Undercover with Extremists

In the midst of trolls: the extremism researcher Julia Ebner goes undercover in far-right online communities.  

Jan Abele | June 2020
Julia Ebner
Sophie Green

Julia Ebner investigates how far-right digital movements can be strategically directed. 

At a cursory glance, Julia Ebner’s desk looks the same as those used by other researchers. The difference is that from here, Ebner enters worlds in which wars are being planned. Born in Vienna in 1991 and currently a PhD candidate at Oxford University, Ebner is an extremism researcher. She studies a social phenomenon that often begins in secret but can take extreme forms that on several occasions have shocked the world: before committing their crimes, the racially motivated killers of Christchurch, El Paso, Pittsburgh, and Halle radicalized mainly in far-right Internet forums. “Far-right extremism is nothing new,” she says. “What is new is the way it emerges and the effects it has.” In order to learn more about it, Ebner adopted different identities and went undercover in its virtual subcultures, including platforms such as 4chan and messenger services such as Telegram. “It’s a misconception that extremist networks only thrive in secrecy on the darknet. Often a mouse click is all you need to get from a YouTube video or a Facebook group to a corresponding forum,” she says.  

Far-right extremism is nothing new. What is new is the way it emerges and the effects it has.

Her motivation to enter the eye of the storm is directly related to an incident that occurred three years ago. At the time, Tommy Robinson, one of the world’s most influential ultra-right activists and founder of the far-right extremist English Defence League, showed up at her desk. Recording their encounter on camera, he accused her of spreading lies and then uploaded the video he made onto his YouTube channel. It was viewed there hundreds of thousands of times and led to massive threats against Ebner’s former employer. Ebner lost her job because, with the help of social media, a far-right troublemaker was able to incite violence that threatens freedom of opinion and, consequently, democracy itself. 

I wanted to understand how the movements were strategically directed.

Today, Julia Ebner works for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London. Her experiences flow into into the institute’s studies and reports, which help governments worldwide to understand the new phenomenon of Internet radicalization and develop prevention strategies and solutions. Her fundamental research is also part of the current ISD study “The Online Ecosystem of the German Far-Right,” which was funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and shows just how important it is for governments and public authorities worldwide to keep abreast of the dangers to society that emerge in online communities every day.  

Ebner’s assumed identity: philosophy student Jennifer Mayer, whose life she constructed down to the last detail.
Sophie Green

Ebner’s assumed identity: philosophy student Jennifer Mayer, whose life she constructed down to the last detail. 

In the course of her Internet research, Ebner noticed where she reached the limits of the medium. “You only get to see as much as other users, but I wanted to understand how the movements were strategically directed.” For example, online forums yielded too little information to analyze the communication strategy of the Identitarian movement, a new far-right organization that is expanding rapidly in Europe. This is when the second phase of her research began: she continued to work undercover, but now in the real world. She developed the cover identity of the philosophy student Jennifer Mayer, imagining her life down to the last detail – “like a character in a novel.” Using a fake Twitter profile, Ebner made contact with Identitarians and, disguised in a wig, even participated in the group’s secret meetings.  

When asked where she gets her courage, Ebner hesitates for a moment before responding that she has a certain degree of naivity and the willingness to take risks. “And the belief that anything is possible if you’re willing to push limits.” The fact that her mother is an actress may have helped, too, she adds.