Researchers: Alt-Right Uses Internet to Normalize Hate
Alt-Right Borrows a Page From the Left
When David French, a writer for the conservative National Review, criticized Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and questioned his alleged ties to the “alt-right,” followers of the movement began to attack him online.
One attack, French said, involved the posting of “images of my daughter's face in gas chambers, with a smiling Trump in a Nazi uniform preparing to press a button and kill her.”1
The incident, researchers say, is one example of how the alt-right has been using its online skills over the past two years to attack opponents, raise its profile and gain members.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, people identifying themselves as alt-right followers targeted Trump's “critics, among others, with streams and streams of abuse through anonymous Twitter accounts,” says Matthew Lyons, a Philadelphia-based researcher and author specializing in right-wing movements.
“It's a devastating tactic,” says Lyons. “And you can't even say that anybody in particular is orchestrating it. You have all these men who see their role as internet warriors. And somebody points to a person who's perceived as an enemy, like National Review writer David French, who criticized Trump. And someone says, ‘Let's go after his family,’” he says.
It's not surprising that the alt-right is skillfully using the Web to win followers and wield political influence, says Jessie Daniels, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York City and the author of the 2009 book Cyber Racism.
Racist groups were among the earliest organizations to see the internet's potential, she says. In an early-1990s interview, for example, David Duke, founder of the Louisiana-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, called the internet the greatest-ever opportunity to spread racist ideologies. “I believe that the Internet will begin a chain reaction of racial enlightenment that will shake the world by the speed of its intellectual conquest,” Duke wrote.2
Some alt-right websites, such as the anti-Semitic white nationalist site Daily Stormer, have been building an online following quickly, says Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors extremist groups.
The center found that the Daily Stormer, which was founded in 2013, needed only three years to surpass the Web traffic of the oldest hate sites online, such as Stormfront, which debuted in 1995, Beirich says.
Trolling — posting inflammatory messages in an attempt to provoke controversy — is one way the alt-right wins new followers, says George Hawley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
“Trolling isn't done to influence the person being trolled,” he says. “Other people are watching, and the trolls know they'll attract some of them if they draw the target into a fight” or simply troll in an aggressive way that seems “edgy and fun” to some people. “It sends the message that, ‘Hey, if you follow us, you too can rile famous people online,’” Hawley says.
During the 2016 campaign, the alt-right also used bots — automated software — to quickly spread political memes, which are images or other material passed around online, says Daniels.
When a topic alt-rightists wanted to target came up in a Twitter feed — such as the #imwithher hashtag connected to the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — a bot would instantly retweet the hashtagged tweet along with the cartoon Pepe the Frog meme that the alt-right adopted as a symbol, Daniels says. “Bots were able to quickly get it into the general online conversation” much faster than humans could, she says.
Extremists also have learned how to gradually shift public discourse in directions they choose, Daniels says.
For example, a website on slavery run by white supremacists can excerpt oral histories found in the public domain and twist their meaning, such as by highlighting innocent-seeming facts about slaves being allowed to grow vegetables for their own use, she says. By savvy use of linking and other methods, they can change search engine results, so that when someone types into Google “was slavery so hard?” sites that give a misleading picture turn up, Daniels says.
“So much of what we know and understand about the world happens through search engines now,” and white nationalists are among the internet-savvy people who can shape the public's picture of reality without anyone being aware of the manipulation, Daniels says.
Alt-right followers use similar methods to shift public discourse toward acceptance of once forbidden racist words and images, says Lyons. Some alt-right-related websites go out of their way to use the most shocking images of bigotry possible as a way to gradually make once-shunned speech and imagery seem normal through repetition, he says.
A case in point is some posters' recent heavy use of gas-chamber jokes, Lyons says. “Thousands and thousands of tweets have gone out telling gas-chamber jokes, and even if many people are still horrified,” some will begin to view the jokes as normal, which shifts the political and social climate without most people even realizing it, he says.
