Dylann Roof, the white supremacist terrorist who murdered nine African-American parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, sits on death row in a federal penitentiary. For some, there will be a sense of closure and relief that justice has been served. At the same time, there is also an uneasy recognition that the kind of violence that Roof perpetrated is on the rise in North America and Europe. And, now, we’ve possibly even begun experiencing crossover with school shooters and the “Alt-Right,” as appears might be the case in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.
The trend is deeply unsettling. Farright extremists’ use of social media is helping them reach wider audiences—even as it’s harder for monitoring groups to track their strategies and impact.
The topic of right-wing violence and extremism is getting increased attention. The emergence of emboldened political movements in North America and Europe calling themselves everything from “ Alt-Right” to “White Nationalist” to “Racialist” and “Identitarian” has heralded a generation of hate groups and violence-based extremists and individuals who have purposely and strategically sought to change their image.
The combat boots, nylon patch-laden bomber jackets, and swastika tattoos of the legacy neo-Nazis are now keeping company with the neatly pressed Brooks Brothers suits and “fashy” (i.e., Fascist) haircuts of the contemporary racist. Their propaganda has also changed, as ugly hate literature and over-the-top “white power” hate rock music are now being largely replaced by slick YouTube recruitment videos, online propaganda, and well-organized social media “web brigades” and internet forums. In these mediums, the bitter language of hate and racism is often sanitized and replaced by arguments extolling European pride, heritage, intelligence, and historical achievement.
But while the image of right-wing extremism has been strategically altered from a savvy marketing perspective, specifically to make it more palatable and appealing to a wider audience, the violence it produces appears to be growing. There is an increasing danger posed by groups and individuals whose more benign public face belies an insidious form of violence.
According to the FBI, there were more than 7,000 hate crime incidents in 2017, with nearly 60% of victims targeted due to race, ethnicity, or ancestry bias. In a trend reminiscent of what was seen after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, physical assaults on Muslims in the United States have reached levels not seen since 2001. This phenomenon is not limited to the United States; similarly, according to the British Home Office, there was a 41% spike in “racial and religious abuse” in Britain in the month after the Brexit vote.
In these mediums, the bitter language of hate and racism is often sanitized and replaced by arguments extolling European pride, heritage, intelligence, and historical achievement.
Recent plots and brutal attacks have underscored this threat: the deadly stabbing of an elderly black man in Manhattan by the accused white supremacist James Jackson; the killing of six Muslims at prayer at a Mosque in Quebec City by the accused, Alexandre Bissonnette; the massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston by Dylann Roof; Wade Michael Page’s deadly attack on a Wisconsin Sikh temple; and the recent spate of killings by Atomwaffen, a neo-Nazi death cult that trains with automatic weapons in the Nevada desert and worships the late convicted killer Charles Manson, and the anti-Semitic, “Satanist,” propagandist James Mason, Also disturbing are groups throughout Europe like Golden Dawn in Greece; Alles für Deutschland (AfD) and PEGIDA in Germany; and the English Defence League and Combat 18 in the United Kingdom. All have been accused of bombings and other attacks or linked to individuals who are. These are just a few examples of the trans-Atlantic terrorist threat posed by violent rightwing extremism.
To explain this escalating violence, we can look at the changing structures of the various movements that get lumped into the label of right-wing extremism, which can include everything from neo-Nazis to anti-government militia groups.
Similar to what has been seen in Islamist groups, right-wing extremist groups have evolved with a rapidly changing online space—especially in terms of their propaganda and reach. Higher-quality, user-generated video content; artificial intelligence “chatbot” and social media “sock puppet” technology; and more organized online forums have galvanized a new generation of young, new recruits. The slick and generationally targeted messaging of Richard Spencer and lesser known, but galvanizing, Canadian YouTube propaganda figures like the teenage Veronica Bouchard, also known as “Evalion,” have long mobilized new adherents in the cyber world through drawing on fears over increasing racial and ethnic diversity, manipulating notions of masculinity and femininity and race through fear rhetoric, and exploiting a host of economic and political grievances.
One result of the new propaganda and recruitment methods is the emergence of more so-called “lone wolf” actors—such as Jackson, Page, Bissonnette, and Roof. As hateful narratives reach a broader base of vulnerable and marginalized young people, the propagandists are able to mobilize a larger pool of potential terrorists. Much like what was seen in Islamist terror groups, the organized and violent right-wing extremist groups are more than willing to exploit this model of “leaderless resistance”—a concept pushed by neo-Nazi writer James Mason and other white supremacists of attaching yourself stealthily to a movement, but not to any specific group, so as to be violent (i.e., deadly), and inflict unexpected damage, without bringing down other members, and to slip under the radar of law enforcement.
Some of these individuals are galvanized by a vast online space where search engines and social media steer users toward certain materials and curate ideas that only likely reinforce their worldviews. As companies like Facebook and Twitter create algorithms that direct users to materials they typically “like” and consume, the result is the creation of what has been referred to as “echo chambers,” where users (and some politicians) are sometimes drawn down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, fake news, manipulated truths, and alternative facts.
The evolution of right-wing extremism is organic—in the sense that movements have grown in tandem with contemporary technologies—but also purposeful, in that movements seek to exploit new avenues for recruitment and mobilization. This evolution’s potentially most dangerous outgrowth is the idea that what was easily identified is now more invisible, since the ugly imagery of the old days has given way to a more normalized and less-edgy appearance. The result is that far right-wing extremism has not only grown significantly but has also become far less predictable and more difficult to monitor—especially in terms of its propensity for committing acts of terrorism and how the multitudes of terabytes of toxic propaganda litter every corner of the internet—from the far reaches of the dark web to hidden within your children’s YouTube videos about Minecraft and communicated over their headsets when multiplayer gaming on their gaming console. These realities underscore the challenges we face in our ongoing and determined effort to prevent violent extremism in all its manifestations.
And don’t get me started on how white-supremacist recruiters from Russia and Eastern Europe have recently been strategically infiltrating online safe zones dedicated to getting support for autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s syndrome/HFA, and depression, as well as multiplayer gaming forums—just looking for the next vulnerable, marginalized person to manipulate and create a weapon out of … because we’d be here all day.
I urge you to become more aware of the threat that these far-right extremist groups pose. They are, at the same time, the brutal Nazis our grandparents fought and beat, and a Silicon Valley metastasis of that cancer being incubated by disinformation on social media and real-life uncertainty. They are savvy, always shapeshifting, polishing their recruitment tactics, and trying to seek out our most vulnerable to infect. This is the new “Stranger Danger” that we need to discuss with our children.
It’s time for adults to be more vulnerable and open with our children. We are not superheroes. Perhaps, when we realize that, our children will learn to be more vulnerable and open with us when we need them to be.