- Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists, by Julia Ebner. Bloomsbury. $23.75.
Brittany Pettibone. It's perfect. If Evelyn Waugh were alive and well, and working on a satire of the American alt-right, Brittany Pettibone is what he'd call the prim, kowtowing wife of his suspiciously clean cut, neo-Nazi protagonist. At least, he would until Pettibone's lawyers showed up threatening to sue his publisher.
Of course, the Waugh-worthy name notwithstanding, Brittany Pettibone is very much a real person. A peddler of conspiracy theories on YouTube, many concerning Hillary Clinton, Pettibone is perhaps best known as the wife of Martin Sellner, the head of the Austrian nationalist group, Identitre Bewegung sterreichs.
Now if Sellner's name rings a bell, it might be because it was revealed last year that he and Brendan Tarrant, the Christchurch shooter, were one-time pen pals. Not only that, the pair may have even met in Austria in the weeks before Tarrant livestreamed his massacre of 51 worshippers attending Friday prayer services across the city. Sellner also made the 'fake' news in 2018, when he and Pettibone were denied entry to the UK thanks to a government crackdown on extremists. And the year before, Sellner was arrested by the Italian Coast Guard for trying to stop NGOs from plucking refugees out of the Mediterranean. But if you think Sellner and Pettibone sound dangerously unhinged, they're nothing compared to some of the wretched characters Julia Ebner reveals in Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists.
A researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London think-tank, Ebner knows more than most about extremist groups, but her day job only afforded her "a feline view of the cat-and-mouse game between those who try to disrupt and destabilise our democracies and those who seek to protect them".
To get a better understanding of the path to radicalisation, how extremist groups mobilise support, and what can be done to minimise their appeal, Ebner went undercover, infiltrating a dozen extremist groups, from white nationalists to jihadi wives, over the course of two years. Going Dark reveals what Ebner witnessed over that time, and one of her main findings is that these groups all operate in much the same way.
We've known about the internet's capacity for radicalisation since the days of dial-up. In 2001, the cyber-security analyst, Kevin Thompson, warned that online communications channels afford disenfranchised and stigmatised people the chance to congregate with like-minded people in alternate realities - ones where traditional social norms are supplanted by considerably less desirable alternatives. Ebner experienced precisely this kind of dissolution during a brief tour of duty with a weird group of women who believe that pleasing their menfolk is their main purpose in life.
"My own exposure to the Trad Wives taught me that even ideological opposition is no reliable shield against extremist manipulation tactics. I could not have been further away from the leanings of the Trad Wives. And yet I was close to getting drawn in by their powerful group dynamics," she writes.
Extremists of every stripe know only too well that the slope to 'situational estrangement' is a gentle yet reliably slippery one. By the time you've graduated from Fox News to Breitbart, the dark corners of Twitter, and then further down the rabbit hole to some looney tunes forum populated by seemingly well-meaning people, radicalisation is basically a fait accompli. And don't underestimate social media's role in all of this. There's a reason that Jihadis, white nationalists, radical misogynists and all manner of other nut cases love Facebook and Twitter. It's because they work.
Ebner cites a University of Maryland study that collected social media data from almost 500 American extremists. The researchers found that in 2016, social media played a role in the radicalisation of 90 per cent of them. No surprises there. What is surprising - and concerning - is just how vulnerable many people appear to be to radicalisation.
Conspiracy theories always do well in times of upheaval, but to say they're having a moment right now would be putting it mildly. They're going gangbusters, none more so than the QAnon theory which 3/10 Americans currently believe to be true. Put simply, QAnon holds that there's a global cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who, were it not for the election of Donald Trump in 2016, would still be running the show today.
How do you combat that? How do you reverse such deeply entrenched ignorance? How do you prevent desperate, vulnerable people from crossing the threshold that separates kooky conspiracy theorists from dangerous extremists?
"Everyone can be exploitable in moments of weakness, and vulnerability can be a highly temporary concept. The only effective guard is information," Ebner writes.
I'd go one further. The antidote to extremism happens to be the antidote to pretty much every other crisis currently facing humankind today, and it's not information. It's education.
- T.J. Collins is a Sydney writer, essayist and critic.