President Donald Trump spent much of the weekend in an a predictable online tirade against social media, after Facebook made the decision on Thursday to ban a number of prominent far-right figures and anti-Semites from its platforms, including Alex Jones, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, and Louis Farrakhan.
“I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms,” Trump tweeted Friday. “This is the United States of American and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH!” He then went on to re-tweet several accounts decrying the supposed censorship, including Paul Joseph Watson, a Breitbart article, and Canadian far-right activist and filmmaker Lauren Southern.
Southern is not as prominent a far-right figure as Alex Jones or Paul Joseph Watson, and has not been banned from social media yet. But she represents an excellent example of how far-right ideas and conspiracy theories have wormed their way into the conservative “mainstream.”
Southern, who has previously worked with former Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes and fellow far-right Canadian YouTuber Stefan Molyneux, does not outright advocated white nationalist ideals — the Southern Poverty Law Center describes her videos at “tiptoe[ing] at the precipice of outright white nationalism.” Instead, she advocates for theories and ideas which are lapped up by far-right extremists, which can in turn have devastating consequences.
Last July, for instance, Southern published a film on YouTube entitled “Farmlands”, which pushes the far-right conspiracy that white farmers in South Africa are being systematically killed and replaced. There is no evidence to back up the idea — farm murders in South Africa have actually declined from their peak in 2001-2002 — but the idea remains a major talking point for outright neo-Nazis. ThinkProgress documented as much last November when it covered a National Socialist Movement rally in Arkansas that was specifically dedicated to protesting against “Human rights violations in South Africa.”
Southern has also promoted the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory in a 2017 YouTube video which has more than 600,000 views. The Great Replacement is, unsurprisingly, another white nationalist conspiracy which alleges that white Christian people are systematically being replaced by non-white people via a combination of mass immigration and declining birth rates.
The evidence that Great Replacement advocates use has been completely debunked, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming a major motivator for far-right extremists. During the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville for instance, white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us” and more recently the far-right extremist who attacked the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50, said he was motivated by the collapsing birthrate in Europe, even titling his manifesto “the Great Replacement.”
There is no evidence to suggest that Southern, or her online content, directly radicalized the New Zealand shooter. After the attack, Southern said her heart was broken for the victims and that “to act as though this was the logical conclusion of anyone’s peaceful rhetoric or political criticisms is utter insanity.”
Southern’s framing of the social-media bans, and Trump’s subsequent promotion of it, show the bad-faith arguments that many on the far-right use to defend their continued presence on mainstream social media platforms.
They claim it’s an issue of “freedom of speech” while at the same time allowing subtle winks towards extremist concepts which, as seen most recently in Christchurch, can turn deadly.