Undercover with the female influencers of the American far right

Researcher disturbed by how easy it was to get sucked into lives of women who serve up beauty advice alongside racial hatred

九月 8, 2023
Women draped in stars and stripes take selfie
Source: Alamy

Studying the “soft and feminine” face of the American far right presented both emotional and legal challenges for a researcher.

Eviane Leidig is now Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow in the department of culture studies at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. But it was while working on a PhD at the University of Oslo about the Indian diaspora’s support for far-right movements that she first became interested in the North American female vloggers and influencers who slip far-right propaganda into some very unexpected places.

Adopting a fake profile, Dr Leidig spent three years tracking eight prominent influencers on public forums such as YouTube and Instagram. She soon found herself in the parallel universe described in her new book, The Women of the Far Right (Columbia University Press), where “Instagram photos of cuddling with puppies and perfectly manicured nails” could be found alongside “screenshots of tabloid newspaper headlines about the sexual grooming activities of Muslim gangs in the United Kingdom”, and where “recipes for homemade berry jam” popped up in her Instagram feed “next to selfies with armed Bulgarian militia groups carrying out border patrols to detain crossing refugees”. The result is to “transform the language of far-right ideology into an aspirational lifestyle”.

One influencer asked about history textbooks for mothers wanting to homeschool their children because she wanted to avoid anything that promoted “the zog [‘Zionist Occupied Government’] globo [globalist] homo version of history”. Another urged her followers to make contributions with cryptocurrency so they would avoid paying taxes, which would only be spent on “importing migrants” or “government-funded gay pride parades”. A third demonstrated how a corset “stitched with feminine lace and flowers” under tight-fitting clothing made a perfect holster for carrying guns.

Despite her attempts to remain dispassionate, Dr Leidig was disturbed to experience first-hand just how easy it is to get sucked into the lives of articulate, attractive and seemingly empathetic influencers: “I followed them from the time that they had started dating to getting married to having children, and these were life events that I could relate to. They felt like women I could have grown up with. They could have been my classmates; I could easily have encountered them in my social circles.”

Having already published op-eds about her research, Dr Leidig has experienced what felt like a coordinated “avalanche” of online abuse for a day or two. So what kind of support would she like from her university when the book is published?

Just “having a point of contact, colleagues who check in to make sure you are doing OK” was very valuable, she replied, “because the whole point of these harassment campaigns is to make you feel isolated and alienated”. And if things get tough, she would welcome “a press release in support of my academic research. That is just a symbolic statement, but I think it’s a really important one.” Her current supervisor had been “very involved in anti-racist activism before he came into academia” and so had “several decades of dealing with harassment at a very physical level, such as the Flemish far right busting his car windows. Having a mentor to talk to about how to protect yourself and your family is quite helpful.”

There were several reasons why Dr Leidig believed we need to pay more attention to the women she has studied. Although they were seldom taken seriously by the conventional media, she argued, they had proved highly effective in “normalising far-right ideology for the mainstream…One good example is the Great Replacement Theory.” The theory maintains that white European populations are being intentionally marginalised, culturally and demographically, by Muslim and non-white migrants, and it was promoted by some of her subjects long before it inspired a white supremacist to carry out a massacre in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019.

Also crucial is “the fact that these women have survived so long on these social media platforms without repercussions, without consequences. The husband of one of these influencers is banned from every platform imaginable. [Yet] she says the same things; she’s part of the same movement. But because she articulates these ideas in a very soft and feminine way, she’s allowed to have her platform.”

A striking example of how her influencers get around algorithms designed to identify hate speech is “a seemingly innocent beauty vlog” described in The Women of the Far Right. As the tutor applies an eyebrow pencil, she sarcastically urges viewers to use “nice and sharp strokes – just as sharp as the knives Allah instructs us to use on the throats of disbelievers”. She advises them to apply mascara in a way that keeps their eyelashes “nice and separate, just like men and women in a mosque”. As an “awesome” finishing touch, she writes the word “fuck” on one cheek and “Islam” on the other.

Researching such sensitive topics also raises questions of academic freedom, according to Dr Leidig. Columbia had stepped in after three other publishers had decided not to go ahead with publishing the book, despite very favourable reviews, because “they were afraid about being sued by the women that I detail…It’s a bit much when the far right claim they are being cancelled or censored, and yet I have difficulties publishing information about them that they have already publicly released themselves.”



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Reader's comments (3)

What is the purpose of "going undercover" and "adopting a fake profile" to study material that is freely available online?
I'd hazard a guess it was to be able to engage in dialogue without revealing her true self, but you'd better read the book if you're curious.
And because some of these sites - or parts of them, like closed Facebook groups - are not necessarily 'freely available online'?