Have you noticed a shift in society in the past year?
It may be that your uncle has seemingly become more racist than usual at family dinners. Perhaps a Facebook friend claims to know of a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles running a global child sex trafficking ring who conspired against former President Donald Trump. Yes, these stories exist!
You would be forgiven for thinking the world has gone mad. In 2021, we have seen the No Mandatory Vaccination party contest the WA state election, a Neo-Nazi group called The Base recruiting in Australia and the influence of QAnon spread from the US to Australia.
The popularity of far-right groups has grown in the past few years, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted people’s mental health and fuelled conspiracy theories.
Curtin University senior lecturer in International Relations Ben Rich says COVID-19 has given far-right groups a common point of contention as many groups are sceptical about its origins.
“They tend to view it often as emerging out of either some sort of Chinese lab, which sort of goes to confirm their previous views on Asians, or they view it as some kind of sort of globalist conspiracy that is going to be used to kind of speed up all these processes, you know, allow the government to destroy our individuality, our privacy.”
In more practical terms, the pandemic has caused mandatory lockdowns around the world, keeping people at home, unable to get out and engage in their usual day-to day life.
Dr Rich says in many cases this has pushed people into more extreme online spaces, as they seek answers for questions, we may not actually know the answers to yet.
These groups also offer a very accessible, although incomprehensible, narrative from which people can draw comfort in the face of ‘big unknowns’.
For Dr Mark Balnaves of Notre Dame University, it’s important to consider what counts as ‘far right’.
“If the question is, are Australians becoming less trusting in their government, then the answer is yes. This is not a general statement without evidence. A decline in trust is common to all of the Western democratic jurisdictions,” he says.
Factors such as discontent, rage and financial troubles have all contributed to people rejecting their democracy.
“The typical image of the ‘far right’ is of the male skinhead with bovver boots. I am sure that these people are, indeed, far-right,” he says.
But according to Balnaves and his colleague, Associate Professor Daniel Baldino, “Many Australians are now adopting what they call sticky ideologies: They will bring together ideas from many different groups or activities, even if they are incompatible, and use them as an ideology.”
He gives an example of 18-year-old Phoebe Bennett, who was convicted for speeding at Busselton Magistrates Court on April 21, 2021, after telling the judge she would not give her name to the Court because she was a “sovereign citizen”.
Sovereign citizens are part of an informal movement who believe they are above the law and view the government of Australia as illegitimate. “She is using the language of the sovereign citizens even if she does not know who they are,” he says.
According to the Federal Government’s National Security website administered by the Department of Home Affairs, Australia’s general terrorism threat level remains at probable. This is based on The National Terrorism Threat Advisory System, a scale of five levels — ranging from not expected to certain — that provides advice about the likelihood of an act of terrorism occurring in Australia.
As the threat level changes, the Government provides advice on what the threat level means, where the threat is coming from, potential targets and how a terrorist act may be carried out.
COVID-19 has caused social and economic challenges around the world and in Australia, however, the Department of Home Affairs says: “It has not greatly changed the threat from terrorism.
“The threat of religiously-motivated violent extremism from Sunni groups persists, with the violent narrative espoused by terrorist groups like Islamic State and al-Qa‘ida, continuing to inspire attacks globally, including in Australia.
“However, people motivated by other forms of violent extremism — including ideologically motivated violent extremism, and specifically nationalist and racist violent extremism — are also increasingly present in Australia. Nationalist and racist violent extremists are more active than in previous years and pose a serious threat to Australian security.”
According to ASIO, far-right violent extremism makes up approximately 40 per cent of their current cases in counter-terrorism work, an increase of 10 per cent on 2015 figures.
Asked whether ASIO has been too focused on Islamic extremism and if this has contributed to the rise of far-right extremism, Dr Rich says his gut feeling is yes.
“But, I’m never really comfortable making that claim, because I simply don’t have the information that intelligence agencies do.”
However, he does offer a possible explanation as to why security agencies may turn a blind eye.
