In February, a member of federal parliament sat down with a small group of anonymous white supremacists and recorded an interview for a podcast called The Convict Report. It was produced by an alt-right outfit called the Dingoes, who released it on an international white nationalist media network called The Right Stuff. What happened immediately afterwards was just as surprising: nothing. George Christensen didn’t apologise or back-pedal. He wasn’t reprimanded or fired or even criticised much.
BuzzFeed Australia approached Christensen, pointing out the vast quantity of anti-Semitic, homophobic and anti-Aboriginal material that the Dingoes were responsible for. The Nationals MP replied that, while the group was “a bit wild” and he didn’t “agree with all their views”, any attempt to sanction him was guilt by association. Not long after Christensen appeared, The Convict Report had a new theme song. It was by a house band called Dachau Blues, and was accompanied by imagery of an oven on fire, in case there was any ambiguity.
How had this happened? In May I contacted Christensen’s office, suggesting he must have realised the true nature of the group. After all, The Convict Report was distributed alongside The Daily Shoah, the largest neo-Nazi podcast in the world. Christensen said he had been encouraged by former Labor leader Mark Latham appearing on The Convict Report (perhaps that should have been a warning sign), and had not known about the racist content. He said he did not know the hosts had distributed articles referring to Jewish “rats” and the “Jewish Problem”. “I reject and abhor anti-Semitism,” Christensen told me. “I reject and abhor racial nationalism.” There was still no sign of regret, though.
But some have regret foisted upon them. Days after Christensen’s response, the Dingoes invited leading neo-Nazi and host of The Daily Shoah, Mike Enoch, to Australia. Christensen finally realised the scale of what he had done, and broke into a sweat. First, he tried to personally prevent Enoch from entering the country; as the Sydney Morning Herald put it, “the staunch free-speech advocate now argues that a visa application … should be knocked back”. Asked yet again about the anti-Semitism, Christensen told the ABC, “If I had known that, there is no way I would have done that interview.” He described the Dingoes’ invocation of Hitler as “insanity”.
Are the Dingoes and their ilk even worth writing about? There’s no doubt they’re trivial and publicity seeking, and have only a handful of listeners. They have attracted current and former politicians to their podcast, but these politicians are also attention seekers with small audiences. Nevertheless, the Dingoes are part of a new era of anti-Semitism fostered by the rise of social media. That fire will not go out, whether it’s “given oxygen” or not.
In the first weeks of the Trump presidency I met the American political commentator Matt Bai. He lamented, over a second drink, how much had changed. Even the nature of his hate mail. “I really thought the anti-Semitism that my parents talked about had died,” he said. “Then, perhaps six months ago, this torrent started. I mean, it’s unbelievable. It changed from a couple of hate messages a year to dozens a week. Jew this, Jew that. Where has it come from?”
Bai was not alone in noticing a difference. Over the course of the US election campaign, Jewish journalists received such a vast number of anti-Semitic tweets that the Anti-Defamation League (a Jewish non-government organisation) produced a special report on the phenomenon. It found that more than 2.6 million tweets containing antiSemitic language were posted between August 2015 and July 2016. According to the ADL’s estimate, these tweets were read more than 10 billion times.
One journalist, a “Never Trump” conservative called Ben Shapiro, received more than 7400 pieces of anti-Semitic abuse. Dozens of smears were directed at his newborn child. It was all apparently co-ordinated by a small number of accounts, only a few thousand, but they were prolific in their output. The ADL study found that most were Trump supporters, and focused their attention on critics of Trump.
While many of their techniques were all too familiar – pictures of concentration camps, yellow stars, ovens and antiSemitic cartoons – they also utilised new kinds of hatred. The word “Skype”, for example, is a quasi-homophone of “kike” that cannot be intercepted by content filters. So too the “echoes”, triple parentheses placed around Jewish names or words associated with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. (These fresh epithets are all Dingoes staples.)
By June last year, (((echoes))) were common enough to warrant an official entry in the ADL Hate Symbols Database. Google had to remove a browser extension that applied the stigma to Jewish names automatically. Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the symbol was being used as a show of defiance as well: “to combat the online vitriol, Jews and non-Jews alike are adopting a controversial new method which, some critics say, is equivalent to pinning a yellow ‘Jude’ star to one’s shirt”. This article did not mention the originator of the echoes: The Daily Shoah podcast, hosted by Mike Enoch.
