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Mixing It Up - How Hybridization is Transforming Extremism in the Digital Era

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Hybridization as an Emerging Threat

Extremist far-right movements traditionally include ideological elements indulged in conspiracy theories. These theories range from the idea of a contemporary Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG), The Great Replacement theory, or the much older Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a fabricated and antisemitic book published in the Russian Empire in 1903, purporting a Jewish plan to take over the world.

 

In recent years, extremist narratives and conspiracy theories have become more accessible than ever. The proliferation of the internet and technology has made it easier to ‘shop’ around different narratives, worldviews and ideologies at the tip of a finger. At the same time, the growing ubiquity of extremist forums -- especially with the forthcoming of communication platforms such as Telegram and Discord -- has made it easier to meet other extremist and conspiracist talking points. Indulgence in conspiracist forums almost always leads to an encounter with far-right talking points and vice versa (1).

 

Each year, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (DSIS) publishes a report, mapping existing and new terror threats against Denmark. This year in 2023, a new threat category was introduced -- ‘hybridization’. DSIS describes this threat as a “process whereby mixtures of different ideologies, worldviews and communities lead to new extremist narratives”. Moreover, the DSIS describes how the internet has made it easier and faster to find ideological inspirations. As an example, they mention how some far-right extremists and Islamic militants have an overlapping worldview on women and how, on numerous occasions, far-right extremists have been influenced by the aesthetics and modus of attack of Islamic militants. Essentially, diverse ideological groupings serve to reinforce each other (2).

 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Western countries saw a surge in the number of mobilized conspiracy theorists taking to the streets. These demonstrators were ideologically heterogeneous, meaning that protests were composed of individuals with various ideologies, mixing between anti-government views, anti-vaxxers or even QAnon believers. This led to clashes with authorities all over Europe and an ambiguous categorisation of these protest movements, for their clear objectives were novel and difficult to grasp due to this hybrid nature. This mixture of ideologies, worldviews and talking points is what the Danish national intelligence service now officially classifies as ‘hybridization’.

 

How the USA is Shaping New Extremist Narratives

After the January 6th storming of the Capitol, the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found that only 69 out of the 940 people charged over their actions on January 6th were affiliated with an organized extremist group. While groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers played a significant role in organizing the event, the majority of individuals charged did not have known affiliations with such groups.

 

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has called this new individualistic approach to extremism a fractured landscape, fueled by issues that go beyond extremism (“conspiracy theories, disinformation and polarized information spaces”). They conclude that extremism is becoming hybridized with other threats, contributing to further polarization and distrust (3). In essence, the ‘threats’ mixing with extremism as a result of the hybridisation of these movements are conspiracy theories, disinformation, and polarized information spaces.

 

Although the majority of those charged in connection with the events of J6 were not formally affiliated with organized extremist movements, this does not imply that the insurrection was not devoid of extremist movements playing a significant role. A diverse mix of established extremist movements contributed to the violence, including groups espousing Christian nationalist beliefs and Nick Fuentes' army of white nationalist internet trolls, the Groypers (4)

 

To understand hybridization during Jan 6 to its full extent, we have to look back at Donald Trump's presidency. Americans saw QAnon evolve from an initial fringe conspiracy theory on 4chan to a nationwide organized movement. Followers of the anonymous 4chan poster ‘Q’ and the QAnon movement in all simplicity believe that a hidden, satanist cabal runs the USA (and more broadly the whole world) through an elite shadow government. In more recent years, QAnon has found its way into more mainstream channels, such as the Republican member of Congress Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has often been connected to conspiracy-related talking points. What was once considered a fringe conspiracy theory, only taken seriously by a small group of people on 4chan, now has spread to the mainstream landscape, even reaching the agendas of American politicians (5). The variety of classic extremist talking points -- such as an elite ‘running it all’ -- often evolve into plainly antisemitic talking points. This has now become an inevitable part of America's political landscape and even a landmark in its history following January 6th (6). The QAnon movement, its talking points and its indulgence with more classic far-right extremist groups during January 6th serves as an example of what is at the core of the hybridized threat: Conspiracy theorists see classic extremists as comrades in the battle against what they see as an illegitimate ruling system.

When Conspiracy Theories Meet Mobilized Extremists

In December 2022, German police raided more than 130 homes and made 25 arrests all across Germany. According to German media, it was the biggest counter-terrorism operation in the history of modern day Germany (7). Adherents of the Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Empire) movement had been planning an alleged coup d’état for months, wishing to seize power of the German Parliament, take control, and essentially instill a contemporary replica of 19th century German politics, through a new government with their adherent leader, Prince Heinrich XIII.

