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Hate groupsHow online hate infiltrates social media and politics

By Adam G. Klein

Published 18 August 2017

In late February, an anti-Semitic website known as the Daily Stormer — which receives more than 2.8 million monthly visitors — announced, “Jews Destroy Another One of Their Own Graveyards to Blame Trump.” The story was inspired by the recent desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. To whom, and how many, this example of conspiracy mongering may travel is, in part, the story of “fake news,” the phenomenon in which biased propaganda is disseminated as if it were objective journalism in an attempt to corrupt public opinion. Looking at the most-visited websites of what were once diminished movements – white supremacists, xenophobic militants, and Holocaust deniers, to name a few – reveals a much-revitalized online culture. When he was asked about the Philadelphia vandalism, President Trump told the Pennsylvania attorney general the incident was “reprehensible.” But he then went on to speculate that it might have been committed “to make others look bad.” That feeds the very doubt that extremist groups thrive on. And the cycle continues.

In late February, the headline of a news commentary website that receives more than 2.8 million monthly visitors announced, “Jews Destroy Another One of Their Own Graveyards to Blame Trump.” The story, inspired by the recent desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, was the seething fantasy of an anti-Semitic website known as the Daily Stormer. With only a headline, this site can achieve something no hate group could have accomplished twenty years ago: It can connect with a massive audience.

To whom, and how many, this latest conspiracy may travel is, in part, the story of “fake news,” the phenomenon in which biased propaganda is disseminated as if it were objective journalism in an attempt to corrupt public opinion. My recent book on digital hate culture, Fanaticism, Racism, and Rage Online, explores the online underworld from which many of those false narratives originate. I investigate the lesser-known source of all this hate-laced “news” simmering in our public debates, helping to cultivate a distorted reality for its ardent believers and a fractured polity for the rest of us.

Looking at the most-visited websites of what were once diminished movements – white supremacists, xenophobic militants and Holocaust deniers, to name a few – reveals a much-revitalized online culture. For example, according to SimilarWeb analytics, Stormfront, the longest-standing white supremacist site, receives more than two million monthly visitors. That is half a million more than the NAACP, GLAAD, the Anti-Defamation League and National Council of La Raza websites, combined.

But size and scope alone do not account for the unprecedented reach that these websites have found in the digital age. Their ascent mirrors the improbable rise of former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke, who shed his Klan robes for an eventual seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives. Today’s radical right is also remaking its profile, swapping swastikas and white-power rock for political blogs and news forums. The trappings may have changed, but the bigotry remains.