Extremism expert Stephanie Foggett: How the far right is winning the “information war”
The world is experiencing multiple crises all at once. Russia’s war in Ukraine is the first such large-scale conventional conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. China’s power and reach are increasing, not just in the Pacific but around the world. The United States is reorienting its military, diplomatic and economic resources in response to China’s rising superpower status. Some type of clash seems inevitable.
The COVID pandemic has receded somewhat in the U.S., although hundreds of people continue to die every day. The pandemic continues to cause death and misery around the world, with an estimated death toll of 6.5 million and an incalculable amount of personal, societal and economic suffering.
Extreme wealth and income inequality grows largely unabated. Many of the world’s richest people have exploited this period of crisis and challenge to expand their power rather than to improve the human condition. Global democracy is in retreat around the world as fascist, authoritarian and other illiberal forces, operating under the banner of “populism,” continue to expand their power and influence.
Here in the U.S., Donald Trump’s political cult and a Republican Party dominated by fascists are attempting to end multiracial democracy. This is a revolutionary struggle whose goal is to create a new American society, that in practical terms will be an apartheid Christian fascist plutocracy ruled without challenge or accountability by a small number of rich white men. As seen on Jan. 6, 2021, and throughout the Age of Trump, right-wing political violence, including acts of terrorism, is now integral to the neofascist campaign against democracy.
The existential danger of global climate disaster looms over all the world’s crises and challenges. Humanity has faced many great challenges before. But the world is now hyperconnected through digital media and other technologies with such speed and immediacy that our ability to properly process and understand these challenges has been greatly impaired.
In an effort to make sense of these many overlapping and simultaneous problems, I recently spoke with Stephanie Foggett, who is director of global communications at the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consulting firm, and a research fellow at the Soufan Center, its affiliated independent nonprofit. In that role, Foggett specializes in monitoring white supremacist, neo-Nazi and other right-wing extremist groups.
In this wide-ranging conversation, Foggett shares her views on how “malign actors” are using this moment of global disruption to expand their power by undermining liberalism and Western-style democracy, both internationally and in the United States. She argues that finding shared solutions to these many challenges has been made exceptionally difficult because truth and reality itself have been debased and rejected by the global right.
She highlights how the global far-right and their allies have used the internet and conservative media (especially Fox News), along with the Republican Party and its agents, to mainstream and weaponize the feelings of social alienation, disconnection and victimization felt by many white Americans as a way of destabilizing the country’s democracy and society.
Foggett details how some of the most dangerous elements of the far-right view conspiracy cults and online communities like QAnon as a conduit for recruitment, and as a means of sowing chaos and disorder. Toward the end of this conversation, Foggett warns that American democracy and society face an existential threat from the global right in a climate where political violence has been increasingly normalized.
Given everything that is happening in the world right now, with these multiple overlapping crises, how are you making sense of it all?
There is so much going on, which makes it hard to focus on any one thing. In my space, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put the return of conventional warfare front and center. Military conflict between states is now a reality. But that conventional war does not detract from the importance of monitoring non-state actors such as hate groups and other far-right extremists that we have been seeing in the online space, among others.
How does it feel to see some of your predictions come true?
It is a difficult balance between reaction and reflection. There are things happening that need to be responded to immediately, but those events aren’t happening in a vacuum. This means reflecting on why they are happening, what they mean and how experts from other fields are making sense of this all.
There is a cluster of events at the international level that are realigning global power. Where is power being lost? Where is power being gained? What does this look like going forward? These changes can create anxiety across the board because this type of flux and disruption can create opportunity for dangerous actors. They will use moments such as this to reassert themselves.
What are some of the larger concerns and events that you’re tracking?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine certainly overshadows things. Specifically, what does that mean for our understanding of conventional military and military threats? What does that mean for Europe and North America? What does it mean in terms of our conversations about China? Of course, there are regional powers and conflicts that need to be included in these conversations as well.
There are the non-state actors as well, ranging from terrorist organizations to militia groups and some of these online hate movements. How are they reacting to this dynamic situation? In all, what do these changes mean for our way of life in the West and for peace and prosperity more generally around the world?
How do you assess the public mood?
Every issue is being muddled with disinformation and half-truths and narratives that paralyze action by creating confusion and doubt. This makes it hard to chart a shared path forward.
“Confusion” is the word that stands out for me. It’s very difficult to even have discussions about politics and current events when there is less of a shared understanding of reality, the truth and facts. Every issue is being muddled with disinformation and half-truths and narratives that paralyze action by just creating confusion and doubt. This makes it hard to chart a shared path forward to explain to the public what is happening.
