Author: Fiona Ballentine, ANU

Australia has failed to acknowledge that it has an right-wing extremism problem that is being exacerbated by the Internet and COVID-19. The difficulty in combatting the issue has lies in the role of social media as an instrument for radicalisation. In tackling COVID-19, Australia’s crisis response is lacking a crucial component — it has not fully understood the expansion of violent extremism narratives as part of its disaster response.

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Over the past five years, there has been a 205% increase in extreme right-wing terrorism. This includes the appearance of violent conspiracy movements like QAnon. This extremism has been enabled by the Internet. Just months into the new decade, Australia was confronted with an unparalleled crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic. Its associated restrictions on many Australians’ way of life have meant that many live in anxiety and uncertainty while spending substantial amounts of time on the Internet.

Extremist actors have been some of the earliest embracers of the Internet, acknowledging its capacity as an instrument of communication and mobilisation. It was not until the Islamic State’s swift ascent and skilful utilisation of social media for international outreach that terrorism researchers and counter-terrorism officials have further investigated how the platform can be used to achieve such ends.

Australia now finds itself in a comparable situation with the increase of violent extremism inspired by extreme right-wing ideologies and conspiracies. The connection between extremism and conspiracy theories is not new. But the advent of digital technology and the modern information ecosystem has transformed the basic characteristics of conspiracy movements and conspiracy associated extremism.

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are significant as they afford an opening for a disjointed and decentralised far-right to unite and coalesce. Social media platforms have increased their moderation efforts to clampdown on hateful and extremist content. But in response to new platforms belonging to a right-wing technology movement, the Alt-tech movement has appeared. These alternative platforms offer themselves as refuge for the de-platformed with the assurance that even the most ardent extremist can speak freely.

Such Alt-tech platforms include (the Alt-right alternative to Twitter) and Telegram (an encrypted messaging service), both of which explicitly market themselves to the de-platformed. Although de-platforming individuals is imperative to limit their outreach into the broader public, the Alt-tech ascent highlights the incompetence of current attempts to tackle extremism on the Internet.

A challenge has been that in attacking COVID-19, Australia has concentrated predominantly on traditional classifications of disaster and emergency management by focusing on public-health measures, border security, and economic rejuvenation.

According to assessments of public declarations made by members of Australia’s far-right, researchers have observed that these groups are interpreting and exploiting the crises to mobilise in several ways. They are first, challenging government legitimacy, second, pinpointing groups to hold responsible, and finally, emboldening recruitment. In doing so, they react by implicitly provoking violence against outsider groups.

It is critical for Australia’s disaster-management and resiliency to understand this risk of collective trauma. When societies experience anxiety during emergencies and disasters, they become more responsive to extremist narratives and ‘accelerationist’ thinking. Australia’s far-right has already utilised COVID-19 to advance their extremist and conspiratorial narratives and mobilise. We can anticipate that this dynamic will be repeated in future crises.

Australia, in a broader sense, has not adequately acknowledged the threat posed by extreme right-wing domestic terrorism and has concentrated too much, rather, on the dangers of Islamist extremism. Within Australia’s political discourse the challenge to adequately recognise the threat of extreme right-wing domestic terrorism has become intertwined with definitions. This has led to a watering down and diminishment of the danger posed by the extreme right.

In February, Coalition senators fought to modify a Labor-endorsed motion to condemn right-wing extremism, by inserting language that increased the threat posed by far-left extremism, communism, and anarchism. And former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has said that ASIO should deal with both left- and right-wing ‘lunatics’. Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells condemned ASIO’s choice of language, asserting it “offended” conservatives.

ASIO’s own reportage stated there is not equivalent left-wing extremism threat within Australia’s threat-scape. Australia faces a ‘serious, increasing, and evolving threat to security’ from the extreme right manifesting, for example, in an increase in the number of Australian neo-Nazis. Attempts to bothsidesism, to create a false equivalence is a dangerous distraction from Australia’s real threat of right-wing extremism as it inhibits and thwarts public discussion and allocation of resources.

The Australian government must expand its perception of disaster management, especially in this period of tech-enabled communication and the growth of the far-right online ecosystem, to incorporate greater resilience against extremist narratives. A crucial aspect of disaster response and recovery is upholding trust in government and systems to combat societal unravelling and preserve order. If Australia fails to adequately address far-right extremism narratives, distrust in government and associated extremism will further proliferate and these issues will only be exacerbated further. This will make preserving and recuperating government legitimacy and confidence in the long-term far more difficult.

Fiona Ballentine is Bachelor of International Relations and Bachelor of Arts student at the Australian National University.