With the arrival of two Canadian members of the Alt (Alternative) Right, it seems that many New Zealanders are still puzzled by the term – and the implications of such politics.

The term first appeared in a speech in 2008 in the United States with most associating the label with the American Richard Spencer.

The term encompasses a broad and very loose coalition of ultra-nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. Apart from giving the label prominence,

Spencer himself characterises many of the key elements of the Alt Right.

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Spencer, president of a white supremacist think tank called the National Policy Institute, believes in eugenics and argues for the US to become a white ethno-state open to all "racial Europeans" which, he admits, would require "ethnic cleansing" (his words).

He is an Islamophobe who sees the contemporary world engaged in a struggle between the European (white) world and Muslims. As he says, the Alt Right is identity politics for whites.

There is an enduring element of anti-Semitism, but also a deep concern about contemporary conservative politics in that elected politicians are not seen as doing enough to preserve white national interests.

The term gained new meaning in 2016 when media mogul Steve Bannon announced that Breitbart – his syndicated far-right American news network – was the platform for the Alt Right and a vehicle for promoting its ideology.

The Alt Right and its proponents like Spencer have used social media to broadcast their key messages and to promote events.

They see themselves as the victims of a pro-multicultural and anti-white mass media who want to silence those who stand up for white rights.

Spencer was a speaker at the Charlottesville rally last year and his racism and extremism have just seen him banned from Europe.

Lauren Southern, the Canadian speaker and activist due here in August, is at the soft end of the Alt Right spectrum but promotes the "white is right" platform and engages in extensive use of social media to talk directly to various audiences.

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This did not work quite so well in Melbourne where she went undercover and interviewed people on the street, asking them "should we kill Lauren Southern?" When most professed ignorance of who Southern was, she then described herself as a "fascist".

Stefan Molyneux, her compatriot, is very much in the mould of Spencer, believing that "racial sub-species" cannot and should not live together; that apartheid was a white survival strategy; that Germans had to do something to protect their racial interests because of a the threats of a Jewish-communist conspiracy; and that the gene pool that he believes underpins free market capitalism is being undermined by immigration and inferior genes.

As Southern as already stated, the aim of the Antipodean tour is to create chaos, essentially by provocatively using the media as a platform to megaphone Alt Right views.

They aim to be seen to be opposed by protesters, violently if at all possible, in order to claim victimhood, and to blame what they see is the anti-white conspiracy of the media and politicians to claim that free speech is under threat.

There is a footnote to this thumbnail sketch. It might be puzzling to many New Zealanders who watched the recent free speech rallies in Auckland and Wellington to see the "Free Tommy" placards and Union Jacks.

Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Lennon – he changed his name to recognise a Luton football hooligan) is a long-time activist who has a number of convictions to his name.

He was involved in the British National Party (cousin to the National Front and not at all like our National Party) before becoming the leader of the English Defence League.

The EDL, part of the populist movement in Europe, is a mix of ultra-nationalist and white supremacists.

Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, was a member of the Norwegian Defence League and a great admirer of the EDL.

Earlier this year, Robinson broke an existing court order as well as broadcasting details of a trial as it took place in breach of due process.

He was charged and pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 13 months' imprisonment.

He has become a martyr to the Alt Right and an example of how they believe free speech is being used to close down debate about the threats of Islam and multiculturalism.

Perhaps we need the Alt Right to help us in New Zealand have a debate about what we see as the boundaries to free speech and what constitutes incitement to hostility and contempt in the words of the Human Rights Act.

But, as a recent NZ Herald editorial noted, Southern and Molyneux's views are easily accessed online and not all "have a right to room on other platforms that try to serve the public interest".

This is a moment to debate that very question.

* Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, Massey University, has researched far right politics in the UK and New Zealand for almost 40 years.