Political Ideology, Rhetoric and Aesthetics in the Twenty-First Century: The Case of the 'Alt-Right'

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Politics Philosophy Lang & Comms Studies

Abstract

The tone and style of public political discourse have, it seems, become more blunt and aggressive. Often this is associated with online 'trolling' but the issue is broader than that. The internet has reduced 'entry costs' to the public sphere, introducing new audiences to new political voices using platforms (anonymous below-the-line comments, 140 character tweets, blogs building partisan audiences) which combine image and text. As a result the ideological landscape is changing and positions seem to be held more stridently. Just as the advent of printing, national newspapers, radio and television changed the shape of what could be thought and said politically (and how and by whom) changes in political communication today are also affecting the form and content of political thinking.

We argue that while all of this cannot be understood without attending to digital technologies it cannot be fully understood with reference to technology alone. New forms and styles of political thinking, arguing and communicating are also linked with, on the one hand, deep changes in democratic politics (such as the 'hollowing out' of political parties and related social-political institutions) and, on the other hand, to much longer histories of ideological theory and practice. For example, some 'trolling' and related forms of political communicative disruption (e.g. organized online attacks) are parts of a wider network of 'alt-right' and related political groups which have had a recognizable impact on Conservatism in the USA and, increasingly, in the UK and Europe. Adherents and participants engage in online dissemination of ideas, arguments with opponents, targeted online engagements and interventions into more traditional political action. They have created and distributed an ideologically charged political vocabulary, including terms such as 'cultural Marxism', 'cuckservative' and 'identitarianism', which has begun to enter the mainstream, changing the shape of Conservative and right-wing political thought and rhetoric. We will develop our study of general changes in political thinking and communicating through a case-study of these movements focusing on a range of political positions and groups including anti-state ultra-libertarians, white nationalists, men's rights activists and advocates of a form of 'scientific racism' known as Human Bio-Diversity (HBD).

Combining contemporary cultural and political theory, political science and political sociology, rhetoric and research into visual and digital cultures the project aims to:

1) develop concepts for understanding what happens to political thinking and ideology in digital culture.
2) develop and apply methods combining history of political thought, political science and (digital) Humanities.
3) refine and test these through a case-study of the 'alt-right' (interviews with alt-right/conservative thinkers and activists, study of the movement's historical & ideological lineage and analysis of how online forums, formats and visual styles contribute to and constitute its rhetorical form and ideological content).

The project thus refines and combines theories and methods for understanding and analyzing the relationships between political communication and ideologies and, through the case study, enriches research into the ideology and politics of the 'alt-right'.

As part of the project we will organise cross-disciplinary symposia leading to the publication of an edited book. We will publish the main findings of the project as a book about ideology and online communication and as academic articles in journals from across the fields with which the project is engaged. In addition the project will lead to the creation of a 'Dictionary of Trolling and Internet Argumentation' (to be made available online and disseminated to political commentators and activists) and a podcast series exploring the alt-right and wider changes to political ideologies, rhetoric, image and argument.

Planned Impact

The project's research findings will bear on a large number of issues of concern to those involved in politics and political communication including a range of political actors as well as the general public. The relevant findings divide into two: general findings concerning changing cultures and practices of democratic politics and debate; specific findings concerning the political ideology and activity of the alt-right and related movements. Our impact strategy reflects these two distinct strands. Overall we believe that the research can, should and will have impact on:

- the understanding by online and other political journalists of the ways in which their work forms part of a larger, dynamic and changing ecology of ideologies, rhetorics and political ideas
- political professionals' attitude towards and understanding of changes in political culture and communication
- the professional practice of speechwriters and others responsible for mainstream and government political communications
- the awareness of political specialists and the general public of alt-right activity and of changes in Conservative, Right-Wing and related ideologies
- the capacity of think tanks, charities and related groups concerned with issues of race and racism, misogyny and hate speech
- political journalists understanding of and reporting on alt-right and related political activity including the broader reconfiguration of the ideological landscape of our politics

To engage with and have impact upon these potential user-groups we have developed these pathways:

1) Project Symposia: The two symposia in year 1 and another in year 3 will include practitioners so that their needs are taken on board as the research takes place. These will include representatives of think-tanks, advocates and others involved in politics around race and gender politics.

2) Impact Symposium: a closing event in London for non-HEI practitioners including political journalists from traditional outlets (with which the PI has engaged) and from newer outlets such as Vice and Buzzfeed. Participants will be invited to discuss their understanding and experiences of online political culture. The project team will present their findings and launch the e-book (see below).

