EPISODE 90

UNDERCOVER WITH THE NIPSTERS

UNDERCOVER WITH THE NIPSTERS

Julia Ebner makes a living infiltrating far-right extremist groups including Nipsters - Nazi hipsters. Some of the groups she researches are making a play for the mainstream, however. Generation Identity is a European organization putting a millennial gloss on old and dangerous ideas.
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True Spies Episode 90: Undercover with the Nipsters

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

JULIA EBNER: I was extremely nervous because there were at least 20 white nationalists from the whole of Europe, and I just felt a bit trapped. This was also where I met a few other white nationalists who probably knew me by name from my publications, and if they had uncovered my identity at this point I would have probably been quite scared.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies. Episode 90: Undercover with the Nipsters. For some true spies, going undercover means finding yourself in a place you never expected to be. Tangling with people you never imagined you would meet. Doing perilous work under cover of nightfall. For some spies, it means finding yourself shrouded in the shadows. For Julia Ebner, it meant being flooded with bright, blinding, white.

JULIA EBNER: It was actually quite a nice Airbnb. It was a bit on the outskirts of London, so in Brixton, and lots of daylight coming in. It was actually a nice kind of holiday home. I would have probably stayed there. If I didn't know that it was a white nationalist meetup, it could have also just been some hobby community that made up or just some kind of afternoon tea party.

NARRATOR: A tea party, it goes without saying, this was not. Julia was embedded in Generation Identity, a far-right white nationalist organization with branches across Europe. But you wouldn't know there was anything special about them from a casual encounter. From the outside, they seem polite, well-dressed… normal. 

JULIA EBNER: If I'd met them in a different setting, not talked about politics, not known who they were, not talked about ideology, I would have maybe made friends with them because they can be nice and charming. It can seem so normal. It's not like they wore swastikas or something that says: "I'm a white nationalist." It's much more nuanced than that, and they're much more subtle. And that also makes them in some ways so dangerous.

NARRATOR: Don’t be fooled by the facade. Julia had found herself in a highly dangerous crowd. Dangerous enough to inspire acts of unspeakable violence, far beyond the walls of their bright holiday rental. Julia, a researcher, was known to the group as ‘Jenny’. And as long as they didn’t learn who she really was, she’d be spared their wrath.

JULIA EBNER: They can do really nasty hate campaigns online. They can dox you, leak your address. And then it's a different type of danger because you're then exposed. Your home address might be exposed. Your whole family might be exposed. And I knew that a lot of researchers and journalists and people working in the field had gone through that, and I really didn't want that to happen.

NARRATOR: Knowing what could happen if she wasn’t careful, Julia was keeping her real identity close to the vest. But that afternoon in the Airbnb, the truth came tumbling out.

JULIA EBNER: Before getting there, I really made sure I didn't carry anything with me that would give away my identity. But I did have to take my credit card with me because, of course, I knew I might have to pay for something. Even the Tube, you can tap it. And so I had that in my pocket, and at some point it actually fell out of my trousers pocket.

NARRATOR: But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Who is Jenny - or, I should say, Julia? And what was she doing in a hateful cohort of millennials and members of Generation Z?

JULIA EBNER: I'm Julia Ebner. I'm originally from Austria, but I've lived in the UK for seven years, and I'm a researcher looking at far-right extremism, radicalization, and terrorism. And I've gone undercover with a range of extremist groups, from ISIS hackers to far-right and neo-Nazi groups and misogynist groups.

NARRATOR: Julia Ebner is not a conventional spy. By day, she works as a researcher, monitoring extremist groups from a comfortable distance. She uses her findings to do things like make policy recommendations, write reports, and speak in schools. Her work is used by organizations working to help prevent radicalization, and by governments seeking to put an end to extremism. And her career has aligned - rather unfortunately - with the heating up of the political climate. She arrived in London at a moment when terrorism was on the forefront of a lot of Europeans’ minds, shortly after the attack on the Parisian nightclub Bataclan in late 2015, where 90 people were killed. 

JULIA EBNER: I got absorbed into the subject. It was at the height of ISIS's power. They were just gaining traction in Europe. And so I - because I also had some personal relationships, people that I knew that were caught up in Bataclan, that were caught up in the area where the terrorist attacks happened - I had such a strong personal connection that I decided to devote my my life basically to challenging terrorism and extremism.

