• Are you courageous enough to collaborate with your enemies?

    Are you courageous enough to collaborate with your enemies?

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  • How mainstream media helps weaponize far-right conspiracy theories

    How mainstream media helps weaponize far-right conspiracy theories


    Once an anti-Semitic rumor moved from fringe to the mainstream, it took less than two weeks for violence to erupt. The false allegation that liberal philanthropist George Soros was funding or supporting a caravan of Honduran refugees heading to the U.S. spread wildly from a single tweet posted on Oct. 14.

    Along with far-right memes, that allegation helped motivate both an alleged mail-bomber and a mass shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The way these messages traveled across the internet in this short time span is just one example of how extremist messages and memes circulate with incredible speed across mainstream social media platforms.

    From our vantage point as researchers of visual and digital communication, memes – short, often image-based forms of communication – are powerful engines of persuasion, even though they can appear innocuous or even humorous. Perhaps the best known examples are LOLCats memes, pairing funny pictures of cats with customizable phrases or sentences. Memes can disseminate information quickly because they invite people to share or remix content with little effort required, making widespread dispersal more likely.

    Memes need not be humorous or factual to be functional. All they need to do is attract attention online, which often translates into mainstream media coverage. That makes memes potent tools for distributing disinformation. Moreover, the online and mainstream platforms that amplify memes’ circulation can weaponize false claims and encourage conspiracy theorists – sometimes toward violence.

    Memes move conspiracies

    Understanding how these messages embolden anti-Semitism and other forms of terrorism involves grappling with how white supremacists use digital media. As we detail in our forthcoming book “Make America Meme Again,” messages and memes weaponized in far-right networks are deft political tools that move swiftly across social and traditional media. Because memes are stealthy political messages that usually offer rebellious or irreverent humor, they can be easily retweeted, shared or even pasted to the side of a van.

    Before the dawn of today’s social media network, right-wing extremists were more difficult to find, often gathering in local communities and later discreetly in online forums unknown to the vast majority of internet users. Paranoid, rabid discourses of this ilk still boil around those darker corners of the internet. Today, memes help right-wing extremists communicate with one another and with mainstream audiences.

    Soros has been demonized by right-wing activists for years, if not decades. Long before the Pittsburgh attack and the mail bombings, conspiracy theories about him were common on all sorts of right-wing discussion areas – including on Infowars, 4chan, Reddit and Gab. Starting in March 2018, the terms “caravan,” “immigrants” and “Soros” were frequently posted together on Twitter and Facebook. Memes depicting Soros as an evil fascist facilitating an invasion were commonplace.

    The alleged mail bomber covered his van with “images and slogans often found on fringe right-wing social media accounts.” But the suspect didn’t find them on radical sites where white supremacists hide. Instead, based on his social media activity, he likely was radicalized in the same place most people look at cute photos of friends’ kids and check up on Aunt Beatrice – Facebook.

    From fringe to network

    Social media platforms have tried to push hate speech and uninformed conspiracy theories off their sites, but that’s a difficult task both technologically and ethically. Often, conspiracy promoters find ways to get their ideas into well-trafficked social media, where algorithms promote posts that garner lots of responses – whether appreciative or outraged.

    Despite repeated fact checking, the conspiracy grew. Bots and other automated accounts drove roughly 60 percent of online talk about the caravan – but people were part of it too, often sharing posts without doing any sort of verification. Ultimately, these messages and memes may have inspired terrorism.

    By October, discussions of the “caravan of immigrants” had grown beyond social media. Within a week of that Oct. 14 tweet alleging Soros was funding a group of refugees seeking asylum, far-right commentator Alex Jones broadcast the conspiracy on Infowars, to his audience of over 1 million daily visitors.

    The conspiracy grew from there, with the video or related images popping up on nearly every platform. Eventually the conspiracy reached hundreds of thousands of potential viewers – including the men who would allegedly become the mail bomber and the synagogue shooter.

    The two men may never have known of each other or the other’s plans. But their actions intertwined with a viciously networked conspiracy theory.

    Connecting to mainstream media

    Once there is enough social media attention on a topic or claim, it may be covered in more traditional news outlets. That can spread the idea even more widely, and lend credence to inaccuracies and lies. Politicians may also notice online discussion and join in, as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and a clerk for Texas’ Harris County did with the purported Soros connection to the migrant caravan.

    Conspiratorial ideas often become an echo chamber, in which each post draws more attention than the last, generating stronger outrage and escalating the conspiracy. The average user who looks at a conspiratorial meme may not believe its message, but many users may. Even people who don’t believe it initially might come to assume it’s true after seeing an idea several times from different sources. Still others might spread the conspiracy just for amusement in the distress of others.

    Demonize, divide, conquer

    Memes, tweets and other forms of propaganda are designed to rile up constituents. Scaring voters with purported invasions was one way to infuriate voters as they headed to vote in the midterm elections.

