Review: Going Dark – The Secret Social Lives of Extremists by Julia Ebner
Julia Ebner’s description of infiltrating extremist groups – and her first-hand account of how their ideology is turned into violent action – is chilling, writes Lord Harris of Haringey
Julia Ebner was deservedly praised for her first book, The Rage – The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism, which shone a light on the interdependence of apparently viscerally opposed groups. Thus one group’s actions justify the other’s narrative of victimhood that then provokes them to act in response, which in turn further reinforces the first group’s sense of grievance leading them to take yet more extreme action – and so on.
But for her second book, Going Dark – The Secret Social Lives of Extremists, Julia Ebner deserves a medal – a medal for bravery. In it she describes her experiences going undercover to join a series of extremist groupings, such as Trad Wives and MuslimTec, attending neo-Nazi rock festivals, and participating in closed online forums plotting ISIS cyberattacks on American infrastructure and orchestrating the extreme-right presence at Charlottesville.
In doing so, she exposes how extremist thinking – whether alt-right or Islamist – is propagated, how neophytes are drawn in and how ideology is turned into violent action. The attitudes she describes within the groups she infiltrated are scary – not least in the medieval attitudes to women that were displayed.
The approach in all of the groups she penetrated was similar: create a social bubble where those participating feel secure, where the most extreme ideologies can be normalised and where those within the groups can be emboldened to spread the word or take direct action outside.
All of the groups were skilled in the use of social media to get their messages out – not only to each other but more widely. Their aim is to spread divisive content to such an extent that the “mainstream media” (a term of abuse used by both the extreme right and the extreme left to undermine traditional journalism) has no choice but to cover it. They want to provoke and to polarise: no-one can sit on the fence, they have to take sides. The prize is to shift the “Overton Window” – the range of ideas that are deemed acceptable in public discourse – so that ideas that were once regarded as extreme and unacceptable become apparently reasonable points of view.
Julia Ebner’s descriptions of life within the groups she visited under a string of aliases are chilling. However, what is even more disturbing is to watch the techniques they promote surfacing in the wider political world. She writes about the 4Ds tactic: DISMISS the opponent; DISTORT the facts; DISTRACT from the central issue; and DISMAY the audience. If we look around, we see these tactics being deployed within mainstream politics.
Just the last few weeks have seen an advisor appointed to Downing Street who had espoused eugenics and racist theories of intelligence. He has since resigned, but his views were not initially repudiated, suggesting that the Overton Window has indeed been moved so as to include such ideology in the realm of the normal and acceptable.
Julia Ebner’s investigations show that what is going on within the extremist bubbles must be taken seriously. The groups have a sophisticated grasp of how to use propaganda and how to manipulate social media and the internet to promote their ideas. They have access to advanced hacking skills and are happy to contemplate using those skills to wreak havoc on the systems that underpin our critical infrastructure. And they already use their networks to plot and coordinate violent attacks and disorder.
Lord Harris of Haringey is a Labour peer