NARRATOR: But Julia believed that from the outside, she could only learn so much. So, for two years, she worked a second shift as a spy. Her undercover research into those dangerous groups helped her to understand their workings from the inside.

JULIA EBNER: It seemed in my day-to-day research for think tanks and NGOs, and also for government security services, that I was constantly hitting a wall because, of course, the way that you look at things is always from an outsider's perspective. And I could see what their campaigns looked like on social media. I could see they were targeting their political enemies with hate campaigns, either online or sometimes even offline. I could see the terrorist attacks but I couldn't really see what was going on on the inside. How is their socialization taking place? How are people becoming part of these communities and how are they coordinating and plotting these attacks? And that's why I decided to go undercover.

NARRATOR: Not just for one evening, or one weekend, but for two years. By day, she maintained her desk job. By night, she went out on her own in disguise. Julia worked under five different, carefully crafted identities, infiltrating 12 different extremist groups both online and off.

JULIA EBNER: I made up five different identities because I decided to join different movements on different sides of the ideological spectrum. So that took several months to really think about these characters. I thought about them almost like I was creating a character for a novel. So I thought about their past, their present, and their future. I thought about their motivations. I thought about their goals to be credible when I would be approached by a recruiter or when I would, in fact, proactively approached someone from that community.

NARRATOR: We really don’t recommend you try this at home but, if you are going undercover in an extremist group, you had better know your alias frontwards and back.

JULIA EBNER: Then I had to create a profile across different - both mainstream social media platforms - but also some of their own alternative platforms. There is an alt-right [Alternative Right] equivalent for Twitter. There is an alt-right equivalent for YouTube. And so I set up different accounts on all of these platforms in order for them to believe that I could be one of them.

NARRATOR: Communities with extreme ideologies have thrived in recent years in part because they have a command of the darkest corners of the internet. They also employ gamified tactics to snag young members and keep them enthralled by the recruitment process so they get radicalized, fast. Julia knew all this. These groups were her life’s work. And when she entered their midst, she wanted to seem like she knew just enough - but not too much.

JULIA EBNER: There were certain moral standards that I set for myself - of course, they would have never met the ethics standards of ethics committees at universities - but I did not want to proactively run recruitment campaigns or even spread extremist ideologies. So I always acted as the naïve newcomer, so I wouldn't have to voice any extremist views. And I also became a more appealing recruit in that way because they also wanted to show off to me. They wanted to impress me and get me into the movement. And I do think that actually having a female identity helped in some of these cases because they didn't see me as a potential threat.

NARRATOR: Still, being a naïve young woman wasn’t always enough to get a foot in the door. A few of these groups had their own, rather stringent, vetting procedures.

JULIA EBNER: For example, one of the the American neo-Nazi groups that I joined, they asked me to submit a genetic test result or the result of a genetic test to prove that I'm white. They also asked me to submit a picture of my wrist or my hand with the group logo on it in order for me to prove that I'm white. And, of course, there was a lot of cognitive dissonance that this created because with the genetic tests, most of us actually have some foreign heritage in our DNA. So a lot of the neo-Nazis found out that, in fact, they are partly non-white or non-European in their heritage, and that caused a lot of troubles in their own mindset.

NARRATOR: Among these exclusive groups that interested Julia was an organization called Generation Identity. Its members call themselves the ‘Identitarians’.

JULIA EBNER: Generation Identity is a white nationalist movement that was originally created in France, in Nice, in the south of France, and they've since then branched out to basically every, almost every, European country where they at least have an online presence. And they also have an offline presence in most of the bigger European countries where they launch very sophisticated hybrid campaigns, both online and offline. They often do media stunts in order to gain the media's attention, so they would do something very provocative like staging a fake terrorist attack in the heart of Vienna or putting a burqua on the statue of Maria Teresa. They were using very gamified strategies - still are actually - they're gamifying their campaigns. So you can, for example, rise up in the ranks if you do a particularly good job at some of the campaigns, the hate campaigns they do, but they also do influencer campaigns where they try to influence and hijack the whole public discourse on a topic. And unfortunately, they've also really advocated this ideology that has been inspiring terrorist attacks across the world.

