Politics Opinion

The alt-Right: An era of misinformation incorporated

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Alt-Right political commentators Daisy Cousens and Steve Bannon along with our own Prime Minister are the antithesis of progressive thought (Image by Dan Jensen)

From climate denial to COVID-19 confusion to the destruction of liberal democracy, the question has to be asked — how did we get here? Who are the key players in Australia and who are their backers?

Exxon proved it could be done. With the current dire situation of our climate currently trending to exceed a 1.5-degree rise in the coming decades, you could ask, how did we get here? It’s not like we didn’t know. We were just told not to worry about it and, as an “informed” modern society, we didn’t do it enough.

As the Congressional hearings conducted in 2019 showed, scientists at Exxon in the 1980s came to the conclusion we were headed for catastrophic climate change if we didn’t reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. These ex-Exxon-scientists gave testimony as to how accurate their predictions were over 30 years ago, predictions which now seem prophetic, to say the least. In fact, leaked recordings in June this year verify the active role Exxon played in this deliberate deception.

These revelations show that instead of coming honest in the interests of their stakeholders and profit margins, Exxon went on a big spending spree to promote climate denial. And they poured billions into this exercise.

Known as the Cool Heads Coalition, an investigation conducted by the Climate Investigation Centre shows Exxon and their supporting groups funded a network of foundations, institutes and other groups around the world to carry out the task of promoting and convincing the public and politicians that it was all a bit of alarmism. This was to the tune of 98 million dollars we know of between 1997 and 2015.

Other key players in the Coalition include the Scaife family, Mercer family and the Lynde family Foundations and the Koch-backed network of organisations and dark money channels including the Donors Trust and Capital Fund. The Koch group is interesting because of its long-established agenda to go further, of demolishing our democratic institutions, welfare state and middle class to usher in an oligarchic society in which the economic and political life is controlled by a handful of billionaire families.

Supporters of this objective call themselves “libertarians”. This theme needs to be examined again with the rise of QAnon and the alt-Right, particularly as a consequence of the Trump era and the work of Steve Bannon.

Two identified Australian beneficiaries of undisclosed amounts of this Cool Heads Coalition money are the Lavoisier Group and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). It seems that Australia, with its domination by mining money in the economy, is ripe to play a key role in this international corporate push for an oligarchical rebirth. And now we have a climate and a COVID-19 crisis to contend with.

A key player in the international climate denial network is the Heartland Institute, based in the U.S., which has been hosting International Conferences on Climate Change (ICCC) since 2008 with its 14th event planned in October this year at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. A quick perusal of their website shows it is a storehouse of information and campaign approaches on climate denial we hear so often in Australia. One event in 2010 was held in Australia, sponsored by the IPA among others which showcased Australia’s leading climate denial activists.

Leading this small group of Australian speakers was Bob Carter from the University of Queensland, until his untimely passing in 2016. He seems to have been on the Heartland Institute’s payroll, becoming senior fellow in 2010. He spoke at every ICCC event until his passing and spoke on a range of issues from natural causes being the problem to climate change to the importance of adaption over mitigation. He also was a key figure in the small group of dedicated “climate scientists” known as the International Climate Science Coalition.

Other key players from down under who have been sponsored guests of the Heartland Institute are:

Roberts also set up his climate denialist platform, the Galileo Movement, whose website is like an archive of denialist material.

Of course, what use is a denialist message if it doesn’t have a good platform and for the most part, this task has been fulfilled by the Murdoch media empire, including its newspapers and, more recently, the Sky News channel. Here, climate denialism runs amok with pieces and presentations by well-paid “journalists” and editors from the Murdoch press.

Prominent among them are Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Ross Cameron, as well as and various “opinion” contributors such as Bjørn Lomborg and Peter Ridd as well as contributions from our core group mentioned above. Most other media outlets in Australia, such as the Nine Entertainment Group, Seven Group, SBS and the ABC have also provided platforms for climate denial without challenging views.

To help understand this bias, one should also bear in mind that Rupert himself is an oil mogul and so has a vested interest in maintaining the energy status quo.

