On the Hate Highway
- April 11, 2019
Yesterday a British Muslim woman I follow on Twitter posted an anonymous message she had received threatening to skin her alive. This was one of various similar threats that she has received, some of which she had reported to the police – without any response. These threats were clearly intended to intimidate a politically outspoken woman who also happens to be a Muslim and a woman of colour.
Such viciousness is routine on social media, and Muslim women who speak out in public are often on the receiving end of it. The Somali-American congresswoman for Minnesota Ilhan Omar has frequently been threatened on the internet and last week she was the object of two death threats by telephone – one to her office and another to a hotel where she was staying.
It’s convenient – and there are a lot of commentators around who like things to be convenient – to attribute such threats to sweaty far-right keyboard warriors operating on the fringes of the internet. Some dismiss the prevalence of the far-right and white nationalist movement on social media as a marginal phenomenon that is somehow disconnected from the social mainstream and the ‘real’ world.
That would be a serious mistake, because the evidence increasingly suggests that the internet acts both as a megaphone for spreading racist hatred and also as a conduit between digital hatred and real-life hate crimes involving white nationalists.
Robert Bowers, the man who killed eleven Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year, was connected to various far-right social media discussion groups such as Gab. The Christchurch shooter was radicalised in part by the internet groups that he belonged to, and his livestreaming of the murders he carried out was intended to ‘inspire’ these same circles. These efforts succeeded. Within hours of the killings, messages of celebration and support were being posted on the messageboard 8Chan and other internet fora.
So there is a serious problem here, which is only just beginning to receive the recognition it deserves. In the wake of the Christchurch murders, the US House Judiciary committee held livestreamed hearings on Monday on white nationalism and the internet, which quickly demonstrated why such hearings were necessary. Within thirty minutes, Youtube was forced to shut down the live chat section of its video streaming of the hearings in response to a deluge of racist and antisemitic comments. According to Buzzfeed, these included ‘derogatory remarks about women on camera, anti-Semitic slurs, far-right memes with references to “white genocide,” and pro-Trump slogans.’
Youtube also disabled the white nationalist platform Red Ice tv, which described the hearings as a ‘ House Judiciary committee on criminalising nationalism for white people’, and which was receiving financial donations even as the hearings were ongoing. One user donated $100 and described the hearings as ‘nothing but the elites and globalists setting up laws that will be enacted in a single pen stroke against the white race in the future.
Eliminating these platforms will not be easy. There is no doubt that governments and tech companies need to become far more proactive in shutting down individuals and organisations that promote white nationalist narratives and overt racial hatred.
This will not be straightforward. Recent bans on Facebook and Twitter have clearly damaged the Tommy Robinson and Infowars networks, but even with the best efforts of the tech companies, individuals and organisations will always be able to set up new platforms and create new discussion groups below the radar. In addition some individuals and organisations will always be clever enough to stay just within the boundaries of what constitutes racism and hatespeech, without actually breaking any laws, while simultaneously maintaining a polite distance from the more overtly extremist groups that share their world view.
Two years ago Buzzfeed wrote an important exposé on how Steve Bannon set out to use his ‘killing machine’ Breitbart News to promote white nationalist politics through the internet and beyond. Bannon’s chosen instrument back then was the Breitbart columnists and alt-right star Milo Yiannopoulos, who Bannon recruited to take part in what he called ‘a global existentialist war where our enemy EXISTS in social media…Drop your toys, pick up your tools and go help save western civilization.’
Yiannopoulos did his best, using his public profile to raise alt-right talking points under the rubric of free speech, while engaging in private discussions with prominent white nationalist figures on the kinds of messages that they wanted to see promoted.
Today the most effective mainstream instrument of the white nationalist movement is probably Donald Trump himself. When the president of the United States can describe undocumented migrants as ‘animals’, issue ‘Muslim bans’, praise Nazis as ‘ very fine people’, and retweet messages from Britain First, it’s clear that white nationalism has found a megaphone that leads petty attention-seekers like Yiannopoulos in the shade.
So when we think about how to combat online hatred, it helps to be aware of the broader spectrum that such hatred is part of. This is particularly important when we look at anti-Muslim hatred.
One of the witnesses at Monday’s congressional hearings was Doctor Muhammad Abu-Salha, whose two daughters and son-in-law were murdered, execution-style, at Chapel Hill in Minnesota in 2015. Abu-Salha moved some members of congress to tears as he described how he first read the autopsy reports on these atrocious murders.
Abu-Salha also told the hearings of some of the messages he had seen on twitter after the killings. One said ‘three down, 1.6 billion to go’, while another tweet said that his children’s accused murderer ‘should be given the Medal of Honor and released from custody.’
Incredibly, Abu-Salha also found himself subjected to hostile interrogation about his own faith. One congresswoman offered her sympathies and then asked him ‘Did you teach your children, your daughters, hatred?’
A representative of the World Zionist Organisation named Mort Klein – a man who once referred to ‘filthy Islamist Arabs’ in a tweet – described the Christchurch murderer as a ‘leftist’, and harangued Abu Salha about verses in the Qu’ran that Klein said called for the killing of Jews. Another congressman also asked Abu-Salha ‘Does Islam teach Muslims to hate Jews?’
It’s difficult to believe that a member of any other faith or minority who had suffered such a terrible loss would have been subjected to questioning like this. But Muslims, it seems, will always be suspect to some, even when they appear at a hearing on the roots of the hatred that killed three members of their family.
So let us by all means look at how to shut down and disrupt hatespeech on the internet, wherever it appears, and no matter how long it takes. But Monday’s hearings should also remind us that, when it comes to Muslims, digital threats of violence are only one component of a broader spectrum of hatred, marginalisation and suspicion that reaches far beyond white nationalist message boards and into more mainstream and respectable circles.