5 Ways Policymakers Should Combat The Radical Right In 2020

With radical right extremism on the rise globally, here are 5 ways that we should think about combating it based on policy lessons from the United Kingdom.
Left: The August 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally (Photo Credit: Anthony Crider/Creative Commons). Right: Jayda Fransen and Paul Goulding, leaders of the far-right group Britain First, at a rally in London on November 4, 2017. (AP)

Left: The August 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally (Photo Credit: Anthony Crider/Creative Commons). Right: Jayda Fransen and Paul Goulding, leaders of the far-right group Britain First, at a rally in London on November 4, 2017. (AP)

Cristina Ariza is a research analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. She is a policy and practitioner fellow of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and the research lead for extreme right-wing terrorism at the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies.

In a year that has proven especially deadly, policymakers are increasingly turning their attention to the (not so) new phenomenon of extreme right-wing violence. Yet, it does still seem like governments are playing catch-up with this threat, as policies lag well behind overarching trends. For example, it was only in July this year than the UK government decided to change its threat level system to include threats posed by the far-right, even though 7 terrorist plots inspired by this ideology have been foiled since 2017.

As a guide for 2020, there are 5 areas in which policymakers should focus their efforts when combating right-wing extremism:

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1. Filling the gaps in far-right radicalization pathways

Recent trends in Islamist-inspired terrorism in the United States have led experts to distinguish between several degrees of operations belonging to organized movements. For instance, we can separate attacks “directed” hierarchically from ISIS in Syria and Iraq from those “inspired” by the movement. In the latter category, for example, and akin to right-wing forms of terrorism, attackers have no formal ties to the group – even if they were inspired by its ideology. Falling into the latter camp, experts, like Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware, have pointed out that no attacker in 2019 had direct ties to extremist or terrorist organizations or individuals but were rather inspired by manifestos.

This does not mean, however, that these individuals have been radicalized in isolation, without interacting with like-minded peers – either offline or online. While the field of radicalization studies has produced a wealth of evidence when it comes to Islamist extremism, no such equivalent exists for the far right. The gaps are evident – even when it comes to retracing the radicalization pathways of key perpetrators, such as Anders Breivik. A recent study by Jacob Aasland Ravndal found that Breivik already held radical ideas well before engaging with extremist material, casting doubt on the role that these counter-jihad blogs had in the earlier stages of his radicalization.

This lack of academic research on far-right radicalization might also be a case of a small scale evidence base, as these past few years have certainly seen a burgeoning number of foiled plots and cases. As more evidence continues to emerge, researchers and academics should help policy-makers elucidate how important the online and offline dimensions are to far-right radicalization, with the aim of creating a more effective diversion and disruption strategy.

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2. Disrupting terrorist and extremist content online

With several terrorist manifestos now being disseminated on unregulated platforms like 8-chan – now 8kun – and Telegram, the resources of policymakers have been put under strain to deal with this new development. In 2018, the Network Contagion Research Institute analyzed more than 100 million comments posted on Gab and 4chan and found that several racist slurs and posts made it to more mainstream social media platforms, like Twitter, pointing to the importance of an ecosystem approach to extremist content.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism and the Christchurch call to eliminate terrorist and violent content online are two of the networks bringing together tech companies and governments to deal with ending terrorist exploitation of digital platforms. However, there is a big risk that – as content is pushed off mainstream media platforms – it will give momentum to the communities already operating in unregulated spaces.

The UK’s government is due to bring out an online harms white paper aimed at keeping UK-users safe online. While extremism will likely be part of the debate, the remit of the paper is so broad that it is unlikely to dig deep into some of the trade-offs in pushing right-wing extremist content off mainstream media platforms and whether there are solutions to compensate.

