The far-right groups ... including white supremacists, self-styled militias and purveyors of anti-government conspiracy theories — have created enduring communities by soft-pedaling their political goals and focusing on entertaining potential recruits with the tools of pop culture, according to current and former members of the groups and those who study the new extremism.
They approach young people on gaming platforms, luring them into private rooms with memes that start out as edgy humor and gradually grow overtly racist. They literally sell their ideas, commodifying their slogans and actions as live streams, T-shirts and coffee mugs. They insinuate themselves into chats, offering open ears and warm friendship to people who are talking online about being lonely, depressed or chronically ill.
The pathways into the kind of extremism that led to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, threats against lawmakers and last year’s armed confrontations at state capitals nationwide are often initially anything but ideological.
“All these people who stormed the Capitol and later said, ‘What did I do wrong? I didn’t think it was illegal’ — they want what we all want: belonging, friendship, cultural meaning,” said Robert Futrell, a sociologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who studies white-power movements. “We gloss over that too often, but in any movement, there’s a festival atmosphere. They gain a feeling of power from being surreptitiously connected through things they enjoy, like music. This is much more complex than just an ideological movement.”
Before conspiracy theories take root, before people decide to break the law because they think society is somehow rigged against them, there is first a bonding process, a creation of connection and camaraderie that encourages members to believe they will now be privy to answers that outsiders cannot know or understand.
“You have neo-Nazis, eco-fascists, conspiracy theorists, and what unites them is the culture, not the ideology — the videos, movies, posters, memes,” said Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremism.