American white nationalists are fleeing US sites for Russian platforms. Here’s why

The Russian government doesn’t need to do anything to encourage the spread of extremism ‘because it’s already cooking,’ Neil Johnson tells Gustaf Kilander

Tuesday 19 September 2023 14:21 BST
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A picture shows the logo of Russian social media platform VK (formerly VKontakte) during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), at the ExpoForum convention and exhibition centre in Saint Petersburg, on June 15, 2022
A picture shows the logo of Russian social media platform VK (formerly VKontakte) during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), at the ExpoForum convention and exhibition centre in Saint Petersburg, on June 15, 2022 (AFP via Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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American extremists are popping up on Russian social media platforms for two reasons: One – they’re there. Two – they’re much less moderated.

That’s the simple outline physics professor Neil Johnson at The George Washington University gave to The Independent over a video call.

On Facebook, far-right communities are “like a PG 13 version of what they can do on other sites just because of moderation,” the Harvard-educated Brit says. “Certain kinds of symbols, hate speech, and activities can get them shut down. And since they rely on followers and support, they don’t want to be shut down.”

The extremists instead post links on Facebook directing users to Russian platforms.

The shooter who murdered eight people and injured another seven in a shooting in Dallas in May of this year had an account on OK.RU – a Russian social media site – using it to interact with content shared by white nationalists, according to NBC News.

His profile on the platform also had links to other sites used by extremists, such as 4Chan. Americans have used Russian sites to speak to other extremists, about topics that include narratives supportive of Russia.

The 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman, Jack Teixeira, who was charged earlier this year with leaking classified information, was active on a number of platforms such as Discord, where users shared their support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and also spoke in disparaging terms about Jewish, Black, and transgender individuals, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Dr Johnson began tracking extremist communities back in 2014, “around the rise of ISIS”.

“These Russian platforms were heavily used by ISIS in terms of recruitment,” he says.

“On the usual sites that we all use, commonly, [extremists] get shut down, but … when they get to these other platforms, they find a lot of support,” he says, adding that at times there’s even a kind of “welcoming statement”.

An image shared with The Independent includes Nazi imagery and has a caption addressed to “VK.com English speaking White Nationalists” stating that “Most of us are here because we have been blocked or our accounts deleted by Face-book”.

The caption adds that the English-speaking community needs to grow to become a “viable alternative” to Facebook.

“The kind of modus operandi now is that they will tend to have a very kind of wholesome-looking community on Facebook, and then on VKontakte, it’s much more heavy core,” Dr Johnson says. “They’ll keep both going and … when people come into the community on Facebook, it’s like having a door that goes into another social media platform where they will find more extreme things and they can be groomed basically.”

Dr Johnson notes that while extremist communities are hateful, they can’t be “offputting to the people that come into them”.

“There are pictures of Hitler smiling, playing with children … in a sweater,” he adds.

The White Replacement theory is heavily featured in these communities, which is a “racist conspiracy narrative falsely asserts there is an active, ongoing and covert effort to replace white populations in current white-majority countries,” according to Hatewach at the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

High-profile boosters include former Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Neil Johnson shared an image outlining his research, saying that this is ‘a tiny piece of the hate universe'
Neil Johnson shared an image outlining his research, saying that this is ‘a tiny piece of the hate universe' (Neil F Johnson)

Dr Johnson shared an image outlining his research, saying that this is “a tiny piece of the hate universe”.

“Each of these white dots is a hate community,” with the colours indicating what mainstream platform they link away from to sites with little to no moderation.

Facebook is purple, Twitter (now X) is green, blue is Gab, and red is VKontakte.

“It’s like a big universe out there and this is part of the problem … Extremism lives across platforms because people live across platforms,” Dr Johnson says.

“Companies can only take care of single platforms because that’s all that’s in their remit. And when we think of Russian social media sites, it’s not that they’re run by Putin… but they’re less moderated. So they’re much more liberal in some sense than Facebook,” he adds.

“But on the other hand, they plug into Russian media … so there’s a whole ecosystem out there where they thrive.”

“There are KKK support groups and fan clubs,” he says.

Dr Johnson notes that the files allegedly leaked by Mr Teixeira went through several sites, including Telegram, 4chan, and Discord, which is mainly used for gaming discussions, meaning that “younger people are attracted to them as well”.

“It’s not just … old KKK bigots,” he says.

There’s no incentive for extremists to stay on Facebook, but they might keep a presence there for the purpose of directing users to other platforms.

“Facebook has no control over another platform, so there’s nothing they can do about it,” Dr Johnson notes.

The hate groups on Russian social media sites are varied, with the KKK groups on VKontakte are seen as the “old people’s hate – no young people join them, they’re in other things”.

“The great replacement is a big thing … it hits the kind of basics of what people fear in some way,” he says.

The Facebook page for the hate group Order 15 links to an identical page on VKontakte
The Facebook page for the hate group Order 15 links to an identical page on VKontakte (Neil F Johnson)

Dr Johnson brings up the example of Order 15, a hate group whose symbol remains legal, “so they still survive on Facebook”.