 

ISD describes how the Reichsbürger movement functions as a contemporary conspiracy theory movement in modern day Germany. Their ideology is a mix between far-right talking points, anti-COVID narratives and QAnon theories. ISD further describes how the Reichsbürger is a movement with similarities to the sovereign citizens movement, mainly found in the USA. Given that Reichsbürger followers do not see the German state as a sovereign entity, they deduce that laws and rules enforced by the German state are not integral. According to German intelligence services, only around five percent of Reichsbürger followers can be classified as right-wing extremists (8). This statistic reveals that contemporary extremist movements are not always ideologically homogeneous. Rather, these movements foster hybrid collections of ideologies. 

 

It seems that many of these movements’ members agree on certain elements of conspiracy theories instead of larger ideological components, such as far-right politics. For instance, in the press release sent out by German authorities during the respective arrests, they mention how the QAnon ideology serves as an important source of inspiration for the Reichsbürger movement. The American-made conspiracy theory has found its way overseas and served as an ideological foundation for militant, mobilized conspiracy theorists in Germany. The group arrested in December 2022 believed that a deep state rules over Germany, but a secret alliance including both Russia and the United States will soon liberate Germany, thus resolving in a new state order for Germany, who they believe was never a sovereign country after the conclusion of World War II.

 

According to research published in 2015, Reichsbürger followers are most often single, older males who experience social isolation and tend to be narcissistic (9). The same research concludes that they are more prone to conspiracy-related beliefs due to them often being labeled as paranoid individuals. Followers tend to believe that they live under an occupying, illegitimate force, which -- in their perception -- makes resistance and actions against the state legitimate. It is unclear how prominent the Reichsbürger movement stands today, but no longer than a few weeks ago shots were fired at German police in a raid on the Reichsbürger movement across eight German states and neighboring country Switzerland (10).

 

This new and mixed-together landscape of conspiracy theorists and extremists serves as a new and complex threat image for authorities to handle. As seen with QAnon, conspiracy theories have reached a peak level of accessibility through the digital age of information. Consequently, exposure to these theories has grown significantly as, in some way or another, they make their way through the internet (as seen in the German case study). The rise of technology has also resulted in the ubiquity of echo chambers, with alt-tech websites serving as channels of misinformation. Hybridization is the product of these trends as easy, accessible talking points (which are now more available than ever) begin overlapping between conspiracy theorists and classic extremists.

Works Cited (Chicago)

(1) - Kristensen, Mikkel & Espersen, Ida Nyegård "Radikalisering på teenageværelset: I tre måneder fulgte lukket højreekstremt onlinefællesskab." Information, March 29, 2023. https://www.information.dk/moti/2023/03/radikalisering-paa-teenagevaerelset-tre-maaneder-fulgte-lukket-hoejreekstremt-onlinefaellesskab.

 

(2) - Centre for Terror Analysis (2023): ‘Assessment of the terror threat against Denmark’, Danish Security and Intelligence Service

https://pet.dk/-/media/mediefiler/pet/dokumenter/analyser-og-vurderinger/vurdering-af-terrortruslen-mod-danmark/vurdering-af-terrortruslen-mod-danmark-2023.pdf

(3) - BBC (2021): ‘Covid: Huge protests across Europe over new restrictions’, British Broadcasting Corporation

(4) - Jones, Isabel & Comerford, Milo (2023): ‘Radical Reinforcement: The January 6 attack and the new methodology of hybridized extremism, Institute for Strategic Dialouge

https://www.isdglobal.org/digital_dispatches/radical-reinforcement-the-january-6-attack-and-the-methodology-of-hybridized-extremism/

 

(5) - Collins, Ben (2022): ‘Before the Riot: Jan. 6 committee looking back at how extremists came together’, NBC News

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/riot-jan-6-committee-looking-back-extremists-came-together-rcna15410

(6) - PBS News (2022): ‘How some members of the Republican Party has normalized the use of violent rhetoric

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/how-some-members-of-the-republican-party-have-normalized-the-use-of-violent-rhetoric

(7) - ADL.org (2022): ‘The January 6 Effect: An Evolution of Hate and Extremism’, Anti-Defamation League 

https://www.adl.org/january-6-effect-evolution-hate-and-extremism

(8) - Süddeutsche Zeitung (2022): ‘19 mutmaßliche Reichsbürger bereits in Untersuchungshaft’

https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/reichsbuerger-razzia-festnahmen-verhaftungen-1.5710821

 

(9) - Guhl, Jakob & Hammer, Dominik (2023): ‘The Reichsbürger Movement’, Institute for Strategic Dialouge

https://www.isdglobal.org/explainers/the-reichsburger-movement-explainer/

 

(10) - Wilking, Dirks (2015): ‘Reichsbürger: Ein Handbuch’, Demos - Brandenburgisches Institut für Gemeinwesenberatung

https://www.beratungsnetzwerk-mv.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Dateien/Download/Materialien/Publikationen/Reichsbuerger_Ein_Handbuch.pdf

(11) - Deustche Welle (2023): ‘Germany: Shots fired at police in Reichsbürger raids’

https://www.dw.com/en/germany-shots-fired-at-police-in-reichsb%C3%BCrger-raids/a-65074904

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