Bjork-James: Social media sites fueling surge in white nationalism

White nationalists keep showing up in the hearings of the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection of 2021.

Evidence is mounting that white nationalist groups who want to establish an all-white state played a significant role in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, which left five dead and dozens wounded.

Thus far, the hearings “have documented how the Proud Boys helped lead the insurrectionist mob into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C,” journalist James Risen wrote in the Intercept.

Based on July 12, 2022, testimony from a former Oath Keepers member, the group coordinated with Proud Boys and Three Percenters in mobilizing their extremist organizations to rally in Washington on Jan. 6, as urged by President Trump.

As a cultural anthropologist who has studied these movements for more than a decade, they pose an ongoing threat, as seen in massacres carried out by young men radicalized by their  movement.

In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security described domestic violent extremists as “presenting the most persistent and lethal threat” to the people of the United States and the nation’s government.

In March 2021, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that the number of arrests of white supremacists and other racially motivated extremists had almost tripled since he took office in 2017.

“Jan. 6 was not an isolated event,” Wray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights group, tracked 733 active hate groups across the United States in 2021.

Based on my research, the internet and social media have made the problem of white supremacist hate far worse and more visible. It’s both more accessible and, ultimately, more violent, as seen on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol and the shooting deaths of 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store.

In the 1990s, former Ku Klux Klan leaders, including David Duke, rebranded white supremacy for the digital age. They switched KKK robes for business suits and connected neo-Nazi antisemitic conspiracies with broader anti-Black, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic racism.

From the 1990s to the late 2000s, this movement largely built discreet online communities and websites peddling racist disinformation. In fact, for years one of the first websites about Martin Luther King Jr. that a Google search recommended was a website created by white nationalists that spread neo-Nazi propaganda.

In 2005, the white nationalist website Stormfront.org had 30,000 members.

As social media expanded, with both Facebook and Twitter opening to anyone with an email address in 2006, its views got a lot more attention. By 2015, 250,000 people had enrolled as members.

Between 2012 and 2016, white nationalists on Twitter experienced a 600% increase in followers. They have since worked to bring white supremacism into everyday politics.

The Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit tech industry watchdog group, found that in 2020, half of the white nationalist groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center had a presence on Facebook.

Without clear regulations preventing extremist content, digital companies allowed for the spread of white nationalist conspiracies. Racist activists used algorithms as virtual bullhorns to reach previously unimaginable-sized audiences.

White nationalist leaders, such as Richard Spencer, wanted an even bigger audience and influence.

Spencer coined the term “alt-right” to this end, with the goal of blurring the relationship between white nationalism and white conservatism. He did this by establishing nonprofit think tanks like the National Policy Institute that provided an academic veneer for him and other white supremacists to spread their views on white supremacy.

This strategy worked. Today, many white nationalist ideas once relegated to society’s fringes are embraced by the broader conservative movement.

Take, for instance, the Great Replacement Theory. The conspiracy theory misinterprets demographic change as an active attempt to replace white Americans with people of color.

This baseless idea observes that Black and Latino people are becoming larger percentages of the U.S. population, and paints that data as the result of an allegedly active attempt by unnamed multiculturalists to drive white Americans out of power in an increasingly diverse nation.

A recent poll showed that more than 50% of Republicans now believe in this conspiracy theory.

In 2016, during Trump’s presidential campaign, VICE Magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes formed the Proud Boys to further the goals of the alt-right by protecting white identity with the use of violence if necessary.

The Proud Boys are affiliated with white nationalist ideas and leaders, but deny any explicit racism. Instead, they describe themselves as “Western chauvinists” who believe in the supremacy of European culture but also welcome members of any race who support this idea.

Along with pro-gun militias such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, the Proud Boys are an experiment in spreading white nationalist ideas to an online universe of potentially millions of social media users.

Why do people join these groups? Data from manifestos posted online by white nationalist groups shows that many mass shooters share a few common characteristics — they are young, white and male, and they spend a lot of time online at the same websites.

The man charged in the killing of 10 Black people in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo on May 14 said he was out to stop  elimination of the white race. His fear was that people of color were “replacing” white people, and it came from 4chan, a social media company popular among the alt-right.

In 2019, nine African American church members were murdered in Charleston by a young white man who became radicalized through Google searches that led him to openly white supremacist content.

Massacres in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and at a synagogue in Poway, California, all took place after the shooters began spending time on 8chan, an imageboard popular with white supremacists and home of QAnon posts.

For many of these individuals, the most important part of their radicalization was not about their home life or personality quirks, but instead about where they spent time online.

The reasons men join groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers is less clear. A former Proud Boy member offered one reason: “They want to join a gang,” Russell Schultz told CNN on Nov. 25, 2020, “so they can go fight antifa and hurt people that they don’t like, and feel justified in doing it.”

More than any other issue, racial demographic change is providing recruitment opportunities for white nationalists, many of whom believe that by the year 2045, white people will become a minority in the U.S. But the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that of an estimated population of 330 million, 75.8% are white, compared to 18.9% Hispanic, 13.6% Black and 6% Asian.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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