They discuss fighting for the children and protecting the European homeland. The Facebook community links to an identical page on VKontakte.

In the screenshot from 2020 taken by Dr Johnson, they were “applauding a new white person being born … helping the race”.

A welcome message to “English speaking White Nationalists” coming to VKontakte states, “Most of us are here because we have been blocked or accounts deleted by Face-book. And so we are now in a Russian speaking (dominated) social network. I love our fellow White European nationalists, BUT, we need to develop our English speaking community or this will not grow nor become a viable alternative to Face-book”.

“It’s almost like going on a holiday where you get some welcoming drink and a welcoming leaflet,” Dr Johnson says.

“People get drawn into it based on things like protecting the family, protecting the children,” he adds, noting the “overlaps” with the QAnon conspiracy theory. “It’s no longer just people with hoods.”

The Russian government doesn’t need to do anything to encourage this transformation to take place, “because it’s already cooking,” Dr Johnson says.

By having these platforms with little to no moderation, “they don’t need to do much to create chaos”.

“Every so often, people will be spat out of these … hate communities and they’ll go and do a mass shooting … in some sense, if I’m sitting there in Russia, it’s almost automatic for me,” he says.

“But do they stoke the fire? Yes.”

Dr Johnson says that Russian media outlets, such as RT, previously Russia Today or Rossiya Segodnya, which provides content in Russian, English, Spanish, French, German, and Arabic, are part of the ecosystem stoking white rage on Russian social media sites.

“We estimate that one in 10 of the global population has been exposed to content that has come through hate communities. We may not know it, but one in 10 of us has been exposed to it,” Dr Johnson says.

On 6 May, 33-year-old far-right extremist Mauricio Martinez Garcia, shot and killed eight people before he was killed by police.

“Hate group members were making comments … on his YouTube channel, so I think there’s [a] direct consequence,” Dr Johnson says, meaning that people can come out of these online hate communities “at any time … and do something in the real world”.

Speaking about real-world consequences, the researcher cites a poll stating that a third of Americans avoid places where a mass shooting may take place. 

“There’s a kind of soft power of this whole thing – even without being a direct victim or knowing a victim, I’m already constraining my freedom, my life, according to this threat,” he adds.

Asked about Russian election interference in the US, Dr Johnson says these news sources are “biasing these other platforms”.

“We see a lot of anti-US hate,” he says, noting that a lot of American extremist communities think that they’re “the most patriotic in the world”.

“They’re anti-US government,” he says. “The big thing that everyone’s got wrong is this isn’t fringe. They’re directly connected to the mainstream.

“They sound like fringe in terms of the ideas, but [that] they sound like fringe does not mean they’re fringe in terms of distance – they’re next door.”

Dr Johnson notes that during the Covid-19 pandemic, the “powerful message” wasn’t “vaccines don’t work” but a “distrust of government” moving from extremist groups into more mainstream areas. He mentions parents’ groups, as well as alternative health and yoga communities.

Non-US news sources, not just Russian, were fed into alternative social media networks which then linked the content to platforms used by everyday Americans.

Looking ahead, Dr Johnson says the issue “could be huge, something we’ve never seen before”.

He says the “hardcore hate” is located on Telegram, an app headquartered in the British Virgin Islands and with its operational centre in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, but founded, and mostly used, by Russians.

Telegram is ‘not that big in terms of this size, but it acts like the glue,’ Neil Johnson says
Telegram is ‘not that big in terms of this size, but it acts like the glue,’ Neil Johnson says (Neil F Johnson)

“It’s not that big in terms of this size, but it acts like the glue,” Dr Johnson says.

“4chan is very big in terms of volume of hate,” Dr Johnson says, noting that Telegram and even Facebook, without realizing it does, act like a connection between platforms.

“It acts like a glue because hate groups can go through it to another platform,” even if Facebook “has stamped out so much hate”.

“There’s no solution for one platform, they have to kind of somehow magically work together,” he says, adding that VKontakte was a major tool for ISIS recruitment and Gab is a major hub for anti-LGBT+ hate.

Gab is “where a lot of the parents who were sceptical about vaccines went when their communities were shut down on Facebook”. On Gab, they encountered a lot of QAnon groups.

Nationalism of any kind is “prime material” for these platforms, Dr Johnson says, noting that a lot of the hate groups come together around a larger mission, such as fighting against being replaced.

Robert F Kennedy Jr, the son of Attorney General and New York Senator Robert F Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968, is a “classic example” of how these extreme views get pushed into the mainstream.

Mr Kennedy is now campaigning against President Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, but observers give him little chance of mounting a real challenge.

Dr Johnson said Mr Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, is part of a “normalisation of extreme views about distrust,” Dr Johnson says.

The researcher adds that these views are more likely to appear on the far-right because of the prevalence of worries that “I’m going to be replaced by people who don’t look like me”.

But Dr Johnson notes that “distrust of government can come from both sides” and that those falling prey to these extremist views are “being driven there because of distrust more than one particular narrative”.

“A lot of these platforms didn’t exist eight years ago. And there weren’t so many people on gaming channels … and those people are now voters. So this is only going to get more important,” Dr Johnson says.

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