So where people may have thought, “This is the clear way forward,” or “Of course this is an issue,” we’re seeing so many things and so many ideas going into the mix that it gets harder to explain. Many people look at the world today and are very confused — and that outcome is intentional.
There’s an information war going on. Malign actors are sowing confusion and doubt and that serves to exacerbate fault lines in society. This confusion and doubt impact national fault lines as well as the global order. These dynamics are ultimately impacting what is happening within a given society around political and social identities — such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion and the like — and interstate relationships and conflict as well.
Who are these “malign actors,” specifically?
At the international level, we’re talking about states who threaten security and our way of life. Russia is an obvious example right now. China is of concern as well. Malign actors ultimately are those who aren’t playing by the rules that have been set out in the post-Cold War era, which have tried to establish better mechanisms for how we discuss and establish peace at the international level. On a basic level, malign actors are disruptive forces for norms and rules, which in turn makes the international environment less safe.
What about right-wing extremist groups?
They’re an enormous concern. After 9/11, the global counterterrorism architecture was almost singularly focused on the threat from Salafi jihadist terrorism. Many people have spent 20 years only thinking or being told that terrorism has one face or one mission, and that’s very much not the case.
Far-right and white supremacist extremism is not new. It’s been around for a very long time. Since the rioting and mayhem in Charlottesville in 2017, these far-right and white supremacist organizations and individuals are back on the radar, so to speak, for security experts. They are behaving differently than they used to, and need to be tracked much more carefully and with more resources.
What is their understanding of the world? Do they believe that they’re winning or losing?
The far-right is not a monolith. There is diversity within the movement. That said, I do think there are important similarities. At their core, the far-right, white supremacists and other such organizations and individuals want to create a white “ethnostate.” They want to destroy liberal democratic society. They do not view Western democracy and pluralistic, liberal societies as legitimate. The far-right propagates a political worldview that white people are under attack by some type of out-group, be it immigrants or non-whites. The safety of white people will only be secured under these white ethnostates.
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To that point, the white supremacists and other far-right extremists also believe that social inequality is important, and they want to uphold it to serve their racial group and power interests. Conspiracy theories such as the “great replacement” are central to their worldview. The victimhood narrative fosters a sense of urgency and legitimates violence.
The far-right is also obsessed with civilizational collapse, and false claims that security and stability emanate from white people, and specifically from white Christian “civilization.” In their fantasies, people like them built the world and made the world. Civilization as we know it can’t exist outside of white people like them. Of course, there is the white supremacy, but also an assertion of “traditional” gender roles are a glue that holds so much of the white supremacist and other far-right extremist cosmology together.
That sounds like what Fox News broadcasts on a daily basis.
That is true. That echo chamber has many elements to it. Fox News and other parts of the right-wing media are laundering violent extremist content and ideas and projecting them into the mainstream. This is happening across media, politics and the business and tech space. Influential actors have wittingly or unwittingly spread these narratives across the media and information space. At present, there is a dwindling gap between the right-wing extremist fringe and the mainstream. That’s incredibly concerning.
There is a dwindling gap between the right-wing extremist fringe and the mainstream — and much of the far-right online ecosystem has been interspersed with entertainment and memes.
Moreover, much of the white supremacy and far-right online information ecosystem has been interspersed with entertainment and memes. The far-right normalize hate through making it funny, as a way of filtering it to the mainstream. The goal is to normalize hate and far-right extremism by getting more people to look at it their content, engage with it, share it and think, “Oh, it’s not a big deal.” Infiltrating the online gaming space is integral to their strategy of spreading hate and extremism to a new younger audience.
The far-right and white supremacists have been wanting to shed the skinhead, tattooed-up, jackboot image for some time. They are doing this by giving their message a type of collegial, professional look. Since Charlottesville, they wanted khakis and buttoned shirts, and women in floral dresses, to be the faces and voices of the movement. That is exactly what is happening today.
What do they view as their greatest victory so far? How do they talk, about the world in terms of seeing this happening?
The culmination of going from the Obama administration to the Trump administration and seeing their rhetoric being normalized was one of the great victories for the far-right. With Trump and many Republicans and a larger global right-wing presence, what were once fringe, extremist ideas are now in spaces of power they were denied access to before.
The far-right also feel that they’re speaking for more people, under the banner of “populism” and being against the “elites.” Right-wing extremists and white supremacists and such elements are applying that model across many issues.
What do we know for example about the “trucker convoys” that we have seen in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere, and how they fit into the right-wing extremist threat?
