Dismantling the 'Alt-Right Playbook': YouTuber explains how online radicalization works
A man salutes and yells "white power" after being stopped from entering the Richard Spencer speaking event by a group of protesters on Monday, March 5, 2018, outside the Michigan State University Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education in East Lansing Mich. (Nick King/Lansing State Journal via AP)
Warning – Content in this story and accompanying video may be disturbing to some, and features strong language
TORONTO – Ian Danskin, the creator and proprietor of Innuendo Studios, is an American YouTuber with a mission -- to examine and help dismantle how the alt-right actively works to recruit new members in online spaces.
Danskin, who is considered a member of “BreadTube,” a community of left-wing YouTubers and the Reddit thread associated with them, painstakingly researches, illustrates, narrates, edits and posts his work in a video series entitled “The Alt-Right Playbook” on his YouTube channel for thousands of subscribers.
Danskin had previously featured content on his channel about video games, but after the 2014 “Gamergate” controversy began, he began talking about male entitlement in the gamer community – including the techniques used by those perpetuating the targeted harassment to recruit others to their campaign. Then when Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States, and the prevalence of the alt-right and white nationalists in North America were propelled into the public eye, Danskin felt his attention shift.
“When Trump got elected, I noticed a lot of overlaps between the Gamergate and alt-right recruitment techniques and infiltration of communities,” Danskin said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca from Massachusetts. “Right away I messaged my patrons [on membership site Patreon] to let them know that my videos were going to be explicitly more political.”
His latest video, “The Alt-Right Playbook: How to Radicalize a Normie” is a 41-minute explainer that exposes how white men, most often young, cisgender and heterosexual, are recruited into the alt-right movement. A “normie” is a slang term coined on forum sites like 4chan and 8chan for a “normal person” who has commonly held beliefs or interests that fall outside the insular community discussing them.
Danskin’s video lays out the five steps the alt-right uses to ensnare new members by narrating the story of single subject, whom Danskin refers to as “Gabe,” a young, white man. By using the framework provided by his research on extremist online recruitment for groups such as ISIS, Danskin’s video helps expose the warning signs that someone may be at risk for recruitment.
Step one: Identify the audience
“Step one is about the types of people the alt-right are looking for, who is vulnerable to their message and how those groups overlap,” Danskin said.
The main target of alt-right recruitment is primarily “straight, white cis men who feel emasculated by society” Danskin says in his video, adding that these men are “anxious about not feeling the way a confident white man is ‘supposed’ to feel,” and bigotry is being “sold to them” as a cure to whatever form those anxieties take.
Psychologist Dr. Ghayda Hassan has more than 13 years of experience researching extremism and radicalization, and has found that vulnerable parties to online recruitment “usually have three circles: disaffiliation, exposure to violence -- whether online or in real life -- and despair or anger,” she said in a telephone interview from Montreal with CTV News.ca.
Hassan is a professor of psychology at the Universite de Quebec au Montreal, head of the Canadian Practitioners Network for the Prevention of Radicalization and Extremist Violence and UNESCO co-chair in prevention of extremist violence.
“It’s when those three circles interact that it is troubling…these people are searching for support and fulfilment,” she said. “The internet is a massive recruitment space…and exposure to extremist content acts as a catalyst of adoption of those views, or vulnerable parties acting on [those views].”
In his YouTube video, the recruitment subject, whom Danskin refers to as “Gabe,” may have niche interests that are not necessarily popular in the mainstream, which can cause him to feel isolated or victimized. It’s that vulnerability that the alt-right feeds on, by moving to step two.
Step two: Establish a community
The alt-right targets people socially, with “the ideology is the price of admission to the community” -- one that Gabe, who is lonely and feels wronged, is willing to pay for a sense of belonging, Danskin said in his interview.
“The alt-right will infiltrate any community that has a large white male population, whose niche interests allow them to feel vaguely marginalized and who are not used to progressive critiques of said interests,” Danskin says in the “How to Radicalize a Normie” video, using examples of comic books and the sci-fi mega-series Star Wars.