3) Journalism: We will promote project findings and open up further pathways across the three years by writing for mainstream publications. We envisage writing about the research for websites such as Open Democracy and The Conversation, magazines such as The New Statesman, The London Review of Books and in the US the New York Review of Books and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

4) 'A Dictionary of Trolling and Internet Argumentation': A downloadable 'e-book' will summarise findings from the project explaining the ways in which new media reshape political vocabularies across the ideological landscape and how alt-right memes are formed and function (with examples). Launched in hard copy at the final symposium the e-book will also be publicised and post-project we will offer seminars and workshops to groups such as The Fawcett Society and Hope Not Hate and also to think-tanks from across the political spectrum (with which the PI has a relationship) such as Policy Exchange, Fabian Society, New Economics Foundation and IPPR.

5) A series of podcasts: these will be a major public-facing and impact-oriented output. Produced as radio-packages (rather than only live conversation) with the help of an experienced professional these will be at least 6 in number and at least 30 minutes long. Some will explore and explain general issues concerning political ideologies and argumentation and some will focus on the alt-right and include extracts from interviews with alt-right thinkers and their critics as well as discussion between the project team. We will make these available via the main podcast distribution networks and seek to publicise them in part via other political and culture oriented podcast

Publications

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De Keulenaar E (2021) A free market in extreme speech: Scientific racism and bloodsports on YouTube in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

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Finlayson A (2018) The Metaphysics of Brexit in Third Text

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Finlayson A (2019) 7. Rethinking Political Communication in The Political Quarterly

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Finlayson A (2021) Neoliberalism, the Alt-Right and the Intellectual Dark Web in Theory, Culture & Society

 
Title Reactionary Digital Politics Podcast Series 
Description An eight-part podcast series reporting on the findings of the research. It features interviews with leading scholars and researchers in this field - including Whitney Phillips, Matthew Feldman, Becca Lewis and Wu Ming 1 - it asks why and how right-wing reactionary groups have been so successful in using digital technologies to push their ideologies, exploring the history and theory to assess the prospects for politics in an age of digital communication. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact Launched in October 2021 the podcast has received 3146 downloads as of 23rd Feb. Anecdotally we are aware that it has been added to reading lists for college courses in the UK and the US. The podcast has also led to a series of invitations of team members to give further talks. 
URL https://reactionarydigitalpoliticspodcast.wordpress.com
 
Description Research has found that:

- digital platforms have created spaces that are hugely important in the presentation and circulation of political ideas and ideologies, in ways that are not fully appreciated by traditional politics and politicians; this is changing the landscape of political ideologies at a very deep level
- digital media enable an increase in the number and influence of 'ideological entrepreneurs' - individuals able to make a living off politics by disseminating ideological perspectives but not confined by the professional rules and obligations associated with politicians and journalists; this sort of activity has markedly increased in the context of the Covid19 pandemic as 'anti-vax' ideological entrepreneurs have fused with QAnon and Alt-Right entrepreneurs to create new ideological hybrids.
- social media, while at one level 'spreadable' and characterised by flow are also in some cases characterised by attempts to halt the flow, to constitute spaces where stabilised political 'subcultures' can develop and emerge, with which users may have deep affective attachments and which give rise to intense forms of political-ideological identification (and radicalisation)
- a key effect of digital platforms is the creation of new genres of persuasive political communication; such genres organise our political thinking, including our thinking about what politics is. Digital media doesn't only change who thinks about politics and what they think but also how we think about what it is to be political and what acting politically looks like
- a key characteristic of online political discourse (especially but not exclusively on the right of the spectrum) is the centrality of a trope of 'secrets', of things hidden which an ideological entrepreneur will reveal, of occluded knowledges to be made transparent. This gives to online political rhetorics a 'charismatic' aspect - successful online ideological entrepreneurs promise to explain the meanings of texts and events and in so doing to empower and embolden their followers; online political activity becomes a kind of 'game' of clicking and searching to 'find' and 'reveal' the connections which show what is 'really' going on
- digital communication overflows the previously normal boundaries of political ideologies, the distinctions between subregions of 'the right' and even between left and right, in ways which are conflicting with traditional forms of political organisation; they also blur the boundaries between national political traditions creating complex situations where political ideas and arguments which work in one national context are being applied to another and creating strain
Exploitation Route The findings can inform those working on political education and seeing either to counteract misinformation online or to develop forms of political education online;

The findings pose questions not yet properly asked by mainstream politics about how to communicate and organise politics online; these questions, if asked, can help inform innovations in the democratic process that make use of digital practices while also avoiding their pitfalls;

