Members of the Montana Human Rights Network joined other civil rights groups last week in turning an eye to Washington, D.C., where a House committee addressed online hate and what the nation’s largest social media companies intend to do about it.
The hearing was prompted by the March massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, during which the gunman livestreamed his attack on Facebook. The rise of white nationalism and hate speech, and the growing use of social media to spread it, has dogged the likes of Facebook and Google for years.
Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, believes it is time to have an informed discussion of the issue.
“The reality is, those platforms, those tools, are being used pretty significantly for hurtful, hateful and bigoted ideas that divide our communities,” she told the Missoula Current. “Many of those ideas I would characterize as white nationalist at their core.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, agreed during this week’s hearing, where hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism took center stage.
Nadler said the topic strikes at the heart of the Constitution and its aim to form a more perfect union where all people are created equal.
“Hate incidents target victims based on their actual or perceived race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or other immutable characteristics,” Nadler said at the hearing. “Some of these incidents may be crimes and some are not. But all of them harm not only individuals, but also our communities and ultimately our entire nation.”
While the reporting of hate crimes to the FBI remains “woefully incomplete,” Nadler said, the statistics suggest an increase in recent years. Hate crimes were up 20 percent last year, and 29 percent of those crimes were motivated by anti-black biases.
A survey conducted by the Communities Against Hate initiative also found that 66 percent of Americans believe such incidents are becoming more violent. That coincides with what Nadler called “a disturbing rise of white nationalism” in America and around the globe.
He pointed to a number of incidents, including the 2017 Unite the Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the 2015 murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in Charleston. In 2018, 11 people were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
In each case, Nadler said, the perpetrators were motivated by a belief that non-whites or non-Christians were “plotting to undermine the white race as part of a great replacement.” Social media helped amplify their message.
“In the age of instant communication with worldwide reach, white nationalist groups target communities of color and religious minorities through social media platforms, some of which are well known to all Americans, and some of which operate in hidden corners of the web,” Nadler said. “These platforms are used as conduits to spread vitriolic hate messages into every home and country.”
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, said Republicans have and will continue to disavow white nationalism.
“American values share nothing ideologically with white nationalism,” he said. “Our unity as a nation depends not on ethnic uniformity but on our equality as citizens. White nationalism denies this.”
Online hate and white nationalism are no strangers to Montana, Rivas said, pointing to a number of local cases. Foremost among them was Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi and owner of the Daily Stormer who used social media to unleash a “troll storm” against a woman of Jewish faith in Whitefish.
Richard Spencer, who helped instigate that troll storm, rose to notoriety in the alt-right movement when a video of him shouting “Hail Trump” with a Nazi salute at a conference of white nationalists went viral on social media.
“In that same area, David Lenio went on Twitter and threatened to shoot up a school and put a bullet in the head of two rabbis,” Rivas said. “He said this in a town where there’s only two rabbis. There are individual people in restaurants and business owners and public figures who are often targeted for their identity by groups online, and they’re harassed in those (social media) spaces.”
Those seeking stronger laws believe that federal law enforcement agencies have failed to take the dangers posed by white nationalist hate groups as seriously as they do the threats posed by foreign terrorists.
The Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed incidents of domestic terrorism from 2008 to 2016 and found that alt-right extremists attempted or carried out twice as many attacks as those identified as Islamic terrorists.
Such figures have the attention of the Anti Defamation League, which in 1985 issued a report on how white supremacists were communicating on dial-up computer boards. Now, they’re using social media to spread their message, network and recruit followers to their cause.
“White supremacists in the United States have experienced a resurgence in the past three years, driven in large part by the rise in the alt-right,” said Eileen Hershenov, vice president of policy for the Anti Defamation League. “White supremacists have been responsible for more than half – 54 percent – of all domestic extremists related murders in the last 10 years.”
Last year, she said, that figure rose to 78 percent. She attributed the rise to the ease in which hate groups can spread their message on social media.
“Before carrying out the hateful murders in Pittsburgh and New Zealand, the alleged white supremacist gunmen frequented fringe social networking sites that act as echo chambers for the most virulent antisemitism and racism,” said Hershenov. “These platforms are like round-the-clock digital white supremacist rallies, creating online communities that amplify their vitriolic fantasies.”
While the House committee took up “Hate Crimes and The Rise of White Nationalism,” a Senate committee followed with a parallel hearing titled “Stifling Free Speech: Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse.”
The hearing focused on the claim of perceived bias against conservatives by certain tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter. Rivas also considered the fine line between free speech and censoring dangerous content.
“Free speech is one of the important tenets of our democracy, but the action that results from that speech should have consequences, and that speech should have context,” Rivas said. “There’s a responsibility to provide context for that information, and consequences if the actions are negative. That’s pretty different than limiting free speech, in my opinion.”