    President Donald Trump has historically spread far-right conspiracy theories with little regard for the truth. Just before the election – after the mail bomb attempts and the tragedy in Pittsburgh – Trump himself explicitly repeated the conspiracy about Soros.

    When anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic ideas spread through social media networks, they can infect a host of mainstream information sources – and make fear and violence more likely. That broadens the picture of a dangerous world from which people need protection. Fear appeals of this sort can influence voting, and even push people to take matters into their own violent hands. Until social media platforms or federal agencies find ways to diminish extremism, the proliferation of far-right memes, videos and texts will continue to imperil the citizenry.


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  • Is There A Cure For Hate?

    Is There A Cure For Hate?



    Taly Kogon and her son Leo, 10, listen to speakers during an interfaith vigil against anti-Semitism and hate at the Holocaust Memorial late last month in Miami Beach, Fla.

    Wilfredo Lee/AP

    For months prior to the recent shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, suspect Robert Bowers spewed venomous bigotry, hatred and conspiracies online, especially against Jews and immigrants. During the Oct. 27 attack, according to a federal indictment, he said he wanted "to kill Jews."

    He is charged with 44 counts — including hate crimes — for the murder of 11 people and wounding of six others at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue.

    The attack follows a spike in anti-Semitic incidents, concerns about the rise in domestic extremism and calls for politicians to rethink their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

    We wanted to know what programs, if any, are effective in getting violent and violence-prone far-right extremists in America to cast aside their racist beliefs and abandon their hate-filled ways.

    Here are five key takeaways:

    1) Neglected, minimized and underfunded

    Creating and expanding effective programs to get homegrown far-right racists to find the off-ramp from hate is, overall, an under-studied, underfunded and neglected area.

    "We haven't wanted to acknowledge that we have a problem with violent right-wing extremism in this kind of domestic terrorism," says sociologist Pete Simi of Chapman University, who has researched and consulted on violent white nationalists and other hate groups for more than two decades.

    "White supremacy is really a problem throughout the United States," he says. "It doesn't know any geographic boundaries. It's not isolated to either urban or rural or suburban — it cuts across all."

    But it's a problem and topic that America has "tended to hide or minimize," he adds.

    That willful denial, Simi says, has left many nonprofits, social workers and police and other interventionists largely flying blind.

    "There really haven't been much resources, attention, time, energy devoted to developing efforts to counter that form of violent extremism."

    In fact, the Trump administration in 2017 rescinded funding that targeted domestic extremism.

    The administration, instead, has focused almost exclusively on threats from Islamist extremists and what it sees as the security and social menace of undocumented immigrants including, again, whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment ahead of the midterm elections.

    2) There's no consensus on what really works

    The research done so far shows that adherence to white supremacist beliefs can be addictive. Some who try to leave can "relapse" and return to the hate fold.

    But Simi says, "We're really very much in the early days."

    And there is no consensus yet on what works best over the long haul.

    Academically, there has been more attention and research on interventions with American gang members or would-be Jihadis.

    And while there is some crossover, far-right hate comes with ideological baggage often absent in gangs and is different from the religion-infused Jihadi belief system.

    3) Best practices are costly and labor-intensive

    Can racist radicals and homegrown right-wing violent extremists successfully be rehabilitated and re-enter civil society?

    "The answer to that question is absolutely 'yes,' " Simi says.

    The groups with the best approach, he says, seem to be those that partner with a broad section of civil society — educators, social workers, those in health care and police — to tackle the full range of problems someone swept up into an extremist world might face.

    They may need additional schooling or employment training, he says or "maybe they have some housing needs, maybe they have some unmet mental health needs," such as past trauma or substance use problems.

    It's a more holistic approach that he says, in the end, is far more effective and less costly than prison and packing more people into the already overcrowded U.S. criminal justice system.

    But that "wraparound services" model is also labor-intensive, expensive and hard to coordinate.

    It's also severely hampered, Simi says, by America's woefully inadequate drug treatment and mental health care systems.

    "A big, big problem that we face as a society is abdicating our responsibility in terms of providing this kind of social support and social safety net for individuals that suffer from mental health," as well as drug problems, he says.

    4) Life after hate

    Tony McAleer knows the mindset of the suspect in the synagogue shooting.

    A former member of the White Aryan Resistance and other hate groups, he once echoed the type of racist invective Bowers spewed online; the kind that sees a cabal of malevolent Jews running the world by proxy through banks, Hollywood, corporations and the media.

    And McAleer knows how savvy racist recruiters can be. He was one of them.

    "I was a Holocaust denier. I ran a computer-operated voicemail system that was primarily anti-Semitic," he says.

    He eventually renounced his bigotry and helped co-found the nonprofit Life After Hate, one of just a handful of groups working to help right-wing extremists find an off-ramp. It also was among those that lost funding — a $400,000 Obama-era federal grant — when the Trump administration changed focus.

