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Published: 2022-02-28

Deepened understandings of how far-right beliefs are spread online

NEWS To prevent the normalisation of far-right extremism in society there is need for broader knowledge about the far right’s successful mobilisation online. A new dissertation from Umeå University explores how language use, digital settings, and users interconnect in the creation and spread of far-right material online.

Text: Elin Andersson

As far-right parties and movements continue to gain political salience throughout Europe and the rest of the world, beliefs which were previously considered extremist are now progressively being normalised as acceptable political ideas.

While the far right’s increasing political prominence requires large-scale support among the general public, research shows that it might not be people’s political attitudes that have suddenly changed. Instead, the explanation could lie in the far-right’s ability to mobilise supporters. In her dissertation Far Right, Right Here: Interconnections of discourse, platforms, and users in the digital mainstream Mathilda Åkerlund, PhD candidate in Sociology at Umeå University, wants to deepen the understanding of one of the most important arenas for far-right mobilisation: the internet. Specifically, that which takes place through everyday user-generated content on popular social media platforms and online forums.

– In every day digital settings like social media sites and online discussion forums far-right content risks becoming part of the internet experience also for those who have not intentionally sought it out. More than this, since far-right content created and spread in these kinds of settings tends to be subtle and covert, and therefore, it is easily misinterpreted. According to Mathilda Åkerlund, these encounters could in turn have severe consequences both due to the gradual normalisation of far-right discourse more generally online and offline but also in terms of the potential step-wise radicalisation of individual users.

Digital settings and influential users

Mathilda Åkerlund argues that it is not enough to establish that the far right is now increasingly leveraging mainstream digital settings and study the discursive strategies through which this takes shape. The role of different platforms in enabling the proliferation of far-right content must also be explored. Depending on the opportunities and limitations set by digital platforms when it comes to posting, sharing, and interacting with others, different possibilities will arise in how far-right ideas can spread. Furthermore, it is important to understand how far-right users leverage these technological functions.

– While often disregarded in research, far-right content does not appear organically online nor do platforms create and circulate it by themselves. Instead, it is chiefly the result of deliberate user practices, and more specifically, the actions by a few and particularly influential users. Research needs to gain insight into how these influential users are able to spread and form community around far-right issues online.

Develop strategies to deal with hate online

Mathilda Åkerlund’s dissertation contributes new knowledge by focusing on how language user, digital settings, and influential users interconnect in the spread and normalisation of far-right content online. This dissertation also goes beyond the overwhelming bulk of research on the far right, which remains focused on electoral politics and explicitly extremist settings.

– My research illustrated how also every-day and subtle forms of far-right mobilisation can have far-reaching consequences. Its results can provide insight which helps to deal with the spread also of less explicitly extremist forms of far-right ideas online and calls attention to how digital platforms are failing at preventing this.

Read the dissertation: Far Right, Right Here: Interconnections of discourse, platforms, and users in the digital mainstream 

About the defence

Thursday March 3 Mathilda Åkerlund, Department of Sociology, publicly defends her dissertation Far Right, Right Here: Interconnections of discourse, platforms, and users in the digital mainstream

Opponent: Professor Jessie Daniels, Department of Sociology, Hunter College, United States

Participate via Zoom: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/mathilda-akerlund-doctoral-thesis-defence-biljetter-260995563757

The defence is held in English, 13:15 - 15:00 i Aula Biologica.

Contact information

Mathilda Åkerlund
Postdoctoral fellow