— Marcia Clemmitt
Taking its cue from the “identity politics” of the Left — in which people rallied around campaigns for gay rights or black pride — the so-called alt-right is attempting to rally mainstream white Americans to its cause by appealing to white pride, according to researchers Carol Swain of Vanderbilt University and Russ Nieli of Princeton University.3
Richard Spencer, the unofficial spokesman of the alt-right — an umbrella group of people with various racist beliefs, including anti-Semites, white supremacists and white nationalists who want whites to live in a separate “ethno-state” — urged white Americans to see themselves as a unified group. Whites, he said, must band together to fight for common interests or watch “European culture” get wiped out in a multicultural United States in which whites are simply one more minority group.4
White identity is at the core of the alt-right's appeal to the average white person and to President Trump's supporters, Spencer claimed, even if, he said, most Trump voters “aren't willing to articulate it as such.”5
Identity language, experts say, clearly resonates with some whites.
J.P. Sheehan, president of a College Republican club, said he was an Obama voter who gradually came to believe that ethnic minorities were moving into the forefront at his expense. He said he latched onto the white-identity language Spencer uses because it gave him a sense of meaning. “People think the alt-right is just simply about being mean to other people,” said Sheehan. “It's really not. The alt-right is simply identity politics for white people.”6
The appeal of identity language for some whites isn't surprising, Swain says.
“White people have real concerns, such as rising mortality rates, with older white people in some communities dying of despair, drug overdoses,” she says. “They want those concerns recognized. But in the liberal political language [of the last several decades], they were hearing about everybody else and not about themselves.”
A Ku Klux Klan member in Hampton Bays, N.Y., said on Nov. 22, 2016, that his KKK branch has had some 1,000 inquiries from people interested in joining since Donald Trump's election. The alt-right has roots in racist movements such as the Klan. (AFP/Getty Images/William Edwards)
For disaffected whites — including those who argue that whites are superior to other races — the “logical next step was to copy that multiculturalist language and use it to talk about themselves,” Swain says. It was clear in the early 2000s that white identity would soon become the next rallying cry for disaffected white people, both mainstream whites and white racists, she says.
Swain says she recognized then that identity politics could be an effective tool for the far right to reach mainstream whites and help build opposition to racial inclusiveness.
Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, made a similar argument in his 2006 book, The Trouble With Identity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.
In the book, Michaels argued that identity politics was a dangerous diversion that allowed politicians to ignore the country's real socioeconomic problems, which afflict people from all demographics. Michaels, like Swain, warned that identity politics could backfire by making white people see themselves as an identity group victimized by racism.
In 2006, many liberal critics rejected both those arguments. But “someone told me they'd just discovered the book last week, and now it reads like a prophecy,” said Michaels last year.7
As identity politics and language come to dominate the public debate, “what you get is an increasing number of white people who are committed and convinced that they're the victims of racism,” something that was evident in the 2016 campaign cycle, said Michaels.
In a 2014 survey by the independent research group Public Religion Research Institute, 52 percent of white Americans, 61 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of people identifying themselves as tea party members said racial discrimination against whites was as big a problem as racial discrimination against minorities.8
“White people are indeed victimized — they're the largest group of poor people,” Michaels said. “Those people begin to think, yeah, racism is the problem. That's why what we've seen emerge during this Trump campaign is a white identity politics.”9
To combat this view — and to prevent white nationalists from continuing to use it to build support for racism — “we have to take new approaches to problems like poverty,” Swain argues. “Look at socioeconomic problems that affect whites along with other ethnic groups and address them as that — as socioeconomic problems, not as problems of this identity group or that.”
Others, however, defend identity politics and warn against abandoning it. The 2016 election did not demonstrate white backlash, said Jacob T. Levy, a professor of political theory at McGill University in Montreal. Trump got a lower share of white votes than Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, 58 percent versus 59 percent. Moreover, in polls white voters expressed reluctance to vote for Trump when he spoke against minorities or showed disrespect for women, Levy said.10
Identity politics is necessary, Levy said, because so much injustice is “targeted injustice.” He pointed to laws banning gay sexual activity and to policing that leads to the disproportionate arrests of blacks. To progress as a society, “we need to be able to hear each other talking about particularized injustices, and to cheer each other on when we seek to overturn them,” he said.
— Marcia Clemmitt
Document APA Citation — See Alternate Citation Style
Clemmitt, M. (2017, March 17). ‘Alt-Right’ Movement. CQ researcher, 27, 241-264. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2017031720
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017031720