NARRATOR: Generation Identity began as the youth wing of Bloc Identitaire, the French white nationalist group. Today, it’s the European equivalent of the alt-right. And, well, put it this way: in the cafeteria of white nationalist groups, Generation Identity likes to think of itself as the cool kids’ table. 

JULIA EBNER: They have branded themselves as a hip, young, quite well-educated white nationalist movement in Europe. They've also tried to set up branches in the US and in Canada but they have failed so far. But it was interesting because they have very high standards of who they want to accept. So they have quite an exclusive kind of community. They don't want to accept anyone who's not eloquent enough, who's not exactly fitting into their group mentality, because they care so much about the public image that they portray to the outside world. So they care a lot about exactly voicing their ideologies, which are very extreme, in the manner that would be mainstream-able, in a manner that would still be a conversation that you could have at the dinner table in some shape or form. 

NARRATOR: Among other things, that means: No Nazis. Martin Sellner, one of the organization’s leaders, has his roots in the neo-Nazi movement. But Sellner has tried to scrub that line from his résumé, and Generation Identity won’t accept neo-Nazis into the fold. 

JULIA EBNER: He knows that this is not efficient. This is not the way for a movement that wants to go mainstream to advocate their ideas. So he knows exactly where the borders are of what's still at the verge of being socially acceptable.

NARRATOR: The UK Generation Identity website offers a whitewashed portrait of the organization. There’s talk of diversity, cultural exchange, and the preservation of peace. But don’t be mistaken...

JULIA EBNER: Of course, what's behind that - and you can only see that really when you're inside the group - is a much more extreme ideology and is a much more dangerous community that has been driving - or at least their ideologies have been driving - terrorism on an international scale.

NARRATOR: One of those ideologies is the notion of the ‘great replacement’, an idea that has fueled a number of deadly attacks around the world.

JULIA EBNER: If we look at the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand in 2019 and all the copycat attacks that followed from that, most of them were inspired by their great replacement ideology. This conspiracy theory assumes that whites are being gradually replaced by non-whites. 

NARRATOR: The group has its own vocabulary to describe its ideologies. One frequently used term: ‘remigration’.

JULIA EBNER: They advocate this concept of ‘remigration’, which would basically mean that everyone in the UK, every UK citizen with a migration background, would just be expelled from the country, would be sent back to their ancestral country. And they are also using this idea of ‘ethnopluralism’. This is the other euphemism, ethnopluralism, which is basically white supremacism or white nationalism because they are in favor of a homogenetic nation state. They don't want any non-whites to be in a country that they deem as white.

NARRATOR: But as Julia mentioned, the members of Generation Identity aren’t spouting out their dangerous ideas indiscriminately. They’re spreading their message slowly, bit by bit - laying a trail of breadcrumbs to their darkest, most overtly hateful ideas.

JULIA EBNER: Their key concept is ‘red pilling normies’, or what they would call normal people, basically.

NARRATOR: ‘Red pilling’ being a reference to the film The Matrix. The film’s protagonist has a choice: take a blue pill and remain ignorant, or take a red pill and learn the unvarnished truth. It’s a metaphor that has been co-opted by the extreme right, and that groups like the Identitarians use to describe their slow indoctrination process.

JULIA EBNER: They have created a whole guide on how to ‘redpill normies’. And this includes strategies on how to gradually leak in your ideologies, but by going through more acceptable rhetoric and and using maybe some funny jokes or visuals, memes, in order to to slowly get people to their really extreme end of the spectrum. Some of the people that I spoke to were even saying that they were applying this to their own families, to their own friends, so they were trying to get them to watch more and more extreme videos. They, of course, didn't call it extreme, but that's in fact what they were doing. 

NARRATOR: Julia wanted to take a closer look at the organization. So she used one of her five identities, a bookish blonde woman named Jennifer Mayer. 

JULIA EBNER: I pretended to be an Austrian student on an exchange program in London. So I also made my English sound a bit worse. I had a thicker Austrian accent than I already have and I also, I was studying philosophy to have a good conversation topic with Martin Sellner because his degree was also philosophy.

NARRATOR: Julia wasn’t just talking the talk. She, too, had once studied philosophy. Like her, Martin Sellner is an Austrian native, and the two are also fairly close in age. It often occurred to her: they’d grown up in similar settings, and now were at similar life stages. But somehow their paths had diverged, drastically. Now, he was leading the charge for this odious cause.

