In a review of a new study of American far-right extremism published earlier this month, Philip Mudd, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre and the FBI’s national security branch, observed “how common the phenomena of paranoia and prejudice are among people who see themselves as defenders of the Constitution, and the real American dream”.
Such conspiratorial thinking was expressed in a shockingly violent act this week. Justin Mohn, 32, was arrested by police in the north-eastern state of Pennsylvania after allegedly posting a 14-minute YouTube video in which he beheaded his 68-year-old father, whom he described as “a federal employee”, before launching into a tirade against US President Joe Biden and calling for an uprising against the American government.
Thanks to the power of social media, the horrifying video and its message of hate was viewed by countless YouTube users and was online for six hours before being taken down. Although the extreme violence marks the incident out, the ideas and language contained in the clip – paranoia about big government, hostility to “globalists” and “woke” culture – are not the preserve of dark corners of the internet; they are increasingly mainstream. “The fringe chillingly edges toward the norm,” as Mr Mudd puts it.
Many governments and law-enforcement agencies in the US and other parts of the West remain focused on the violent threat posed by Islamist militants. This is understandable to an extent – such extremists have killed members of the public in several European cities, and the shadow of 9/11 looms large in the American consciousness. But if we are to identify where the greatest risk of terrorism comes from, the facts point us in a different direction: the far right.
According to research published by the US National Institute of Justice in January, since 1990 far-right extremists “have committed far more ideologically motivated homicides than far-left or radical Islamist extremists, including 227 events that took more than 520 lives”. The specific US context of widespread gun ownership and the presence of armed militia groups adds an extra element of danger to what is already a volatile mix.
In Europe, too, where a considerable number of hard-right parties with their roots in fascist movements are inching towards political power, right-wing extremists pose a demonstrable threat. Whether acting alone – as in the case of Thomas Mair who murdered British MP Jo Cox in 2016 – or in amorphous organisations that rebrand and regroup shortly after being banned, the danger they present demands pro-active policing and intelligence work.
The 21st-century far right is often quite different from the street gangs or lumpen political groups of the past. The reach provided by the internet and social media is considerable and helps extremists exploit an array of contemporary problems. As a December report from Europol found, although right-wing extremists’ ideas are “always mixed and often contradictory”, they thrive on “contemporary offline developments that resonate with their own grievances" and these "drive the online discourse”.
Social media platforms have a particular responsibility here, and need to meet that responsibility with more seriousness when it comes to content moderation. Aside from its hateful content, the appalling violence of the Pennsylvania video should have been enough for a wealthy platform provider such as YouTube to identify and remove it as quickly as possible.
The medium of the message is one thing, but its content is another. Political leaders – whether those in power or those who aspire to it – must get serious and understand that their words carry real weight. Polarising language, provocative policies and dog-whistle politics are often seized upon by the ultra-right, the conspiracy theorists and the peddlers of hate. Pennsylvania has shown how a diet of manipulation and grievance can have deadly consequences.