FEATURED: Rob Gallagher on reactionary digital politics (Part 3)

From Racist Memes to Right-Wing Vlogs: Researching Reactionary Digital Politics

By Rob Gallagher

How has the internet reshaped politics? And why does it seem to be right-wingers who are reaping the benefits? These questions drove the research project ‘Political Ideology, Rhetoric and Aesthetics in the Twenty-First Century: The Case of the Alt-Right’, which started in 2018 and wrapped up earlier this year. The project was headed by Alan Finlayson, a professor of political and social theory at the University of East Anglia, and Birkbeck’s Rob Topinka. I joined late in the day, helping Alan and Rob to organise an online conference and to put together the podcast Reactionary Digital Politics.

The initial catalyst for the project came when Alan saw Rob presenting an early version of a research paper later published in New Media & Society as ‘Politically incorrect participatory media: Racist nationalism on r/ImGoingToHellForThis’. Rob’s work chimed with Alan’s growing interest in how reactionary and right-wing groups were using digital platforms to develop new styles of communication and reach new audiences. By the time they were applying for research funding Donald Trump’s shock victory in the 2016 US presidential election - and the much-vaunted role of alt-right meme-mongers in boosting his campaign – had pushed the topic of reactionary digital subcultures firmly onto the mainstream agenda.

Much of Alan’s recent work focuses on how ‘ideological entrepreneurs’ use platforms like YouTube to attract followers and subscribers. Dissecting the techniques deployed by vloggers like Paul Joseph Watson, he has argued that these figures promise to empower viewers by revealing shocking secrets, offering an unholy mix of political commentary, conspiracy theorising and self-help. By contrast, a lot of Rob’s work has focused on anonymous and pseudonymous spaces that are intentionally unwelcoming – not to say actively hostile - to outsiders. Full of opaque in-jokes and esoteric memes, participating in these spaces becomes a kind of collective game where the players push one another to increasingly outrageous extremes.

As this suggests, reactionary digital politics encompasses a wide range of forms, genres, tactics, communities and causes. Our podcast aims to map this landscape for everyday listeners, drawing on interviews with experts on digital culture and politics, right-wing extremism, conspiracy narratives and misinformation. In future posts I’ll be running through what’s covered in each episode.

Image: Untitled by Rob Gallagher