JULIA EBNER: I started slowly being more and more active, following some of their figureheads and being more active in and also sometimes commenting on what they said. And then, in the end, I actually reached out to their UK branch because I could see that they were trying to set up a UK branch at this point. So I thought: “This is interesting.” Because I was based in London, but as a German speaker, I thought I could be useful to them as a bridge, or this could be my selling point. And I contacted them. And in fact, they were looking for especially young women to join their movement because they like having women facing the front, being the public figure of their movement. 

NARRATOR: Julia’s first in-person meeting with a member of Generation Identity took place on her home turf, Vienna.

JULIA EBNER: I was in Vienna basically to visit friends and family, but I actually received an email from Martin Sellner, who was at the Frankfurt Book Fair to launch his book. But he said: "Oh, you could meet up with another leader of the movement who is in Vienna right now. You could have a coffee with him.”

NARRATOR: Bingo. But there’s just one problem: Julia’s a bit of a known entity at this point. In fact, she's already appeared on a BBC documentary that also featured Martin Sellner. Would his compatriot in the Identitarian movement recognize the young woman who’d turned up for coffee?

JULIA EBNER: Generation Identity cares too much about their image. They wouldn't - even had they exposed me for being a researcher or investigative journalist - they would have probably not resorted to violence. However, they can do really nasty hate campaigns online that can do… They can dox you, leak your address. And they did try to do that in the end. They tried to leak my address, my phone number, everything. And then it's a different type of danger because you're then exposed. Your home address might be exposed. Your whole family might be exposed. I knew that a lot of researchers and journalists and people working in the field had gone through that, and I really didn't want that to happen.

NARRATOR: Julia did her best to obscure her appearance by donning a pair of oversized glasses and a blonde wig.

JULIA EBNER: I had a very good wig. It was a professional wig but I also didn't really know how to put that on. And I'm, of course, not a professional in wearing wigs in any way. So I do think that it was not perfectly well done. 

NARRATOR: The Identitarian who met Julia was none the wiser. He knew her only as Jennifer Mayer, a naive new recruit, as blonde as she was white. Julia, on the other hand, knew quite a bit about her coffee date.

JULIA EBNER: Edwin Hintsteiner is one of their regional leaders in Austria, and he has expressed a lot of very extremist ideas. He's been in Generation Identity for a very long time. And he actually at some point even gained prominence in Vienna for something ageist, or something against old people, on Twitter, and actually had a huge backlash from the community of elderly women, of grandmothers in Austria. And so he gained prominence for that. But in fact, he's not just intolerant toward elderly people, he's also spreading a lot of hatred toward minority communities in Austria and has been very involved in the movement for a long time.

NARRATOR: But you don’t win friends and influence people just by being a creep. 

JULIA EBNER: That's the thing, Edwin was really friendly and very charming. He told me about the movement's origins, about the movement's ideas, and it all sounded as if it was a very casual chat. But then the content of it was so extreme that I actually looked across the table and there was a homosexual couple sitting next to us in the cafe. And I felt so terribly embarrassed. The whole Generation Identity movement is very much hateful toward the LGBTQ community and, of course, towards ethnic minorities and religious minorities. But I was just really embarrassed and had to overcome that urge to say: "Oh, I'm not actually part of this. Don't mistake me for being one of them.”

NARRATOR: But Hintsteiner suspected nothing. It wasn’t until Julia asked their waiter for coffee that she realized she may have acted grievously out of character.

JULIA EBNER: When I was in this traditional Viennese coffee shop, I ordered soya milk with my cappuccino and the waiter was looking at me - ‘What? What are you doing?' And I thought this would clearly give me away for not being based in Vienna usually, for not being truly Austrian anymore.

NARRATOR: Not only that, but she’d committed a faux pax for much of the extreme right. After the election of Donald Trump, soy and other non-dairy milk became a symbol of weakness. Some white supremacists chugged from cartons of dairy milk at a rally to call attention to their ability to digest lactose - something easier for people of European ancestry to do. Absurd? Absolutely. Nonetheless, Julia felt she may have raised alarm bells for Hintsteiner.

