100 Days of Anti-Right Wing Radicalization

Since Trump took office 100 days ago (an arbitrary media milestone simultaneously validated and denounced by Trump), I’ve been battling right wing radicalization through Instagram. So far, it’s mostly been a trial and error process to see what’s effective and what’s not. This is a 100 day self assessment of my interactions with meme propagandists, to summarize what I’ve learned.

I’ve learned a lot about the radical right. There are a thousand different ways to hate and haters do not like to be confused with people who hate differently, which kind of makes sense if you think about it.

There are Fascists who disavow Nazis. There are social conservatives who believe in peace (between nations, but maybe domestic dissent needs to be put down occasionally?). There are gays that loath other countries. And there are most certainly Nazis, nationalists, and racists who support Trump as well as Trumpkins who don’t think they hate, but actually do.

Above all, they are individuals who should be engaged with as individuals. Anti-radicalization work may require long periods of engagement with a single person. The goal is not to insult their positions. The goal is to talk them down from the ledge. I heard a public radio story once about a former jihadist who said that he was radicalized simply because nobody ever presented him with anti-extremist viewpoints. Every single right-wing radical needs to be challenged about their racist and violent beliefs.

I’d like to show you examples of the “discussions” I’ve had, the propaganda I’ve tried to disprove, the proud racism, the blatantly delusional nationalism. But I can’t. I can’t risk revealing my Instagram identity because of the right wing terrorists who will doxx me and threaten my family and send SWAT teams to my house. So the conservative terrorists are winning on the anti-free speech front, despite what they’d like you to believe in the articles about Milo, Ann, and Berkeley.

Here are some scattered observations about using your social media anti-radicalization time wisely. I’m still thinking about how to actuate all this.

Focus on young people. Remember high school? Did you change your mind a lot? Have a lot of different personas? Have a lot of emotional beliefs that were easily discarded for other perspectives? Don’t waste you time with the olds. You’re not going to change old minds, but you might change a young person’s mind. White supremacists are targeting young people to recruit, and that demands a counter-effort. Look at the profile of the person you want to engage for clues about their age. People in high school often put their affiliation in their description, sometimes as an abbreviation that ends in -hs. And then remember: they’re just kids. They may be assholes, but be patient and don’t insult them.

As a progressive, there may be more electorally strategic ways to use your time than fighting extremism, e.g., registering new voters in historically conservative districts. This is just the resistance that works for me. I want to try to prevent right wing extremism from becoming a mainstream political position, which I believe to be happening under the Trump administration. Being able to argue with fascists from my phone (convenient!) is a big reason why this is a good fit for me. It’s hard to find hours to volunteer for the progressive causes that I’d like to. Somehow I also ended up with professional social media experience to go along with my academic background in communications and online communities, so I have some particular skills that make this kind of work a good fit for me.

Trump might be a fascist, but it’s not worth arguing about online. There are a few different “formulas” for fascism, which vary in their rigor. However, there are so few examples of fascism and it was so internally inconsistent that these kinds of definition arguments are academic and usually lead nowhere. There are also reputable arguments that Trump is more accurately an authoritarian, a plutocrat, or a narcissist, rather than a fascist. I assert that he is a fascist, but I don’t waste time on arguments about the definition of fascism. For the record, this is the formula I use, but I grade more harshly than the author, who also leaves out some things like Trump’s propaganda strategy and his marriage of the state to his Trump Organization.

Use extremism against Republicans. Any time you find a Nazi, make sure you publicly expose them as a Republican if you can prove their support for Donald Trump, even if it’s support from a past post. Dividing Republicans between racists and fiscal conservatives should be a foremost electoral strategy for Democrats.

Your goal should be to introduce doubt. You will not win arguments. Don’t tempt yourself with trying to keep metrics on your effort. Nobody will ever say to you, “You know what? You’ve really convinced me that fascism is wrong.” Just address very obvious logical weaknesses in the propaganda you target and prove your point, which is usually easy enough.

Empathize with the person’s point of view. You won’t persuade people unless you tap into their existing beliefs. For example, for MAGA nuts, demonstrate how Trump’s actions are un-American.

Quickly identify people worth talking to. There are “shitlords” who go for shock value and people who are incoherent conspiracy nuts. Don’t waste your time with either group. They’re not there to argue, they’re there to denigrate society, test your sense of decency, or exercise the symptoms of their societal disadvantages. However, there are also people who are interested in philosophy and electoral politics. That’s where you can introduce doubt.

Take screenshots. This stuff is just unbelievable. Screenshots of Nazi shit can be used for public shaming: many fascists seem to be uncomfortable owning all the evil fascism has wrought. Make them own it. Screenshots can also help prove self-contradictory arguments, like when a fascist pretends they aren’t a Nazi.

Ring the alarm bells. Nazis. Can you even believe it? When I first started looking into it, I couldn’t believe how prevalent this propaganda was. Everyone from Republicans to liberals should be alarmed, and it’s part of your job to alarm them. This, too, is strategic: “as the right has repeatedly shown over the past 50 years, disgust is politically potent. Nothing, Professor Abramowitz said, works as well as what political scientists call ‘negative affect’ — intense dislike — for ‘getting people energized and mobilized.’” I post screenshots of Nazi memes to my account and tag them with “mainstream” tags so that more people are aware of this scourge.

Use private chats. Successful anti-radicalization efforts for Muslims have often involved one-on-one relationship building with young people flirting with dangerous ideologies. Commenting on public posts can be performative and argumentative for the benefit of other observers. A private chat diffuses those alpha male tendencies a bit.

These are just a few thoughts. I’m in the process of organizing some resources related to battling conservative extremists on social media, but not quite ready to share. I welcome any recommendations and suggestions in this area!