Notes From the Margins…

On the Hate Highway

  • April 11, 2019
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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.





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  1. Nik

    11th Apr 2019 - 4:15 pm

    Great insight as always. However I am torn on how to deal with online (and offline) hatred and right wing channels/parties. As history shows banning extreme right wing ideology from the airwaves or even public live usually strengthens the convictions of these actors. In Austria we tried exactly that from June 1933 on with the reverse effect . Having been in the “Untergrund” ie. Underground was a great badge of honour for every Austrian Nationalsocialist which later on raised their status within the party and provided them with an esprit de corps which most likely they would otherwise not have achieved as easily. Hell, over here we even tried to be the “true” Germans, with our own (and of course very pious) fascist party and semi nazi-style insignia and theatrics. Still didn’t work.

    Of course nowadays the situation is a bit different (for the time being at least). On the one hand you want to limit their reach, which is of course reasonable, but on the other hand I am afraid that banning this and banning that will never address the core issue: the battle for ideas. I know this sounds boring by now and people sigh everytime they hear it but in my humble oppinion there is no way around it.

    On top of that with the current state of the internet the ship of censorship has more or less sailed unless one were to propose the total domestication and control of the web chinese style.

    Don’t get me wrong, I consider Jones to be a lunatic and wish that people like him and especially the true hardcore rightwing extremists wouldn’t spew out their insanity via the internet. But still I think banning them is like applying a bandaid to an infected wound – looks good for the moment but the festering will get only worse.

    • Matt

      11th Apr 2019 - 6:50 pm

      Being torn is normal Nik. These are difficult and complicated issues and you raise some important points. As I suggested in my post, the white nationalist/far right resurgence covers a wide spectrum, which requires different responses. I certainly think groups/orgs/individuals should be shut down if they are threatening physical harm or having discussions about it. Ditto when projecting and propagating hatred against minorities, and I think its the responsibility of tech companies and govs to take action when this happens.

      I’m not bothered if these people have their convictions strengthened and I don’t think the ‘battle of ideas’ will be enough to deal with these sectors. The important thing is to disrupt their communications, their public ‘mouthpieces’ and their ability to organise, mobilise and monetise their activities.

      So I have no problem with taking Tommy Robinson and Alex Jones off FB and Twitter. This isn’t so much ‘banning’ them as quarantining them. It’s damaged them and I think that’s a good thing.

      You’re right that the core issue is the ‘battle of ideas’, but fascist movements can’t be defeated by simply exposing their ideas to intellectual scrutiny. This is why they should be excluded from public fora, because for people like Bannon and Robinson, the mere fact of being present at a New Yorker festival or on Newsnight is a victory. They don’t have to ‘win’ the debate. Even if they lose, their presence confers legitimacy.

      I recognise that there is a debate to be had about upholding free speech when dealing with movements whose politics are abhorrent, hut it’s also true that the cleverer elements of the white nationalist phenomenon – like Bannon – are using free speech as a pseudo-issue in order to project their messages into the mainstream.

      They can’t be allowed to do that. As you say, ‘banning’ them is not always possible, but they can and should be marginalised wherever possible. If the wound festers there, fine, because these movements will never disappear entirely. The crucial thing is to stop their poison spreading and learn to recognise it even when it appears in more mainstream contexts.

  2. Nik

    11th Apr 2019 - 8:28 pm

    What you wrote pretty sums up the other side that I am torn towards. With making such a clear case you aren’t really helping me here, Matt! 😉

    I am just wondering who in the future can be a trusted arbiter to decide where exactly that line is and guarantee that those lines won’t be drawn around all kinds of other people given the in my opinion most likely not to bright future – without sounding too dystopian here.

    I should maybe have made it clearer that obviously folks who (undoubtedly) propagate violence or racial hatred should be not only banned but even dealt with by the law where possible.

    Anyways, I guess there is no easy solution. On a different note: What is your take on the arrest of Julian Assange? Can your fellow infernal machinists expect your take on the situation in a post?

    • Matt

      13th Apr 2019 - 1:21 pm

      ‘Trusted arbiters’ should be regarded with scepticism for sure. And Youtube, FB and Twitter may not fit that definition. But if they want to take someone like Robinson off their platforms I have no problem with that and I think they should be encouraged to do so.

      Regarding Assange, my take is simple. I don’t like him. I don’t admire him. But I oppose his extradition to the US. Not sure whether I want to expand that in a blogpost as many others have made this point well, for example here:

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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