The growth of the so-called "alt-right pipeline" over the last few years has brought increased scrutiny to provocative, far-right content online. That idea of a pipeline refers to internet communities, often filled with young men, that bond through conservative ideas while slowly sharing and normalizing more extreme racist and antisemitic content under the guise of dark humor.

It's a process of online radicalization has even been linked to instances of domestic terrorism, lone wolf attacks and other crimes, such as a leak of top military secret intelligence last year by Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Texiera.

GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke about the world and strategies of far-right online activism with Allison Butler, the co-director of Mass Media Literacy and a senior lecturer at UMass Amherst.

Arun Rath: It's great to pick up where we left off in our last conversation about this disturbing world. To start off, give us a sense of what the landscape is like. Imagine I'm a teenage boy, what is out there on social media?

Allison Butler: Yeah, I think now is probably a really difficult time to be a teenager. Most teenagers are presented with a media landscape that appears to provide them every opportunity for learning and entertainment, every opportunity for fun videos as well as educational information, and it's all via a technology that fits in our pockets.

However, I think what also happens is that all of that technology that we can reach via this tool in our pockets opens us up to, potentially, just a world of difficulty. A world of convoluted information. And a world that does not need evidence to support itself, and that in a very quick scroll — in a very quick swipe — we aren't encouraged via the structure of those technologies to look deeper or to learn more for counterexamples, or to look for evidence or support.

What we do find more of is more of that same voice, repeated ad nauseam, that's potentially giving us loads of misinformation.

Rath: One of the things that's confusing, and I would say this as a parent who tries to stay on top of this, is it feels like earlier on that hate was more obvious. You'd see things where like, "Obviously, this is Holocaust denial. Or, obviously, this is a Nazi. Or, this is obviously naked racism." Now, it just feels like the landscape is more confusing as they're making hate, kind of, cuter and less visible.

Butler: I agree with you 100%. I think what's happening right now is that hate, you're right, is becoming "cute." It's becoming entertaining, and it's becoming supportive. I think what we're seeing these days with some far-right activism is that the tools of the Civil Rights Movement — the tools of progressive politics — are being used against themselves.

This is something that I often go back to, it helps me understand how we can make the law more progressive by using it against itself. If we look back at Brown v. Board of Education, the desegregation of schools by the Supreme Court in the mid-1950s, and we look back at early civil rights work: what we're looking at is how the civil rights leaders used the law of separate but equal against itself. Through demonstration, through evidence, through arguing in front of the courts — ultimately arguing in front of the Supreme Court that separate but equal was anything but. So we could see how that language was used to dismantle racist, discriminatory and oppressive law.

I think what's happening these days is the right is using that language to defend and protect itself and then, to your point, is making those defenses and making that protection — making a return to oppression, a return to subjugation — making it appear pretty and in a very neat and tidy package.

Rath: As you're talking about, it's wrapped up in a kind of empowerment narrative, as well. I've noticed that people like Andrew Tate, for instance, there's a lot wrapped up in there about being a man — this positive sense of being strong and taking control of your world. There's also all that stuff about treating women like garbage, but there is stuff in there that seems like it's designed to sell you this narrative that the world has made you feel bad for being a man for so long, and now's the time for that to change.

Butler: I think that is absolutely one of the things that is happening. What we're seeing is a re-articulation of masculinity, a re-articulation of heteronormativity and a re-articulation of nationalism. A re-articulation of — maybe in lowercase letters, but probably soon in uppercase letters — white power.

To give a pretty big example, the Alliance Defending Freedom is a legal group that brought down Roe v. Wade. This is the group that is working very hard to bring down any kind of LGBTQ+ rights. And what they're doing is largely on the basis of the First Amendment.

“When we have a more complex society, if we have a society that is trying to be see more equal gender expression, somehow that can get twisted to mean that masculinity is being taken away.”
Allison Butler, co-director of Mass Media Literacy and a senior lecturer at UMass Amherst

We often think of the First Amendment as a really politically left amendment. It is free speech, it is my right to self-expression. The Alliance Defending Freedom is using that right of free expression against women's reproductive rights. So what is being argued in a lot of their work is that their First Amendment rights are in jeopardy because they are opposed to reproductive rights for women. They are opposed to expressions of gender identity, largely because they are opposed to seeing gender as anything other than binary, or connecting gender with anything other than the sex that one is assigned at birth.

I think we can say the same thing when we're looking at re-articulations of masculinity, or connecting to Andrew Tate: when we have a more complex society, if we have a society that is trying to be see more equal gender expression, somehow that can get twisted to mean that masculinity is being taken away.

Rath: Do we have a sense of how the website algorithms play into this? It seems like these things are coming up on feeds and on YouTube or Twitter or other places, maybe more than they should, but it's hard to have a sense of what's actually behind it.

Butler: Any time we click on anything on the internet, it adds to our digital footprint. Therefore, the algorithms are largely designed to capture what it is that we are clicking on and then send us more of that under the presumption that that is something we like or something we want to learn more about.

Most of us probably see this in a pretty harmless way on our daily internet use. Let's say we're planning a vacation, maybe we're scoping out hotels or car rentals. A lot of our ads following those searches are going to be about those hotels, or those vacation sites, or the car rentals.

Most of us probably sort of shrug that off as the cost of doing business online. What might feel less obvious is if we start to go down any kind of information rabbit hole: That also adds to our digital footprint, that also sends information about what we've searched or what we're looking at.

The thing with the algorithm is that it doesn't ever say what we believe or what we like, or what we're arguing against. So we might click on information that we find truly horrific, and maybe we're clicking on it to use it as an example of what is horrific and then work to find evidence to counter that. The algorithm still has us looking at it.

We, generally speaking, tend to stay in our information bubbles. They are nice places to be, particularly if we believe what we're reading. So when we break out of those, it can take a little while for that algorithm to catch up to us, but then it's going to start sending us more and more of that information.

Rath: I think we're gonna have to have you back again to keep this conversation going, because there's so much more we could talk about. It's great talking with you. Thank you so much.

Butler: Thank you so much.