JULIA EBNER: But actually, there was nothing. He didn't really say anything. And in fact, he even mentioned that they would have Club-Mate, which is the Berlin hipster drink, at their party, at their election party later. So I thought: “Well, they're hipster enough to have Club-Mate, so then the soya milk wouldn't be a problem.”

NARRATOR: Welcome to the world of the Nazi hipsters - or as they’re sometimes called, the Nipsters. You can take your coffee however you please. Hintsteiner was unfazed. He even invited her to an election party that evening for the Freedom Party of Austria.

JULIA EBNER: I briefly thought of going there, but I, because I wanted to be accepted into the UK branch, I thought I'm rather not going to risk them uncovering my identity now in Austria, although my real goal was to get invited to the event, to the events in the UK. Knowing more people in Austria also meant that I would be exposed or that it would be more likely for me to be exposed and that my identity was not as safe as it was in the UK.

NARRATOR: But Julia couldn’t limit her contact with the group to one-on-one meetings with its members. She’d have to branch out to make the most of going undercover, ideally in a country where she’d be less of a known entity.

JULIA EBNER: We said we'd be in touch and it  was then, also, he referred me to the UK team, to the people who were trying to set up the UK branch. And they arranged a meetup in this pub, which was after the Traditional Britain conference had just happened in central London. They went to the pub with all of the people from Generation Identity who traveled there, who traveled to London for that, and also with a few other far-right figures.

NARRATOR: Julia was greeted at the pub in London by her newest contact, an Identitarian named Jordan. She, in turn, introduced herself as…

JULIA EBNER: Jennifer, which was actually why I chose that name because I already predicted that would happen several times. It's harder than you think to really stay in your role, especially when you're nervous.

NARRATOR: Crisis narrowly averted. Jordan led her to a back room where a crowd was gathered. As they entered, all eyes turned to Julia. The room was uncomfortably quiet. And beneath Julia’s blonde wig, her head was reeling.

JULIA EBNER: I was extremely nervous because there were at least 20 white nationalists from the whole of Europe and I just felt a bit trapped. This was also where I met a few other white nationalists who probably knew me by name from my publications, and if they had uncovered my identity at this point, I would have probably been quite scared.

NARRATOR: Let’s get a freeze-frame on this uneasy scene. There’s a darker side to Julia’s work that we haven’t yet discussed. Not the research, or the alias, or the itchy wig, but the fact that in order to be a convincing white nationalist, she had to give the impression that she actually agreed with Generation Identity’s loathsome ideas. And that could feel like quite a compromise.

JULIA EBNER: I was often trying to dodge balls and to evade moments where I would have to say something really extreme. But, of course, you have to sometimes laugh at extreme jokes in order to not look suspicious. Or you have to nod or say: “Yes. Yes, I agree.” Or something to approve of what your conversation partner is saying. And those were the really difficult moments, especially when you then hear crazy conspiracy theories and you really want to debunk them and everything in you is burning to debunk it. And you can't say anything. 

NARRATOR: Would you be able to hold your tongue? Then there’s this. Generation Identity had honed recruitment tactics in order to attract very young members. They’d sought out fresh blood on university campuses. They’d sometimes even recruited minors. If you had the power to speak to a young recruit, to try to open their eyes to the wrongheadedness of it all, would you? Or would you, like Julia, opt to take another tack?

JULIA EBNER: When I had very young newcomers next to me who would listen to all of these extreme ideologies and to this idea that were gradually being wiped out and we need to defend ourselves and fight against minority communities. And I could see that they were just on the very beginning of being radicalized, and I wanted to prevent them from being radicalized. But I also knew that if I now focus on this one young person, I won't be able to gather enough information to inform bigger prevention programs. But it was sometimes hard and my feet were itching to do something.

NARRATOR: As if this scenario isn’t stressful enough, a reminder: Julia isn’t exactly a nobody. At this point, she’s published a book. She’s given a TED Talk. She appeared on the BBC with Martin Sellner himself. All to speak out about groups like Generation Identity. Yet she’s still out and about doing undercover work with only a modest disguise to protect her.

JULIA EBNER: I was getting more and more nervous by the minute because the people that I spoke to were telling me about their plans for the UK branch. And I still wanted to find out what their media stunts were that they were planning, what their campaigns would be like. And so I didn't want to get uncovered too early.

NARRATOR: Too early. Because getting uncovered, as she saw it, was inevitable.

