You are here: American University School of International Service News Mainstreaming White Supremacy: A Twitter Analysis of the American ‘Alt-Right’


Mainstreaming White Supremacy: A Twitter Analysis of the American ‘Alt-Right’

By  | 

A protest against the alt-right.

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016 has heralded a resurgence of old views about race, gender, and immigration that many believed belonged to the ash heap of history. But platforms like Twitter and the relative anonymity afforded by the Internet have provided fresh oxygen to those who hold far-right, isolationist, misogynist, and xenophobic views. Add some clever self-branding by this movement’s new leaders, and a recipe for mainstreaming views once thought to be fringe has emerged in the form of the “alt-right.”

SIS professor and senior associate dean Carolyn Gallaher has published an article in Gender, Place & Culture, titled “Mainstreaming white supremacy: a twitter analysis of the American ‘Alt-Right’,” which analyzes representative samples of tweets from five of this movement’s leaders. We caught up with Professor Gallaher to ask some questions about the article and what she learned from immersing herself in the “alt-right” Twittersphere.

Read Gallaher’s full original article with access provided by American University Library.

Q: First off, although the title of the article includes the term “alt-right,” you explain at the outset why you prefer not to use it. Why do you prefer not to use the term “alt-right”?

The alt-right right is a white nationalist group. It supports white supremacy and anti-Semitism. It is best defined as a hate movement. Leaders in the movement use the term “alt-right,” instead of white supremacist or neo-Nazi, because they want to come across as normal—as a respectable viewpoint on the right of the political spectrum. As such, the term “alt-right” is a code word, and I don’t want to help them normalize their hate. They should be called a hate movement. As such, when I use the term, I prefer to put it in scare quotes.

Q: How is today’s “alt-right” similar to paleoconservatives of the 1920s, and how are they different from conservatives, or “Reagan Republicans,” of the 1980s?

Many of the “alt-right’s” ideas draw on Paleoconservative ideology. Paleoconservatives dominated the right wing of the political spectrum until World War II. In the 1970s, new actors like William F. Buckley emerged on the right. Buckley, and others like him, supplanted paleoconservatives, leading scholars to refer to the post-1970s political right as “the new right.” Unlike their paleoconservative predecessors, the new right believed the US should use its power and military to meet American interests across the globe. New right leaders supported so-called globalization, including free trade, global rules for trade, and international treaties. Reagan was the first “new right” president. The alt-right looks at Reagan as a traitor to America.

Q: How does the relative anonymity of the Internet contribute to the rise of the “alt-right”?

Anonymous internet culture allows people to behave badly—to call people names, to use racial slurs, to intimidate people, to threaten women—without facing consequences in their everyday lives. The “alt-right” didn’t create internet anonymity, but they harnessed it to go after their perceived enemies. The “alt-right” enemies list is long, but “alt-right” trolls have tended to reserve its worst vitriol for women and people of color. They have also viciously attacked mainstream Republicans for being ‘traitors’ to the right.

Q: You analyzed representative samples of tweets from five “alt-right” leaders in your study. You used a complex method of coding to identify and analyze trends. Briefly, what were the main trends? What surprised you?

I identified three trends. First, the “alt-right” is trying to normalize white identity politics. They want people to believe that white people are like other racial and ethnic identities that face oppression because of their race. Second, although the “alt-right” is deeply misogynistic, most of its tweets during my analysis period discussed women in ways that are similar to right-wing evangelicals—i.e., women need male protection and have an important role in society as homemakers. This framing suggests “alt-right” leaders are trying to present themselves as (and perhaps strategically align themselves with) evangelicals and other social conservatives. Given the venomous nature of the movement’s attacks on women in cyberspace, these tweets suggest it is trying to present a public image very different from its actual behavior. Third, when the “alt-right” discussed racial groups, it often did so with reference to middle eastern and African migrants coming into Europe. Although all of my sample leaders are American, they discussed Latinx in the US infrequently. My view is that the focus on Europe is an attempt to redefine Europe as a white homeland, as a geographic anchor for whiteness.

Two things surprised me about my analysis. First, there was no trolling during my period of analysis. I believe this is an important finding because it means that in between the trolling, “alt-right” leaders are trying to normalize themselves and their message with a ‘softer’ side. Second, I was surprised that there were so few mentions of Latinx in the US. Just before and during my study period, President Trump frequently described migrants from Latin America as rapists and criminals. I had expected a larger focus on immigration to the US, but instead I found that when immigration was mentioned, it was most frequently done so with reference to Europe.

Q: With all the noise on Twitter, why should the average person who doesn’t hold these views care about the mainstreaming of “alt-right” views you describe?

The “alt-right” is actively trying to recruit young people online by making hateful ideas seem normal, even cool and sexy. People with young children and teenagers should be vigilant with the ideas their children encounter on the Internet. Ideas that parents assume their kids would never support—like overt racism or blatant misogyny—are presented online as legitimate views. The “alt-right” and other groups on the far right want to mainstream their ideas. We need to prevent that from happening.