On every measure we have available — white supremacist propaganda, numbers of hate groups, foiled violent plots, domestic terrorism arrests and extremist-related murders — far-right extremism is rising. Policymakers, scholars and the media have scrambled to explain why. But to prevent more extremist violence, we need to ask different questions.
Instead of focusing on the how and why of far-right growth, we would do far better to also ask where and when radicalization happens, examining everyday encounters with extremist messaging — including propaganda and calls to vigilante violence.
Radicalization is the process of coming to accept an ideology that pits Us versus Them in existential terms, so that the “other” group is seen as posing a dire threat to one’s way of life and future survival. Most efforts to understand it focus either on extremist groups or the individuals who join those groups. We might think of these as “top-down” or “bottom-up” approaches.
Top-down approaches emphasize groups, organizations and the strategies and tactics they use to recruit and radicalize people toward extremist violence. This includes things like how extremist groups communicate, recruit and plan attacks, but also whether and how banning groups from social media or financial platforms can constrain their growth or impact. This is the supply side of extremism.
Bottom-up approaches, on the other hand, look at the demand side of radicalization. The focus is on vulnerabilities that can make people more receptive to extreme ideas, including emotional needs like a desire for belonging, as well as early childhood trauma and exposure to violence, or a sense of betrayal and perceived precarity. These are the cognitive aspects of radicalization — in other words, what is happening inside people’s heads.
These efforts are important, but they are insufficient. Much of far-right radicalization is not organized through formal groups, happening instead through self-radicalizing networks or “lone wolf” activities that are harder to track, monitor or prevent. And focusing on radicalization as happening only within people’s heads leaves us with limited ideas about how to reach them.
What’s missing is a focus on where people encounter extremist messages. And this is where we’ve seen tremendous change over the past several years. The days when extremist ideologies were primarily shared in an Aryan Brotherhood prison gang or a backwoods white power militia are long gone. Today, the places and spaces where people encounter far-right messages are much more mainstream.
They include the mixed martial arts (MMA) scene, which is regularly described as the fastest growing sport in the world and is used by the far right both to recruit youth and to transform the alcohol-laden, street-brawl subculture of far-right movements into a more disciplined and regulated scene. Far-right leaders have discovered that combat sports’ hypermasculine, warrior aesthetic and “straight edge” philosophy align well with their messaging about resisting mainstream society, fighting the decadent left and preparing for a coming civil war.
It also includes online cooking and lifestyle channels, where far-right women share organic recipes and homeschooling tips along with messaging about family purity and white European heritage. Far right groups have capitalized on YouTube phenomena like “Tradwives,” whose vintage, 1950s era image of domestic bliss valorizes tradition, heritage and a romanticized past as a salve against a seemingly chaotic present. This made it ripe for the far right to exploit as a “new and effective recruiting tool.”
There are plenty of other unexpected spaces to consider, including online gaming platforms, clubs and soccer stadiums, summer camps and college campuses. Mapping the broad online and offline ecosystem of where and when early encounters with extremist ideas take place is critical to understanding how — and when — people are drawn into extremism.
The approach also raises new possibilities for intervention work. Most work countering violent extremism has focused on improving law enforcement or surveillance and monitoring efforts, or on de-radicalization programs — all of which target individuals and groups already at the hard core of movements. Shifting our gaze to the places where encounters with extremist ideas happen would help us find at-risk individuals and create opportunities to reach people before and during the radicalization process. It would also help prevention specialists engage new intervention partners who are already in those spaces — like coaches, trainers, school counselors and game developers.
There are already some efforts to address these kinds of questions. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new whole-of-society approach to addressing terrorism and targeted violence includes an emphasis on working with local mental health and social service professionals along with other civil society partners. In Germany, anti-racist soccer club programs help organize tournaments against racism and violence and advise stadiums not to rent space to extremist groups. Such efforts are an important starting point in meeting susceptible individuals where they are. But the approach is nascent.
Focusing on where extremism happens requires a major shift in our thinking. After all, it’s easier to think of extremist messaging as happening in fringe, violent subcultures rather than in an online game or an MMA gym. But the normalization of far-right extremism over the past several years makes encounters with extremist messaging in mainstream places all too common.
We should not abandon efforts to monitor and ban extremist groups, or to address cognitive vulnerabilities that make people more susceptible to extremist recruitment. But if we are going to address the problem of rising far-right violence, we have to think differently. Changing the questions we ask is one place to start.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University. She is the author of “Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right,” forthcoming from Princeton University Press.