Internet culture feeds right-wing extremism on the rise in the Nordics

The muslim community meet with police in open dialogue in the wake of the burning of the Quran at an anti-Islam rally in Kristiansand on Nov 10. Photo: Mikkel Jensen

By Emma Sennels & Mikkel Jensen

The bullet went straight through the carpet, as Philip Manshaus shot his way through the glass door of the emergency exit. Inside three elderly men were finishing their midday prayer, as the 21-year-old man burst into the holy place of worship.

It was at the Al-Noor Islamic Center in Bærum, 20 kilometers from Oslo, Norway, where the young white supremacist had planned a mass shooting on August 10, 2019. A job for which he was chosen by “Saint Tarrant”, a gunman who targeted two mosques, killing 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand.

At least this is the claim in his online manifesto where Manshaus describes the fact that he sought to emulate similar attacks by Anders Breivik, a Norwegian alt-right terrorist who was convicted of mass murder and terrorism at an attack at Utøya in 2011.

That afternoon, Falak Mirza, board member and education leader at the Al-Noor mosque in Bærum, was running late and therefore did not arrive at the mosque until after the incident. He explains that he might as well have been present at the time of the shooting:

“It was a terrifying experience which shocked the entire local community and the Norwegian Muslims. We are proud to have faith that Norway is a peaceful and safe place to live. Out of nowhere, 22 July took place, and now this attack in August – what is happening?” says Falak Mirza.

Our meeting with the dark web, torture, violence and the Russian extremist called “Kuznetsov”.

A rising threat from extremist alt-right

The extreme alt-right movements in the Nordic countries are growing. The right-wing environment is increasingly stimulated on the internet and utilize online forums as a channel to propagate and spread their views.

These online communities can be a factor in the radicalization of individuals, potentially leading to violence. Acts of violence will consequently claim the lives of innocent people as seen in the increase of right-wing oriented terrorist attacks in recent years.

Incidents of alt-right terrorism is on the rise in the West. The total number of incidents has increased by 320 percent over the past five years, according to Global Terror Index of 2019, conducted by the independent think-tank Institute for Economics & Peace which measures the impact of terrorism.

Looking at the Nordics, radicalization and extremism have evolved and grown to become significant threats, posing a serious common challenge to the Nordic countries’ security, democracy and social cohesion, according to a report from the Danish Ministry of Immigration and Integration.

Zooming in on Scandinavia, the trend paints a similar picture. According to intelligence services in both Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, the “threat” of the extremist alt-right has increased over the past years. 

Analyzing the efforts of preventing radicalization in Denmark, the Danish foundation Trygfonden has conducted a report alongside CERTA Security and Intelligence.

“Previously the focus has been put on militant Islamism and this could be the reason why the rise in right-wing extremism has been missed,” says Dorthe Mcguab Pedersen, Director of Development at Trygfonden.

Increase in online presence
As the extreme alt-right movements in the Nordic countries are growing, the right-wing environment is also increasingly stimulated on the internet.

Although, the environments have become more fragmented, they are actively utilizing online forums and the street scene in the Scandinavian countries as channels to propagate and spread their views. In that way, they can compensate for their lacking ability to mobilize in the streets and more effectively spread their political beliefs. 

For example, different Norwegian alt-right groups and pages on Facebook have obtained more traffic. This is concluded in a Norwegian report by PhD Birgitte Haanshuus from The Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies.

 “A key trend in the last few years, from 2015 until now, is several of these Norwegian far-right pages have gained a lot more attention. For example, there has been a significant increase in activity on these Facebook pages, including more posts, likes and comments,” says Birgitte Haanshuus.

It can be challenging to pinpoint the reason behind the rise of these groups. But the study shows that they are afraid the white race will be replaced by immigrants over time – a conspiracy strongly founded in the alt-right movement called ‘’The Great Replacement’’.

Measuring online activity outside the mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can be difficult. Forums used for this kind of content are often depersonalized and encrypted image board-style sites like Endchan, 4chan, and Discord.

In spite of this, studies show the level of activity has also increased in Denmark. An analysis made by Trygfonden and CERTA shows that the Danish right-wing is in movement and that a worrying trend in the neighboring countries could strengthen domestic movements.

“We can hear from our conversations with Danish Security and Intelligence Service that there is an ongoing development online,” says Director of Development  Trygfonden, Dorthe McGugan Pedersen. 

The same trend is being described by PhD and researcher in right-wing extremism, Chris Holmsted Larsen. He explains how the extreme right-wing has become globalized because of their increased use of online platforms

This hateful activity does not only take place in closed groups on Facebook. In 2017, 15 percent of the online public comments on Danish medias DR and TV2 Facebook pages contained hate speech aimed at individuals or groups. Terms such as ‘’The Great Replacement’’ has also been used in mainstream politics by right-wing politicians showing a normalizing of the term

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all been criticized for deliberately overlooking the alt-right movement spreading hateful speech and misinformation. Therefore, they recently all intensified their campaign against alt-right extremists, resulting in groups such as neo-nazi organizations Nordfront and Soldiers of Odin moving to other platforms. The Russian version of Facebook called VK is popular because this site holds very few limitations as to what content can be posted.

Internet as a catalysator for radicalization 

Being exposed to alt-right and extremist content does not necessarily lead to radicalization. But it can be a step in that direction.

According to Cathrine Thorleifsson, researcher at the Center for Research on Extremism, some users of these forums see it as a way to express themselves and test the limits of their jokes. They form an online identity and connect with like-minded people who share a mutual world view and create a community.

