Dangerous tribes

A chilling, compulsive investigation into online extremist groups

Books
A visitor to the Ostritz festival wearing a shirt with the text “Adolf war der Beste” (“Adolf was the best”) (©DPA picture alliance/Alamy Live News)

When an author opens a book with a declaration that they have “ended up chasing extremists for a living” the reader could be forgiven for thinking they were about to be treated to the memoirs of a retired intelligence officer. Julia Ebner, who monitors extremist movements at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, is not an MI5 officer, but she is certainly skilled in undercover work.

Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists is a chilling, compulsive book. Its primary material was gathered by Ebner as she infiltrated a dozen different extremist groups. She donned a blonde wig, affected a Bavarian accent, and took significant risks in appearing credible to gain the trust of many dangerous fanatics. Her aim was to consider the whole process of radicalisation: why people choose a path from an ordinary everyday existence to hatred and violence. Considering a range of extreme views, from white supremacy to jihad, Ebner presents the results of her investigation systematically: beginning at the recruitment stage, before considering socialisation and communication, networking, and mobilisation prior to an attack.

Her most troubling finding is that human frailty can leave anyone vulnerable. The mind makes arbitrary connections between unlinked things—a phenomenon labelled aphopenia, which also fosters a belief in conspiracy theories. A person who believes in one conspiracy is likely to believe in another, even if it is contradictory: those who believe Osama bin Laden was already dead when US forces raided his compound in 2011 also have a greater propensity to believe he is still alive.

Another chapter focusses on the “Trad Wives” movement. Its members believe that a woman who “takes up too many responsibilities and powers that aren’t supposed to be hers . . . erodes those of the man, making him feel redundant”. Thus, domestic abuse “is often a man’s way of protecting himself against ongoing insults and emasculation”. One would expect the author to find this appalling justification for violence against women repellent. But, in the moment, she did not: “I could not have been further away from the ideological leanings of the Trad Wives. And yet I was close to being drawn in by their powerful group dynamics.”

Even if some characteristics are familiar, the extremism space can also seem alien, not least in its lexicon. The “red pill”, derived from the film The Matrix, is “a piece of information that facilitates an individual’s awakening to the ‘truth’ of extreme-right-wing ideology, enabling radicalisation”. “Doxxing” is harassment by the publication of personal data.

Extremism is evolving. Ebner argues against any response that focuses purely on technology-led intervention and regulation. This is not to say that the policing of the internet should be abandoned. Ebner points out that, in 2017, Germany became the first country to penalise extremist content online, through its “NetzDG” legislation obliging websites with over two million active users to remove terrorist material and hate-speech within 24 hours.

But such policies treat the symptoms not the sources, she argues. The central question is how to minimise the risk of people becoming radicalised in the first place. Ebner offers ten predictions for 2025, including a continued increase in all types of extremism, both in the US and globally. She also offers ten solutions for 2020, including using volunteers to counter disinformation online: Lithuania in particular has gained international recognition for its “Elves” who take on the internet’s “trolls” (malevolent disrupters).

Close observation, though, is her strongest suit. At Ostritz, a small town on the German-Polish border, a bi-annual neo-Nazi rock festival is held on Hitler’s birthday, April 20. Ebner encounters a man with a “beefy neck and heavily tattooed shoulders”:

[He] pulls me closer to his face so that I can smell the scent of beer. His arm around my shoulders tightens. “Don’t ever go outside on the streets by yourself, do you understand?” I can feel his breath against my ear. “Women aren’t safe anymore out there.” How ironic, I think to myself, I don’t feel safe in here.

Ebner left in silent disgust.

Some of her themes , such as the art of deception, are as old as human nature itself. She reminds us that, in the 5th century BC, Histiaeus, who ruled the Ancient Greek city of Miletus, transmitted a secret warning of Persian invasion plans by tattooing the shaved head of a slave, dispatching him once the hair had grown back, with an instruction to have a tonsure on arrival. Other issues are urgently contemporary:

The normalisation of violence-inciting ideologies poses new questions for extremism prevention. Should Twitter, for example, take down hateful or conspiratorial propaganda, even if it comes from democratically elected politicians?

Herein lies a great political challenge of our times: to defeat with values of tolerance and respect those who peddle extremist ideas.


Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists
By Julia Ebner
Bloomsbury, 368pp, £16.99