An Interview with Heidi Beirich of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism: ‘We stand by our reporting’

An Interview with Heidi Beirich of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism: ‘We stand by our reporting’

When the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) published its report last month on the state of the far right in Ireland it resulted in consternation amongst the Irish commentariat. The group, which dared to point out that the far right in Ireland both exists and is a threat, was attacked by what’s now become the usual alliance of liberals, conservatives, and the far right itself. Daring to include the Iona Institute alongside the likes of the Irish Freedom Party (IFP) was too much for some to handle despite their obvious ideological alignment.

Journalists patted themselves on the back as they dismissed the report out of hand, with an Irish Examiner columnist deriding it as “full of disinformation”. It’s no coincidence that this same grouping has been leading the way in attacks on the trans community while at the same time insisting on the right of free speech for extremists.

From the “alt-right” to Ireland

Mainstreaming of ideas on the far right of the spectrum is nothing new. But it was part of the impetus behind two veterans of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Heidi Beirich and Wendy Via, founding GPAHE in 2020. Having spent close to twenty years investigating extremism for the SPLC, both are well placed to understand the nature of the beast and how it manifests.

The Beacon spoke to Beirich about the work of GPAHE, what makes US conspiracy theories so popular around the world, as well as the threat the far right poses. We also discussed the report on Ireland and where the next few years might lead.

On your website it’s written that GPAHE was set up to “address the gap in efforts to stop transnational hate and far-right extremism movements, particularly U.S.-based activity that is exported to other countries and across borders”. With that in mind, what’s your assessment of the current situation in the US when it comes to far-right extremism? And where do you see things going, especially as the US midterms are coming up?

In the US the danger from hate, anti-government, and far-right extremist movements is at an all time high, far-right domestic terrorism is the number one threat, and the far right is now openly anti-democracy. This danger has been growing for years and is now threatening American democracy. We have seen white supremacist ideas, like the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, seep into the mainstream to the point where candidates running for high office are spreading the same disinformation that led to mass terrorist attacks in Christchurch, El Paso, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. Hate crimes are at an all-time high. On January 6, 2021, we witnessed a direct assault on American  democracy with the Capitol insurrection, where key extremist groups — the white supremacist Proud Boys, and militias like the Oath Keepers — were central to the events of that day. Even though members of these groups have been charged with seditious conspiracy for  their actions on January 6, we see some of these same extremists and groups working hand-in-hand with right-wing conservatives at the state level. And Trump’s constant propagandising that the 2020 election was stolen has become a standard talking point on the right. Candidates for  Congress and for top offices at the state level who spread  the “Big Lie”, are running on platforms that would undermine the idea of one person, one vote. Meanwhile, polling tells us millions of Americans think a civil war may be brewing, more than 50 percent of Republicans believe in the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, and QAnon is believed by millions. Additionally, many of those same candidates are also demonising the LGBTQ+ community, promising to strip their rights, and fear mongering over Critical Race Theory that is only taught at the college level in an effort to deny the US history of white supremacy and its ongoing presence in our institutions and society. This extreme thinking and activity is less associated with violence, but certainly has the potential to inspire it as we’ve seen fistfights and threats at all levels of meetings. The adoption of regressive and oppressive legislation and policies that designate any human as less than or other is very dangerous to a thriving democracy. Never in recent history has American democracy been more at threat by forces from the far right.

QAnon has been a great example of how a US-based conspiracy theory can quickly spread around the globe and be adapted to local circumstances. Another example is the use of memes, something which Hampton Stall has researched and written about. What do you think makes conspiracy theories and far-right talking points that originate in the US so potent to people on the other side of the planet?