    In McAleer's experience, adherence to racist beliefs — whether as part of a group or as a lone wolf like the synagogue suspect — is more often sparked by a flawed search for identity and purpose than by a deeply held belief.

    The group doesn't attack people's ideology verbally. He calls that approach "the wrong strategy. Because it's about identity."

    The best method, he believes, is simply listening and trying to reconnect to the person's buried humanity.

    McAleer says he tries to get at what's motivating the hate, to find out why people are really so angry and upset to begin with, and to start the dialogue from there.

    You condemn the ideology and the actions, he says, but not the human being.

    "I think of them as lost. Somewhere along the line, they find themselves in this place," says McAleer, "and I can tell you being in that place is not a fun place to be. When you surround yourself with angry and negative people, I guarantee you your life is not firing on all cylinders."

    He says that's the way he felt. "I was just so disconnected from my heart."

    The birth of his children and compassion from a Jewish man, he says, helped him to leave that life and to reconnect with his own humanity and that of others.

    People often have never met the people that they purport to hate, he says.

    "And there's nothing more powerful — I know because it happened to me in my own life — than receiving compassion from someone who you don't feel you deserve it from, someone from a community that you had dehumanized."

    5) How do you scale compassion?

    But there are only a few programs like Life After Hate.

    And they're often small. Since the summer of 2017, for example, the Chicago-based group has taken on only 41 new people who want to leave their racist hate behind.

    "Keep in mind, de-radicalization is a lifelong process," says Life After Hate's Dimitrios Kalantzis. "We consider it a major success when formers remain active in our network, even if that means checking in within our online support group. That means they are engaged and unlikely to relapse."

    But is inspiring compassion really scalable, and how can groups more effectively structure and organize similar efforts?

    How can researchers and others scale it to reach as large a number of people as possible?

    "That's the answer I can't provide because at this point, we really don't know," sociologist Pete Simi says.


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  • We need to navigate sea of hate


    By Scott Deshefy

    We’re adrift in a sea of hatred, and unless we control our enmities, navigating beyond that maelstrom, all is lost. To meet the challenge we must understand how seamlessly capitalism figures into weekly doses of U.S. shootings, journalists murdered abroad, terrorist attacks, and the racism, misogyny and lies infecting our social media. Two-party packaging of America’s rifts may generate profits, but today’s turmoil is nothing new. It reprises unfulfilled promises of 19th century modernization. Then, as now, billions of disenfranchised were left behind by the privileged few. They too were made distant by subverted democracies, became nostalgic for a golden age that never existed, invented enemies and used violence as a means to empowerment. While the same lures of mass politics and new technologies are being replicated today, collisions of individualism and unattainable wealth are unprecedented, infecting us with a plague of resentment that’s digitally transmitted and consumerist driven.

    Rigged systems not only try our patience for progress, they also account for a rise in global nationalism and xenophobes so spawned. All countries, of course, one time or another, were nations of immigrants. Even Native Americans emigrated from central Asia across the Bering Strait around 30,000 B.C. But each new “caravan” since has been met with resistance. Long before proposing “walls” and American eugenics, early acts of U.S. nativism included the “Know-Nothing” party (a.k.a. the Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner). In the 1840s and 1850s, Know-Nothings fought to exclude the foreign-born and Roman Catholics from public office while conducting secret rituals about which they “knew nothing.”

    Eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau denounced modern commercial societies for their corruption and inequality even before Adam Smith envisioned market-regulated worlds of self-seeking, dog-eat-dog competitive nations and individuals. When the Berlin Wall fell, dawning an age of globalization, people around the world started longing for wealth, status and power, lifestyles Madison Avenue deludes us into thinking are attainable, or at least imitable, without destroying life or incurring unfathomable debt. Stability, simpler means of contentment and the common good became waste products of industrialization and urban sprawl. Traditional communities and social democracies were junked the same time individualism heightened our awareness of discrimination and gender inequality. Endless economic expansion not only failed to deliver private wealth below the upper crust, it destroyed old certitudes about sustainable employment. Folks with very different backgrounds, education, and adaptiveness to change were suddenly pitted against laborers overseas, displaced by robots or herded by capitalism and emerging technologies into service jobs. Committed to the lower rungs of new world orders, humiliation turns to anger.

    Just as civil societies devolve when confronted with uneven playing fields, natural rights to life, liberty and basic securities are jeopardized by political dysfunction and individualistic cultures bent on imitating the rich. Few of us can sustain such mimicry, and those who can’t become resentful. “Us” ultimately becomes “them”. Unsatisfied fantasies of consumerism produce the kind of widespread anger and resentment Hannah Arendt described as a “tremendous increase in mutual hatred and universal irritability of everybody against everybody else.” That’s most pronounced among nations with large populations of educated young men. With 1.8 billion people between ages 15 and 30 and ripe for radical recruitment how many find contradictions between extravagant promises and meager means intolerable?

    Scott Deshefy is two-time Green Party congressional candidate.

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