Meet the Ex-Neo-Nazi Using Tech to Deradicalize the Far Right
Brad Galloway employed the internet to find new recruits for neo-Nazi hate groups. Now he uses it to help them leave.
Brad Galloway opens up his phone and scans through his most recent Facebook messages.
“I’ve been in the white power movement for five years and I want out,” one reads. “I hate who I’ve become.”
“Really struggling with the loneliness today,” another says. “I don’t have a single buddy left after leaving the group.”
Galloway carefully replies to each one. He advises the guy desperate to leave that he should make steps to reconnect with old friends from his days before joining the far right. He talks the second through positive things he could fill his time with, such as sports or going back to school.
Galloway can relate. With his brown hair, beard, and unassuming button-down shirts, today the 39-year-old father of three blends in easily on the streets of Vancouver, Canada. But less than a decade ago, he sported the unmistakable uniform of a street skinhead — black bomber jacket, boots, and a shaved head. Galloway spent almost 15 years in Canada’s neo-Nazi movement before breaking away in 2011. But now he’s part of an online network working to deradicalize other far-right extremists. Some he exchanges just a few conversations with. Others he continues to mentor for years.
“Online has made [the far right] much more widespread and created a transnational movement,” says Galloway, who has been working in the deradicalization field since 2015. “The group I was in started in the U.S. and ended up in 12 different countries, all because of the internet.” But he also thinks that digital tools offer better opportunities to counteract the very extremism it has helped to grow. “[The internet] can be a positive resource for disengaging from it all. There was absolutely nothing back when I left.”
Galloway was recruited in the mostly off-line world of the late 1990s, when he was 19 years old. “I met up with a friend who was involved and he sold me the story of how multiculturalism is taking over the world,” he remembers. “He gave me some CDs and taught me how to dress like a skinhead. I was desperate for a sense of identity, and that was the driver.”
Throughout his 20s Galloway grew more deeply involved with hate groups and, as forums and chat rooms took off, starting working as an online recruiter. “Think of it as a tree,” he explains. “You have one platform where everyone goes, such as [white supremacist forum] Stormfront.” But today, far-right groups are also known to recruit from sites such as Reddit and 4chan. According to Galloway, different far-right groups converge in these spaces to promote their aims, to recruit new people, and to use them as soundboards to complain about Islam, or anything else they object to. When new prospects turn up, the aim is to get them talking via private message before putting them through a process akin to gang initiation, where the recruiter works out their belief system and ensures they’re not an undercover activist.
The easy availability of the internet is key to the process. “Online is a powerful recruitment tool,” Galloway continues. “People go way out of their comfort zone with the things they say.” He also believes the internet makes it easier to work out who’s vulnerable, and therefore targetable. “Recruiters will look for the guy who’s going through a divorce or someone who’s young and seems lonely,” he says. The nature of online forums means people are more likely to rant about these issues, and recruiters can Google their usernames to see what they’ve posted elsewhere.
The end goal, though, is always to convince the recruit to meet up off-line. “Violence is the key component,” says Galloway. “It’s what [the far right] want at the end of it. It’s never going to be enough to just stay online.”
“These groups… destroy your life.”
One reason Galloway eventually left the movement was his wife. “She was never involved and she kept me skeptical, which was lucky because a lot of these guys end up completely isolated from other voices,” he says. “All the hate and violence and anger just got exhausting… Eventually I started thinking, instead of spending all this energy hating other communities, why don’t I try learning about them?”
And now, Galloway says, he wants to make amends. “I was involved in a lot of violence and caused some harm to the community.”
Galloway is clear that there is no shortcut to deradicalization. The process differs depending on how long and how deeply an individual has been involved, what’s been driving that involvement, and whether they’re attached to any particular part of the ideology. But he explains that getting people out of the far right follows a similar pattern to how they were radicalized in the first place.
He prefers not to approach members of the far right directly — “they already see us as tools of their enemy” — and waits for signs that they are ready for help. He’s had people connect with him on Facebook after seeing him talking about deradicalization on the news. Galloway also receives email referrals from two nonprofits he works with: Life After Hate and the Coalition to End Violence. “People approach me in a negative context too but I think that’s often their cry for help… It starts up the dialogue.”
Hate groups typically encourage recruits to sever ties with friends and family who oppose their views, and to stay away from what they call the “socialist environments” of colleges and universities. Galloway, on the other hand, urges his mentees to reconnect with people from their past and expose themselves to different, dissenting voices through reading or education.
Galloway believes that banning movements completely could be counterproductive, driving people to off-line communities instead.
The aim is to get them attached to positive new people or activities, which can lead to disengagement with the groups, followed by full deradicalization. “I ask people, ‘What good has being in these groups ever brought to your life?’” he says. “Get involved with something that gives you growth.”
When it comes to changing beliefs, Galloway believes in trying to humanize anyone the groups hate. “Most of these guys have never actually had a negative experience with anyone from different communities,” he explains. “I say to them, ‘What do you really know about Islam? Have you ever gone to a mosque and asked them about it?’”
Leaving the movement isn’t so straightforward, though. Former members refer to “the void” — the empty period that comes after leaving this intense social group — and how they have to avoid slipping back into extremist circles for company. This is where long-term mentoring comes into play, as well as the internet itself. Support groups on Facebook can bring members in contact with people who have been through the same experience.
Online platforms have faced plenty of criticism for their perceived slowness in tackling the far right. Facebook finally banned a number of prominent figures from the movement, including Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones, but only after months and even years of complaints. YouTube only last week began deleting Nazi videos from the platform (and in the process inadvertently took down valuable historical documents). But Galloway believes that banning movements completely could be counterproductive, driving people to off-line communities instead.
“I’d like to see more focus on prevention,” he concludes. “The education needs to start early on. These groups… destroy your life.”