The Internet and Right-Wing Extremism

On April 4, 2009, three Pittsburgh police officers were fatally shot by white supremacist Richard Poplawski. He was driven by racism and a fear of a gun right-infringing Obama administration. Two months later, James W. Von Brunn, a known anti-Semitic, opened fire in the crowded U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. These events and others, point to an escalation of rightwing extremist violence, not seen since the early 1990’s. Fueled in large part by the Internet and social-networking technologies, extremists exploit social issues, spread propaganda, and recruit new members, “all of which may be contributing to the pronounced state of radicalization inside the United States”. Yet, despite these concerns, most research conducted since the September 11, 2001 attacks has primarily focused on radical Islamic terrorism, resulting in a significant limitation to the field.

Acting as a foundation of terrorism, extremism, particularly rightwing domestic extremism, is the focus of a recently published paper entitled “Extremism on the World Wide Web: A Research Review”. Published in the special edition on Homeland Security and Criminal Justice in the journal Criminal Justice Studies, this research addresses the importance of the Internet in supporting rightwing extremist objectives. More specifically, the research examined Internet facilitation of information sharing, fundraising, social-networking and recruitment, publicity, and risk mitigation. Specific tactics under investigation included, but were not limited to, the use and creation of electronic bulletin boards, the widespread adoption of multimedia technologies to attract children and teenagers, and the ever increasing use of writing and speaking in code.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently estimated that there were more than 1000 hate groups in 2010, a 66% rise since 2000. Likewise, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, there are close to 14,000 social-networking sites, forums, twitter, blogs, newsgroups, and other on-demand video sites supporting just hate-motivated extremist groups alone. Information placed on the Internet by these groups include history and organizational activities, biographies of leaders, founders, and heroes, up-to-date news, training manuals, and fundraising activities. “Extremists use the Internet for a variety of reasons including easy access, limited or no regulations (i.e., lack of government control), huge audiences, anonymity of communication with like-minded individuals, a multimedia environment (i.e., combination of text, graphics, audio, and video), and the ability to shape traditional mass media coverage”.

To comprehensively assess Internet use among rightwing extremist groups, the researcher first examined the websites of many of these groups himself. In addition, he searched several electronic databases for any studies published between 1995 and 2011. 1995 was chosen as a start date because Stormfront.org, the first major hate site on the Internet, was launched that year. All data were then divided into the following categories: information sharing, fundraising, social networking and recruitment, publicity, and risk mitigation.

Prior to the advent of the Internet, these groups were able to reach small audiences and were restricted to spreading messages of hate through books, newspapers, magazines and newsletters. The Internet, on the other hand, has made dissemination of extremist literature quicker and much more cost effective. Users can download printed material and watch and listen to recorded or live streaming audio and video. Similarly, the Internet is an effective recruitment tool. Recruiters roam online chat rooms, post messages, and track user demographics. In fact, the White House recently argued that popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter play an important role in “advancing violent extremist narratives”. Additionally, United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano stated that “fighting homegrown terrorism by monitoring Internet communications is a civil liberties trade off the U.S. government must make to beef up national security”, launching the Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative in 2010.

Viewing children as essentially to the vitality of the movement, these groups have developed child-friendly websites with jokes, cartoons, coloring books, and “assistance” with homework. Teenagers are attracted through sophisticated video games and aggressive hate rock music. Publicity, formerly garnered through traditional radio, television, and print media, is now distributed more easily through private Internet television and radio networks. Finally, and of great importance, is the Internet’s ability to foster a strategy known as leaderless resistance. This strategy encourages members to carryout lone-wolf style attacks in an unstructured, yet united campaign. In other words, ideology, justification, and tactics, are only a mouse click away. Hence, future research should continue to examine and understand Internet usage by these groups.

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