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From ‘study guides’ to trolling raids: how UK far-right groups target children online

“Be proud of YOUR people,” reads the cover of the slick leaflet, offering “resources, activities and tips for parents and children”. But the list of contents, promising discussions of pre-Raphaelite artists and Britain’s “rich and varied cuisine”, quickly strikes a jarring note.

“Who are Black Lives Matter? … BLM is an international, Marxist organisation,” readers are told. “It is supported by big business and endorsed by ‘celebrities’; its aims are to destroy western civilisation, the white nuclear family, Christianity and private property.”

The online leaflet is a “study guide” under an “alternative curriculum” aimed at families and produced by a group called Patriotic Alternative, which boasted of thousands of downloads when schools were closed to most pupils during the pandemic.

The cover of the Patriotic Alternative ‘study guide’
The cover of the Patriotic Alternative ‘study guide’.

It is just one example of how far-right groups in Britain are using online content to steer children and young people towards communities linked to extreme ideologies.

While the leaflet begins by telling parents to show their children “things which have been built and created by their ancestors”, it ends with undisguised white supremacism: “Who were the first to sail around the world? White people … Who were the first to put a man on the moon? White people.”

Julia Ebner, a senior fellow of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) who researches far-right activism, said similar study guides or reading lists flourished during lockdowns, often distributed through digital channels such as the Telegram messaging app.

Ebner, who has gone undercover among extremist groups in the UK, says there is a “far-right ecosystem” operating with the goal of attracting young people and radicalising them to support, or carry out, extreme acts.

“They are basically providing materials for school pupils or children to educate themselves on being racist and in antisemitic conspiracy theories,” said Ebner.

The groups appeal to young people by promoting gaming tournaments, including hugely popular multiplayer online games such as Call of Duty or Fortnite, as a way of making contact.

The younger generation of rightwing extremists deride their predecessors as “dads” for their reliance on rules and hierarchies, says Jacob Davey, an ISD researcher who co-authored an analysis of far-right activity on Discord, a messaging platform originally designed to complement online gaming.

These extremists prefer to copy the strategies used by mainstream social media influencers, establishing communities of fans or subscribers and adopting memes and aggressive online trolling. “They’re not going down to the backroom of the shady pub in south London, they are much more likely to be logging on to a Discord server or Telegram chat channel,” said Davey.

The analysis found that Discord sometimes “acts as a hub for extreme rightwing socialising and community building”, with an average age of 15 among users on servers associated with far-right activists.

The research showed how games served as a means of finding common ground with potential recruits for activities such as trolling “raids” – where groups disrupt online discussions or forums, often by heckling or being abusive, in an effort to subvert the subject or aims and drive away legitimate users and debate.

“This semi-organised cyberbullying could be a vector which brings young people into contact with extremist communities,” the report said.

Paul Jackson, a professor studying the history of radicalism and extremism at the University of Northampton, said that compared with earlier far-right organisations, “the reality now is something much more messy”.

“Young people find messages online that push and promote a moral acceptance that violence is justifiable or acceptable somehow. So people become radicalised, they self-radicalise, it’s a complex picture,” said Jackson.

The most enthusiastic participants are invited into private channels on Telegram or chatrooms, where the content is what Ebner calls “traditional far-right” racism and antisemitism.

“Often radicalisation happens through this sort of socialisation process, and then ideological indoctrination or radicalisation is a byproduct of becoming part of an appealing subculture, where people use their own insider references and jokes and memes,” she said.

“That’s what makes the exploitation of youth culture and pop culture elements so dangerous, especially for children or young people who have been bored or even lonely in the recent lockdowns. I do think that what we are seeing, the radicalisation among young people in extremist groups, is often stemming from that phenomenon.

“They have become very savvy in exploiting the youth culture elements and creating very appealing, exclusive online communities, where young people have a sense they can be someone special and in this group they can be entertained. It’s an antidote to boredom but also to loneliness.”

Jackson said private channels allow the sharing of “whole collections of online documents that give [young people] a world view and ways to act on it in potentially violent ways. That doesn’t definitely mean that they’ll act in those ways but the ease of access is very notable.”

Recent arrests and court appearances in the UK show that police have become more active in charging young people who have allegedly downloaded extremist material, especially documents detailing past extremist attacks such as the 2019 mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, or give instructions in creating explosive devices or weapons.

One ideological development that concerns Jackson is the growth of “accelerationism”: encouraging attacks designed to provoke racial conflict and accelerate the breakdown of existing societal structures. “Over the last 10 years or so, we’ve seen that specific culture pose very significant threats of violence against entirely innocent people,” Jackson said.

One adviser to the Home Office, who declined to be identified, warned that young people were still making active decisions to become involved with far-right groups rather than stumbling across the most extreme content.

“It’s not the large social networks, for all their faults. They [major technology platforms] have chased the worst stuff off most mainstream networks. The really extreme stuff … is difficult to find on Twitter and Facebook and all the rest of it,” the adviser said.

“You’ve got to know where to start looking for that stuff, you’ve got to know the right accounts. They’re not being tricked into being rightwing extremists. And there isn’t some mastermind at the centre pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes.”

A wide range of experts who spoke to the Guardian, from Prevent coordinators to counterterrorism officers and school leaders, agreed that the number of young people involved with the extreme right in Britain remained tiny. Home Office figures show that, in each of the last two years, fewer than 200 people aged 20 or younger were adopted into Channel, Prevent’s far-right deradicalisation programme.

But Ebner points out that a small number of radicalised people can cause significant damage or violence, as shown by the shootings in Christchurch and in Buffalo, New York.

“There might also be bigger problems for the future of our democracy and our political system, if an increasing number of young people endorse ideas like the ‘great replacement’, the belief of whites being taken over by non-whites,” Ebner said. “And I do think that’s a major problem.”

The Home Office adviser said young people charged and sentenced for far-right terrorist-related activity could continue to pose a threat after release, often following relatively short sentences. “Unless they’ve got family connections or help, those kids are cut off now. And there’s no way for them to come back. There’s no way for them to atone for what they’ve done or reconnect with society in any meaningful way.”

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Patriotic Alternative was contacted for comment. Asked whether its “alternative curriculum” is a deliberate effort to lure children and young people into contact with white nationalist ideology and promote ideas likely to cause racial conflict, a spokesperson said: “Are educational resources that are black-positive likely to ‘cause racial conflict’ too?”

On its website, the group says: “We do not seek to indoctrinate and neither do we seek to dictate. Our wholesome and objective resources allow you and your child to explore education at your own pace and to learn the skills necessary to succeed in the wider world.”

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