JULIA EBNER: It was just a matter of time for that to happen. So I was trying to play a bit of a time game here and to get as much information as I could within that time frame.

NARRATOR: Julia came out of the meetup at the pub unscathed. But the clock was ticking, and she still wanted to gather more information about the new UK branch before her time was up. The opportunity presented itself the next day, when Generation Identity held an event at an Airbnb in Brixton. If you know London, you might not expect a white nationalist group to choose Brixton, of all places. It’s a highly culturally diverse area. And it’s famous for being the site of two riots that emerged in response to police brutality against black citizens in the 1980s.

NARRATOR: Julia finally came face-to-face with Martin Sellner outside the Airbnb and she got lucky.

JULIA EBNER: He had lost his glasses in the cab on the way to the Airbnb so he couldn't even see me properly.

NARRATOR: She could only hope that everyone else was equally myopic.

JULIA EBNER: I was quite impressed by how many people they had managed to get there from the whole of Europe. So they had Identitarians flying over from Norway, from France, from Germany, and Austria. There was also Martin Sellner and his girlfriend - or now wife - Brittany Pettibone, who is quite a famous American far-right YouTuber. And they were all sitting on those couches wearing Ray-Bans - I mean, not inside. But Martin Sellner had his Ray-Bans with him - and wearing T-shirts, and drinking lemonade. And it was just so surreal to be part of this white nationalist meet up.

NARRATOR: There’s a bit of getting-to-know you, some friendly introductions. And then there’s some more formal onboarding.

JULIA EBNER: As part of their vetting procedure - to understand better where the new recruits are coming from in terms of ideological backgrounds, political backgrounds, but also what their hobbies are - they give you a questionnaire. And Martin Sellner explained to me that this is part of their brand risk assessment. So they want to keep people out of the movement who might not be favorable to their public image. And they ask questions that are about your ideologies. But they also ask a lot of questions about culture. For example, pop culture, your favorite movie, your favorite book. And you have to, of course, be very careful with which movie you choose, because some of the movies you would immediately be identified as an outsider. If you choose something like, say, La La Land.

NARRATOR: No tap dancing for white nationalists. Better stick to The Matrix or Fight Club

JULIA EBNER: There was a long briefing by Martin Sellner, who tried to brief the newcomers to the movement on what Generation Identity stands for. And he he spoke a lot about, basically he called it a ‘Muslim problem’ in reference to the ‘Jewish problem’, and this was one of the most shocking lines. That was what I found the most chilling and what really sent goosebumps down my spine. Because the way that he framed it was that we're facing a threat from Muslim migrants and from Muslim minorities that could destroy the basis of European countries. And, of course, from this apocalyptic idea, that there is an end date and that we have to act now. We have to defend ourselves. You can easily go one step further and say: "Oh, well, then the only resort for that is violence.” And that's exactly what the perpetrators in New Zealand and in Germany and in the US were doing. They took this idea and said: "Well, if we're facing such an existential threat as a race, as a culture, as as a nation, then we have to act now and we have to use violence."

NARRATOR: How long could you keep the company of such hateful people? Could you resign yourself to staying quiet while you conduct your research? Martin Sellner spoke to the group about how the movement didn’t support violence. But as Julia explains, that was only window dressing.

JULIA EBNER: He does know how potentially dangerous it is because they've had a few members going too far that they had to had to reject or that they had to cut out of the movement in the end because their radicalization was going so far that they did want to use violent means. And that also means that he knows exactly what the movement is doing to people and how much it can radicalize you toward violence.

NARRATOR: Julia felt trapped in the flat. But she wasn’t ready to bail out, and she wasn’t ready to have her cover blown. And that’s why her heart races when she sees that her credit card has tumbled out of her pocket.

JULIA EBNER: It was a moment where I was just so scared that someone would pick it up and read the name on it. And actually someone did pick it up and give it back to me. But they luckily didn't didn't spot the name or they didn't pay attention.

NARRATOR: That person was Brittany Pettibone Sellner, the alt-right American YouTuber and now wife of Martin Sellner. If anyone had been likely to ‘out’ Julia at that moment, it would have been her.