“I think it’s easier to pursue counterterrorism initiatives against outside groups,” he says.
He uses the example of the United States, “a country that, in many ways, is still grappling with underlying, very profound legacies of racism”.
This has popularised ideological affiliations, such as those found in the American south. He points out that a significantly large number of Americans adhere to that kind of worldview: “And then out of that, you get these far-right movements, sort of percolating and emerging,” he says.
To address these issues, Dr Rich says you need to address some of the “very basic fabric issues within American society itself”.
However, when you’re dealing with groups like Islamic State or al-Qa‘ida, these organisations and their ideologies have no basis in American society. So, it becomes very easy to isolate that and deal with that as its own external foreign threat.
Dr Rich suggests it’s a lot harder to deal with a homegrown emerging ideology “that draws upon much wider biases in society, and indeed finds quite a bit of sympathy in significant parts of that same society.”
Living Safe Together is an Australian Government initiative that aims to protect our communities against all forms of violent extremism.
The Australian Government defines violent extremism as “a person or group who is willing to use violence or advocates the use of violence by others, to achieve a political, ideological or religious goal.”
While terrorism refers to “an act or a threat of violence that is intended to force the public or any government by intimidation to advance a political, religious or ideological cause.”
The Department of Home Affairs says it works “with community organisations, state and territory governments, law enforcement and academia to prevent and counter all forms of violent extremism.”
Through its countering violent extremism program, the government has invested over $50 million since 2013 to “build the resilience of communities to violent extremism, reduce the spread of terrorist propaganda online and divert and deradicalise at-risk individuals.”
So with all this going on, why are young Australians still attracted to joining far-right groups?
While the study of radicalization is an ongoing and evolving area, Dr Rich says there are a few driving factors.
“The general kind of breakdown in a consensus on what national identity is for young men in particular. As they grow and they come into maturation, look for things to affiliate themselves with, and historically, over the last couple of hundred years, that’s being part of a nation,” he says.
Dr Rich suggests that in the face of growing uncertainty about who we are as a people, with the breakdown of certain norms and society around class, gender, certain groups of people will search for simple answers, that kind of reify their own anxieties about things.”
He uses the example of how Muslims are often framed as terrorists and the psychology behind this.
“People actually don’t necessarily think that a Muslim is a terrorist, but they’re unsettled by the fact that Muslims live a different way of life,” he says.
According to Dr Rich, the different way Muslims worship compared to the dominant Christian majority, the different foods they eat and the different language they speak makes people existentially uncomfortable.
“It’s hard to articulate that as a reason to be biased against people. So if you frame them as a security threat, you turn them into your potential terrorists, it becomes very easy to justify your own biases and discomfort with other people.”
There is an increasing amount of propaganda which seeks to radicalise, recruit, encourage and instruct those willing to use violence in Australia to commit terrorist attacks. These messages are drawing a younger audience, who have access to the materials online. The internet, encrypted messaging applications and online message boards are being used by violent extremists to conduct their activities.
Far-right groups are turning to the dark web and encrypted messaging apps, such as Telegram and Signal, which makes it difficult for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor them
Dr Balnaves says he has “no doubts that security agencies are trying to monitor groups on the surface and the deep web”.
However, he also points out that, the deep web is not just made up of evil people trying to do evil.
“Many institutions use the deep web to keep archives safe and to be anonymous. Many anti-vaxxers moved to the dark web because their content would be censored, for example,” he says.
While Australia has not yet seen an event like the Capitol Hill riots of January and is unlikely to. There are still lessons that can be learnt from the melting pot of far-right ideologies that led to this situation.
Dr Rich says: “You have to deal with those people, basically, to the greatest extent of the law. I think you can’t really deal with them in a kind of soft glove in hands approach.
“There needs to be demonstrations of what happens when you follow these lines of ideology to their natural conclusion.
“Because, as much as I would like to think you can save everyone and de-radicalize everyone through discourse and incentives, there are always going to be a kind of irredeemable number of people who will only respond to the threat of force and suppression and are an ongoing threat to society.”