“Either they create a community that appeals to the subject or they infiltrate a community the subject is already a part of,” Danskin says in the video.
For the alt-right, that infiltration can often fall under exposure to extremist content on message boards on forum sites like 4chan and 8chan, the birthplace of “red pilling,” the men’s rights movement rooted in extreme misogyny, or in the “fandom” of a “charismatic” alt-right figurehead.
Step three: Isolation
To keep recruitment subjects interested and stuck in the rhetoric, the alt-right needs to separate them from other communities that may challenge the alt-right’s message, Danskin said.
“Many of the alt-right movements and their media presume an alienation from the left,” Danskin says in the video. “One way they do this is by making the left look “pathetic” by posting “take-downs” and mockery.”
That alienation can “guide the recruitment subject into replacing any normal contact with progressive media with content that is filtered through an echo-chamber and lens of alt-right-generated mockery and caricature.” Then by extension, progressive media sources are replaced by alt-right “community approved ones,” Danskin narrates in his video.
It is a sentiment echoed by Hassan. “There is an echo-chamber effect, especially with social media, the more we search for something, the more we receive or are sent this information similar to it [sic]. This normalizes it, and desensitizes it. Social media hate discourse increases social polarization, gives a feeling of legitimacy and normalcy to hateful rhetoric and people can do it anonymously,” she said.
Algorithms play a part in pushing the subject further down the rabbit-hole, and will stop suggesting content from left-leaning news and media sources. YouTube has previously come under fire for their “Up next” playlist feature repeatedly suggesting videos with content from hate groups, conspiracy theorists and misogynistic content after users search for basic news-related items.
Consuming only one type of media for an extended period of time “stymies the subject’s ability to have parasocial relationships” with anyone not in the alt-right community, Danskin says in the video. This behaviour is “not forced, only encouraged” which can make it seem “safe to consider.”
Step four: Raise their power level
“Increasing their power level [a 4chan term referring to popular anime series Dragon Ball Z] means radicalizing them by increasing the stakes of the kind of commentary people are exposed to, desensitizing them and softly encouraging them to ‘go further,’” Danskin said in his interview.
Danskin illustrates the levels of power in the alt-right system in his video by using an onion and its layers as a metaphor.
At the beginning, the recruitment subject is on the outer layer, where “extremism [is] in its most plausibly deniable form…where bigotry is simply trolling, the sites are just distasteful, extremists are just a minority and any harassment reported is fake.”
But “there is no virtual versus real life divide -- what happens in the virtual space is intimately connected to the real-life space,” Hassan said, so desensitization will bleed into the subject’s offline life.
As time goes on, and the subject continues further into the ideology, each layer sells itself as the “ultimate truth,” Danskin continues, and because the recruitment subject is now isolated, the contradictions to the alt-right’s message do not penetrate, and they feel the “only way forward is to seek out the next red pill, the next full truth, the next layer.”
Danskin notes that in each layer, most of the extremist content and reactionary media the subject will be exposed to is incredibly repetitive and most is “derivative.”
“Repetition dulls the shock of the most egregious statements, making them seem normal and prepping him [the recruitment subject] for more extreme ideas,” Danskin says in the video.
Step five: Getting a mission
Recruitment between extremist groups such as ISIS and the alt-right differ in step five, Danskin says.
“Normally the final step in radicalization [of a subject] is getting a mission” such as an attack on a target or a martyr suicide bomb directive seen with ISIS, “but the alt-right can’t do this,” he says in the video, “Because with clear directives [and missions] you cannot play yourself off as an unaffiliated group of hashtags and think tanks and edgy jokers -- you become a formalized movement that is accountable to and for its followers that can be policed and judged as such.”
This leaves these incredibly angry young men “left to stew in their own hate, the subject is bereft because no one has given him anything to do,” Danskin says in his video, adding that this system is a “machine for producing lone wolves, enabling them to enact terror offences while being just outside what the social consensus of what a terrorist ‘looks like.’”
