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Going Dark: White supremacists, Isis brides, tradwives and incels

Book review: Julia Ebner explores how online extremists spread their message

Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists
Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists
Author: Julia Ebner
ISBN-13: 978-1526616784
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Guideline Price: £16.99

The internet arrived in our house when I was in my very late teens, around the turn of the millennium. Data moved as slowly as molasses through the ancient modem. None of my university accommodation was ever connected to the internet, so using email or web browsing meant a trip to the library. Smartphones only became established when I was in my mid-20s and already working as a journalist.

But despite having lived a lot of life either without the internet, or without much access to the internet, I struggle to remember what that life was like. Such is the glut of connectivity, and such is my own structural reliance on that connectivity, that I cannot say with any certainty which parts of life and work were better or worse before I had it.

So Julia Ebner’s book on radicalisation, Going Dark, is a usefully stark illustration of at least one way in which life was better, or at least safer, in the unconnected age: the spread of extreme ideas. In the early 1990s, the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh became radicalised after watching the Waco siege on television. But to become active in far-right networks he had to drive to gun shows and distribute anti-government pamphlets. He had to write angry letters to his local newspaper.

The Charlottesville rally was promoted as a part of a campaign for free speech, a common trope of the alt-right that acts as a Trojan horse for more extreme ideas

Contrast with 2017 and the online planning of what became the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which culminated in clashes between disparate groups of far-right activists and anti-fascist protesters – with one of the latter group killed. The planning of that rally illustrated both the contradictions of the online right – which includes both ultra-libertarians and extreme cultural conservatives – but also its capacity to mobilise disparate groups across a bewildering range of social media platforms.


Unabashed white supremacists and Neo-Nazis could openly discuss their plans for racist agitation at the rally on platforms like Gab, the extreme libertarian social network. Meanwhile, on more mainstream platforms, the rally was promoted as a part of a campaign for free speech, a common trope of the alt-right that acts as a Trojan horse for more extreme ideas.

Ebner, a researcher on online extremism, offers accounts of penetrating not just traditional white supremacist groups but a smorgasbord of other outre virtual worlds – Isis brides, “tradwives” (an anti-feminist subculture that wants to reverse much of the progress towards gender equality) and their mirror group “incels”, men who are (often violently) angry due to lack of romantic success. In many ways, Ebner’s most interesting findings are not the extremity of the views themselves – many of which have become depressingly known in the past few years – but rather the methods these networks use to socialise new members and nudge mainstream discourse.

In much of the alt-right internet there is an emphasis on irreverence. But that humour is only ever a thin veneer to an overwhelming sense of persecution and resentment

In the run-up to Charlottesville, she is on a closed chat group on Discord (an application for online gamers) when the neo-fascist organiser Jason Kessler tells attendees that they should “bring your MAGA hats, that way if Antifa attacks us, we look like average Trump supporters”. While this kind of strategic planning from extremist groups is nothing new, internet culture has created a new and constantly changing ecosystem in which extreme ideas can be coded through countercultural in-jokes and irony – especially memes. Such memes are one method of “redpilling”, a phrase borrowed from The Matrix – a favourite of alt communities online – to describe the inculcation of extreme ideas in “normies”, ie those not currently in one internet subculture or another.

The most notorious example is Pepe the Frog, a crudely drawn cartoon amphibian which managed to become a far-right shibboleth in the 4chan and reddit groups long before its meaning had any traction in the mainstream. In much of the alt-right internet Ebner explores there is a superficial emphasis on irreverence, on a sense of humour that sits in contrast to the po-faced, sanctimonious cultural left they view as having been ascendant for decades. But that humour is only ever a thin veneer to an overwhelming sense of persecution and resentment that lies beneath.

Victimhood is, of course, critical to most radicalisation projects, and in right-wing communities it intersects constantly with white male anger at women, other ethnicities, supposed liberal elites – or a combination of all three. The book moves, sometimes a little clumsily, between first-person reportage of Ebner’s own experiences undercover (both online and in person) and more general analysis. But there is no doubt of Ebner’s own commitment to researching her subject matter.

The internet has not so much connected extremists in the distant parts of the world as it has created entirely new worlds for them to inhabit

She tells of being confronted on camera by the oafish English nationalist Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) who objected to an article she had written. Such was Robinson’s reach at the time – before most of mainstream social media platforms had banned him – that Ebner’s then employers, the counter-extremist Quiliiam Foundation, sacked her because she refused to apologise under pressure from Robinson.

In disguise, Ebner meets with white supremacist group Generation Identity in a London pub. They talk redpilling and how to seed extremist content in mainstream platforms. Pretending to be Claire, a French flight attendant, she goes dating on Wasp.Love, a racist dating website. She meets a man who is simultaneously bland and extremist in a mid-range restaurant near Cambridge. He is named Will, wears Hollister clothes and believes European civilisation is about to collapse as a result of inward migration.

Full of eye-popping detail and committed reportage, if this book has a failing it may be that it struggles to construct an overarching narrative of online radicalisation. But can that be held against Ebner? A single narrative would be false, if not impossible. The internet has not so much connected extremists in the distant parts of the world as it has created entirely new worlds for them to inhabit. Unfortunately these online worlds are not like other esoteric but harmless subcultures that occupy the bedroom hours of otherwise lonely people, they can be real threats to real lives. And to democracy.

Matthew O’Toole is an SDLP MLA for Belfast South and a former Downing Street Brexit spokesperson