This report is part of the “Hate in America" project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — On Twitter, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes tweets more than 30 times a day to nearly 50,000 followers, recently calling for the “chasing down” of specific black Americans and claiming the LGBTQ community is in need of “intensive psychiatric treatment.”
On Facebook, James Allsup, a right-wing advocate, posted a photo comparing migrant children at the border to Jewish people behind a fence during the Holocaust with the caption, “They present it like it’s a bad thing #BuildTheWall.”
On Gab, a censorship-free alternative to Twitter, former 2018 candidate for U.S. Senate Patrick Little, claims ovens are a means of preserving the Aryan race. And Billy Roper, a well-known voice of neo-Nazism, posts “Let God Burn Them” as an acronym for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies offer billions of people unparalleled access to the world. Users are able to tweet at the president of the United States, foster support for such social movements as Black Lives Matter or inspire thousands to march with a simple hashtag.
“What social media does is it allows people to find each other and establish digital communities and relationships,” said Benjamin Lee, senior research associate for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats. “Not to say that extreme sentiment is growing or not, but it is a lot more visible.”
Social media also allows something else: a largely uncensored collection of public opinion and calls to action, including acts of violence, hatred and bigotry.
Months before the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, people associated with the far-right movement used the online chat room Discord to encourage like-minded users to protest the city’s efforts to remove long-standing Confederate statues – particularly one of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Discord originally was a chat space for the online gaming community, but some participants used the platform to discuss weapons they might brandish at the Charlottesville rally. Some discussed guns and shields, and one suggested putting a “6-8 inch double-threaded screw” into an ax handle.
Multiple posts discussed the logistics of running a vehicle into the expected crowds of counterprotesters.
Heather Heyer was killed after James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio rammed his car into an unsuspecting group of demonstrators. Others were injured. He has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including the death of Heyer and other hate crimes.
“They (the right) said it was a free speech rally, it was never meant to be such,” said Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia associate professor and counterprotester. “What had been happening in internet chat rooms came to in real life.”
The clash in Charlottesville attracted hundreds of members of the far-right community. The event garnered global attention, brought the violent side of America’s political divide into focus and prompted criticism and questions about social media’s role in inciting hate.
The far-right’s use of social media also prompted some companies to ban users. Since the Unite the Right rally, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Squarespace, PayPal, GoDaddy, YouTube and others have jointly suspended hundreds of users associated with the far-right.
Members of the far-right are calling it an “act of war” on their free speech rights – an unjustified censoring of conservative viewpoints.
News 21 monitored the daily social media activity of various far-right users, including white nationalists and neo-Nazis, from June 10 to June 24. Those tracked had more than 3 million followers combined. Reporters recorded and compiled more than 2,500 posts from popular platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, and emerging social media platforms, including Gab and VK.
About half the posts were directed at specific demographics or communities, from black Americans and Latinos to Jewish people and LGBTQ members. The posts varied in sentiment from describing gays as “ill” to referring to black Americans as “chimps” and “sh*tskins.”
Most of the posts followed current events. When families were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, anti-Latino sentiment was expressed by nearly every user tracked.
Almost all used coded terminology and symbols, which allows them to communicate with others who understand their unique online language. One common symbol is the use of parentheses or asterisks to show something or someone is Jewish or associated with Jewish people: “Our people can and will achieve the goals we desire – no matter how hard *they* try to stop it.”
By the end of the two weeks monitored by News21, the 2,500 posts resulted in more than half a million “likes” from social media followers and were shared nearly 200,000 times.
“Social media companies have succeeded in sort of negotiating a place for themselves in the world where they are not the publishers,” said Lee, who researches digital media and the far-right. “And somehow we all sort of sat down and accepted it up until the point we didn’t, and now they’re running to catch up.”
Lee said the purging of online extremists began when government officials noted the Islamic State terrorist group had been recruiting new members via the internet and social media. Since then, the eradication of users has expanded to include the far right.