The research appropriately complicates propositions that 'misinformation' online can be tackled simply through regulation or through ignoring its widespread production and dissemination. It shows the need to understand that specific moments of 'misinformation' are part of a much wider assemblage of elements and thus also the full appeal of the ideas of which they are a part. Only on the basis of this sort of understanding can appropriate rhetorics be developed in response.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice

URL https://reactionarydigitalpoliticspodcast.wordpress.com
 
Description Address to The English Association 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact An address to The English Association, at their colloquium "English in the World 1: From the Outside". The talk concerned research and teaching in Rhetoric, and the relationship between these and English Studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.ies.sas.ac.uk/events/conferences/english-world-1-outside
 
Description Lunchtime Discussion Meeting with the Institute of Public Policy Research 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A presentation with Q&A about how the think tank might reflect on and learn about rhetoric and politics. There was widespread discussion of the nature of rhetoric and argument and the qualities (or lack thereof) of politicians today. There was also discussion of the importance of online spaces, how platforms such as YouTube are creating new kinds or genres of rhetoric and how this is affecting politics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Participation in panel on "Free Speech Online?" organised by the Kings College London Blockchain Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A panel discussion about legal and political aspects of 'free-speech' online provided an opportunity to disseminate findings from the project to an audience of over 100. This sparked discussion about the ways in which the formats of digital platforms are challenging legal, social and political relations nationally and internationally.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Participation on Panel for "Behind the Headlines: History, Hope and the Political Speech" Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute, Dublin 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Participation in a panel on political speech, part of the series of public events 'Behind the Headlines' organised by Trinity College Dublin. Several hundred attended the online event (from UK, Ireland, America) which involved intense discussion on the rights and wrongs of rhetoric, the changing nature of the political speech and how digital media have affected political rhetoric. Findings from research projects were discussed, a project report/booklet disseminated. This sparked lively informative discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub/whats-on/details/event.php?eventid=150814384
 
Description Podcast of Public Lecture - "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The activity is the downloadable podcast of the public lecture "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" was delivered as the inaugural lecture of the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London. The lecture discussed a wide range of aspects of British political and rhetorical culture, past and present, focusing in particular on the decline in rhetorical culture in the 20th century and the ways in which, in the 21st, online rhetorics have come to the fore. The attendance was around 100, the lecture lasted for about 50 minutes and there was lively discussion and debate for another 70-80 minutes. Attendees described the evening as very informative and thought-provoking.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2018/11/alan-finlayson-the-changing-rhetorical-culture-of-british-p...
 
Description Public Lecture - "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The public lecture "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" was delivered as the inaugural lecture of the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London. The lecture discussed a wide range of aspects of British political and rhetorical culture, past and present, focusing in particular on the decline in rhetorical culture in the 20th century and the ways in which, in the 21st, online rhetorics have come to the fore. The attendance was around 100, the lecture lasted for about 50 minutes and there was lively discussion and debate for another 70-80 minutes. Attendees described the evening as very informative and thought-provoking. The lecture was recorded and made available online. This is reported on separately.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.csbppl.com/events/the-changing-rhetorical-culture-of-british-politics-from-parliament-and...
 
Description Public Talk on the 'narrative' of the 'Alt-Right' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I addressed a public meeting, one of the events organised as part of "The World Transformed" political fringe of the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. I talked about the ideology of the 'alt-right', their analysis of how we got to where we are socially/politically and what they think should be done. There were questions and discussion afterwards. Over 180 people attended mostly members or associates of the British Labour Party. As a result I have been asked to speak at other events (though none are arranged as yet).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Rethinking Democracy: Launch with Andrew Gamble, Alan Finlayson, Jackie Harrison and Michael Jacobs. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A discussion and debate linked to the launch of the Rethinking Democracy issue of Political Quarterly which included an article by me drawing on research from the project. I talked about how digital media (and especially YouTube) are changing the nature of political rhetoric and this ideology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Talk at Birkbeck Institute for Social Research Urban Intersections series 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Over 100 audience members joined a Zoom seminar event to hear me speak with Bharath Ganesh of the University of Groningen about the relationship between the far right, digital media, and urban culture. The talk was well received, and based on the overlaps in our talk Ganesh and I are in the initial stages of proposing a special issue of an academic journal on the understudied relationship between urban culture and far-right extremism.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL http://www.bbk.ac.uk/events/remote_event_view?id=14170
 
Description Talk to School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Approximately 40 academics and members of the public attended my Zoom talk on digital political culture, focusing on a case study of a community on Reddit dedicated to the support of Donald Trump. The talk sparked many questions, and the event organiser had to cut off questions because we had run over time. I received emails afterward from colleagues reporting that the talk had reshaped their research questions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021