Movements that could once be tackled one government at a time are more and more able to connect with each other across borders – and Elon Musk’s Twitter has given them a gift.
Since the outbreak of the current war in Israel and Palestine, numerous European governments have warned of an uptick in two violent threats: Islamist extremism and antisemitism. Authorities in Germany, for instance, say that the threat of a jihadist attack is “higher than it has been for a long time”.
But in terms of what’s playing out on European streets and online, the threat of an organised, sometimes violent and increasingly transnational far right is becoming impossible to ignore.
Britain last month saw far-right counterprotesters attempt to disrupt a peaceful pro-Palestinian march in central London. Recent protests in Spain against an amnesty extended to Catalonian independence leaders attracted far-right elements.
And in France, the recent stabbing of a young boy in a southeastern village sparked days of protest, many of which featured out-and-out far right groups, including some from the notoriously extreme “Identitarian” movement.
The presence of extremists at the marches has been alarming enough that French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin is seeking to ban three specific far-right groups, some of whose members are on a government extremism watchlist.
Announcing the crackdown, he cited the example of Ireland, where a mob recently ran riot in the centre of Dublin after several children were stabbed outside a school in broad daylight. Warning that “there is a mobilisation on the ultra-right that wants to tip us into civil war,” he praised the authorities for helping avoid “an Irish-style scenario”.
That scenario extends beyond the violence in Dublin itself and includes a wider, long-brewing movement with international reach.
While some commentators attributed the violence in Ireland to anger among working-class people suffering in a housing crisis while immigrants and asylum seekers are provided with accommodation and welfare benefits, others dismissed that argument as an excuse for something far more sinister.
Close observers of the Irish far right insist that the roots of the violence run deep, warning that openly racist and fascist groups are galvanising their supporters using increasingly violent rhetoric directed squarely at asylum seekers and immigrants of all kinds, especially those who are not white.
The incident followed a pattern that has played out in many European countries, as ostensibly grassroots far-right movements latch onto assorted issues – transgender rights, immigration, the place of Muslims in society, or Covid control measures and vaccination – and put pressure on democratic political systems with increasingly angry rhetoric and organised, sometimes violent protests.
While they often rail against their national governments’ policies, these movements have an increasingly transnational character. And across Europe and beyond, these factions now have a newly hospitable environment in which to communicate: the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Since he took over the platform last year, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has become increasingly erratic and politically extreme, routinely engaging positively with racist and antisemitic users. According to Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, the renaissance of Twitter/X as a haven for the far right is a major development.
“Every form of far-right extremist is using the platform now in ways that they only could before on unregulated sites like Telegram,” she told Euronews.
“Musk has allowed prominent neo-Nazis and other white supremacists back on the platform, including very extreme people like Andrew Anglin of Daily Stormer, and they are pushing their ideas out there. The site is also monetising extremist material.
“This is true internationally as well. Our recent report on Generation Identity accounts on Twitter, which were pulled and then reinstated, shows the transnational reach of the problem.
“Twitter is an essential part of the far-right online ecosystem now, for raising money, recruiting and propagandising. It may well be the largest hate site on the internet at this point.”
The events on the streets of Dublin, which saw a tram and a bus attacked and many businesses looted, were heavily amplified online by local influencers with large followings on Twitter/X and international figures in the far-right ecosystem in the US and the UK.
But also getting involved was Musk himself, who engaged with extreme users trying to call attention tweeted that Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “Hates Irish people” and complained that “The current Irish government clearly cares more about praise from woke media than their own people”.
Into the mainstream
While its value has plummeted and advertisers are leaving, taking crucial revenue with them, the platform’s moderation policies have a huge impact on European countries.
Unlike Telegram or other encrypted messaging apps, Twitter/X’s open nature means images, footage, false and misleading claims and hate speech can far more easily leach into public conversation – including via pickup from populist politicians and parties trying to appeal to receptive audiences.
And while none of Ireland’s very small far-right political parties have any hope of entering government any time soon, other countries have already seen their established ones embrace and fuel the anger on the far right, bringing outlandish and extreme ideas into the centre of electoral politics.
As for the future, Beirich warns that there are frightening scenarios in the offing – and that in many European countries, things are already well advanced down a dark path.
“What was fringe not too long ago has now breached the cordon sanitaire, especially when talking about immigration and Muslims,” she told Euronews. “We’ve just seen this in the Netherlands as well. The biggest tragedy would be if the AfD makes huge gains in the upcoming German elections.
“At this point, there is little to distinguish say [French extremist politician Éric] Zemmour’s politics from the white supremacists in the Identitarian movement and many elements in Marine Le Pen’s party. I would argue the Finns Party, who are in coalition in Helsinki, are extremists that are already in power, meaning they have breached the mainstream. And Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary is much the same.
“Unfortunately, the failure to take action against the far right online and off has now left us with extremism in the mainstream.”
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