That’s a great question because you would think QAnon would attract no one given its outlandish claims. One thing American extremists have traditionally been good at is adopting technologies that allow them to work around mainstream media and other places where their ideas would be unacceptable. The far-right and extremist propaganda machine has always been effective. The American far right had the first white supremacist website up in 1995 for example. American extremists jumped on social media as a tool to spread their ideas almost as soon as Twitter and Facebook made an appearance. This gave them an advantage in figuring out how to make hate and disinformation go viral. And because the tech companies and governments ignored far-right extremism for so long, as opposed to say Islamic extremism, this material was allowed to proliferate unchecked for years. And of course the tech companies’ algorithms favour the spread of controversial material, a global phenomenon. Another piece of the explanation for the spread of this material to other parts of the world is that since English is [one of] the most widely spoken language[s] in the world, that has allowed this material to be picked up quickly and then become adapted to realities in other parts of the world. And, of course the tech companies play a role in that they prioritise U.S. disinformation and far-right content over those of even other English-speaking countries. So content that might eventually be addressed in the US is left up or not moderated in other countries.

From a Patreon Supporter: This is related but the alt-right was and still is a popular far-right offshoot here in Ireland too. Do you have any theories about why some people are heavily invested in portraying the alt-right as exclusively an anti-immigrant/race ideology?

The mischaracterisation of “alt-right” ideas started almost with the rise of the term in the media. For too long, aspects of the “alt-right” including racism and misogyny were ignored as fundamental to this movement just as white supremacist Richard Spencer, who coined the term in 2008 intended. The development of the term “alt-right” was a deliberate attempt to downplay the vicious racism at the core of it, as was the clean cut, well-dressed presentation of its adherents. At one point, the AP actually issued a clarification of how to use the terms and most extremist researchers have dropped it in favour of either specific ideologies or just white supremacy. The same can be seen in the European white supremacist network Generation Identity that focuses on the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. By only talking about this movement as “anti-immigrant” it downplays the dangers of the ideas assumed by people in these movements. 

In a report you recently published you looked at the state of the far-right ecosphere in Ireland. Why have you decided to focus on Ireland? Why now? Did anything in particular about your findings stand out? 

From GPAHE’s founding in 2020, we planned to run country reports on hate and far-right extremist groups in multiple locations. We believe that not enough attention is paid to these movements in many parts of the world or to their transnational connections, and our mandate was to change that. We are particularly interested in countries where extremist groups have links to the US, either directly or ideologically, which is true in Ireland for some of the organisations we profiled. Ireland is the first of several reports that we’ll be releasing. As to the findings, what is interesting is that Ireland has a relatively small far-right scene, and hopefully it will stay that way, but we believe the trends driving it could lead to further growth. The movement there is influenced by many of the culture war issues that drive extremist groups here in the US as well, in particular anti-LGBTQ+ with a focus on anti-transgender ideas. Also, there are transnational white supremacist organisations with local chapters, something we are finding in multiple locations. And the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory is just as inspiring to Irish extremists as it is to Americans and others around the world. It is such a dangerous ideology that we are particularly concerned about monitoring its spread.

The same report caused some mainstream commentators to attack and dismiss it. One well-known journalist described it as being “full of disinformation” while the head of one of the groups listed in the report said they’re examining their legal options. What’s your response to them? 

We wish these groups would spend time thinking about how to expand human rights protections and empower vulnerable communities, and we stand by our reporting.

Based on everything you’ve seen and researched, where do you see the Irish far-right in a few years’ time? 

The two things that could drive more far-right activity are culture war issues including anti-LGBTQ+ hate and anti-immigrant white supremacist ideology, in particular the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. Globally, both of these ideas are extremely divisive and drive exclusion by threatening the idea of a “traditional” way of life, or how things used to be or ought to be. And there is always the role that tech companies play in every country in proliferating hate, disinformation, and far-right ideas. If these ideas continue to spread and be accepted by more people, the far right will grow, especially if they are spread by influencers. Donald Trump did more to mainstream hate, racism and conspiracy theories here in the US and globally than anyone else in modern history. It is very encouraging to see Irish civil society standing up to racism and hate. Hopefully, that positive activism will keep these movements in check.

Featured image via Screenshot

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