Digitally Yours: Proactivity is crucial in combating online hate

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Gab, the social media platform used by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect, has resurfaced online roughly a week after domain registrar GoDaddy dropped its site.

The platform is reported to be a haven for neo-Nazis and white nationalists who have been banned from the likes of Facebook and Twitter for hate speech and harassment.

Gab’s existence — or the existence of a site like it — should come as no surprise.

As mainstream platforms grow more stringent in monitoring offensive content and predatory behavior, these repressed hateful and conspiratorial ideas do not just dissipate into thin air. The platform might have been briefly stopped following a violent incident that shook the nation, but the extremism and niche political beliefs it breeds continue to exist in the dark corners of cyberspace.

Extremism in any form is a threat to democracy, and it has only become more prevalent in the current political atmosphere.

Platforms like Gab have allowed for radical niche groups to coalesce and grow in social power, and the frightening aspect is that these ideas have become easily accessible to any person browsing online who happens upon them.

It’s crucial that law enforcement officials, politicians and teachers recognize this threat and actively work to combat it — not by proactively inhibiting radical speech and ideas, but by monitoring it and educating citizens about its potential dangers and how to avoid them.

In a recent POLITICO article, Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group and a counterterrorism expert, noted that the rise of far-right ideologies online resembles the rise of ISIS on social media. Yet, the Department of Homeland Security withheld grant money in June 2017 from individuals who planned to study and help individuals radicalized by online extremism, according to a New York Times report.

At the federal level, it appears that white nationalism and right-wing fringe movements might not be perceived as pertinent of a threat as, say, Islamic extremism. This is a mistake by law enforcement officials: In refusing to recognize these extremist movements for what they are, they are enabling this web of activity to grow unchecked, while remaining ignorant of their potentially violent motives.

Politicians have also previously taken issue with the words “right-wing extremism,” forcing the DHS to retract a 2009 study on the movement, labeling the report a partisan act. The department had published reports about left-wing extremism, but there had been no objection to that terminology, according to the Times article.

Beyond partisanship, politicians on both sides of the aisle must come together to recognize the threat online extremism has brought on national security and denounce such extremist movements.

Local elected and law enforcement officials should be aware of such content in their communities.

This is crucial especially after incidents such as the Charlottesville white nationalist rally and more recently, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. While federal agencies have the breadth and depth of resources to monitor large-scale national threats, local officials have a much smaller jurisdiction to oversee in tracking hate crimes and violence toward specific groups of people.

While hate speech and harassment on the internet do not always result in physical violence, these ideas still hold dangerous consequences.

Every day, unwitting internet browsers could happen upon extremist ideas and become ideologically recruited, and it’s imperative that educators and politicians keep this in mind while crafting curriculum for students growing up in the digital age.

Combating extremism requires digital literacy, skills that children often might not be taught when parents give them their first smartphone or personal computer. Educators and parents must realize that these tools, while handy and necessary for students’ learning, pose nefarious risks.

The Center for Public Integrity reported that white nationalist groups like The Proud Boys and Identity Evropa heavily target young white men for recruitment into their ranks, posing as a social fraternity-like group. NPR also reported that right-wing hate groups are recruiting video gamers, and the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally was planned over Discord, a chat app typically used by video gamers.

It’s impossible to fully monitor and prevent these groups’ recruitment activity without denying them their First Amendment rights, but educators and law enforcement officials must ensure that local citizens are aware of the ideological threats that these groups pose on the internet.

Something as simple as parenting or digital literacy courses could be a significant step forward in ensuring that parents are aware of the content their children can find online.

Online extremism has yet to be fully understood by counterterrorism experts and even federal law enforcement agencies, but there’s one thing we know for sure: The internet is not going away, and neither are these extremist groups. It’s crucial that our country is prepared, rather than fall back on the regulatory frameworks of mainstream social platforms.

Terry Nguyen is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Wednesday.