JULIA EBNER: Brittany Sellner was ironically also the person who was most suspicious about investigative journalists or of outsiders trying to infiltrate the movement, because she even spoke at that meeting about how the alt-right was infested with journalists and especially in the US, how careful you would have to be to not say anything at at these closed meetups because there might always be someone undercover. And I thought: "Oh God, she's now going to do some kind of test or some kind of additional vetting that might expose me.” But yeah, luckily it didn't happen.

NARRATOR: The Identitarians migrated their meetup to a pizzeria, where they discussed their next media stunt: they’d hang an anti-Islam banner on Westminster Bridge, the site of a recent jihadist terrorist attack. ‘DEFEND LONDON,’ it would read. ‘STOP ISLAMISATION.’ And that’s when Julia’s unease finally turned a corner.

JULIA EBNER: I thought: “Well, I can't really continue this.” I can't really hold this balance anymore of, on the one hand, pretending to be one of them. But then they also want me to be a public-facing campaigner. They wanted me to be the face of the movement. They even asked me if I would be willing to be a public speaker for them. And I politely said: “I can't make it to that.”

NARRATOR: Credit to Julia. Even in the face of hatred, she’s unfailingly polite. Of course, she was ultimately uncovered. She told the newspaper The Independent about Generation Identity’s plans for a UK branch, and soon, members had connected the dots and learned who Jennifer Mayer really was. As expected, the group tried to dox her, tried to share her personal information publicly. But not all of the correspondence she received was negative.

JULIA EBNER: Martin Sellner, even at a later point, even suggested to grab a pint, or to have a beer, and have a conversation, which I maybe should have gotten back on. I don't know. I never really know how fruitful it really is to then have a discussion with extremists. But in this case, it just also showed how much you can connect with the people while still really rejecting their ideologies and how important it is, however, to see that they're very much like you and me on some levels, that they're human beings. And that's also the approach that I hope that we'll take in terms of countering extremism and radicalization, to really see these people as human beings and try to bring them back to more moderate sides of the spectrum.

NARRATOR: Julia has been able to write and speak in detail about the recruitment strategies the group employs, and to warn policymakers and regular people about their online presence. And the needle has shifted - but not for the reasons you might hope. The Christchurch shooting, which took place in March of 2019 after Julia’s infiltration of the group, was a watershed event for Generation Identity. The shooter had donated €1,500 to the Identitarians and had been in communication with Martin Sellner. After the shooting, increased scrutiny made it harder for the Identitarians to spread their message on mainstream channels. But according to Julia, they’re still running powerful campaigns in the recesses of the internet and on certain apps. 

JULIA EBNER: Those channels that they still have on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, these really turn into radicalization echo chambers where you're quickly radicalized. If you join one of those as a young person, you might even be radicalized within a few weeks. And that's what I saw happening to a few people in there. But at the same time, their ability to reach, really, the mainstream or to reach really bigger audiences has definitely decreased.

NARRATOR: Julia still occasionally goes undercover but it’s gotten harder over time. The groups she investigates are doing more vigorous vetting, she’s noticed. And it’s not just her safety she has to take into account, but her wellbeing.

JULIA EBNER: I sometimes also get paranoid. I sometimes have to switch off my computer and I often just go on a social media detox for several days just to distance myself from all the vile content. Actually, when the Christchurch attacks happened in New Zealand in 2019 against those two mosques where 55 Muslims died, I remember I was on the Tube that morning, reading the manifesto of the terrorist and watching the materials. And it was so... I had goosebumps everywhere, and I was feeling so sick that I actually had to get off the Tube. And I stopped and just thought: “Okay, maybe I should get out of this field of research because of what it's doing to me on a psychological level.” Because I'd seen so many posts that were mirroring that language of the attacker that I thought: “Is everything lost? Is everyone potentially a violent perpetrator who could kill dozens of people?” I have to say I had a lot of moments where I thought maybe I should stop that kind of work. Maybe I should just do something completely different and not look at these darker corners of the internet anymore and not look at extremist ideologies and movements. But I do have to say it also gives me so much hope to see then, when people do exit these movements, and to see a bit of progress that sometimes is off the back of the research that I do and many other researchers do. And these individual success cases really helped to keep my motivation up.

NARRATOR: You can read about Julia Ebner’s other forays undercover in her book Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another conversation with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Australian author and journalist Julia Ebner is a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue think tank in London. She specializes in far-right extremism and European terrorism prevention initiatives.

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