White nationalism, long ignored, takes center stage after Pittsburgh shooting and rise in antisemitism
Four days after 11 people were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Ludovica Di Giorgi watched from her London office as at least 15,000 individuals searched online for violent white nationalist or far right content.
About 3,000 specifically searched for information about killing American Jews.
Di Giorgi works with Moonshot CVE, a London-based company that attempts to disrupt online extremism with counter-messaging.
From thousands of miles away, she and her colleagues have been tracking the evolution of the white power movement in the United States since before the Charlottesville rally in August 2017, when hundreds of white nationalists carrying tiki torches marched on the University of Virginia’s campus chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
Since Pittsburgh, incidents of antisemitic vandalism have been reported all over the country including right here in Southern California.
Days after the Pittsburgh shooting, a vandal defaced the front wall at Congregation Beth Jacobwriting “(Expletive) Jews” in red. On Tuesday, Nov. 13, someone scrawled the words “For the many not the Jew” on an electrical box at Cal State Fullerton.
On Wednesday, Nov. 14, a man shouted “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump” during a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” causing a moment of panic in Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, the Baltimore Sun reported.
The numbers have been pointing toward a rise in antisemitism, too. The Anti-Defamation League’s statistics show antisemitic hate crimes and incidents rose by nearly 60 percent in 2017compared to the previous year.
The Pittsburgh gunman, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, was a self-proclaimed white nationalist who was active on uncensored social media sites such as Gab. He posted on that site minutes before he barged into the synagogue: “Screw the optics. I’m going in.”
White nationalism ignored
Far right extremism has been smoldering online for so long, and yet, in the United States, it has been the most ignored form of extremism, Di Giorgi said.
“It’s remarkable that it took something like the Pittsburgh shooting to shed light on the issue of white nationalism that has been simmering for so long,” she said.
Moonshot CVE has been receiving funding from Newport Beach-based Gen Next Foundation to employ what they have dubbed The Redirect Method — a strategy to intercept individuals looking for extremist content online and redirect them to curated YouTube counter-extremism videos.
Last year, the Trump administration pulled funding for Life Afer Hate, the only group that focused on countering far right extremism under the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program. All grants as part of the program were awarded to organizations operating in predominantly Muslim communities.
Over a six-month period last year, Moonshot CVE documented 40,000 searches for jihadist material in the United States online. But within a three-month period, they tracked 280,000 searches for violent far right content.
Di Giorgi says those looking for white nationalist material, especially in the United States, are far more sophisticated than those looking for Islamist content.
“They look for specific video games, white power bands or songs,” she said. “They know what they’re looking for when they get online.”
And yet, in the United States and in other European countries, Di Giorgi said, white nationalism doesn’t garner the same degree of attention as Jihadism.
“Everyone can agree that Jihadism is wrong, but white nationalism is viewed as a community problem,” she said. “People often tend to conflate the far right with political ideology.”
White nationalism mainstream?
It has now become more acceptable to talk about nationalism, said Bjorn Ihler, a survivor of the 2011 Norway terrorist attack in the island of Utoya when far right extremist Anders Breivik shot and killed 69 people, many of them youth who were gathered for a summer camp.
“The far right is much more complex in the United States because of the nation’s long, dark history of racism,” said Ihler who now runs a counter-terrorism think tank in Sweden.
President Trump’s declaration that he is a “nationalist” seems to have energized and emboldened the far right, he said.
“On the one hand, I think people on the left need to be more open to the fact that people need to have a sense of belonging,” Ihler said. “People are not necessarily racists for having national pride.”
But, he said, when that brand of nationalism turns into ethno-nationalism where a group of people want the country to be exclusive, it begins to veer into far right territory.
“This brand of nationalism seems evident in Trump’s rhetoric about the wall, the administration’s policies relating to immigration, the Muslim ban and talk about the migrant caravan,” Ihler said. “If you are really proud of your country and love your country so much, why would you not want other people to come here and have better lives?”
Fear of lone-wolf attacks
Pittsburgh has made the conversation about nationalism louder, and that’s a good thing, said Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher for the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
“But now, there is a whole group of people that wants to emulate the shooter,” she said. “He’s their hero.”
The antisemitic and nationalist sentiments expressed now have been percolating for some time, but the Pittsburgh shooting represents someone who translated hateful ideology into action, Mendelson said.
It could just be a matter of minutes from when mere talk turns into concrete action, she said.
The time has come not to focus on groups alone, but also individuals who are inspired by the rhetoric online, Mendelson said.
“White supremacy in America is a historical pastime dating back to the days of the Klan,” she said. “Today, we have a repackaged form of white supremacy that echoes the same messages. It is always easier to scapegoat the other. If that other is foreign with a different religion or a different set of beliefs, it just becomes easier to demonize them.”
White nationalism, mental health
Mental health is certainly another piece of the puzzle, said Di Giorgi who along with her colleagues conducted an online experiment last year as part of The Redirect Method.
Her team essentially confronted individuals who were searching for far right content with ads focusing on mental health topics such as depression and anxiety. They saw 48 percent of those looking for far right content were likely to click on those mental health ads.
“What was even more interesting was those who expressed an interest in violence and harming minorities were 115 percent more likely to click on those mental health links,” she said.
These types of discoveries then challenge the validity of shutting down far right websites and blocking individuals who espouse white nationalist ideologies, Di Giorgi said.
“Banning content just makes it harder for people like us to identify these individuals, engage with them and change their trajectory,” she said.
Their research, Di Giorgi says, is showing that changing someone’s path to radicalization is possible.
In three months, those looking for far right content in the United States watched more than 4,600 minutes of counter-terrorism narratives. They also got 4,000 clicks.
“That means,” Di Giorgi said, “4,000 times, instead of consuming dangerous content, those people were redirected to counter-narratives.”
Engagement and conversation
In addition to counter-messaging, The Redirect Method uses social workers to engage one on one with those contemplating violence.
They essentially initiate conversations with individuals who look for a way into extremism and direct them to resources such as social workers and professional counselors who can offer help.
There are several components to countering violent extremism including law enforcement, counter narratives and crackdowns on extremist sites by tech companies. And not everyone agrees on what the best approach might be to combat one of the biggest challenges of our time.
But in a world where polarization is acute, there is certainly a dire need for engagement and conversation, said Ihler.
He senses the dearth of physical and online meeting spaces for those who have vastly different world views.
“Now everyone is in his or her own echo chamber,” he said.
Ihler, who not too long ago, dodged bullets from the barrel of a white supremacist’s gun, says one of the solutions might just be to be deliberate about designing these meeting spaces.
He talks about a street in Istanbul that had a church, mosque and a synagogue. Small cafes lined that street and people would sit out sipping tea and playing board games.
“No one cared about who you were or which house of worship you went to,” he said. “You just sat there and talked. That’s what we need — so badly.”
Deepa Bharath covers religion for The Orange County Register and the Southern California Newspaper Group. Her work is focused on how religion, race and ethnicity shape our understanding of what it is to be American and how religion in particular helps influence public policies, laws and a region’s culture. Deepa also writes about race, cultures and social justice issues. She has covered a number of other beats ranging from city government to breaking news for the Register since May 2006. She has received fellowships from the International Women’s Media Foundation and the International Center for Journalists to report stories about reconciliation, counter-extremism and peace-building efforts around the world. When she is not working, she loves listening to Indian classical music and traveling with her husband and son.