paper released in November 2021 by the Disinformation Project noted:

In the last month, we have observed more content which connects events in Aotearoa New Zealand with the Q conspiracy, and with far-right conspiratorial narratives more generally. These include white supremacist, incel or extreme misogyny, Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment, and anti-Semitism. We have also observed increasing levels of anti-Māori racism.

Much has been written about how the far-right were able to use not just the internet, but specifically the language of the online world in order to grow a movement. This cultural phenomenon appears to have outmoded the far-left. Is it the case, as the oft-repeated alt-right slogan states, that “the left can’t meme”?

An age of spectacle

“This is an aesthetic century. In history, there are ages of reason and ages of spectacle, and it’s important to know which you’re in,” states Natalie Wynn in one of her video essays. “Our America, our internet, is not ancient Athens—it’s Rome. And your problem is you think you’re in the forum, when you’re really in the circus.”

Wynn was described by Vice as “seemingly doing the impossible, making nuanced and controversial political debates both sexy and engaging.”[3] With 1.5 million subscribers, Wynn is the most popular of the content creators in Left-wing YouTube, or what has been called ‘Breadtube’ (after Peter Kropotkin’s anarchist classic The Conquest of Bread). Many creators reject that label as one coined by fans, which is either too broad or too narrow to describe their work. Nonetheless, it’s a useful way to describe a new political and artistic movement.

Wynn and her contemporaries have found that in the era of disinformation and fake news, correct information has to be communicated in a way that is not only informative but also entertaining, that will stand out in the torrent of content algorithmically pushed on to viewers.

There will always be a place for deplatforming. Increased scrutiny on social media (YouTube in particular), has caused several of the most prominent far-right personalities to lose their platform. The union that has formed at Alphabet, YouTube’s parent company, has criticised the company for its role in the growth of the far-right; a free-speech absolutist position on fascist speech is one that would compel workers to be required to build and maintain platforms for fascists.

But deplatforming now can only be part of the solution to this problem. Far-right narratives like the great replacement and the Qanon conspiracy are part of the global conversation happening online. Fact-checking alone is not enough. Three centuries ago, the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift wrote “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect”. Jess Berentson-Shaw, whose book A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World is reviewed in this issue of Fightback,has suggested that more effective than debunking misinformation after it has spread is the tactic of “prebunking”; exposing people to correct information before they are exposed to the falsehood.

Origins of the modern far-right

The 2000s were an era where the left had something of a cultural dominance, if not any real power. The global movement against the invasion and occupation of Iraq was accompanied by the growth of liberal political comedy, and fervently anti-war popular music that was yet more radical. Conservatism, while keeping its hands on the levers of actual power, was far from cool.

Around this time the young men in newly emerging online subcultures that would later converge into the alt-right at first did not identify themselves as right-wing, instead sneering at earnest belief in anything. Targets of their ire were not chosen for their left-wing positions as such but because they were “social justice warriors” or later “the regressive left” – people who supposedly opposed near-universally held liberal values such as free expression, and were attempting to force others to adhere to their worldview.

As late as 2014 this was the charge levied by the “Gamergate” movement against the likes of feminist film and video game critic Anita Sarkeesian. Gamergate argued that feminists were trying to ban video games – or worse, use video games as a medium to promote a feminist worldview. The Gamergaters rejected the label of right-wing, often pointing to a psychological study of the campaign that found participants “tend to hold more liberal attitudes than the general population.”[4]

It was only when this movement was courted by Breitbart Editor Steve Bannon that participants began to describe themselves as being part of the “alternative right”, which was not so much a euphemism for the far-right, but a term distancing themselves from both the “social justice warriors” of the contemporary left, and deeply uncool George W. Bush-style conservatives.

“I realized Milo could connect with these kids right away,” Bannon told Joshua Green, author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.[5] Milo is Milo Yiannopoulos, the tech blogger hired by Bannon to write pro-Gamergate articles for Breitbart, who later toured American university campuses speaking on topics such as how “feminism is cancer”.

“You can activate that army.” Bannon told Green “They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”

Bannon would go on to lead Trump’s presidential campaign, before being demoted due to Trump’s frustration at the popular notion that Bannon was the one really running things. Bannon was described on the cover of Time as “The Great Manipulator”, a phrase that would have pleased a man who has attempted to insert his voice into populist movements the world over. “Without the supportive voice of Breitbart London, I’m not sure we would have had a Brexit,” former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage told Green, describing Bannon as “a remarkable bloke”.