From the trucker convoys to the anti-COVID lockdown protests, the far-right and other right-wing extremists will find a way to co-opt those feelings of anger and alienation. That is a standard tactic. The far-right aspire to take that anger and anxiety and then pivot it to white supremacy, anti-government narratives and other extremist ways of thinking.
To that point, there is a huge amount of co-optation of the QAnon movement. The far-right does not have any respect for people who believe in QAnon, but they know they can recruit and manipulate them.
In fact, the leadership and online spaces of the far-right routinely use derogatory language about the people they’re trying to recruit. They just view them as a source of grievance that they can pull into their movements for critical mass. Antisemitism is another important vector. That many of these social protest movements include overt antisemitic tropes or coded anti-Jewish undertones means that the far-right will seek out ways to insert their politics where they already see fertile ground.
In these spaces that you monitor, what was the reaction to Jan. 6, 2021, and to Donald Trump more generally?
It was mixed. But overall, Jan. 6 and Trump’s presidency emboldened the movement. The far-right saw a critical mass of people who were organized, and who took their struggle to the halls of American democracy and government and were willing to use violence to achieve their goals.
Leadership of the far-right routinely uses derogatory language about the people they’re trying to recruit. They just view them as a source of grievance that they can pull into their movements.
What most concerns me is: Are we going to see a repeat of Jan. 6 and other right-wing violence, and conspiracy theories such as the Big Lie and “Stop the Steal” protests and disruptions, every election? Is this going to be something that happens every election cycle? I believe the answer is yes, for the far-right and white supremacists, because they do not believe there is a nonviolent political solution for the concerns and grievances that they have.
What do we know about this “grooming” narrative, which has recently been mainstreamed by Republicans and the right-wing media?
This is a direct page out of the far-right and white supremacy playbook. The far-right have their in-group and they have their out-group, and they project lies and distortions and stereotypes onto the latter in an attempt to present them as some type of extreme criminal deviant threat.
The LGBTQ+ community have, throughout the history of the far-right, been falsely labeled and presented as pedophiles, as groomers. That has always been there. For the far-right, if you can frame an entire section of the population as groomers, then you’re inciting violence against them. At present there is a whole political party and media machine, as well as some churches and other right-wing elements with great influence and power, that are doing just that.
If you’ve got millions and millions of people buying into this here in America and in certain parts of Europe, what does this mean for the safety of the LGBTQ+ community?
How do these right-wing extremists view the “normies,” meaning “good white people” who are somewhat sympathetic but need to be “brought into the movement” or have their “eyes opened”?
When you’re looking at right-wing groups and parties in Europe and North America, they do believe that there is a future for their movement, and they just need to appeal to the right people to grow it. Bringing so-called normal people into the fold, especially young people, has been a big focus. They’re really trying to get boys and young men as they transition to adulthood by playing on insecurities about masculinity. Others, like violent far-right accelerationists, just want to burn society down and are less concerned with doing that type of mainstreaming and political work.
What do we know about the “black flag” and “dark MAGA” movements, and their threats of violence, terrorism and civil war?
Its adherents believe that MAGA had its chance, but they were too soft. They were too forgiving. And that when MAGA does come back, it needs to be dark. MAGA gave too much space to its enemies.
On a basic level, what does the MAGA movement mean for its members and other believers?
MAGA is an enormous political force in this country. There’s a huge number of people who feel that they have a grievance. The Make America Great Again movement has been able to tap into a wide range of economic, social and other grievances, almost exclusively among white people.
The far-right sees a lot of their politics reflected in MAGA — but they also see an opportunity to take the MAGA movement and brand and make it even more right-wing and more extremist than it already is. The far-right cloak themselves in the language and imagery of American democracy: patriotism and flags and related symbols and imagery. In reality, there is nothing that the far right and these white supremacists want that has any semblance to democracy and any institutions that protect us today.
What would America be like if the right-ring extremists and white supremacists, or the most die-hard MAGA types more generally, get their way?
It will be an anti-democratic world. This world is one where the “white race” deserves to be at the top. White supremacists believe they were made to be at the top. For the far-right and white supremacists, there are people they should rightfully defend, and everybody else is a threat. America and Europe will be white ethnostates, with white heterosexual males at the top of the social and political order who are protecting white heterosexual females (if they conform) and white children. Anybody who doesn’t fit this mold will be subjected to persecution and violence. It’s a genocidal political worldview, underpinned by racism, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-liberalism.
It is truly tragic to see that there are people in the Republican Party, Trump movement and the larger “mainstream” right who are mainstreaming such vile beliefs and the horrors they want to force on the world.
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