COMMENTARY: You can lock up perpetrators of hate crimes, but the online vitriol that motivates them only grows
I had just arrived at my synagogue in downtown Toronto on Saturday morning when my phone dinged with horrific news coming out of Pittsburgh — a gunman had opened fire at a synagogue, killing 11 worshippers. I was overwhelmed with shock. Just days earlier, I spoke about anti-Semitism and hate at a different synagogue, sharing my perspective as someone who spent two years inside of a neo-Nazi group.
As a 16-year-old high school dropout wandering the streets of Toronto, I was recruited by Canada’s then-largest white supremacist group, the Heritage Front. In 1991, drawn in by the promise of friendship and nationalist pride, I started volunteering for the world’s most notorious publisher of Holocaust-denial propaganda, Ernst Zundel — running errands like grocery-shopping and helping fold and mail out donation-soliciting brochures that claimed he was being persecuted by Jews. Within a span of weeks, I went from not having anti-Semitic views to being wholly convinced that the Holocaust was a hoax and the world was being controlled by the Zionist Occupation Government, a shadowy, Illuminati-like cabal determined to make the white race go extinct.
Two years went by before I was able to escape their toxic grip. The Front’s gradual escalation to violence — including the vicious beatings of several immigrants and a harassment campaign waged against women, anti-racist activists and the LGBTQ community — made me realize I identified more with the people they were attacking. I would go on to defect, testify against Front leaders in court, and contribute to the group’s subsequent collapse.
This was a lot easier to do before the internet age. Back then, you could deport a racist publisher like Zundel back to Germany to face trial for denying the Holocaust. You could throw a neo-Nazi group leader in jail and shut down a racist hotline. Dismantling a white supremacist operation was difficult, but doable.
Today, fighting against violent extremism is like an endless game of whack-a-mole. For every “lone wolf” who goes to prison, the propaganda that radicalized him continues to remain available online to influence and poison others. Memes, cartoons about immigrants, Jews and people of colour that emulate dehumanizing Nazi propaganda films, portraying them as vermin. Tweets with coded words and images like “globalists,” Viking runes and brackets signifying (((Jews))). Racist podcasts are shared on Youtube, Gab, 4chan, reddit, and the list goes on.
Hate has become amplified via the echo chambers of nationalist websites, with anti-Semitism constantly framed as a defensive reaction to “white genocide.” The Pittsburgh shooting suspect Robert Bowers’ social media messages reveal that he perceived Jews as responsible for “white genocide” and viewed attacking them as necessary to save the future of the white race: “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch our people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Bowers is just one of several violent attackers in the last decade who turned their online hatred into physical attacks. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who massacred 77 people in Oslo and Utoya Island, and Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African-Americans in a Charleston church, were both regular visitors of white supremacist website Stormfront. Alexandre Bissonnette, who shot and killed six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque, was described as an internet addict, visiting far-right sites like Breitbart and Alex Jones’ Infowars for anti-Muslim articles. Toronto van attack suspect Alex Minassian pledged allegiance to the Incel movement, an online network composed mostly of involuntarily celibate men with deep resentments against women.
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The common thread among all these “lone wolves” was that they were anything but alone in their hatred — they may have carried out their despicable acts alone, but up to that moment they were members of virtual communities where hatred of Jews, immigrants, people of colour and women reached fever-pitch proportions. They interacted with other white supremacists, surrounded themselves in “truther” theories about Pizzagate or 9/11 being an inside job, and disseminated their hateful paranoia in cyber-worlds that act as echo chambers for hate-mongers.
It’s ironic that we live in a time where politicians are obsessed with erecting physical walls to keep out foreigners, while the virtual walls between online extremism and real-world fanaticism become increasingly transparent. Elections are fought and won on platforms advocating for creating hard barriers between our nation and faceless “outsiders,” while the lines between nationalism and xenophobia, virtual avatars and real human beings, grow increasingly blurred.
Instead of treating each mass murder as a unique phenomenon and ignoring the common thread of online radicalization, we ought to take cues from legislative changes in countries such as Germany, where recent laws requiring social-media companies to delete “illegal” material from their platforms within 24 hours or face massive fines, ensure that online hate speech has real-life consequences.
Until the owners and servers of websites like Gab and 4Chan are penalized and held accountable for the lethal consequences of hatred disguised as “free speech” — we will always be playing catch-up to those angry, hate-fueled souls determined to infest the world with their bigotry and fanaticism.
Elisa Hategan is a speaker, educator on extremism and radicalization, and author of the 2014 memoir Race Traitor: The True Story of Canadian Intelligence’s Greatest Cover-Up.