World events provided ample opportunities for the radical fringes on the left and right to get their message out
World events provided ample opportunities for the radical fringes on the left and right to get their message out

New research reveals world events including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement are fuelling the mobilisation of Australia’s political fringes on Facebook.

The report was produced by a team of researchers at Victoria University and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue within the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies.

It features research from Dr Mario Peucker, a VU expert in radical political movements.

It outlines findings from an analysis of about 75 far-right and radical-left Facebook pages and public groups in Australia for the first seven months of 2020.

“The report analyses how the far-right and radical left discuss each other on Facebook and how narratives about the other side of the political spectrum shape the online activity of these groups,” Dr Peucker said. “It also seeks to understand how central discussion about the ‘other side’ is to the far-right and far-left and how it fits within the broader online activities of these movements.”

The volume of far-right and far-left Facebook output remained relatively consistent during the period, but saw a notable increase in June, coinciding with worldwide anti-racist protests and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“From the devasting bushfires to the pandemic crisis and the BLM protests, all these events provided ample opportunities for the radical fringes on the left and right to get their message out.”

Dr Peucker said although a strong anti-government stance was prevalent across both movements, their messages couldn’t have been more different and remained true to the movements’ respective ideologies: the far-right pushed a nationalist, anti-egalitarian agenda, while the left advocated against capitalism, for climate justice, and solidarity for workers and other vulnerable groups.

Other findings

  • Discussion about the far-left accounted for 7% of the output of far-right pages and groups over the research period, while discussion about the far-right accounted for 17% of the output of far-left pages. This suggests opposition to the far-right is more central to far-left discussions than opposition to the far-left is to the far-right in the online space in Australia.
  • A limited number of far-right and far-left pages accounted for most content produced about the other side of the political spectrum. This suggests that, while reciprocal far-left and far-right activity online is present across different groups, this content is mainly driven by a small array of particularly active pages.
  • Discussions about COVID-19 increased significantly across the far-right and far-left in March-April, although the ideological focus was radically opposed. While content of far-right pages and by groups blamed China for the spread of the virus and expressed support for border closures, the content of far-left pages and by groups focused on the impact of the pandemic on workers’ rights and the economy
  • China was a rallying topic for the far-right and represented a key theme on far-right pages and far-right groups, with popular posts expressing hostility towards China and Chinese people. Increased discussion about China coincided with a rise in cases of COVID-19 in Europe and President Trump’s description of COVID-19 as a ‘foreign’ and ‘Chinese’ virus.
  • Discussion about COVID-19 led to anti-minority mobilisation on far-right pages, including anti-Muslim narratives, showing that international events were weaponised by the far-right to promote exclusionary agendas.
  • Discussion about the left and the BLM movement increased sharply in far-right groups at a time when protests against institutional racism spread internationally. The Australian far-right’s interest in BLM protests in the US reflects a broader and increasingly studied trend of internationalisation of the far-right, whereby nationalist groups draw on international events to support their agendas and build relationships with far-right groups in other countries. Popular posts on far-right pages attempted to discredit BLM and depict the movement as violent.
  • The BLM movement was also central to the discussion among far-left groups through the lens of police violence. Discussion of police violence increased sharply in June in response to the BLM protests, with popular posts documenting police brutality against protesters and minorities in Australia and beyond.

Read the full report: The Interplay between Australia’s Political Fringes on the Right and Left.