That’s the trouble with writing off handful-sized audiences as irrelevancies. Cranks have driven the history of anti-Semitic hatred just as often as emperors. The prolific and influential Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel, for example, began his publishing career with a pamphlet claiming UFOs were Nazi spacecraft from Antarctica. Some think Zündel didn’t really believe the UFO stuff, and only wanted attention for his racist theories; others think that the racist theories were a bid for attention as well.
The democratisation of media offers an unprecedented reach to these kinds of people. In the 1980s, Zündel was able to contact and influence Arab heads of state with only a typewriter (albeit under unusually fertile conditions). Now his heirs can broadcast to millions with even less effort. Many modern anti-Semites seem to begin their careers as trolls or attention seekers, and then harden into
more doctrinaire hatred as they find an audience, approving or not.
It’s difficult to tell if these beliefs are sincere, or what a sincerely held belief even means anymore. The controversy surrounding a YouTube celebrity called PewDiePie shows the difficulty in identifying “serious” anti-Semitism. PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg, has more than 53 million subscribers and, according to a Variety survey, is now more popular among teens than Hollywood stars such as Jennifer Lawrence. In PewDiePie’s videos he plays games and makes jokes. In the offending episode, the joke was employing two Indian men on the outsourcing site Fiverr to hold up a sign. It read “DEATH TO ALL JEWS”.
The supposed point was that you can buy anything these days, but the punchline was an extreme taboo violation. The Wall Street Journal launched an investigation, which found other hateful imagery, but PewDiePie denied fostering bigotry. “Some have been pointing to my videos and saying that I am giving credibility to the anti-Semitic movement,” he wrote in a blog post. “I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes.” Still, both YouTube and Disney ended advertising relationships worth more than $14 million.
The PewDiePie incident was interpreted as a spat between old and new media. For some, it was joke taken far too seriously by a generation of journalists that doesn’t understand internet humour and its multiple layers of irony. Others argued the video was a racist action, regardless of intent. This was a line taken not only by the activist left but also the far right. Prominent white nationalist blog the Daily Stormer argued it didn’t matter whether PewDiePie’s anti-Jewish jokes were genuine or not: “the effect is the same; it normalizes Nazism, and marginalizes our enemies”.
Guardian commentator Jason Wilson and others have written about this strange quality of modern online racism. It can exist in a kind of quantum state, where it is ironic and non-ironic at the same time, according to the position of the observer. Take online racism seriously and you’ve been fooled. Dismiss it and you miss the hidden message. There is an unusual precedent for this. While in Croatia a few years ago, I was told that when the region was still part of communist Yugoslavia some students had used the songs and symbols of the Nazi-aligned Ustaše movement as a variation on punk protest. What could be more offensive to the communist authorities than ironic fascism? When those authorities crumbled and the country descended into war, the ironic fascists became real ones.
That’s a trajectory followed by more than one alt-right personage. How seriously can we take people called “weev” or “Baked Alaska”? What if they broadcast hate to audiences
of hundreds of thousands of susceptible young people? Real-life neo-Nazi rallies are now an extension of this dark carnival, a kind of live trolling. They are bedecked not just with swastikas but also with banners of a green cartoon frog called Pepe, who has become another ADL-recognised hate symbol.
Pepe also features in the logo of a Brisbane-based electrician called Smerff Electrical. In it, he is wearing an SS uniform and standing outside the gates of Auschwitz. Smerff is the only open corporate sponsor of the Daily Stormer. On 6 June, A Current Affair ran a segment on Smerff called ‘NeoNazi Sparky’, in which a reporter bailed up the proprietor, Simon Hickey, and asked him about his record of Holocaust denial. After the segment aired, Smerff claimed they’d been flooded with calls of support, and were booked out for a month. Whether they were telling the truth or merely trolling, it was impossible to say.
The Brisbane Times quoted an expert who said the best way to deal with far-right extremists was not to be angry or shocked, but to laugh at them. In the past that approach might have worked. Not now: the far right are laughing too.