A ‘data dump’ by an anonymous anti-fascist activist in November exposed the world to the inner workings of one of the most prolific neo-Nazi forums in recent history, the now-defunct Iron March website.
The site’s metadata, including IP addresses, usernames, emails, messages and posts were suddenly exposed to the scrutiny of the media, researchers and law enforcement.
Many former Iron March users that were identified from their data have since pulled their social media profiles and effectively “gone dark.”
One is refusing to remain silent.
An American ex-Iron March user and disavowed former fascist has gone semi-public with his plea for people to leave the hate movement.
The man, who CTVNews.ca has agreed to refer to as “S.G.” due to his fear of violent reprisals, took the Iron March data leak as an opportunity to reach out to the community he left behind and ask them to de-radicalize.
Using the Twitter handle “@ExIronMarch,” S.G. has been documenting his ascent out of extremist views and his process of integrating back into society.
CTVNews.ca was able to verify S.G.’s story of being an Iron March user by comparing the email address, username and archived posts from the leaked data files with his testimony to confirm his identity.
Descent into hate
“I was introduced to Iron March through an online friend,” S.G. told CTVNews.ca in a Skype interview Monday, adding that he was already flirting with hateful ideology through “irony poisoning.”
Irony poisoning is a term used to describe the process of desensitization to extremist, hateful rhetoric by the use of “humour,” and especially on the internet – memes – that assist in sliding a person further into the spheres of fascism, white supremacy and violence.
“I had a lot of friends, you know, who would make casual jokes of the sort that you might see [in irony poisoning]” S.G. said. “At first any social aversion you might have to this sort of ideology gradually goes away as you’re constantly bombarded by this content.”
S.G. said that as time went on he found that he was open to having friends who espoused hateful ideology “non-ironically,” and then sympathizing with them led to gradually believing in some of those ideas himself.
But S.G. wants to make it clear that by the time he was on the Iron March forum, the fascist views he sympathized with were no longer “ironic” or the subject of “edgy” comedy.
“Anyone who made it to the stage where they were signing up to Iron March…there was probably no chance they were ironic at that point,” he said. “What Iron March wanted to do, was it wanted to take these people who already espoused extreme ideologies…and it wanted to shape them into a more extreme, uncompromising variety.”
“Iron March definitely did make people more extreme than they were before they joined the forum,” he said.
The key to making Iron March users increasingly radicalized was “social pressure,” S.G. said, adding that users would receive social validation for being “the most extreme person in the room.”
Figures like Anders Breivik – the mass murderer from Norway – would be “lionized” on the site, but the Iron March users would not necessarily be “inclined to commit such acts themselves.”
But the major turning point, S.G. said, was the introduction of a “how-to” manual – that CTVNews.ca has declined to name due to the extremist content- to the forum between 2014 and 2015.
“That text became the blueprint for the ideology,” S.G. said. “That’s when you started seeing groups like Atomwaffen pop up…these groups had a terrorist ideology…there’s no two ways about it, it’s just flat out a terrorist ideology.”
S.G. said in the years after the introduction of that publication to Iron March, the militant hate groups who were active on its pages were “consolidated,” which intensified the social pressure on users to commit violent acts.
It would be acts of violence linked to Iron March that would serve as the catalyst for S.G. to leave the website, the fascism movement and to seek de-radicalization.
Violent global events, and the reaction to them on Iron March, shook S.G. out of his extremist mindset.
CTVNews.ca agreed not to specify which acts of violence S.G. referred to as they may identify him.
“I obviously had come to embrace this…extreme ideology, but it was still at odds with me to the extent that I…did not want anyone to get hurt regardless of who they were,” he said.
After the Iron March users treated the outside acts of violence with disdain online, S.G. felt that it was time for him to leave the movement.
“I had become so desensitized…so detached…it was my personal wake-up call,” he said.
But leaving is easier said than done.
S.G. said when he left Iron March and the extremist movement he had almost “no support” except for a few personal friends, and did not seek professional help, something he said he probably “should have” done.
S.G. cautioned that leaving the site “didn’t mean the ideology went away…that was a gradual process,” explaining that it has taken years to get to the point he is now.
In his own personal journey of de-radicalization, S.G. told CTVNews.ca that the “single most important element of deprogramming” from hateful rhetoric was to “extricate” himself from the movement by cutting contact with anyone associated with it.
“These extremist ideologies, they thrive off of that social affirmation, they thrive off of that reinforcement from your peers,” he said, adding that once the peer reinforcement is removed, the whole movement becomes “shaky.”
Kindness and empathy from friends on the outside helped S.G. re-integrate into society he said, and gave him the ability to scrutinize his own descent into the fascism movement.
A key element was even though he didn’t think of himself as a bigot, S.G. said he “held bigoted beliefs that [he] never personally confronted,” adding that he was a “fairly isolated” person that allowed for a “much more negative social circle” to appeal to him than would be his norm.
But S.G. is aware that while those are contributing factors to his journey into extremism, they are not an excuse.
“I still feel something of a responsibility for all this, even though I never became part of any of the activist groups or anything I still feel a deep responsibility for ever having been a part of it,” he said. “Even though I have been out for a few years, it’s been a horrifying few years for me to watch from the outside, knowing that I had ever espoused ideas like that.”
S.G. was adamant that although he was grateful for the opportunity to share his journey and potentially help other neo-Nazi extremists to seek de-radicalization by speaking to the media, he credits the ANTIFA movement for doing the majority of the work necessary to break down barriers.
“As someone who was, you know, on the other side, I can say the work that they [ANTIFA] are doing is indispensable,” he said. “The anti-fascists have probably done more than any authorities to disrupt and combat the rise of fascism.”
“There is no ‘both sides’ when It comes to the anti-fascists,” S.G. said. “They are right.”
A dire warning, a message of hope
Now that he has been out of the fascism movement for several years and is using the opportunity presented by the data leak to try to reach out to other Iron March users, S.G. has a message to the public – “the rising tide of fascism is very real.”
“It’s something to be taken very deeply, deadly seriously,” he said, adding that things have gotten exponentially worse in regards to violent acts committed in the name of fascism since his years on the site.
“Anyone with children needs to be aware…if their kids are online, they are probably being bombarded by racist, anti-Semitic content.”
S.G. said that if parents notice their children “regurgitating” hateful content that is a giveaway that they have “bad friends” that they need to be aware of.
But there is hope.
“I want people who are in, who might listen to this [and] who are still within the movement or maybe having second thoughts, to know that…they can get out, it is more than possible,” he said.
A major part of that, S.G. said, is going out and meeting members of the community they have been taught to hate – whether it be visible minorities or the LGBTQ community.
Exposure is “probably the best antidote there is” to fascism, S.G. said, as he believes that extremist ideologies thrive off social affirmation that causes them to become “disconnected from reality.”
By bringing people “back into reality” and giving them experiences that are going to directly contradict the sort of things they are consuming on sites like Iron March, is what S.G. thinks is the best way to help them , adding that de-radicalization is a gradual process and won’t be like “flipping a switch.”
“You will be ashamed of your ideas if you give the people you have been taught to hate a real chance,” he said.
Edited by Phil Hahn