It is important to note that Exxon has not paid one cent to any political party in Australia that has been disclosed. Other big players like Chevron and Shell also have paid very little. Yet the influence of big petroleum at the highest levels of government is there to be seen if you consider the gas-led recovery championed by the Australian Government. The handouts to keep the sector going and the policy focus on the development of carbon capture/storage, “blue” hydrogen and carbon offsetting all undermine a genuine renewable shift in our future energy needs.

This task has been largely achieved through donations from the network of petroleum corporations operating in Australia, their lobby groups and professional associations (Exxon is a member of the most important industry lobby bodies here), the stacking of petroleum identities in regulatory bodies and by the capture of key politicians in government.

A key figure here is Energy Minister Angus Taylor. While his climate denialist rhetoric is measured by the office he holds, he has the runs on the board for promoting anti-scientific ideas particularly in his attacks on the renewable sector before he was Minister.

Despite the moves to extend the life of fossil fuel ventures beyond their market life in Australia, world opinion has shifted on the urgent need to transition away from these energy sources, in no small part due to growing business sentiment and the latest IPCC findings. Yet our Government remains fixated with fossil fuels.

What is known as climate denial today may be better termed as a form of “social engineering”. The removal of science-based or informed policy-making based on evidence, it seems, has been replaced by another system that favours a reduced role of leadership in governance — “I don’t hold the hose, mate”. This in turn has promoted distraction and confusion in the public sphere. This has been aided by the rise of the newer player in the misinformation scene, the ideas of what may be broadly called the “alt-Right”.

This was best exemplified during the Trump Administration in the U.S. where we saw the rise of the concept of “alternative facts” and an overarching policy emphasis on race politics, attacks on science and the media and a reduced role of government. At the same time, we saw corporations being granted freer range over accepted regulatory and environmental constraints. We see a similar pattern here in Australia.

Instead of attempting to argue the science such as we see at Heartland Institute events, it seems this new political current relies more on personal vilification and culture wars to create confusion in the minds of the public. Climate scepticism remains as a topic but has become part of a broader array of issues promoted by the alt-Right, such as what might be called “COVID scepticism” and race politics.

Many commentators in the media have noted the growing far-right influence in Australia in the last ten years. We have the well-established libertarian groups, identified as being part of the self-described Australian Libertarian Network. Many of these are also members of the international Atlas Network of libertarian or pro-free market groups who advocate the kind of governance seen emerge in the U.S. during the Trump era.

ASIO has also identified a rise in right-wing terrorist/hate groups, largely anti-Moslem/immigrant or refugee in nature. This has been accompanied by a rise in political organisations of what may be described as racially motivated, emphasising the benefit of “Western civilisation” and individual liberty. An example is the group Advance Australia, now registered with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) as a political campaigner who claims to survive on donations from the public. It has received considerable loans from the UK-based Christian charity, the Burleigh Trust.

Another is the much more secretive Q Society of Australia Inc, self-described as a ‘not-for-profit civil rights organisation run by a dedicated group of volunteers’. Set up in 2010, it held meetings attended by people such as Sonia Kruger, Cory Bernardi and George Christensen (again), prominent Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders and Debbie Robinson as the head, who also holds a position with the anti-Islamic group, Stop The Islamisation of Nations.

The Society has stated that its name derives from the fact it was founded at the town of Kew in Victoria, but this is quite a very thin smokescreen. Its use of ‘Q’ is telling and its form of hate speech puts it squarely in the QAnon basket.

Despite it still retaining an incorporated acronym in its name, the organisation supposedly “self- deregistered” in 2020 due to its extreme Islamophobia and homophobia as it feared lawsuits. However, a look at its two websites shows it is still operating a contact page and mailing list on one, while the other has a landing page that now publishes daily innocuous articles about cosmetic surgery and the properties of steel. But if you look at the “about” page, it still contains the same anti-Moslem sentiments cloaked in liberty speech that Steve Bannon could have written himself.

The Q Society also set up a political party initially called the Australian Liberty Alliance which then rebranded as Yellow Vest Australia- inspired by the French movement of the same name, to run candidates in the 2019 federal election, but was de-registered as a party in 2020.

