ISD researchers conducted a joint research study with the Institute for Sustainable Industries & Liveable Cities at Victoria University. They observed activity in right wing and left wing Facebook ecosystems in Australia between January and July 2020.
Researchers sought to understand how the far-right and far-left interact online. Further, they looked to examine how central opposition to the ‘other side’ is to their self-definition.
This understanding is an important element of assessing the nature of far-right and far-left movements and their mobilisation.
The authors recognise that far-right and far-left ideologies and movements are radically opposed in values, ethical standpoints and goals. Yet, they are not meant to be considered as equivalents at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
The interplay between different forms of radical ideologies and movements is a subject of growing academic interest.
The way in which opposing radical movements interact and at times fuel each other has frequently manifested in clashes between far-right activists and anti-fascist groups in many parts of the Western world.
Ideological antagonisms between right wing and left wing have spilled into violent confrontations in the streets, which have seen a revival in recent years with the intensification of ideological culture wars.
Australia, and in particular the state of Victoria, has not been immune to confrontations. There were even violent escalations between far-right and far-left anti-fascist groups during a number of street clashes between 2015 and 2019.
The global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent local lockdowns in Australia have led to limited opportunities for offline confrontations between these opposing political movements.
Instead, mutual attacks on the political enemy have retreated online. Here the interplay between opposing movements has become more rhetorical-ideological rather than action-oriented in nature.
For this study, researchers examined how right wing and left wing groups discuss each other on Facebook.
Research reflects how each group reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and the global revival of Black Lives Matter protests.
Here we highlight seven key findings from ISD’s research along with the implications.
The volume of output on far-right and far-left Facebook pages and by groups remained relatively consistent during the period of study. However, with a notable increase in June, coinciding with worldwide anti-racist protests and resurgence of the BLM movement.
The far-right’s discussion of the far-left increased sharply during that period, as did discussion of the far-right by the far-left.
The simultaneous increase in mentions concerning the other side of the political spectrum shows that the events of June–July 2020 led to spikes in antagonistic mobilisation online.
Discussion about the far-left accounted for 7% of the output of far-right pages and groups over the research period. Meanwhile discussion about the far-right accounted for 17% of the output of far-left pages.
This suggests opposition to the far-right is more central to far-left discussions than opposition to the far-left is to the far-right in the online space in Australia.
A limited number of far-right and far-left pages accounted for most content produced about the other side.
This suggests that, while reciprocal far-left and far-right activity online is present across different groups, the content is mainly driven by a small array of particularly active pages.
Discussions about COVID-19 increased significantly across the far-right and far-left in March-April 2020. However, the ideological focus was radically opposed.
On one hand, content of far-right pages and content from far-right groups blamed China for the spread of the virus and expressed support for border closures.
On the other hand, content of far-left pages and groups focused on the impact of the pandemic on workers’ rights and the economy.
China was a rallying topic for the far-right and represented a key theme on far-right pages and far-right groups, with popular posts expressing hostility towards China and Chinese people.
Increased discussion about China coincided with a rise in cases of COVID-19 in Europe and President Trump’s description of COVID-19 as a ‘foreign’ and ‘Chinese’ virus.
Discussion about COVID-19 also led to anti-minority mobilisation on far-right pages, including anti-Muslim narratives, showing that international events were weaponised by the far-right to promote exclusionary agendas.
Discussion about the left and the BLM movement increased sharply in far-right groups. This was at a time when protests against institutional racism spread internationally.
The Australian far-right’s interest in BLM protests in the US reflects a broader and increasingly studied trend of internationalisation of the far-right. Nationalist groups tend to draw on international events to support their agendas and build relationships with far-right groups in other countries.
Popular posts on far-right pages attempted to discredit BLM and depict the movement as violent.
The BLM movement was also central to the discussion among far-left groups through the lens of police violence.
Discussion of police violence increased sharply in June in response to the BLM protests, with popular posts documenting police brutality against protesters and minorities in Australia and beyond.
While far-left activism has long defined itself as global, the internationalisation of the far-right is a more recent phenomenon.
The Australian far-right’s engagement with international events such as COVID-19 and the BLM movement reflects this trend.
It points towards the importance of recognising international trends in the analysis of radical and extremist groups. Further, it has potential implications for policy makers seeking to identify flash-points in activity.
The rhetorical-ideological nature of interaction observed in this study may change in the future. Tactics of movements shift in response to various external and internal circumstances. Thus, the ‘ebb and flow’ of the interaction between opposing movements is impacted.
It is therefore crucial to gain evidence-based insights into the interplay between the right wing and left wing online. That way, we can enhance our understanding of the mobilisation patterns, narratives and tactics of both movements.