June 17, 2020
IntelBrief: Women in White Supremacist Online Ecosystems
Historically, women have played active roles in most terrorist movements, and narratives about women, gender and society permeate nearly all major terrorist ideologies. Yet, the gender dimension and the role of women in contemporary far-right extremism and white supremacy are generally misunderstood and underexplored outside of the scholarship of a select group of scholars. Women factor heavily in white supremacist narratives, messaging, and propaganda. The online spaces used by proponents and supporters of white supremacy extremism are dominated by rhetoric and visual content that is rooted in misogyny and calls for the subjugation of, and violence against, women. While the umbrella terms ‘far-right’ or ‘white supremacy’ cover a range of individuals, groups, and movements – each with their own agendas and objectives – these groups often converge around the same online ecosystems where common narratives around women begin to emerge and align.
The active roles and participation of women in these online spaces can be difficult to measure. We know that in other terrorist groups women have played key nodes in recruitment, dissemination of propaganda materials, and the use of gender tropes/norms to shame men into participating in the movement. These spaces are largely dominated by anonymity, making it hard to know what accounts, channels and content are managed by or created by women themselves, although experts can make informed determinations based on the posting of gifs, stickers, and which names they select online. Less difficult to study, however, are depictions of women in extremist rhetoric and visual content prolific in the online space. A review of women-focused content disseminated online presents a disturbing picture. Ideologically, white supremacists operating online are rooted in the idea that the white race is threatened by a range of forces working to destroy and replace Western (white) civilization by miscegenation, homosexuality, and feminism. Within this worldview, women tend to play an essential, albeit incongruous role. On the one hand, within this rhetoric white women and girls’ purity need to be defended and protected from violence by outsiders – this is common in rhetoric pushed in these channels that foreign and non-white men seek to kill, rape and abuse Western (white) women. Attacks on white women are not framed as horrific crimes against a woman’s personhood and a violation of her rights and agency; but rather as attacks on white men and their property. Violence against (white) women is used more as a rallying call to action for white men to defend and protect what is theirs.
Rooted in traditional gender roles, white supremacist ideology advocates specific fixed roles for men and women in society – in fact, they advocate these roles as the natural order of things and disseminate narratives that this order has been nefariously disrupted and contaminated by outside forces, including by Jews, feminists, the gay community, Hollywood, and liberal forces. Rhetoric is dominated by racial politics and preoccupation with demographic projections about white populations facing the loss of majority status. Within this context, a host of visual content projects the ideal white woman – as a mother and caregiver of the white nation. This harkens back to the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi ideology, which also encouraged women to reproduce pure white children to offset the incursions of foreigners and non-whites. So-called attractive women also appear in imagery implying that men who join these movements will be rewarded by romantic and sexual attention from women. While some women-specific white supremacist content expresses concern and veneration for women, the vast majority expresses disdain and hostility towards women. White supremacist content online presents a disturbing dichotomy of women deserving of protection from violence and women deserving of retributive violence (presumably to keep them in their place). Past attacks against such disruptive women are celebrated and justified, while future acts of violence against these women are encouraged. Non-white women, especially from communities with high birth rates, are presented as an existential threat to the dominance of the white race. Significant ideological overlap also exists with white supremacy, and elements of the Incel movement, both of which direct hostility against women for using sex or the refusal of sex as an instrument to further belittle men.
White supremacist online ecosystems also depict the intersection of anti-woman and anti-feminist content with racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, anti-democratic and other hateful content. A range of this content advocates for violence against feminists, lesbians and members of LGBTQ+ community, women in interracial relationships, and women ‘traitors’ in media, in advocacy and even in law enforcement and security. The consequences of real-world violence directed against women and girls because of such depictions should be of great concern to policymakers and security practitioners monitoring the growing transnational white supremacist threat. Outside of a few leading experts, further research is necessary in this field to understand how the drivers of terrorism and violent extremism affect and are affected by women, especially within the growing transnational white supremacist movement.
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