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The “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville has become one of the most significant far right political episodes in recent memory. Many have warned for years that far-right extremism is a threat to public safety and homeland security. In May, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security argued that white supremacist groups “pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year.”
What culminated at Charlottesville has many causes, including the far right’s use of the internet to spread propaganda, recruit, build solidarity, glorify hatred, threaten enemies, and incite violence. The far right’s behavior in cyberspace has received less attention than the use of information and communication technologies by the so-called Islamic State group, but those concerned about extremism have not ignored this online behavior. In monitoring hate groups in the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracks their online activities, and at least one expert on extremism has already compared the use of Twitter by the Islamic State and American neo-Nazi groups.
Far right extremism online raises many of the same challenges the Islamic State’s cyber campaigns have generated, including the First Amendment’s protection of hate speech, the difficulties social media companies have with curbing extremist accounts and content, and the complexities of the internet’s role in the process of an individual’s radicalization. Similarly, as with the Islamic State, account suspensions and content takedowns by social media companies have not blunted the online efforts of far right extremists. What effect counter-narrative efforts against far right extremism online have had is difficult to assess, just as it is with such efforts against the Islamic State’s cyber strategies.
However, the online dynamics of the Islamic State and far right extremists in the United States do not entirely align. Serious concerns with the Islamic State’s online behavior began after it gained territory through military means. Its material power made its cyber activities more dangerous. By contrast, the Charlottesville event marked a perceived transition of far right extremism from the virtual world to the real world. A leader of a prominent neo-Nazi group proclaimed that, at Charlottesville, “we showed that our movement is not just online, but [is] growing physically.”
The aim of “growing physically” is to take far right extremism beyond “Sieg Heil” selfies and episodic spasms of fascist violence, such as that perpetrated by Dylan Roof. The post-Charlottesville question is how effective will far right extremists be in translating their virtual worlds into political power in the United States. Certainly, the presidency of Donald J. Trump provides the groups behind “Unite the Right” with an opportunistic context, a fact confirmed by President Trump’s failure to condemn the march and its violent consequences at the moment presidential leadership was imperative. But, beyond having an equivocating White House, the energy the far right generates online will not translate well in American politics.
In its context, the Islamic State’s cyber activities have had impact in part because the group communicated a clear ideology consistently with message discipline. The Islamic State linked its perspective and messaging to religious texts, teachings, and historical events important to Islam. This approach forced Muslims to counter the Islamic State on religious terms, producing a conflict over what Islam means to its adherents and to the rest of the world.
By contrast, far right extremism in cyberspace involves an incoherent mess of notions inspired by some of the most infamous detritus from the ash heap of American history—Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Confederacy. All of these are outside the American tradition of pursuing human liberty. These sources of far right thinking once constituted threats to the republic that Americans overcame in war, politics, and law. The defeat of these threats helps define what the United States means today to its citizens and people around the world.
This baleful mash-up appeared in Charlottesville, with Nazi symbols, Klan insignia, and Confederate flags displayed with pride but without American purpose. Reactions in Charlottesville, Washington, communities across the nation, and online indicate that what thrives in far-right online echo chambers will provoke political defiance in the United States when it hits the streets. Invoking Adolf Hitler’s genocides in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s genius involves an assault on the American spirit so retrograde that no amount of online activity by far right extremists can rescue or redeem it.
Far right groups are planning more events like “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, so the effort to translate online manifestations of far right extremism into the real world of American politics will continue. The impact of these efforts will tell us less about the power of extremism online than it will about the impotence of the far right’s ideas, movements, and leaders.