A Dangerous Game of Hide and Seek: Hate Groups Are Using Social Media as Their New Favourite Hiding Spot

By: Andreea Gustin

We often hear that history has a tendency to repeat itself. As memory fades, events from the past can become events of the present. If recent events are any indicators, American society is inching dangerously close to mirroring events of a century ago – only this time, with a modern twist. Technology and digital media have revived the rhetoric of authoritarianism, fascism and populism. But how is it being used to extremists’ advantage? 

Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released their annual report which showcased that the number of active hate groups in the United States has fallen by 11 percent in the past year. In 2020, the recorded number of active hate groups was 838, compared to 940 in 2019. Although it may appear that the number of active hate groups in the U.S is decreasing, SPLC attributes the drop to the fact that technology and digital media have made these groups harder to track and diffuse. In addition to this, the current COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in limiting in-person activities which has only further driven hate groups onto digital platforms. 

The evolution of smartphones, social media, podcasts and livestreams has made being an extremist a mobile, multimedia experience. Technology has made it easier than ever for extremists to recruit new followers and push their fringe beliefs into the mainstream. This was on full display on January 6, when hundreds of white nationalists’ groups, that had primarily used the internet to organize, stormed the Capitol. Many members of these groups had met online before the event, and their attack on the Capitol showed their alarming capacity for offline violence.

Following this event, social media platforms like Facebook., Twitter and YouTube have all been making a public effort to crack down on extremist content. Despite these efforts, hate groups are now migrating to new platforms like Telegram and Signal, which provide little or no content moderation. Neo-Nazi’s and far-right groups have historically found ways to leverage technological trends in order to find ways to spread hate and organize online. For example, white supremacist groups in the 1990s turned to what was then considered advanced platforms like Stormfront and the Daily Stormer, to spread white nationalist ideas. This ultimately led to the emergence of imageboards, memes and “trolling” – all elements we still see online today. 

The problem here is not only about trying to understand how these hate groups are using technology and digital media. It’s also a matter of trying to understand what this means for our future as it relates to our past. As we’ve increasingly seen over the past four years, the alt-right’s racist messaging, white nationalist underpinnings and anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments are no longer only showing up in the streets as they once did. Social media has created channels for Neo-Nazis and extremist hate groups to organize and manipulate information to their advantage. 

Recent demonstrations of extreme nationalism and the threats posed to American democracy are drawing comparisons to a dark past. Although certain historical themes of nationalism and authoritarianism are coming up in today’s conversations, many do not understand the alarming power of technology in the current circumstances. History may very well repeat itself, but are we prepared to deal with elements of the past in today’s faceless digital world? 

It’s easy to make comparisons to the past, but it’s difficult to understand that that is no longer the same world we’re living in. Technological advancements and social media have created new challenges and obstacles to tracking hate groups and holding those involved accountable. The methods once used to combat dangerous nationalist efforts are no longer applicable to domestic online extremism. 

It is only natural for us as humans to attempt to understand modern issues by applying the lens of the past. However, there needs to be a greater understanding of how fascist and nationalist ideologies have developed over time and what role technology plays in these developments. Ultimately, it’s important for us to understanding how our modern issues can differ from those of the past and how this can lead to new consequences not outlined by history. 

References

The Associated Press. (2021, February 1). Report: Hate groups in decline, migrate to online networks. NBC News. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/report-hate-groups-decline-migrate-online-networks-n1256356

Bensinger, G. (2021, January 13). Now social media grows a conscience? The New York Times. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/13/opinion/capitol-attack-twitter-facebook.html

Hatewatch Staff. (2019, September 18). Daily Stormer website goes dark amid chaos. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/stormfront

Janik, R., & Hankes, K. (2021, February 1). The year in hate and extremism 2020. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.splcenter.org/news/2021/02/01/year-hate-2020

Jimenez, C. (2021, January 20). Far-right extremists on social media aren’t going away — they’re hunkering down. Colorado Public Radio. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.cpr.org/2021/01/20/far-right-extremists-on-social-media-arent-going-away-theyre-hunkering-down/

McEvoy, J. (2021, January 7). Capitol attack was planned openly online for weeks—police still weren’t ready. Forbes. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jemimamcevoy/2021/01/07/capitol-attack-was-planned-openly-online-for-weeks-police-still-werent-ready/?sh=622babfb76e2

Molla, R. (2021, January 15). What is Signal, and why is everybody downloading it right now? VOX Media. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/recode/22226618/what-is-signal-whatsapp-telegram-download-encrypted-messaging

Molla, R. (2021, January 20). Why right-wing extremists’ favorite new platform is so dangerous. VOX Media. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/recode/22238755/telegram-messaging-social-media-extremists

Stormfront extremist group info. (n.d.). Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/stormfront