Going Dark, extrimism, ebner

Going dark: The secret social lives of extremists (Julia Ebner)

6 minutes to read
Ico Maly
3 out of 5 stars

Going Dark.jpg

Going Dark. The secret social lives of extremists is a real page turner. It is a well structured book that gives the reader basic information on how the global far right and radical Islamists use digital media in their (meta)political battle. It is a perfect introduction to the dark corners of the world, but don't expect it to do more than that. 

Going Dark

Julia Ebner is an Austrian researcher connected to the counter-extremism Institute for Strategic Dialogue. She specializes in far-right extremism and terrorism prevention and is an advisor to the UN, NATO, Google and Facebook. 

In this well-written book, Ebner introduces the readers to a wide range of far-right and some radical Islamist digital niches around the world. Most of the chapters are based on her own fieldwork and infiltration of these radical groups. She presents 12 case studies addressing 7 major topics: recruitment, socialization, communication, networking, mobilization, attack, and finally a look to the future.  

The book introduces these fringe movements through a juicy detective narrative. The reader gets to know the radical niches through the eyes, experiences, and emotions of the author. However the author also connects her personal story to relevant academic literature. She uses her experience and up-to-date knowledge of terrorism and radicalization to make sense of the appeal of fringe movements. The result is a page turner that succeeds in informing and entertaining readers.

The title of the book is a bit misleading. You would expect that the author focusses on groups that have been deplatformed and are consequently living secret lives on the dark web. That is not the case - most of the data come from readily accessible social media and alt-tech media.  

Speed dating the fringe

The format of the book can be compared to speed dating fringe movements. From QAnon to Trad Wives, InfoWars, Generation Identity, Jihadi Brides,white nationalist dating apps, the Unite the Right march, Black hats and gamifed terrorism, Ebner takes you on a hell of a ride from extreme to even extremer. As a result, she succeeds in giving a broad overview of radical and extreme actors. The flipside is that none of those niches are analyzed in depth. Each case is framed as an 'illustration of a different stage in the radicalization process' (Ebner, 2020, p.3). 

Learning these niches through Ebner's eyes is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it helps the reader digest the book's rather drepressing content. On the other, it implicitly introduces a very specific framework for understanding radicalization processes. This framework is present in almost every chapter and represents radicalization in terms of individuals in relation to 'ideologues', 'manipulators' and 'radical groups'. This format leads the reader to understand radicalization through the an outsider's gaze. As a result, the different niches are portrayed and experienced as abnormal, exceptional, and extreme. It helps the book's readability: it creates suspense and flow.

The book succeeds in translating recent academic research for a broad audience, which is no small task.

However, this is also my critique of the book. Through this format, the book reproduces a classic 'terrorism'/'radicalization' studies paradigm, namely that the pathway to radicalization is shaped by the relationship between an individual and radical ideologues. This pathway to or process of radicalization is described in the literature as a linear process where individuals move from one stage to the next. It is usually visually represented in a phase funnel model (De Coensel, 2018). Radicalization in this paradigm is about the grievances of a troubled individual who finds a solution or explanation in the ideology of a radical actor. 

This is the paradigm that organizes Ebner's analysis. For example, when she describes the success of 'redpilling' by Generation Identity, she links it to the power of their ideology, the 'coolness of the counter-culture', and how new members often struggle with 'a  troubled self-image, a broken self-esteem' (Ebner, 2020: 49). Radicalization is here understood as a one-on-one relationship between an individual and a radicalizing actor. Ebner's perspective thus aligns with that of academic terrorism or radicalization studies. This focus causes her to miss some important cultural aspects of the radicalization processes.

Trad Wives, Alpha Men and instagram culture

We can further illustrate this blindspot through her analysis of Trad Wives. The Trad Wives have a strange appeal to Ebner, which she connects to her personal life. Although she does not share the group's ideology, her breakup with her partner is used to explain her fascination with the group. 

