When Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton suddenly became concerned at the plight of South African farmers earlier this year, he may not have been aware that he was echoing ideas and memes not only of the alt-right, but also potentially of a global Russian effort to weaken democracies.
Publicity around the persecution of white farmers can be traced back through the alt-right, which has embraced it, to the well-worn conspiracy theories of white supremacists.
In recent years, however, the alt-right has used the idea to seed online discussions that are then amplified by Russian bots on the internet.
"There is definitely an attempt [by Russia] to support alt-right views and extreme right organisations outside of Russia," says Melbourne University history professor Mark Edele, who studies the Soviet Union and post-Soviet states.
As in other cases of online influence efforts, this campaign is not simply about bots and trolls – but ideas.
One of the key ideas propagated is that liberal democracies like Australia can't confront modern challanges - such as immigration and terrorism. And the alt-right tends to act as both originator and booster for this radical view, forming a loose alliance with Russia in areas of similar concern.
According to Edele: “From the Russian side, the logic for supporting alt-right groups in [the] EU and US, there are strategic interests.
"It's about destabilising liberal democracies.”
The minister's attention
In March this year, Dutton, known for his tough stance on refugees, vowed to look at offering to help these farmers under the limited humanitarian, or refugee, visa program.
“I do think, on the information I’ve seen, people do need our help and they need help from a civilised country like ours," Dutton told News Corp columnist Miranda Devine on March 14, after she had published an opinion piece on the subject.
While never specifically referring to them as "white" farmers, he described them as people who would easily “integrate into our society”.
About a week earlier, News Corp had run an explosive story about the murder of white farmers, citing graphic and horrifying details.
Then on March 13 commentators Devine and Caroline Marcus published opinion pieces on the subject. The next day, Dutton told her he had asked his department to look into helping.
But News Corp in Australia was far from the first group adopting the cause of the white South Africans. They had become a favourite of people pushing the idea of "white genocide".
Coined originally by white supremacists, "white genocide" acts as shorthand for one of their most deeply held convictions: that the white race is "dying" due to growing non-white populations who "breed" more quickly than white populations and aggressively attack them, and that governments are enacting "forced assimilation".
One of the boosters of this theory, Canadian alt-right activist Lauren Southern, who made headlines on her recent visit to Australia, produced a documentary about violence and white South African farmers.
Alt-right organ Breitbart has given a platform to conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who has said "a genocide" is taking place in South Africa, and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, on his popular program, InfoWars, claimed that white farmers should "evacuate" the country because "angry blacks" were going to kill them.
The conspiracy theory percolates on the internet, with upticks of interest when the idea is publicised or promoted - such as in Janurary 2016, when Trump retweeted the account @whitegenocideTM.
Another surge occurred in December 2016 when a US academic resigned after tweeting about the term. His tweet was heavily amplified by the alt-right, including Southern, and Russian bots.
In August 2017 came the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Another peak of searches occurs in early March, amid stories about South African farmers in Australia’s media and Dutton's comment.
In June, after Dutton’s statement, Southern herself told News Corp "it was such a pleasure to actually see someone step up and that was the Australian government and Australian politicians and really put this on the world stage".
Fairfax Media is not suggesting that Dutton subscribes to white supremacist notions. The government has since shown little sign of offering special visas to South African farmers.
In response to questions, his office said “the minister’s views on helping people in South Africa are well known and already on the public record", and declined to comment further.
Nevertheless, his comments, following the News Corp coverage, meant that a divisive conspiracy theory had been legitimised by a real government.
Driving a wedge into democracies
"White genocide" also reflects the idea of the conflict of civilisations inherent in the Russian ideology of Eurasianism, a school of thought in which the destiny of races figures heavily.
As it seeks to give historical coherence to Russia, Eurasianism explicitly rejects liberalism, the core political philosophy that undergirds modern open democracies such as Australia.
For that reason, Edele says Russia supports “groups that will undermine liberal views”.
