The far right is increasingly recruiting via online fitness groups, whose popularity soared during the pandemic, prompting fears that new members are being radicalised to commit acts of violence, new analysis shows.
Researchers have detected a network of online “fascist fitness” chat groups on the messaging app Telegram with a large number directly linked to the neo-Nazi Patriotic Alternative, Britain’s biggest extreme right group.
European and US fight groups are regularly glorified in these groups, including the white supremacist Rise Above Movement (RAM), notorious for having four members arrested in 2018 for inciting and participating in violence against anti-racist protesters.
Among the UK groups to laud RAM is the White Stag Athletic Club (WSAC), whose members post images of swastika flags, and celebrated the acquittal last November of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot dead two anti-racist protesters in Wisconsin in 2020.
At-home fitness boomed during the pandemic with some digital fitness apps attracting tens of millions of users and online groups proliferating to replace gym closures.
Analysis by anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate says the British far right has positioned physical fitness as part of a “wider political struggle” and helped explain how online groups like WSAC could grow even after Covid restrictions have been lifted.
“The danger of these groups lies, firstly, in their emphasis on transforming activists into soldiers that might be motivated to commit acts of violence. And, secondly, in the community they create, where members start to associate sometimes real, positive change in their lives with fascism,” said the organisation’s annual assessment of the extreme right.
Senior researcher Patrik Hermansson said: “These fitness groups frame individual self-improvement as a part of a wider political struggle, creating fresh motivation and a sense of purpose for people who believe that physical confrontation and violence are legitimate and necessary. They have become a space for far-right activists to mobilise.”
Formed during the pandemic, WSAC is run by a Yorkshire-based security guard who uses the pseudonym ‘Sarge’. He has been linked to Patriotic Alternative (PA), which previously helped launch a fascist podcast whose Telegram channel recently featured PA’s leader Mark Collett and far-right YouTuber Laura Towler. Recently, WSAC widened its recruitment efforts on Telegram with members “eventually expected to take part in fights with one another”, suggesting the group’s intention to increase its capacity for violence.
Observing fitness groups over several months, Hermansson monitored how members were initially lured in with health tips and later encouraged into the closed chat groups where the far right shared content. For instance users such as “Dan” who joined one of the larger “fitness fascist” Telegram groups in July 2021 lost 45lb in weight and graduated from member to administrator, posting almost daily. “Associating positive change in one’s life with a violent and hateful ideology is obviously dangerous,” said Hermansson.
Among images posted on the groups are photos of torsos with stickers of Hitler’s face. One admin of a group posted a picture of himself in a gym mirror with the message “training to stop a bus loaded with [philanthropist George] Soros paid protesters”. Another member said: “Defend your race, defend your land, achieve immortality.”
“Ready to join the SS,” added one anonymous user after posting a shirtless picture of himself in the gym mirror. A number accused other men of being “low T” meaning having low levels of testosterone and therefore linked to what they view as a “weak” and “effeminate” political establishment.
Ben Elley, a researcher, said that members of far-right self-improvement groups believed that by becoming physically stronger they could help prevent the white race from destruction. He added that self-improvement “become part of a righteous Manichean battle, greatly distorting the balance of input and reward that might normally be expected”.
Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists also emphasised the importance of physical fitness to his supporters, with the party organising sports clubs and its magazine featuring a weekly keep fit column.