As a researcher who studies the far-right, I spend a lot of time tracking extremists online. Earlier this month, while I was glued to news sites and frantically refreshing my Twitter feed for updates on the Charlottesville and Kyle Rittenhouse trials, I was surprised to discover that many of the far-right radicals whose activities I monitor are not only web-savvy, but also increasingly research-focused. As a matter of fact, you could call them “Webmasters of Hate.”
Just as my colleagues and I use the web to conduct research, the extremists continue to use the same harmful sites that were frequented by the El Paso shooter, Christchurch Mosque Shooter, and Tree of Life Shooter. They expertly use the web to spread their racist ideas and manifestos. In many extremist manifestos, the preparators will often reference one another as if the previous perpetrator was their “teacher.” A manifesto serves as an instruction manual to help understand why they are choosing to use violence, their inspiration, and their thought process.
Extremists have been following the Charlottesville and Kenosha trials not as spectators, but as avid students of the successes and failures of the prosecution and defense, and of the crimes and punishment that ensues when their brothers-in-hatred take their weapons to the streets. The conversation was occurring across multiple fringe platforms where self-identified far-right extremists and formal movements would discuss their thoughts on the trials.
Extremists have long been using social media to create and populate their echo chambers with like-minded people. Echo chambers serve to bounce ideas off one another and share opinions with like-minded. But this is the first-time that extremists have followed trials this closely engaging in deep conversations about the events taking place. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are constantly trying to find ways to dismantle these dangerous echo chambers. In January 2021, Twitter has deplatformed 70,000 users after they were used to further conspiratorial and racist views in January 2021 alone. However, as quickly as these users are removed from mainstream platforms, they move toward fringe ones.
Today, across such fringe platforms as Telegram, 4Chan, and Gab, I watched Rittenhouse’s ‘white brothers and sisters’ crowdfunding to his Free Kyle USA to amass not only fiat currency, but untraceable cryptocurrency as well. One subscriber on a racist Telegram channel wrote “…just Free the Saint Kyle, the neighborhood protector already!” Another Telegram user posted short video highlights from the Rittenhouse trial on a popular extremist channel with more than 100,000 subscribers and then forwarded them to other hate-filled channels with more than 54,000 and 14,000 subscribers each.
Similarly, the dial-in information for the Unite the Right trial in Virginia was pinned to a Telegram channel for users to follow in real time. After the deadly Unite the Right protest in 2017, Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi and editor of The Daily Stormer, shared advice with his followers that included instructions to wear face coverings and to abstain from future high-profile events. And as further details of the case surface, an unknown user on a Telegram channel has been posting updates from the Unite the Right trial for subscribers who are not able to tune into the live listening session.
While tracking these trials, just like football fans immersed in the Super Bowl, extremists learn how to avoid the mistakes made by their peers, especially regarding possible arrest and the severity of punishment. When the trials concluded they felt that they had won the game by posting memes and congratulating one another. While each of the trials had different outcomes, it is still worth noting that the aftermath coming from the public can include being doxed, ruining career, being kicked out of school, or even permanently having a target on your back.
In 2021, all of us spend most of our waking hours online– learning, chatting, sharing, seeking affirmation and companionship. The violent and hateful tactics employed by violent far right extremists are rapidly evolving and adapting, making older and unsuccessful counter extremist approaches as obsolete as last year’s football forecasts. Now law enforcement and the far-right need to develop new game plans to prevent the other from winning.
Within minutes of Kyle Rittenhouse being found not guilty on all charges, I saw users across Gab, Twitter, 4chan, and Telegram expressing their excitement for “Saint Kyle being freed from government shackles” and “Kyle deserves a medal for bravery and courage…”
Now that Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty and no longer behind bars, the conversations about him in fringe spaces has decreased drastically. The online spaces have not forgotten the actions of “Saint Kyle” – it is just not a hot topic anymore. The conversations on the Unite the Right trial are continuing to occur because many of the people at the trial were well-known individuals. The narratives are relevant only for short periods before the next topic is being discussed.
These are dangerous times. For our democracy to survive the existential threat of right-wing hate, our law-enforcement and counter-extremism personnel need to stay ahead of the game. We need to continue having conversations about gun safety. One thing is certain – the next Kyle Rittenhouse vigilantes are ready to protect his or her community at the slightest provocation, and their ‘white brothers and sisters’ are ready to join them on the street, wherever they are summoned. The next protest can happen at any moment as well depending on the cause and individuals’ willingness to be heard, whether or not it will turn violent is another obstacle we must face. However, we must properly train law enforcement how to respond nonviolently to incidents. Extremists are getting smarter – this is no time to let them outsmart our country’s future as a land of justice and decency for all.