Such individual explanations isolate radicalization from larger evolutions in society and digital culture. It uses a psychological and personal frame to analyze the impact of radical actors. 'Everyone', Ebner says, 'can be exploitable in moments of weakness, and vulnerability can be a highly temporary concept. The only effective guard is information' (Ebner, 2020, p. 72). 

Radicalization is, as it is so often, presented as a socio-psychological process, where a weakened individual is socialized and t radicalized online. This becomes clear when she writes that 'in the end the red pill appears more like a drug that makes its consumer get addicted to the endless chase of an ideal self - whether it's Red Pill Women desperately trying to be the storybook wife, bending and twisting themselves and suppressing their desires or Red Pill Men attempting to become alpha males, adopting techniques to manipulate and seduce women' (Ebner, 2020, p. 71).

Understanding radicalization and developing policies without looking at the broader context is doomed to fail

The drug metaphor implies that ideologues produce drug-like ideologies that get consumers addicted. They sell a bad product that keeps individuals hooked. What the author misses here is that this quest for 'self-improvement' fits into the dominant neoliberal culture. Self-care books are - next to cooking books - the most sold non-fiction books. Instagram is full of people helping you become a better version of yourself.

These contemporary forms of biopolitics are deeply embedded in mainstream digital culture. Pictures of well-trained alpha males receive thousands of likes on Instagram. The same is true for homemade old school food and pictures of women in feminine clothes. Nostalgia is being sold on a massive scale, and Trad Wives are occupying only one niche. Trad Wives fit within the larger culture, which at least partially explains the success of these groups. For a lot of people, they do not seem all that radical. The metapolitical dimension of far-right infleuncers is therefore lost (Maly, 2020). 

While Ebner's explanation is not necessarily untrue, it is important to stress that radicalization happens in a larger social, economic, political and cultural context. That context is at least as important in understanding how radicalization actually happens. From the moment we include this context in our analysis, the idea of these niches as strange, extremely radical, and very different from 'the mainstream' disappears. The boundaries between what is culturally extreme and what is accepted are far more fluid than what is presented in this book. 

The relevance of Going Dark

The consequences of the paradigm Ebner uses become especially obvious when we look at the potential solutions she suggests for the future. All solutions focus on monitoring/acting against ideologues or supporting individuals. But nowhere does the author raise the question about the larger social, political and economic context in which such processes grow. Nowhere does she focus on the fact that a lot of the ideas that are promoted by the Identitarians, are also shared by the mainstream.

That is a missed opportunity. Understanding radicalization and developing policies without looking at the broader context is doomed to fail as it overlooks the cultural component. It is a pity that these larger forces are not discussed, especially as they are present throughout the whole book. That being said, the book is a real page turner that introduces a potential broad audience to qualitative literature. It is well structured and feeds the reader with basic information on the structure of the global far right. In this sense, it is a good introduction to the field.

More importantly, the book focuses on the importance of digital media in processes of contemporary radicalization. Ebner avoids technological determinism and shows in detail how mainstream and alt-tech media are used by radical actors in recruiting, socializing, networking and mobilizing their base. Her analysis of the New Zealand attack as an example of gamified terrorism is novel, to the point, and a great example of how digital culture organizes contemporary far right terrorism. It highlights how terror and entertainment fuse in socializing and recruiting new soldiers. She rightfully avoids describing 'the algorithm' or 'platforms' in and of themselves as great radicalizers, but highlights how the affordances of platforms and their cultures are used by people to radicalize others. 

I highly recommend this book to politicians, civil servants and people in anti-racist movements. The book succeeds in translating recent academic research for a broad audience, which is no small task. But don't expect it to do much more than that. Extremism and radicalization scholars will have a hard time finding new information. However if Ebner succeeds in convincing politicians and policy makers that the far right should be taken seriously, it is because of her accessible style, her fieldwork, and her academic knowledge. That deserves applause. 


Ebner, J. (2020). Going Dark. The secret lives of extremists. Bloomsburry.

Maly, I. (2020). Metapolitical influencers: The case of Brittany Pettibone. Social Sciences, 9(7), 113.