Elon Musk has put every lost young man on Twitter in the crosshairs of the far right

Katherine Denkinson

At the end of last year, the British far-right group Patriotic Alternative (PA) was allowed back on Twitter after a ban of nearly two years for an unknown transgression. Far-right groups immediately urged Elon Musk to “be a hero” and also reinstate the account of the group’s leader, Mark Collett. Three weeks later, they rejoiced as Collett’s account was returned.
The reinstatements appear to be part of Musk’s commitment to free speech. But if he knew anything at all about PA, he would realise that he has placed a target on the back of every disenfranchised and politically lost young man on Twitter, many of whom are recruited to the far right via the platform. Consider the cases of two young men who recently began lengthy prison sentences for far-right terrorism offences. Daniel Harris, 19, is a far-right extremist now serving 11 years for creating videos that inspired mass shooters in the US. Luca Benincasa, 20, who recently started a nine-year sentence, was a member of the proscribed neo-Nazi group Feuerkrieg Division.
Both men should be held to account for their behaviour, but their actions did not happen in a vacuum. They did not hatch from a swastika-stamped egg at 17 years old, determined to wreak havoc on the world. Their actions, and the beliefs that drove them, are the end product of years of indoctrination by online extremists. Before becoming a journalist, I worked with young men like Harris and Benincasa and have spent a considerable part of my career since then tracking the far right online. I’ve seen first-hand how easily they fall for the rhetoric of extremist and fascist groups and can say, without hyperbole, that the longer groups such as PA are on Twitter, the more dangerous they will become.
Unlike the English Defence League and others content to down some beers and scream at the dinghies in Dover, PA and their ilk are tech-savvy PR machines; they know that optics matter and they’re familiar enough with online culture to blend in with more acceptable rightwing groups when they need to. This is apparent in their tweets, promoting community-friendly litter picks and sharing pictures of cute red squirrels. Their online recruitment began on gaming platforms, where PA has a history of coercing boys into the far right, appearing first on Discord then later on the live chat feature in Call of Duty. (Both sites are aware of far-right organising on their platforms, and have committed to action, including banning accounts.) Far-right groups recognise, as the alleged human trafficker Andrew Tate did, that young men disillusioned with the current state of politics often need a strong voice to guide them, and have set out to make themselves the strongest voice in the room.
Beyond online gaming communities, fringe groups have been targeted as well. This was clear towards the end of the pandemic, when groups including PA had infiltrated anti-vax conspiracy circles so thoroughly that the latter became convinced that Drag Queen Story Hour was a front for paedophile acceptance. Ostensibly supporting their anti-vax and anti-lockdown views, a post by Collett on his blog suggested his true intentions. Complaining that “any conspiracy theory … or half-baked idea, is taken with the utmost seriousness … [but one of the] forbidden subjects is that of the great replacement”, he revealed that his main goal was to push these collectives further to the right. Like the young men who get sucked in by “incel” groups, those who are susceptible to far-right influence are often lonely, isolated and unsure of how to connect with other people. They may have difficult home lives, or have been bullied and ostracised at school. Retreating into an online world, they find others in a similar situation. Their feelings are validated, their beliefs shared and their confidence that it’s the rest of the world who are “wrong” gets a boost.
Playing on those insecurities, nationalist groups quickly begin confirming these young men’s worst beliefs; they can’t get a job because the government’s gone “woke”; the girls who won’t look twice at them are evil feminists out to emasculate western men; and the immigrants they’re intimidated by are the real Big Bad, here to steal their lives, jobs and country. Scary stuff for a teenager, but luckily the far right offers a comforting solution. Join us and be protected. Join us and be part of something. Join us and be somebody. This lasts until the combination of adolescent energy and zealotry turns tragic, and they are discarded. It is telling that none of the prominent online far-right groups have commented on the cases of Harris or Benincasa.
So what can we do to protect young men from their influence? For the two who have just bartered their twenties for far-right approval, all we can do is hope they get the much-needed support that it will take to improve their lives. We owe it to those just starting out on their political journeys, however, to remove the harmful influence of PA et al from Twitter. By separating the far right from their intended prey, we enable reasoned discourse and the chance to explore the disillusionment of men such as those above, free from the influence of those with ulterior motives. A win for fascism is not a win for anyone else. Even “free-speech absolutists” with billions of dollars.
The Guardian