Today, high profile alt-Right personalities in Australia include Avi Yemini, an ex-Israeli Defence Force soldier who has boasted of shooting Palestinians and is still given a platform on Sky News. He is an admirer of British far-right racist Tommy Robinson and has stated that he was asked to join the Australian Liberty Alliance.

Another is Daisy Cousens, author for the right-wing Spectator and contributor to Sky News and YouTube on issues such as free speech and the falsity of climate change and COVID-19 science. It seems the alt-Right here likes to champion glamorous personalities or people who would kill you given half the chance. This is not a laughing matter as the Christchurch killer showed with his strong, highly scripted anti-Moslem rhetoric.

But the father of the modern-day alt-Right, Steve Bannon, is a crucial figure in the development of the alt-Right both in the U.S. and here in Australia. Having served as the White House's chief strategist in the administration of President Donald Trump during the first seven months of Trump's term, his rise to fame came as a result of his role as executive chairman of Breitbart News and his time on the board of the now-defunct data-analytics firm Cambridge Analytica.

Many point out his time at Breitbart News made it a haven for White nationalists and is implicated in the spread of the cult-like ideology of QAnon. What he is good at is obtaining the support of billionaires for his projects, such as Robert Mercer, particularly for his targeting and propaganda operations, exemplified by his work with Cambridge Analytica.

Mercer, along with daughter Rebekah, are long-term friends with Bannon who has received significant financial support from them, both during his time at Breitbart and with Cambridge Analytica.

Manipulating elections through social media and mainstream news messaging, often disguised as legitimate news, is seen by Bannon and Mercer as a key way to get your people into power and to counter the “woke” army of the social justice warriors. Many believe Cambridge Analytica’s role was a significant factor both for the Brexit campaign in Britain and for Trump’s election victory in 2016.

It was also helped, according to some, by billionaire Peter Thiel who, it is claimed, funded the MAGA3X meme army. This is confirmed by a one-time associate of Thiel, Jeff Giesea, who developed the MAGA3X campaign, though now apparently regrets it. Thiel heads the influential data-mining company Palantir, who according to some, ‘knows everything about you’.

But these data analytic firms were not the first on the scene. The credit for this goes to i360, set up by the Koch brothers to target voters with messages, brought to light during the 2018 U.S. Senate campaigns. Republican candidates contract to i360 who identifies voter groups and sends them target ads on the mainstream news and on social media. i360 was credited with achieving several Senate victories over Democratic candidates who had leads in the polls. These ads generally feed on a person’s fears, particularly relating to immigration.

The Mercers and the Kochs, the same people who have funded climate denial second to none — except Exxon, of course.

What is concerning is that i360 has been used in Australia, at least twice that we know of in the recent Victorian and South Australian elections.

Dismissed by unnamed Liberal Party apparachiks in this Sydney Morning Herald article as not working properly because local yokels didn’t know how to use it, when asked if it was to be used in the 2019 Federal Election, the response was:

“The Federal Liberal Party organisation has not used i360 and will not be using i360 for the Federal Election campaign.”

But the article goes onto state that:

‘It is understood a number of Liberal Party candidates were side-stepping feedback for the 2019 Federal Election and had approached i360 independently in order to use the more sophisticated service.’

Given Clive Palmer’s open rorting of the electoral system to fund anti-Labor ads in the last Federal Election, it should remain an open question as to whether data analytics and targeted messaging was used by the Liberal Party as well. What is not in doubt is Clive’s ascendency to the new down-under alt-Right, as shown by his well-funded anti-vax ad campaign.

Steve Bannon now also has a platform in Australia to spread his populist messages, the group fronted by well known racist Fraser Anning, called the Institute for Populist Economic Nationalism. While dismissed by many as just being a bit kooky, it highlights the links and interest the alt-Right, in conjunction with their free-market allies, showing in Australia. Not the least in the home of the Prime Minister himself.

And we should be concerned. As political investigator, James Stewartson has stated recently:

‘They want to destroy global liberal democracy and replace it with fascism and authoritarianism because they believe that situation is the best for them and they may be right. Because if you’re rich, king of the world, what do you need all these people for?’

David Paull is an Australian ecologist and blogger on politics and the environment. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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