These jokes, however, are not harmless as they are often incredibly offensive and target women, religious and ethnic minorities, and encourage violence. Furthermore, the ‘jokes’ can affect people with a specific personality type who are not able to register this as a witticism and instead acquire these cynical jokes as their political view.

“We have found two personality traits to be connecting to people willing to use violence. These are ‘low openness to experience’ and ‘low emotionality,” Milan Obaidi, Ph.D. in social psychology from Oslo University explains.

According to Obaidi, people with a low score on ‘openness to experience’ are characterized as rigid, dogmatic, and have a black and white view of the world with a division between “them” and “us”.

“Even though you provide new information that contradicts their beliefs, they will not change their opinion. Their rigid mindset is what differentiates people who prefer violence from those who do not,” Milan Obaidi explains.

Memes also tend to dominate these forums – which both can be written memes or in pictures. They often target minorities and women and portray them as subhuman, which can have enormous consequences.

“It is a way to dehumanize people, and that is harmful because when you dehumanize others, it makes it easier for people to use violence against them – it is a way to legitimize damaging behavior,” says Milan Obaidi.

It is widely discussed in academics, whether the term “echo chambers” should be used or not, but to a certain extent, this is how these forums work. People who have mutual beliefs confirm each other.

“If you look at some of these forums, there are people who idolize Brenton Tarrant and his actions. Over the past year, this glorification of violence has led to several similar terrorist attacks in Europe and the US,” explains Birgitte Haanshuus, from The Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies.

Expressing your frustrations and radical opinions online does not necessarily function as a valve preventing aggression in real life, since the harsh rhetoric online can be radicalizing, according to Chris Holmsted Larsen in his report.

From radicalized to criminal

This radicalization happening online and in real life can ultimately lead to the use of violence. A research team of experts in psychology formed a report analyzing the link between symbolic threat from other cultures and the endorsement of violence. 

These symbolic threats are perceived as the starting point for the radicalization leading to violence seen in recent terrorist attacks in the Western world. 

It is said that Philip Manshaus is the latest example of an extremist who was radicalized by “Great Replacement”. The conspiracy stating that the white race is slowly being replaced by non-whites as a consequence of mass-immigration. A symbolic threat.

This implies a trend on the rise. Added to the list is also the shooting at Walmart in El Paso, Texas which alongside the shooting in Christchurch and Bærum happened just within the last year. 

A trend which is believed to emerge from the previously mentioned online forums and image boards like 4chan and Endchan where users acquire mutual inspiration. The latter was used by Philip Manshaus prior to his planned attack, as he posted a thread including his manifesto.

Manshaus was overpowered by people at the mosque before police arrived at the scene, where one man was injured in the attack. Manshaus has been charged with the murder of his step-sister found dead in his family’s home.

It is not the first time the anti-muslim organization SIAN arranged rallies to target Muslims in Norway. Several burnings have taken place. Photo: Mikkel Jensen

Is it possible to prevent and overcome?

Prevention of radicalization and extremism is a question of social well-being to drive people away from destructive and violent right-wing extremism. Researcher in right-wing extremism, Chris Holmsted Larsen underlines in his report that not two individuals are alike making prevention strategies complicated. Though, similar societal strategies used to prevent violence and criminal behavior could be used. 

Across the Nordic countries, there are rather few initiatives targeted directly at those who are assessed to be extremists. However, measures have been taken. Measures targeting foreign fighters, a report concludes focusing on the prevention of extremism in Nordic countries by Danish Ministry of Immigration and Integration. To prevent radicalization and extremism on an individual level, all the Nordic countries make use of existing measures in the public sector to prevent vulnerability in general. 

This is for example mentor programs and different types of support for families and relatives. Finally, skills enhancement and dissemination of information among first-line staff are central in the efforts targeted at individuals at risk. 

Another proposed way to prevent radicalization is education in the use of the internet. The Media Council in Denmark plans to develop teaching materials to improve digital education and critical thinking for young people to acquire the skills to see through manipulation and become resistant to extremist propaganda. 

Recently, Falak Mirza’s 6-year-old son asked his father whether “that man” will break into the mosque again. How do you answer that, he thought to himself, as he said: “Of course not.”

Walking around the al-Noor mosque in Bærum, Falak Mirza reflects upon the consequences of the terrorist attack: One being the number of those in attendance at the Friday prayer has halved.

In spite of the challenges faced in the following months of the attack, Falak Mirza strongly believes the Muslim community in Bærum will overcome fear by educating themselves and opening up for dialogue: “If you are open to the world, you will experience it is not as black and white, as it is some times perceived through a screen – you will see the world is full of colors.”

Photo stream: Visiting the Al-Noor mosque in Bærum

“Visitors of the mosque see the situation as unfinished business, that it might happen again. If we get threats, we take no chances.”
Though they do not wish to hide what happened, the mosque will receive new rugs as part of bigger rearrangements in the building. 
Bullet holes from the attack are still visible in the prayer room. It was behind this wall a 65-year old man hid, ready to overman the shooter. 
“Even though it was in the middle of August, it was a dark night. It was as if the horrors of July 22 had returned.” 
Half of the prayer room is no longer in use due to bloodstains on the carpet from the attack. The white sheets serve as a daily reminder of the events that took place four months ago. 
“Right-wing extremists believe the world is one way because that’s what they were told. But they do not know the people, they hate. Events like these occur when people isolate themselves from the rest of the world.” 
“I think we need more of that mutual respect for symbols which mean so much to people. I have got the Bible at home. It’s not on the floor, it’s on top of the shelf next to the Quran.”

Quotes: Falak Mirza
Photos: Mikkel Jensen
Text: Emma Sennels