“That's the logic of sponsorship of alt-right groups by Russia.”
There are other linkages, too.
“There is a longstanding anxiety among Russia's nationalists that Russians are dying out because of falling birth rates compared to non-Slavic peoples," said Edele. "It reverberates with white genocide fears.”
And Russia is watching the South African white farmers, too, for more evidence of a Western liberal values “failure”.
A recent news segment on Russian state-controlled TV channel Vesti showed a family of South African Boer farmers - described at one point as "brothers in faith" - considering moving to Russia, to flee “European values”.
At around the same time as Dutton made his comments, Lauren Southern and her fellow alt-right figure, Brittany Pettibone, actually interviewed Russian Eurasianist ideologue Alexander Dugin in Russia, one of the brains behind his country's aggressive new push against the West.
In it, Dugin claimed that "liberalism denies the existence of any collective identities" and that "liberalism is based on the absence of any form of collective identity".
Liberalism, the political system of the West, destroys collective identity which then welcomes others who will destroy our society, Dugin argued.
Embracing the claim about white South African farmers amplifies a divisive talking point into Australia’s political sphere.
The ability for an idea like “white genocide” to move from the fringes to the mainstream is made easier by our changed information environment, too.
As Dutton’s decision to “help” South African farmers was welcomed online, the white genocide conspiracy theory was amplified by networks of partisans, activists and automated social media accounts, and bots, all of which drive up the popularity of the topic in search rankings online.
Mentionmapp Analytics, a Vancouver-based social network analysis group, examined the traffic around the "white genocide" Twitter hashtag for Fairfax Media, drawing from accounts in US, South Africa, Denmark, Britain and Australia.
Mentionmapp analysed 112 indicative profiles from a larger data set of 996 samples of unique profiles that have tweeted the hashtag at various moments from early to mid-April. Within the data set, 43 accounts were likely amplifiers or automated profiles that alternated with human control.
"These are all political hyper-partisan accounts, and they suggest the intent to 'normalise' [the topic], manipulate, or influence public perception/opinion," wrote John Gray of Mentionmapp.
Seven accounts were suspended over the period measured.
The automation of accounts in social media can seed a discussion with an audience, setting it loose or turning up the volume on it. The abundance of accounts tweeting on a topic gives the false impression that it is genuinely popular.
Alt-right trolls did the same thing during the 2016 US election to elevate suspicion around former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The anonymity of the accounts is another factor: 86 of those analysed by Gray are anonymous, which he said indicated a "lack of credibility, an inability to verify sources, and desire to operate without accountability".
"Combine the high percentage of high-volume clearly hyper-partisan profiles, with the high ratio of anonymous participants [suggests] ... #whitegenocide is more coordinated/concerted than organic.
"It’s important to look at this not strictly through the lens of individual profiles ... but to think about the cumulative intent and effects."
An analysis of hashtags provided by Hashtagify provides another view. "White genocide" is linked to Donald Trump, MAGA (Make America Great Again) but also “altright”, “antiwhite” and “waronwhites”.
Nationalism v 'globalism'
The academic director of the ANU's National Security College, Matthew Sussex, said Russia-backed influence campaigns were currently finding fertile ground in far-right groups in the West by appealing to anti-"globalist", anti-immigration sentiment.
"It is ... about currying favour with those who see themselves – rightly or wrongly – as being marginalised in some way," Sussex said.
In Cold War times, left-wing organisations in Australia and the West "were a logical ally for the USSR given that they tended to be against free trade and statist", he said.
Melbourne University's Edele said Russia backs the alt-right and white nationalists today in order to gain the upper hand against democracies, which it sees as meddling in Russia's affairs.
What's puzzling about the new right-wing ideologies is how their proponents are internationally linked, he added.
"Logically, you can't be an integral nationalist and have all these international links with other nationalists, whose interests in the end are counter to yours.
“But you can because you're united against a common foe: liberalism."