Having a more comprehensive understanding of how terrorist and extremist content moves platforms is already proving fruitful – especially when we review tech efforts to prevent the Halle attack from going viral. Yet there are a lot of unanswered questions: how can tech companies prioritize action when deciding what to regulate and block? Should violence be the only threshold in removing content? How are plotters operating within these platforms being influenced by violent and nonviolent extremist content?

3. Cracking down on nonviolent radical right groups

Action against terrorism is clouded by a seemingly unavoidable stumbling block: there is no consensus on what even constitutes terrorism, let alone nonviolent extremism. When it comes to the radical right, this glaring omission becomes even more insulting. As Antonia Ward recently argued in a piece for National Interest, there is no clarity on whether extreme groups who are becoming a source of inspiration for terrorist attackers should be labeled as terrorists – even if they are found to be inciting harassment and violence against a group of individuals.

This is where the debate gets even murkier. Our recent report from the Tony Blair Institute looking at far-right activist groups in the UK advocated for them to be designated as “hate groups”. This was based on their ideological resemblance to the values and conspiracies of convicted terrorist Anders Breivik. Such a list would help to improve ad-hoc action already being taken, in order to mitigate the impact of these harmful groups. It would facilitate coordinated responses from tech companies. Earlier this year, Facebook banned a number of UK far-right organizations under its dangerous individuals and organizations policy.

Nonetheless, however, we should bear in mind that policies such as these are limited by jurisdictional boundaries and the appetites of tech platforms to censure. For example, such bans cannot be so easily implemented in places like the United States because of the First Amendment’s protections on freedom of speech. And freedom of speech is far from a closed debate in Europe and some of the more unregulated platforms we have seen far-right extremist actors migrate to either.

4. Avoiding further politicization of extremism

The delayed policy response to the radical right is partly caused by a stronger focus by the counterterror apparatus on Islamist extremism. The UK’s Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner, Neil Basu, has said that while Islamist extremism poses a bigger threat in numbers to the UK, right-wing extremism is the fastest growing threat.

The ongoing rows on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the Conservative and Labour Parties in the UK shows how difficult it is politically to mount a non-biased strategy against racism. The same occurs with far-right and Islamist extremism, with political point-scoring being commonplace. As pointed out by some experts, Labour’s manifesto does not even mention the real and present threat posed by Islamist extremism.

Donald Trump’s infamous remarks about there being “very fine people on both sides” after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that left one dead is perhaps the most glaring example of this politicization, if not a deeply irresponsible nod to an already resurgent – and murderous– movement.

However, even if the strategy against the radical right can learn from the lessons of fighting against Islamist extremism and deserves to be seen on an equal footing, it should also be understood on its own right. As the blurring of lines between populism and extremism contribute to the further politicization of this debate, governments across the world need to continue their efforts in fighting the resurgence of this threat, without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.

5. Investing in preventative strategies that promote social cohesion and healthy dialogue

A report from the Greater Manchester Preventing Hateful Extremism and Promoting Social Cohesion Commission, established in the aftermath of the 2017 Manchester terrorist attack, highlighted the need to invest in communities to prevent radicalization. In their findings, the Commission highlighted that social and economic inequalities have worsened social cohesion, and that several communities are fearful of others because they lack spaces to meet naturally and have healthy conversations.

This is not a new concept: programmes like Building a Stronger Britain Together, aimed at creating more resilient communities, have already been rolled out by the British government. Going off recent evaluation reports, programmes like this have some positive impact on increasing a sense of belonging in communities. Yet, it is critical that these programmes are tailored to capture some of the issues that can make people vulnerable to far-right extremism. In-depth understanding of communities and local join-up with national strategies might help with obtaining this level of granularity.

It would be foolish to argue that there is such one thing as a “silver bullet” to combat radical right terrorism and extremism. But preventative strategies that focus on developing more cohesive communities might very well be the next best thing. It might not be enough to interdict the next far-right terrorist, but it will certainly stop the growth of environments that cause extremism to percolate in the first place.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

Opinion // CARR / Radical Right / UK