The El Paso gunman posted his supposed “manifesto” on forum website 8chan, which is notorious for hosting alt-right and white nationalist content, and the Christchurch mosque shooter tipped off the alt-right message boards he frequented before livestreaming his attack that ended up killing 51 people.
In North America, “we over-concentrated on [researching] ISIS recruitment for obvious reasons, and we neglected the powerful recruitment of the alt-right and white nationalism,” Hassan said. “They did not attract as much attention, they do not publically call for violence as ISIS has done.”
“The non-public discourse [of the alt-right] is as violent as ISIS,” Hassan said. “But the alt-right has found the ‘soft’ way of gaining legitimacy across Canada by pursuing a rhetoric and public discourse that is not as [overtly] violent [as groups like ISIS].”
Danskin says in this video that recruitment subjects approach violent acts in the same way they approach the alt-right – in layers. It may start with attacking people on social media, leading to doxxing, where someone’s personal identification, address , social media accounts or place of work is maliciously leaked, or spreading sensitive private photos or video -- all of it becomes “a game of one-upmanship” within the community.
Part of that is the framing of the left or any “other” outside the alt-right community as subhuman.
Danskin uses the popular tagline hawked by the alt-right, “feminism is cancer,” as an example. “What do you do with cancers? You don’t have a respectful discourse with it – you eradicate it… The alt-right frames this [ideology] as necessary and righteous.”
How to leave the alt-right
Researching the alt-right is difficult as it is a comparatively “younger” movement and has a heavy, decentralized presence online, Danskin said, but research into other extreme movements allows a window into the organization.
There was a “very clear pattern of isolation, engulfment and pain” that can be found in “totalitarian governments, cults and other extremist groups,” that overlap with the alt-right allowing him to build a reference framework, Danskin said in his interview.
Hassan agrees. “All [extremist groups] have common tactics of recruitment, Canadian groups are learning from European groups and it’s a globalization movement, gaining more and more knowledge,” she said, reiterating that there is research being done on the alt-right groups operating in Canada.
Danskin found there were myriad ways people leave the alt-right: whether they grow out of it, become disillusioned with the group, get shocked out of their pattern of behaviour or form and revisit relationships outside of the network.
Sometimes it comes down to the people who know the recruitment subject having tough conversations with them, Hassan said.
“It’s not about questioning, it’s not an interrogation, it allows them to open up so you can see what is fuelling this,” she said, adding that “the goal is not to be judgmental or confrontational – as confrontation can break the relationship or drive the person further into the rhetoric.”
Hassan said these conversations are a way of critically examining of “what needs does this exposure [to violent extremist content] fulfill? What is the exposure answering for the subject? There have to be alternative solutions to the needs.”
Both Hassan and Danskin agree there is more to be done by the platforms that host online content.
“Meaningful change will require reform on the part of platform holders,” Danskin says in his video. “Tools ... are being used on ISIS, but not on the alt-right because they try hard not to be classified as terrorists.”
And, there is the added strain that “any functioning anti-radicalization policy would require banning a lot of conservative politicians” from platforms.
“Are internet companies doing what they have to do? No,” Hassan said. “They have a lot of work to do, they are responsible for what is on their platforms and they should be more engaged in it.”
But it is a complex, multi-faceted issue, she said. “There needs to be a mix of initiatives from all levels of the government down to the family, community and schools.
“The government has a role and responsibility to ensure that all sections of society are engaged and accountable for their actions…we need a governmental response, and we’re heading there, but there is more to be done,” she said. Hassan said further collaboration with big tech companies and a structured government oversight plan is needed to start de-platforming extremist groups like the alt-right.
Danskin hopes his video series and other online tools will help people who may be struggling with the upswing of violence both online and in real-life “feel less overwhelmed and help them process what’s going on, and come up with ideas what to do about it.”
“One thing we have the alt-right doesn’t is hope,” he said.
Edited by Producer Michael Stittle and Senior Producer Mary Nersessian