The Shooter in the March 2019 terrorist attacks on mosques in Christchurch, NZ, that left 51 people dead, was clear about his motive. In his manifesto, Brenton Tarrant wrote that he wanted to stop what he called the “Great Replacement,” a racist conspiracy theory he’d adopted that argues white people are slowly being genocided in their own home countries due to a plot by elites to displace white people with rising numbers of non-white immigrants.
This concept, originally put forth by France’s Renaud Camus, is now the bedrock idea propagated by the Identitarian movement, in particular Generation Identity (GI), a sprawling, multinational organization with chapters in at least 14 countries and allies in others, including the United States. The reach of Identitarian thinking is much wider than GI, with attendant think tanks, institutes, housing complexes, newspapers, clothing labels, individual supporters, and even bars and boxing clubs where activists congregate.
As Identitarian ideas have spread across the Western world, so too has violence by lone actors motivated to stop the supposedly impending white genocide. Since October 2018, there have been at least six mass attacks motivated by Great Replacement ideas. Besides Christchurch, attacks were staged at two American synagogues, an El Paso Walmart, a synagogue in Halle, Germany, and two shisha bars in Hanau, Germany, where the shooter is believed to have been targeting Muslim immigrants. These attacks left a total of 99 dead.
In September 2019, the American Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declared white supremacy as big a threat as ISIS or Al-Qaeda. DHS further warned that “white supremacist violent extremists have adopted an increasingly transnational outlook” that is driven by connecting with “like-minded individuals online.” DHS specified sharing of the “ethnic replacement” idea as particularly problematic. In June 2020, the U.S. State Department announced that white supremacist terrorism “remained a serious challenge for the global community.”
The Great Replacement also made an appearance during the August 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the unnerving chants of “Jews will not replace us” and “you will not replace us” could be heard as an ominous warning. The weekend left an anti-racist protester dead and several others injured at the hands of white supremacists.
The idea of white people being “replaced” was, by that time, proliferating on both sides of the Atlantic. American white supremacists who were in Charlottesville, such as Richard Spencer, had become steeped in Identitarianism, and European Identitarians — specifically Christoffer Dulny and Daniel Friberg — traveled to Charlottesville to be on hand with their American counterparts.
The white supremacist killers in these attacks did not pick up their ideas of white genocide and the great replacement randomly. The Identitarian movement uses its massive online presence to spread its abhorrent anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant messaging, and to warn of a coming civil war while assiduously recruiting young people into its ranks and ideology. Identitarians’ real-world publicity stunts targeting Muslims and immigrants provide fuel for its online audience in the form of viral images, videos, music, and press coverage, all of which help draw more young people into its ranks.
It is particularly disturbing that a movement whose ideas are linked directly to terrorism and the building of an international white supremacist network conducts its online organizing in plain sight — on Twitter and YouTube platforms, among others. These mainstream accounts are then used to drive traffic to darker corners of the internet. where messaging is even more explicit and offers no pretense of acceptance of Muslims, refugees, and immigrants.
Research by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) found 67 Twitter accounts for Generation Identitarian chapters in 14 countries with nearly 140,000 followers. Those numbers do not include the accounts of individual Identitarians, such as GI’s unofficial leader and head of the Austrian chapter Martin Sellner (who has nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter and 69,000 subscribers on YouTube) or accounts for GI-coordinated activity, like Defend Europe, which has 27,000 followers. GPAHE found another 400,000 followers of 25 such accounts. This data also does not include UK accounts, as the main GI chapter there collapsed last year; however, Identitarian activity coming from the UK continues to be found online. (All data available on request.)
In May 2019, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) identified five large GI chapter Twitter accounts and a handful of small ones totaling 70,000 GI Twitter followers. Based on ISD’s numbers from a year ago, GI Germany’s follower count grew by nearly 20 percent and GI Austria’s by five percent in the last year.
On YouTube, GPAHE found at least 12 countries represented by 31 GI chapters with 86,000 subscribers. These numbers do not include the hundreds of videos posted by GI adherents or the number of times Identitarian proponents have appeared on other channels followed by thousands of additional subscribers. Both Twitter and YouTube push readers to view more extremist content with their suggested accounts to follow and videos to watch.
It is completely unreasonable and untenable for civil society actors and watchdog groups to take on the labor of documenting GI-related activity online. YouTube and Twitter have both the resources and the responsibility to monitor their platforms and to disarm Identitarian and other extremist groups of what is currently a key organizing tool.