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Extremism across the spectrum

Posted on 24 January 2020 by Erica

Not many people know just how broad our responsibilities are when it comes to content classification in New Zealand. We do watch a lot of films, but we also work closely with law enforcement, classifying child exploitation material and terror related content, for court.

Infographic of Louisa Buckingham's presentation to the OFLC - courtesy of Tara Black,
Image courtesy of Tara,

It’s the most challenging, high impact work we do. And the breadth of our work means we end up connecting and conversing with a range of experts in related fields. Last week we spent some time with Dr Louisa Buckingham an Applied Linguistics researcher and lecturer from Auckland University, whose latest work examines the parallels between the language and expression of ISIS and Far Right Extremists.

As our work involves classifying extremist material (written texts, videos and imagery) an in-depth understanding of extremist language, expression, and online interaction is vitally important for us, so that when we’re analysing extremist material, we can contextualise what we’re looking at. As well as utilising our own in-house expertise, we work closely with others working and researching in this field.

Last year we were tasked with classifying both the livestream footage of the Christchurch attacks, and the Christchurch attacker’s so-called ‘manifesto’. To do so, we leaned heavily on our previous experience classifying terrorist propaganda produced by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In terms of how the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act (FVPCA) is applied for classification purposes, there is little functional difference between the two source. So it was wonderful to talk with Louisa about her work in this area.

For those who don’t spend a lot of time down extremist rabbit holes, it may be surprising to learn that such seemingly disparate groups – white supremacists and Islamic extremists for example – actually have a lot in common. But Dr Buckingham and her co-author found far more similarities than differences.

Their research showed that extremist discourse across the spectrum shares three main focal points – Group Identity, Perceived Grievances, and Emotive Content.

The focus on group identity creates a polarised view of the world, separating those who share the same beliefs and values, from those who don’t. This feeds into a narrative around ‘perceived grievances’ – one group has reason to mistrust, fear, or despise the other, due to a perception of persecution or blame. (White supremacists, separatists and nationalists for example, blame the problems of Western society on immigration, people of colour, and the mixing of races - just as the Nazis blamed problems in Germany on the Jewish people.)

Dr Buckingham states,

Interpretations of past events and circumstances are used to justify views held of actions undertaken in the present. This can result in a shared ‘master narrative’, rooted in the reinterpretation of a historical event and underscoring an historical continuity of animosity in relations between groups. For example, the use of the ‘Crusader’ narrative, used by both Islamist and right-wing extremist groups to depict a violent action or political alliance that involves a western power in the Middle East.

This ‘master narrative’ is expressed in emotive terms, typically conveying a sense of urgency, and compelling readers to defend the values of the group – physically and violently if they must.

Using linguistics software to analyse a selection of far-right and Islamic extremist texts, Dr Buckingham and her co-author examined levels of psychological states such as drive, reward, power, analytical reasoning, authenticity and tone. Their research showed that all texts studied, rated high in argumentation, high in ‘power’ (where the author appears influential and speaks with authority), low on authenticity, and low in ‘tone’ – meaning the texts were found to be deceitful (withholding facts or twisting truths) and dominated by negativity.

They also analysed the main concerns of the texts, and - perhaps less surprisingly - found that religion and death featured highly (though religion was less of a feature within the far-right texts). Anger was the dominant emotion expressed, matched by low levels of positive emotive content.

Dr Buckingham notes that while right-wing discourse is undeniably racist, it isn’t always ‘islamophobic’ – sometimes Muslims are simply grouped within a wider category of migrants who who are targeted due to racial heritage rather than religion.

She says,

In a NZ context, Muslims can be the target of prejudice or discriminatory action, but the motive may not actually be specifically a concern for religious difference but rather racial or cultural difference. This is what we identified in the Tarrant text. Breivik, in comparison, did have a stronger concern for the perceived threat of Islam to European society.

Our wider discussion also involved the complexities of our own classification work when it comes to balancing the NZ Bill of Rights enshrined ‘Freedom of Expression’ with our equal responsibility to the FVPCA’s defined limitations on the ‘injury to the public good’. We take these twin responsibilities seriously, and they influence everything we do, most especially our decisions on ideologically inflammatory material, or material depicting war crimes and atrocities - some of our most complex classification work. And when it comes to extremist propaganda we’re aware of how densely layered the meaning and modes of communication can be - particularly within certain online communities. Context is everything, and we rarely take anything on face value when it comes to analysing this material. We understand the use of irony, sarcasm and hyperbole, along with certain symbols, phrases or words, can have strong significance for the intended audience, but no meaning whatsoever to readers ‘outside’ the group. And nowhere is this more evident than within the extremist material we view.

Dr Buckingham’s full study and research methodology is complex and fascinating. If you’d like to learn more, you can access it here:

Erica works at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.


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