Thoughts on 'Going Dark. The Secret Social Lives of Extremists' by Julia Ebner

Ebner's book details her time undercover with various extremist groups and factions, providing insight on how they recruit, indoctrinate and utilise their followers.

Going Dark by Julia Ebner explores the nature of extremism through first hand undercover experiences with members of various insular groups. From speaking to Trad Wives to members of Alt Right and White Supremacist groups she highlights the instrumental role online spaces play in founding and cementing group dynamics centred around ideologies and belief systems at the extreme ends of public opinion.


Ebner's work with the Institute of Strategic Dialogue as well as her own ongoing research into the lives of extremists and their behaviour has resulted in a wealth of experience on the subject of extremism in its many forms. Going Dark is usefully structured around the stages of building an impactful extremist movement: Recruitment, Socialisation, Communication, Networking, Mobilisation and Attack. This structure provides a comparative framework exemplifying how groups with polarised views utilise similar tactics to expand their following.


Ebner eloquently strikes a balance between documenting the individuals she interacts with and the group that they belong to. Unlike many popular journalistic investigations into the lives of extremists such as Louis Theroux’s Louis and the Nazis documentary or Jon Ronson’s book: 'Them: Adventures with Extremists', Ebner’s book is clearly the culmination of work which has not only sought to document, but rather to protect, inform and promote change.


Gamification and Propaganda


Going Dark highlights how a ‘cause’ can provide people with a sense of belonging and achievement. Community is important*. The use of pop culture references, memes and gamification are all key tools which groups are using to engage followers and provide a sense of value and community. The overlap between internet culture and extreme ideology incubates this sense of belonging and what captured my attention most of all was the focus on the gamification that groups employ to keep their followers hooked.


Followers viewing live streamed terror attacks invokes imagery common from playing first person shooter games like Call of Duty (Mackintosh and Mezzofiore, 2019). In fact some groups such as ISIS have made direct reference to Call of Duty in their recruitment materials, while others modify existing games to make consuming propaganda an interactive experience. As researcher Schlegal (2020) points out, it is the immersion this offers as well as the 'coolness' which can draw people in.


Ebner's book highlights how game-like elements such as points, badges or rankings are also built into the fabric of how different groups interact. Awarding points or badges on online platforms for increased participation or disrupting public events or 'spreading the message' earns kudos marked by these visual indicators and provides followers with increased feelings of competence (Schlegal, 2020). Positive acknowledgement breeds a desire for further interaction with group ideology, something which Kruglanski et al. (2019) call the 'quest for significance'. Being valued for your input and contributions solidifies the group as part of your identity and collecting markers of recognition works similarly to levelling up in a video game.



Recommendations for a more Positive Future


Going Dark does serve to draw attention to the insidiousness of extremist groups as well as the consequences for public figures who speak out about their experiences with such groups. Ebner herself describes her tense encounters with members of the Alt right. However, the conclusion to Going Dark details some of the more promising strategies for countering extremist indoctrination and attack.

Ebner highlights some of the organisations and groups who are part of the counter conversation to extremism. She draws attention to Hate Aid who aim to build the resilience of at risk audiences while providing advice for those who are subject to online hate and providing litigation support where necessary.


Organisations like the Institute for Strategic Dialogue utilise the skills of psychologists, former extremists and survivors of terror attacks to de-radicalise indoctrinated followers or those who may become at risk of radicalisation. Ebner also highlights the need for policy which helps to prevent polarisation citing how algorithms and micro marketing strategies play a role in creating an echo chamber of opinion in the online spaces we frequent.



Final Thoughts

There will always be extremist sentiment and it will always find a place to try and make itself heard - whether it's online, in a town centre with a placard, or in the speeches of those in power. However, there are real opportunities to bolster counter conversations which promote a more inclusive, tolerant and empathetic society.


Going Dark is recommended reading for anyone who is interested in closed communities. Ebner's style of reporting will also appeal to fans of undercover documentaries or ethnographic style journalism.


 

* I further explore the importance of community and network in my article discussing the documentary: Beyond the Curve

Sources

Kruglanski, A., Bélanger, J. and Gunaratna, R. (2019) The Three Pillars of Radicalization: Needs, Narratives, and Networks. Oxford University Press: New York


Mackintosh, E. and Mezzofiore, G. (2019). How the extreme-right gamified terror. CNN (October 10, 2019).


Schlegal, L. (2020) Jumanji Extremissm? How Games and Gamification could Facilitate Radicalization Processes. Journal for Deradicalization (23)