In Going Mainstream: How Extremists Are Taking Over, Julia Ebner interrogates how circumstances including the pandemic, global conflict and rapid technological change have pushed extreme political views from the fringe into the mainstream. Drawing on interviews with far-right extremists, Ebner builds a compelling framework for understanding and countering the mainstreaming of extreme ideas, writes Lena Schorlemer.
Going Mainstream: How Extremists Are Taking Over. Julia Ebner. Ithaka Press. 2023.
“They kill babies to extract adenochrome,” says a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory, taking part in an anti-vaccine covid protest in London’s Hyde Park in late September 2021. By “they”, he vaguely refers to an alleged satanic global elite of child abusers who run a covert sex-trafficking ring and extract the chemical compound adenochrome to maintain youthfulness. A year before this protest in London, QAnon had already amassed more than 4.5 million aggregated followers on social media in at least 15 countries. The Covid-19 pandemic only accelerated the global rise of QAnon’s followers. By January 2022, a group of QAnon-inspired hardline anti-vaxxers known as the Alpha Men Assemble were preparing to fight the British government’s rollout of the Covid vaccine by training in military-style combat techniques. So how have extreme conspiracy theories and fringe views become mainstream? And how can their spread be stopped?
Fringe groups that initially have a marginal impact on public discourse follow a pattern of gradual mainstreaming.
These are the questions that extremism researcher and investigative journalist Julia Ebner explores in her latest book, Going Mainstream: How Extremists Are Taking Over. Without explicitly saying so, Ebner focuses exclusively on the far right in her quest to understand how fringe groups have managed to conquer the political centre. According to Ebner, fringe groups that initially have a marginal impact on public discourse follow a pattern of gradual mainstreaming. As they begin to create powerful international networks and build their own or exploit existing alternative media ecosystems, they gradually become more influential and affect public attitudes. Through a hostile social backlash against progressive movements, fringe groups succeed in changing what is considered acceptable in public discourse. The continued violent escalation of liberal versus illiberal visions of the future, also referred to as proxy culture wars, paves the way for the mass adoption of extreme ideas. For each step in her causal chain, Ebner examines one far-right fringe group, including the involuntary celibacy or “incel” subculture, White Lives Matter, anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers.
Through a hostile social backlash against progressive movements, fringe groups succeed in changing what is considered acceptable in public discourse.
Given that Ebner uses a different fringe group to explain each step in the causal chain (and leaving aside the question of how well the framework of the causal chain holds up to explain the mainstreaming of each fringe group discussed), there are three shortcomings in Ebner’s argument. First, she does not clearly explain the role of shared grievances in the ability of fringe groups to cultivate what she calls powerful international networks. In her discussion of the incel subculture, Ebner alludes to shared struggles over sexual exclusion experienced by members, but she does not elaborate on how these perceived grievances act as a unifying force among an otherwise relatively heterogeneous group. In addition, Ebner mentions the increased number of crises in recent years but does not explain how these have affected the levels of frustration and fear among different members of societies. Although grievances seem to be a necessary precondition for Ebner’s argument, she does not explain how grievances arise or how they unite members of groups.
Secondly, Ebner does not discuss the role of latent extreme (right-wing) views. Her argument is that fringe groups can create powerful international networks and spread their ideas through alternative media ecosystems. Apart from the question of the role of grievances in making people susceptible to extreme ideas, her argument also neglects the role of latently held extreme ideas that come to the fore in culture wars and contribute to the mainstreaming of manifestly extreme ideas. Studies such as the Leipzig Authoritarianism Study show that, despite a decline in explicitly authoritarian beliefs, latently held beliefs (when respondents partially agree with extreme and authoritarian statements) can remain relatively high and function as a mobilising potential. The prevalence of latently held extreme views does not feature in Ebner’s argument about the ability of fringe groups to disseminate their views through alternative media and to fuel hostile social backlashes against progressive movements.
Despite a decline in explicitly authoritarian beliefs, latently held beliefs […] can remain relatively high and function as a mobilising potential.
Thirdly, Ebner does not distinguish between the various fringe groups in terms of the extent to which they have become mainstream, nor does she explain how the various extreme views or conspiracy theories associated with fringe groups are mutually reinforcing. She acknowledges that certain extremist ideas, such as white nationalism, may embrace anti-feminist, climate change denial or anti-vax ideologies, but she does not distinguish between the different ideologies and how they are interrelated and contribute to the cultivation of international networks or cultural proxy wars.
Despite these shortcomings, Ebner’s book provides a compelling, albeit high-level, framework for understanding the mainstreaming of extreme ideas – a pressing issue of global concern. Drawing on discussions with five other experts, Ebner also offers valuable insights into countering the spread of extreme ideas, suggesting strategies for policymakers, technology companies, researchers, and digital citizens. These strategies include addressing the underlying structural and psychological causes of extremism, better identifying common grievances and extremist tactics as they evolve in real time, pre-empting information by empowering individuals to spot factual distortions, implementing credible online interventions by actors who speak the language of the community at risk of extremism, and reclaiming the language associated with liberal values that has been co-opted by extremists. Ebner’s insightful recommendations serve as a starting point for the various actors involved in countering extremism.
Ebner offers valuable insights into countering the spread of extreme ideas, suggesting strategies for policymakers, technology companies, researchers, and digital citizens.
In conclusion, Ebner’s book tackles an important question and offers a plausible explanation for how extreme ideas permeate mainstream society. While her writing style is engaging and her first-hand experience of infiltrating fringe groups is fascinating, her overarching argument could benefit from further refinement and detail. In particular, exploring the role of grievances, latent extremism and the interconnections between ideologies in case study research could prove beneficial. Nevertheless, Ebner’s strategies for countering extremism are thought-provoking and should be seriously considered and implemented by stakeholders committed to combating the mainstreaming of extremist ideas.
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