The far-right and its vicious cycle of extremism

Contemporary transformations in radical forms

By Jonas Kaiser & Adrian Rauchfleisch

On March 15, a far-right terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 people and injuring another 50. Shortly after, the news broke that the terrorist had given money to the leader of the far-right Identitarian Movement’s (IM) Austrian division, raising questions about the far-right’s international connections. This came hardly as a surprise, given that the terrorist’s pamphlet overlaps quite notably with IM talking points.

Against this horrific background, questions arose about how the internet can contribute to individual and group radicalization (1, 2, 3). Academic answers to this question can be usually distinguished into an individual and a group level. On an individual level, we generally can distinguish between push, pull and personal factors. On the group level, we generally can understand radicalization as a process based on an ingroup, a perceived enemy (i.e. an outgroup that threatens the ingroup), and a solution that warrants hostile action against the outgroup.

In our research on the far-right in Germany and the United States we have seen the different paths radicalization can take. To us, one of the more pertinent question, however, has been: how can we theoretically conceptualize radicalization in a public sphere framework? Or more to the point: what communication acts may lead to radicalization and what to an “integration” in the public sphere (we put integration in quotation marks as the integration of far-right publics usually goes hand in hand with a general turn to the right and/or polarization, see. Fig. 1)? We are interested in the public sphere framework, since in our research we are looking at the intersection of far-right and mainstream, and are thus thinking especially about more abstract ways in which counterpublics may radicalize or deradicalize.

In our newly published paper, we propose that we can understand these publics, more specifically counterpublics, in the context of their communication.

In general, we understand counterpublics as publics that are excluded and/or marginalized and/or that feel excluded/marginalized from the mainstream public. It is important to note that most counterpublics aim to widen the public sphere in an inclusive manner; i.e. they aim to be able to be heard, taken seriously, and, more importantly, treated as equals without marginalizing others. Examples are the women’s movement or the social justice movement. In this sense, the far-right counterpublics are special cases that can, nevertheless, be understand in this theoretical framework (4, 5).

Their inward-oriented communication is focused on creating a collective identity (creating an ingroup). Their outward-oriented communication is aimed at agenda-setting, i.e. influencing the political agenda, and communicating to and reaching the mainstream (this overlaps with a potential outgroup but is not the same).

We propose that these counterpublics are always struggling to balance both the inward and the outward: on the one hand, the counterpublic wants to influence the agenda, but if they compromise too much in their messaging, they might lose their members for whom the group might be too soft, light, harmless or “normie.”

Similarly, when a counterpublic is too much concerned with forming its collective identity, i.e. obsessing over its grievances and its “enemies,” it risks becoming too extreme for the general mainstream. The IM’s conspiracy about the Great Replacement, for example, is too extreme and not easily connectable with other issues within the mainstream public sphere without coming off as conspiracy theorist and/or white supremacist. This was true before Christchurch and now even moreso.

Fig 1. from Kaiser & Rauchfleisch 2019, p. 7

We suggest that group radicalization can be explained with what we call the vicious circle of radicalization: unsuccessful agenda-setting attempts may lead to more extreme inward-oriented communication, which, in turn, may lead to more radical outward-oriented communication as the desire to provoke a reaction from the political system becomes stronger. This vicious circle is reinforced through the counterpublic itself, which might normalize the more radical inward-oriented communication, and the general mainstream, which may vehemently oppose the far-right counterpublic’s communication attempts.

In a worst case scenario, if the too radical inward-oriented communication becomes public and a counterpublic turns away from legitimate protest (a legally sanctioned form of speech) to illegitimate actions (e.g., violence, hate speech, terrorism), both the mainstream public sphere as well as the political system cannot appropriately react, i.e. respond through normal means. As a result the gap between counterpublic and public sphere potentially widens, but the frontiers most likely solidify.

Fig 2. from Kaiser & Rauchfleisch 2019, p. 9

Understanding online group radicalization against the background of public sphere theory offers two advantages: on the one hand it emphasizes the relationship between a radicalized counterpublic and the mainstream public sphere that consists of a communicative feedback loop (of legitimate as well as illegitimate acts), and thus offers an analytical theoretical framework. Secondly, it helps group empirical methods in public sphere theory.

This paper is thus attempt to think about the relationship between the far-right and the mainstream in a functionalist manner. As such, it is the foundation for our empirical work on the far-right in Germany and the United States that will be published as a book in early 2020.