The Dangers of White Nationalism: The Rise and Normalization of Online Racism in the United States

Photo Credit: RawStory

By: William Haynes, Columnist

The 2016 presidential elections results have re-invigorated the white nationalist movement and brought its message to the forefront of the mainstream media and online platforms, yet little is being done to combat the radicalization of these groups online. Left unchecked, white nationalism poses a threat to human security in the United States and has the potential to evolve into a domestic terrorist threat. To counter the white nationalist movement, social media networks must be more diligent in monitoring and removing hate rhetoric and fake news, and work to form online groups similar to the Strong Cities Networks to engage and combat white nationalists’ rhetoric online. Additionally, mainstream media must work to delegitimize the movement.

The white nationalist movement is gaining momentum online, capitalizing on white people’s—especially white men’s—feelings of disenfranchisement in the face of the country’s changing demographics and a push for more inclusive laws and policies. The growth in prevalence of ‘Leftist’ online discourse—including calls for acknowledging differences in privilege and advocating for empowering women, LGBTQ, and racial and minority groups—has been met with resistance by the white nationalist movement. These feelings are not limited to a small segment of the population; since 2012, there has been a 600% increase in Twitter followers of Neo-Nazi or white nationalist accounts.[i] Between 2015 and 2016, there were over 2.6 million tweets containing anti-Semitic language.[ii] There are also a growing number of websites and social media accounts dedicated to the concepts of strong masculinity, subservient women, white identity politics, and anti-‘politically correct’ culture.

The rise of white nationalism online has corresponded with an increase of intimidation and violence in real life. In 2015, there was a 6% increase in hate crimes against minorities and a 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslims from the previous year.[iii] Since the September 11th attacks, white nationalists have killed more Americans than jihadists in the United States.[iv] There has also been an increasing amount of reports of threats of violence and hate crimes following the recent presidential election.[v] Additionally, a disenfranchised group with an extremist ideology and penchant for violence has the potential to evolve into a much larger domestic terrorist movement.[vi]

Especially worrisome and unique to the recent surge in white nationalism is the use of online platforms to spread their message and recruit followers. White nationalists radicalize individuals and normalize their movement through strategic and targeted messaging on social media and news sites, which make their message look more inclusive, credible, and in-touch with a wide range of audiences, especially young people. White nationalists often use humor on social networks as a way to normalize extremist messaging and spread conspiracy theories, particularly through the use of memes.[vii] These groups also cite and share fake news which, when paired with Internet humor, becomes a particularly effective way to mask recruitment propaganda and desensitize audiences to racist rhetoric.[viii] White nationalists have also rebranded their movement and image to appeal to a broader audience by calling themselves the ‘alt-right’, a much more palatable term than Neo-Nazi or white supremacist.[ix] As evidenced above, these tactics have been largely successful in recruiting followers, spreading white supremacy rhetoric and fake news, and causing the media to adopt the term ‘alt-right’ in its reporting.[x]

In addition to these strategic and targeted messaging tactics, white nationalists’ messages are amplified and spread to a larger audience through the use of Internet troll, bot, and sockpuppet accounts. Internet trolls are individuals who engage in conversations online with the sole purpose of eliciting a negative reaction for the “lulz,” or laughs.[xi] Common tactics range from making memes to doxxing, which is publishing personal information about an individual with malign intent, sometimes including extreme threats of violence based on this information.[xii] Bot and sockpuppet accounts are often automated online accounts that pump out news, retweets, likes, and follows. Bots and sockpuppets attempt to legitimize or delegitimize a particular article; spread support or foment hate for a person or organization; and help give the appearance that a person or organization has more followers than they do.[xiii] These types of accounts help to spread white nationalist rhetoric by making it appear popular, which can create echo chambers of like-minded people on social media and lead to the normalization of white nationalism.

Until social media networks and the mainstream media work to actively restrict hate speech, propaganda, and the normalization of white supremacy, an emboldened and active white nationalist movement in the US will result in an increase in hate crimes and a could signify a growing domestic terrorism threat. Social media networks must take an active role in policing racism, abuse, and trolls online. In addition to increasing tools such as reporting options for users, social media companies should work with non-governmental organizations to create programs similar to the Strong Cities Network, where groups of diverse young people proficient in social media are taught to identify and counter extremism online or flag it for moderation.[xiv] The mainstream media must also be held accountable in the fight against white nationalism, most importantly by labeling the ‘alt-right’ exactly what it is: a white nationalist group. By acknowledging the rebranded term ‘alt-right’ and giving it near-constant attention, the media has normalized the group’s message to a wider audience.

[i] J. M. Berger, “Nazis vs. ISIS on Twitter: A Comparative Study of White Nationalist and ISIS Online Social Media Networks.” George Washington Program on Extremism. Sept. 2016. https://cchs.gwu.edu/sites/cchs.gwu.edu/files/downloads/Nazis%20v.%20ISIS%20Final_0.pdf

[ii] Jessica Guynn, “’Massive Rise’ in hate speech online during the presidential election.” USA Today. Oct. 23, 2016.

[iii] Eric Lichtblau, “Hate Crimes Surge 6%, Fueled by Attacks on Muslims.” The New York Times. Nov. 14, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/us/politics/fbi-hate-crimes-muslims.html

[iv] Joanna Plucinska, “Study Say White Extremists Have Killed More Americans in the U.S. than Jihadis Since 9/11.” Time. June 24, 2015. http://time.com/3934980/right-wing-extremists-white-terrorism-islamist-jihadi-dangerous/

[v] Katie Reilly, “Racist Incidents Are Up Since Donald Trump’s Election. These Are Just a Few of Them.” Time. Nov. 13, 2016. http://time.com/4569129/racist-anti-semitic-incidents-donald-trump/

[vi] Chris Angus, “Radicalization and Violent Extremism.” NSW Parliamentary Research Service. Feb. 2016. https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/researchpapers/Documents/radicalisation-and-violent-extremism-causes-and-/Radicalisation%20eBrief.pdf; Tori DeAngelis, “Understanding Terrorism.” American Psychological Association, Vol. 40, No. 10. Nov. 2009. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/11/terrorism.aspx; Paul Stronski, “The Biggest Recruiting Tool for Extremist Groups if Disenfranchisement.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mar. 30, 2016. http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/03/30/biggest-recruiting-tool-for-extremist-groups-is-disenfranchisement-pub-63212

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Aja Romano, “How the alt-right uses internet trolling to confuse you into dismissing its ideology.” Vox. Nov. 23, 2016. http://www.vox.com/2016/11/23/13659634/alt-right-trolling

[ix] Eliot Nelson, “The Alt-Right Is a Hate Movement, And It’s Scarier Than You Think.” The Huffington Post. Nov. 21, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/alt-right-hate-richard-spencer_us_5833242fe4b058ce7aac26fe

[x] Lindy West, “White Nationalist? Alt-right? If you see a Nazi, say Nazi.” The Guardian. Nov. 22, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/22/white-nationalists-alt-right-nazi-language-trump

[xi] Joel Stein, “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet.” Time. Aug. 18, 2016. http://time.com/4457110/internet-trolls/

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Lawrence Alexander. “Social Network Analysis Reveals Full Scale of Kremlin’s Twitter Bot Campaign.” Global Voices. Apr. 2, 2015. https://globalvoices.org/2015/04/02/analyzing-kremlin-twitter-bots/; Ben Schreckinger, “Inside Trump’s ‘cyborg’ Twitter army.” Politico. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/donald-trump-twitter-army-228923 Sept. 30, 2016.

[xiv] Strong Cities Network “Why are cities important.” N.d. http://strongcitiesnetwork.org/about/

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