Bannon’s tendrils have even reached as far as New Zealand. “You’re at the forefront,” he told former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross, at the time a candidate for the conspiratorial Advance New Zealand Party as he was making a guest appearance on Bannon’s War Room podcast. “New Zealand, they’re the canary in the mineshaft, we’ve gotta pay attention to what’s going on in New Zealand and Australia, ‘cause if we don’t back our allies there, we don’t back patriots in those countries it’s gonna come – I mean it’s already here, but it’s going to come here with a bigger vengeance”.[6]

Bannon described Ross as a hero and noted that he is the first elected official to join with the New Federal State of China, an anti-Communist Party of China group started by Bannon and dissident Chinese Billionaire Miles Guo. The pair also run the media organisation GTV, which is infamous for spreading misinformation about election fraud, COVID-19 and other topics.[7] GTV provides a platform for the New Zealand based fake news talk show Counterspin Media.[8]

“The winds of cultural politics are changing,” wrote Yiannopoulos in an article titled ‘How Trump Can Win’ published on Breitbart a full year before the election where he would do just that:[9]

As Big Government advances, it begins to encroach on an increasing number of subcultures, who will look to anti-establishment Republicans like Trump to represent them…Gamers and pop culture enthusiasts are one such group. In the past, it was conservatives who were seen as the dour stick-in-the-muds of cultural politics. They were the ones who tried to censor rap lyrics and video games due to their allegedly ‘harmful effects’ on society. Today, it’s left-wingers and feminists leading the charge.

It was during the highpoint of Yiannopoulous’ university tour that Jordan Peterson, previously an obscure University of Toronto psychology professor, uploaded a video to YouTube stating that he would not address students by their preferred pronouns, criticising a Canadian bill, C-16, that he claimed (incorrectly) would render his refusing to do so illegal. Comparing the clip to videos of earlier altercations on campuses, Dale Beran, in his book It Came From Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office, wrote: “Once again, a lone white professor was surrounded by a young, diverse group of students. The students screamed and yelled at Peterson, who always kept his cool, for something that, at least on the surface, seemed insignificant.”[10]

Peterson would become a significant public intellectual for the crowd of angry young men on the internet with the publication of a self-help book based on a post he made on Quora, described by Beran as “a Reddit-style site infamous for being a place where literal-minded computer programmers go for basic life advice”.

Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is not just a self-help book by a man who also holds reactionary views, but a self-help book with an inherently reactionary worldview woven throughout. Peterson juxtaposes “masculine” order with “feminine” chaos and insinuates that there is no structural oppression, only an “ever-present dominance hierarchy” of which the aim is to reach the top. It’s no huge leap for young men reading this, or watching his lectures online, to then gravitate to far-right individuals with explanations as to why those at the top of the supposed dominance hierarchy tend to be white men. These are individuals such as Stefan Molyneux, whose now removed YouTube channel promoted discredited race science (and attracted a donation from the Christchurch shooter).

While the students who screamed and yelled at Peterson for his refusal to do something that is a near-effortless courtesy to trans and gender diverse students were correct in their arguments, and entirely justified to be offended, they were also participating in the circus that Natalie Wynn described.

When Wynn, who herself is transgender, made a video on Peterson, it opens with her flirting with a masked mannequin representing him, sitting him down in her bathroom so he can watch her bathe. [1] This is how Katherine Cross described that video in her article on Wynn in The Verge:

what parses as light-hearted jocularity or inexplicable sexual attraction at first quickly resolves into a virtual pantsing. It’s a prologue to an elegant crash course in the history of postmodernism and why Peterson’s obscurantism makes him difficult to argue with. Calling Jordan Peterson “daddy” and portraying him as a robot lovingly watching Wynn bathe doesn’t ennoble him; it erodes him.[11]

While we shouldn’t downplay the very real threat posed by the far-right toward marginalised groups, as they attempt to normalise their ideology through irreverent mockery and meming, using the same tactic to counter them appears to be having an impact.

Of course, the tactic is not exactly the same. To quote Dmitry Kuznetsov and Milan Ismangil, Breadtube “stays clear of the trolling and vulgar jouissance that is characteristic of the alt-right”[12] and focuses more on being informative and entertaining. Citing a 2010 article by Peter Marcuse analysing the Tea Party movement (an American conservative movement that arguably was one of the tributaries of the alt-right). Kuznetsov and Ismangil note Marcuse’s argument that there is a need for what they term “critical theory in everyday life – a critical theory from below” and argue that role is being fulfilled by Breadtube, which they suggest could even be laying the necessary groundwork for a socialist movement. That part may be wishful thinking, but there is evidence to suggest Breadtube is reaching the people it needs to. Social media has no shortage of anecdotes from individuals who credit the movement with pulling them away from the alt-right.[13] Each of these stories is a small victory, and perhaps, in the aggregate, they point to the possibility of a much larger one.




[4] Ferguson, C. J., & Glasgow, B. (2021). Who are GamerGate? A descriptive study of individuals involved in the GamerGate controversy. Psychology of Popular Media, 10(2), 243–247.

[5] Green, Joshula, ‘Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency’ Penguin Books, 2017





[10] Beran, Dale ‘It Came From Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office’, All Points Books, 2019


[12] Kuznetsov, Dmitry & Ismangil, Milan. (2020). YouTube as Praxis? On BreadTube and the Digital Propagation of Socialist Thought. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society. 18. 204-218. 10.31269/triplec.v18i1.1128.


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