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Virtual rebirth: White Supremacy in the Age of the Internet

In the age of the internet, white supremacy has taken a new shape.

The ideology has sunken into chatrooms, online forums, social media, any place with a post button capable of exposing layered hatred to the thousands searching for entertainment. Recruiters are not old men toting white hoods, but professionals and well-spoken youths that you might pass innocently in cafés. They proliferate their message through a malevolent sort of comradery, often meeting in person to talk with targets.

Much like other violent political movements, like religious extremists, white supremacists typically target disenfranchised young men grappling with their developing identities. Ranging in ages from young teens to their late twenties, these men are vulnerable towards the appealing message that these groups advocate for: a sense of belonging that overlooks any individual flaws they might carry. Link after link slowly increases their exposure to this extreme rhetoric, expounding on the typical youth desire to identify with something; and what is more appealing, more identifiable with than nationalism?

Image via Lisa Runnels.

Indoctrination is a slow process but aided with the pre-exposure to so-called ‘dark’ humor, often revolving around comedy at the expense of marginalized groups, most targets have already been socialized to accept at least some of basics that these groups operate on. Another seemingly harmless sub-culture on the rise, offensive, or politically incorrect humor, has risen in mainstream popularity among teens. Edgy, generally innocuous jokes with considerable undertones of intolerance, the quips do a fine job of subtly portraying the creator’s views on contemporary issues. Criticism is often met with cries denouncing a ‘sensitive’ society, demonstrating their lack of perspective and willingness to understand that these statements have always been considered inappropriate and, as the name would suggest, deeply offensive. Society has just recently developed a platform for the voices of the very people that are mocked.

It is this same humor that at times helps entrap young men and women down the insidious rabbit hole of radicalization by slowly recruiting them via chatrooms filled with similar-minded individuals willing to push the boundary of humor further past simple comedy and into uncomfortable bigotry.

Again, creating memes does not make you a racial extremist. Sharing distasteful jokes with your friends does not mean you actively subscribe to the ideologies behind white supremacy. However, refusing to acknowledge the disturbing callousness and sheer disrespect that fuels the words have sustained a rotting culture of humorizing and trivializing socio-political issues that have defined the experiences of marginalized groups throughout our history.

Image via Darwin Laganzon.

David Begrich, a German researcher on right-wing extremism recently addressed the usage of these popular images, memes, on WhatsApp; commenting that while the young people participating in these group chats most likely do not actively identify with the white supremacy movement, they are pushed by the stereotypical urge of teenage rebellion. In short, they are subtly trying to push boundaries of what is typically acceptable with each other. A quick skim of the messages in the chats published in part by Buzzfeed News reveals just that, with images being shared of Hitler alongside accompanying chain texts.

It is difficult to police private conversations among friends, however disturbing they may be. Yet, it is unsettling as we realize these environments have helped produce violent individuals capable of massacring dozens of civilians.

Alongside questionable humor, the resurgence of contemporary white supremacy is in part due to the introduction and acceptance of decisively controversial political orientations, such as fascism, paleo-conservatism, neo-Nazism, and identitarianism, within several online forums, namely Reddit and 4chan. These political opinions by in large form the subsection of the movement known as the ‘alt-right’: a youth-orientated and overwhelmingly male community known for a distinctly virtual subculture that thrives on nationalist-populist ideals refashioned into empowerment.

Romanticizing thinly veiled racist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic sentiments by masking it as white emancipation makes it easier for vulnerable young men to identify with white supremacist groups. Similarly, dropping birthrates in Western countries, the sensationalism of the immigration crises, and the resulting socio-economic anxieties push the narrative of ‘white genocide’, a popular concept propagated by white supremacist groups to justify their tirade against marginalized groups. This ingrained fear that the ‘white man’ will be replaced as immigration laws are relaxed eases radicalization by portraying the movement not of one of hate, but of self-preservation.

These thoughts are not the insidious foundations of supremacist movements alone as they have a considerable foundation in the socio-economic anxieties of many middle to lower class whites throughout the nation, giving the actual extremists a platform for normalization. Politic enthusiasts teetering on the edge of embracing disturbing levels of anti-multiculturalism are featured on television interviews and as late-night show guests, their uncomfortable quips becoming hot debates instead of dismissal.

Image via S. Hermann and F. Richter.

Yet, as we watch humorous debates and listen to fast-paced political podcasts, the maliciousness of the ideology continues to be subverted from the public eye. The white supremacy movement has undoubtedly continued its historical pattern of supplying the majority of domestic terrorism in recent years, with the ADL reporting “nearly 54% of domestic extremist-related murders in the past decade and 13 plots or attacks within the past year being accounted for as inspired in some way by the movement.” Another triumphant moment came in the election of United States President Donald Trump in 2016, which offered the primarily virtual alt-right coalition a political figure to pour support behind; drawing their presence further beyond the screens and into the real world through media attention and publicity. In the years following the election, several alt-right cyber communities made documented efforts to organize groups and engage in recruiting tactics targeting American youth in public areas such as college campuses.

The alt-right poses a more insidious threat to national security in that the movement has a deep reliance on economic and political justification, offering a more organized and to an extent socially acceptable public face than other subgroups, such as skinheads and the Klu Klux Klan, have traditionally provided. When we think of alt-right, our minds often think along the lines of renegade and paleoconservatives; not of the violence and crime, these groups have propagated historically and will continue to do so. The danger emanates from our preconceived notions of what white supremacy presents as in the real world. It is not a red-faced farmer with a distinct drawl and broken grammar, it is faculty members in two-piece suits who openly promote the validity of eugenics. It is politicians who don’t think twice before questioning the offensiveness of white supremacy and their unsettling distaste of multiculturalism. It is the droves of vulnerable youth enamored by the false promises of historical significance and empowerment. Equity and equality are sidelined in favor of the prosperity of the few who pass the high standards of the social hierarchy proposed by racial nationalism.

Image via Javier Robles.

As the world evolves and changes through technological progress, it is urgent that we also continue to update our own perceptions of what changes racial extremism will undergo an effort to persist. It is well documented that our nation’s security institutions are well-equipped and at times overreaching in their attempts to thwart religious extremism, specifically Islamic militancy post-9/11. There have also been applaudable efforts to prevent domestic terrorism, but the problem primarily lies with the failure of the public and our institutions to overcome our bias.

In this crucial moment, where we can actively see the resurgence of white supremacy in socio-political spheres so close to normalization, we must stand against the ideologies that challenge years of social progress.  Simply to be in support of fascism and white supremacy is to be against the America generations before us fought to reform. The rebuilt foundation and roots of democracy that support social equality are threatened unequivocally by the threat of racial superiority. We can take a stand against hate speech in our daily conversations. We can be vigilant against instances of institutionalized racism. The question is, will we?

One thing is clear: complicity has historically been our undoing. Our legacies will not be of what we have believed or thought, but what we have done to advance the wheel of progress in times of backwardness.

Featured image via Gerd Altmann.

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