2016 was one of the worst years for online hate speech, a year when neo-fascists overwhelmed the comments sections of many online forums. Members of the alt-right took popular platforms like Disqus, Facebook and Twitter by storm, flooding them with hateful posts. They attempted to reshape the debate on a wide range of issues including Brexit, Trump, immigration and Islam. What's worse, in some ways they succeeded—and they’re not done yet.
Source: Comment from Andrew Anglin on the Daily Stormer website (currently inaccessible though archived on Wayback Machine).
The alt-right represents a clear attempt to mould a new popular consensus of contempt for minorities everywhere, including in Germany where I’m based. For example, one study undertaken by the Anti-Defamation League found that 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets had been posted to Twitter by just 1,600 individuals in 2016 alone. Together, these anti-Semitic tweets were viewed around 10 billion times.
The study's authors noted that “Waves of anti-Semitic tweets tend to emerge from closely connected online ‘communities.’ These aggressors are disproportionately likely to self-identify as Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, or part of the ‘alt-right.’”
Source: Screenshot from 4Chan,
the anonymous online forum which helped to create the alt-right.
Alt-right websites such as Infostormer, Daily Stormer (both currently inaccessible) and Breitbart have been instrumental in mobilizing right wing activists to popularise nationalistic hate speech online, and are quite open about their intentions to alter the status quo by passing off hate as acceptable—for example, by claiming that their statements are nothing but a new brand of cutting-edge humour.
Andrew Anglin, founder of alt-right website Daily Stormer, has written that, “‘Gas the kikes’ is ridiculous enough that it will immediately be recognized as humor.” He also stated that he hopes “the media repeating this phrase would desensitize the public to Holocaust humor.”
Presumably, this explains why his website’s comments sections are drenched in racial slurs, misogyny and ‘comical’ suggestions about sending minorities to death camps. The problem is that these comments aren’t just confined to right-wing sites—they have gradually spilled over to the rest of the world’s online discussions. Since about 2012, the alt-right has increasingly been targeting the comments sections of European websites.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking hate groups since 1971 and is one of the most comprehensive sources of information on the American far-right. Its “hate map” shows that most active groups are clustered around the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida, but through the use of social media these groups have managed to extend their reach enormously. Here in Berlin, until recently one of the alt-right’s most popular hang-outs was the comments section of the English language news site, The Local.
Since I first reported on this issue, the site has removed virtually all the hate comments from its news section. However, one only needs to enter terms like “thelocal.de” plus the address of any white nationalist webpage into a search engine to see how often their articles have been re-posted in right-wing backwaters.
Selection of Google search results connecting the Daily Stormer to TheLocal.de website.
Clearly, although this site is located in Berlin it was seen as a significant target for these groups. One reason was probably the access it provides to a European readership; another is its use of the Disqus comment platform. Any website using Disqus usually has a far higher proportion of hate speech because the platform is somewhat laissez-faire about tackling fake users and their comments. While Facebook and Twitter have recently begun removing fake news items and hate speech, Disqus has taken no such action, though it did introduce user-blocking in June 2016—much to the chagrin of right-wing users.
Source: Daily Stormer.
This is a startling reminder of why it's dangerous
for internet users to view comments sections on news sites and elsewhere on social
media as an objective reflection of society's views. Groups like the alt-right
are all too willing to manipulate that perception.
On the Daily Stormer for example, right-wing activists can be found coordinating campaigns to carpet-bomb social platforms like Twitter and Facebook and any major websites that use Disqus. Working in tandem, these trolls manufacture ‘public’ outcries against minorities who’ve upset them by speaking out against sexism in gaming, for example, or marrying someone of another race.
From the kind of targets they pick, it seems logical to deduce that their own social group
consists almost entirely of white, straight, single and presumably Christian
men, since they tend to target everyone who falls outside those categories. The
alt-right will often pose as women, teenagers or black people so that other
users will be slower to identify them as neo-fascists, though their tendency to
post endless, self-hating rants against Black
Lives Matter and feminism gives them away pretty easily.
These activists are encouraged to create an array of bogus identities by supplying Twitter and Disqus with dozens of fake email accounts. In the process, each one transforms himself into a one-man mob, ‘liking’ and reposting his own comments and chiming in with cut-and-pasted replies. This is how many of the right-wing online echo chambers are born.
In this screenshot, a poster on Daily Stormer explains how easy it is to manipulate Disqus by creating fake accounts. This is one of the alt-right's favourite tactics for fostering the illusion of mass support for its views.
The number of extreme right-wing comments on The Local.de began to rise sharply in 2014—the same year that Chancellor Merkel announced her open-borders policy for refugees. Merkel’s move was quickly congratulated by President Obama, which seems to have acted as a starting gun for the alt-right to begin seeding German websites with anti-refugee propaganda. Since then, a legion of trolls have spent most of the day and night posting hateful comments and scouring the internet for news stories involving refugees, immigrants or Muslims which they share with their entourage of outraged sock puppets. If the news outlets don’t oblige them by providing a juicy story, they’re happy to make shit up.
A recent example occurred on Twitter at the end of 2016 after a story about a young woman who was kicked down the stairs at Berlin’s Neukoelln station appeared online. The details of the story were quickly re-written so that the dark-skinned, dark-haired female victim became a ‘blond-haired, blue-eyed German,’ while her assailant—a Bulgarian citizen—was rebranded a ‘Muslim refugee.’ It was a perfect example of how the alt-right aggressively tries to associate every wrongdoing with one of the minority groups they hate, no matter how tenuous the connection.
Thankfully, the alt right does not reflect the majority of opinion in Germany, any more than they do in their American homeland. Far-right membership in most Western countries has increased slightly over the last three years, but there is still a chasm between the preponderance of hate speech online and the amount of bigotry seen in real life (horrendous though that is). In the 2015 World Values Survey for example, between five per cent and 22 per cent of respondents in Western countries demonstrated negative feelings towards people of colour, immigrants, women, queers and other minorities. This stands in stark contrast to the pattern seen on Disqus, where the majority of comments are prejudiced in some way. Here is a sample of the Survey’s results from Germany and the USA:
Does not want a multiracial neighbour? Germany 14,8
per cent, United States 5.6 per cent
Does not want a migrant neighbour: Germany: 21.4 per cent, United States: 13.6 per cent
Thinks that a woman's rights to work comes second to a man's: Germany 15.5 per cent, United states: 5.7 per cent.
Meanwhile, the German Verfassungschutz (or domestic intelligence unit) reported in 2015 that membership in far-right parties in Germany totaled just 11,800 people. Nevertheless, all media outlets have to realize that they can be and are being manipulated. A sudden rise in comments against minorities is a sure sign that the alt-right is at work. The problem is that any sign of high traffic seems to be appreciated by many media editors and owners these days, even if comes in the form of trolls spewing hate. After all, why look a gift horse in the mouth?
The alt-right also counts on internet users being in a hurry, searching for the most shocking tit-bits from their news-feeds and passing them on to others without pausing to check the authenticity of the source. The rise of fake news is a stark reminder that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
The Deep South and its ultra-right minority may be an ocean away from Europe, but the internet allows it to post its views worldwide while assuming a local disguise. We should be wary of getting too used to the alt-right's virtual presence in our lives: as events in Charlottesville have shown us, it can quickly harden into something much more real and damaging than words on a screen.
An earlier version of this piece was published on Unscene Berlin.