They arrived in yellow rental trucks, displayed their flags and prepared shields and smoke bombs. The hour was late and the symbolism was disturbing: As the clock approached midnight on July 3, around 200 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front marched through downtown Philadelphia, past Independence Hall and other historical monuments, while chanting: America is back! “
If the demonstration was intended to be a show of force for the organization, it ended obediently. After brawling with a handful of counter-protesters, members of the Patriot Front retreated in their Penske trucks, then were pulled over by Philadelphia police on Delaware Avenue, where some protesters sat despondently with their heads lowered.
But the episode served a dual purpose. Social media has proven to be fertile ground for white supremacist and conspiracy theory movements trying to attract new members. Patriot Front turned footage of its parade through town into a hype video; on its website, its members compared themselves to heroes of the Revolutionary War and insisted that “Americans must dictate America.”
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A month before the Philadelphia protest, more than 300 researchers and academics had volunteered to participate in a new effort to curb the spread of extremism: the Collaboratory Against Hate, a center established by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
The project is timely. More than 8,000 hate crimes were reported in the United States in 2020, the highest total in more than a decade, according to the FBI. In Philadelphia, 63 people were reported as victims of hate crimes, a 320% increase from 2019, when there were 15 victims. Statewide, the death toll doubled in 2020 to 110, but that’s probably a low estimate; of Pennsylvania’s 1,504 law enforcement agencies, only 734 provided data to the FBI.
âWe’re pushing back something that I hear a lot, which is, ‘Well, people are always going to hate some people. Hate is human nature, and we’re stuck with it, and there will always be hate groups, âsaid Kathleen Blee, Co-Director of the Collaboratory.
âBut it’s not like everyone is racist, and we are doomed to that. â¦ There is a deeper, more ingrained and more destructive side to extremism and political conspiracy that is not part of human nature. It is purposefully constructed, as anti-Semitism is purposefully constructed in these groups. We just need to apply our tools to overcome this. And make it impossible.
The collaborative researchers first explore three areas: moderation of digital content, extremism in the military and youth, and extremism. The latest, Blee said, is a new trend that she finds particularly worrying.
White supremacists use online video game communities and streaming platforms to approach and recruit teenagers and college students. Some supplications begin with jokes or the introduction of white supremacist phrases to pique the interest of a child; others share links to material that draws young players more deeply.
âIt’s one of the most disturbing and lesser-known phenomena,â said Blee, who has studied white supremacy since the 1980s. âWe’re just starting to get the hang of it. For some children, this is probably an approach that takes them down the rabbit hole.
White supremacist narratives rely on a combination of elements to hook recruits: the offer of a collective identity, revelations of sinister plots, and the promise to right perceived grievances.
âGetting into that mindset and into this world, virtually or into real life, can be such a fundamentally self-changing experience that it can really be quite difficult to come out firmly,â Blee said.
His concerns about hate groups recruiting minors were confirmed by a 2021 survey by the Anti-Defamation League, which found that 10% of players aged 13 to 17 had encountered white supremacist ideology in participating in online multiplayer games, and 60% had experienced some form of harassment.
âThey hear people talking about the superiority of the white race and the desire for a white homeland,â said Daniel Kelley, associate director of ADL’s Center for Technology and Society.
Kelley hypothesizes that large numbers of white supremacists are not flocking to online gaming to recruit new members; instead, the smartest come to learn how to exploit an area that is inherently vulnerable.
Following the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol, Facebook and Twitter banned the accounts of former President Donald Trump and thousands of people affiliated with right-wing extremists, white nationalists and to the QAnon conspiracy movement. And Facebook came under scrutiny by Congress when a whistleblower accused the company of allowing misinformation to spread.
But Kelley said there was little oversight of online gaming ecosystems, or “gaming-adjacent” platforms like Twitch, Steam and Discord, with some companies adamantly opposed to content moderation.
Instead, they have become environments where hate speech âcan be dangerously normalizedâ.
The majority of parents who responded to ADL’s survey said they don’t have safety checks on the games their children use, and most teens don’t talk to their parents about the uncomfortable interactions. they have had, which can include harassment, intimidation and threats. of prejudice.
Kelley argues that it is a mistake to distinguish between online and offline extremism.
âThere is a tendency to call life offline ‘real life’,â he said. âBut whenever there is an interaction in a digital space, there is a real person behind that screen. “
And even a person who espouses hate and violent fantasies online can do unimaginable damage.
During his decades of researching white supremacist movements, Blee has detected a pattern. âIt may seem like he’s getting stronger and weaker, but often what he really does is cross the line of public sight,â she said. “It goes down below the line and goes up above the line.”
In the 1980s, many hate groups found themselves marginalized. They became more daring in the 1990s – the national readiness exhibitions became a gathering place for militia groups and conspiracy theorists, and in 1995 an anti-government terrorist who described white nationalists as his “brother d ‘weapons’ detonated a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children.
Extremist movements have multiplied at a breakneck pace in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic and the January 6 insurgency have only energized those who want to see the US government overthrown. More than 700 participants in the attack on Capitol Hill have been the subject of federal prosecution.
And in November, a federal jury ordered more than a dozen white nationalist leaders to pay $ 26 million in damages for the violence that erupted at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, in Virginia, which made a dead counter-protester. (The Patriot Front, which marched in Philadelphia and distributed propaganda on local college campuses, was formed by some members of a neo-Nazi group who participated in the rally in Virginia.)
“On the extremist side, we still see momentum,” Blee said, “not demobilization.”
In November, the Department of Homeland Security warned that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” pose a continuing threat to the nation and could use pandemic-related health restrictions as a reason to target government officials.
Months earlier, ABC News had reported that FBI agents in San Antonio had concluded in a confidential intelligence assessment that white supremacists were seeking to infiltrate law enforcement and the military to “prepare and initiate a collapse of society âand harm racial and ethnic minorities.
The Collaboratory Against Hate hopes to shape the data and other information its researchers assemble into tools that can blunt the growth of extremism.
This mission is becoming more and more urgent every day.
Two days after Christmas, a 47-year-old man named Lyndon McLeod zigzagged through Denver, shot a police officer and murdered five people at two tattoo shops and a hotel. McLeod was killed by the same officer he injured.
McLeod left behind a digital imprint that led, unsurprisingly, to dark obsessions and familiar, twisted ideologies. He wrote books under a pen name which, according to Newsweek, included fantasies about the possibility of a mass shooting and regurgitated the hatred of white supremacists for blacks and Muslims.
On Twitter, he pined for “punitive violence” and complained that aggressive white men have become irrelevant.
âWarâ, he wrote, âis comingâ.