Emily Gorcenski is a survivor of white supremacist attacks at the Charlottesville, VA rally and an activist. The opinions expressed here are her own.
This weekend, a man killed at least 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in an anti-Semitic attack. According to the Anti-Defamation League, it was the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history. After the suspect was captured and named, his verified profile on the fringe platform Gab was discovered. There, the shooter had a long history of promoting anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and suggesting violence against Jewish people.
That attack was the second racially-motivated mass shooting in Appalachia this week; days before, a man shot and killed two Black people in a supermarket after failing to enter a Black church in Kentucky. It was easy to miss that story because it happened during a nationwide manhunt to find the man who was mailing improvised explosive devices to senior and former politicians who have been critical of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Feeling staggered by the recent escalation in white supremacist violence is understandable. Less than two weeks ago, the most egregious story was about a gang of white supremacists, the Proud Boys, engaging in a mob beatdown of protesters in Manhattan after being invited to join an event hosted by the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York. Today, that story doesn’t even break the top three most alarming things we’re reading about. In total, over the past two weeks, at least 19 people have been arrested or charged for their alleged participation in white supremacist violence.
If this all seems overwhelming, it is. As a former resident of Charlottesville, VA, and a survivor of the Unite the Right rally last year, I have tracked white supremacists and their organizations closely since then. The escalation of violence of the last two weeks is challenging to keep up with, even for me. A report this spring from the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino says that hate crimes have risen for the fourth straight year and are at a 10-year high.
As a former resident of Charlottesville, VA, and a survivor of the Unite the Right rally last year, I have tracked white supremacists and their organizations closely since then. The escalation of violence of the last two weeks is challenging to keep up with, even for me.
The term “stochastic terrorism” has been used to describe the recent rise of white supremacist violence, meaning mass and social media are used to amplify a sense of urgency in order to exhort sympathetic followers to commit acts of violence while keeping enough distance to maintain deniability. The resulting attacks are effectively seen as random because there are no explicit instructions as to who should commit an attack, or even when. White supremacists have long embraced this approach. In the early 1980s, it was referred to as “leaderless resistance.”
In 2018, however, this model falls short. Their motives and methods of these attacks are entirely predictable. The unifying threads weaving all of these narratives together are plainly obvious if you know where to look for them: conspiracy theories, rooted in anti-Semitism, which are promulgated on social media and repeated by the president, his administration, and prominent supporters.
At the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, members of the Jewish community gathered on Shabbat. Before targeting them, the shooter shared a conspiracy theory on Gab that Jewish activists from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees, were behind the migrant caravan making its way through Mexico. He ended that post, “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” His next act was to take 11 lives.
On the fringe social network Gab, users regularly promote a collection of essays written decades ago by a prominent neo-Nazi. The text, the name of which I will not share, exhorts the reader to commit acts of terrorism and violence in order to wrest control of society from what the author believes to be Jewish control.
The nexus of the Jewish cabal conspiracy has long been focused on billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The belief that Soros controls the puppet strings of liberals and the purse strings of the Democratic party has leaked out of neo-Nazism and is now entrenched among mainstream Republicans. Earlier this month, Trump further emboldened right-wing conspiracy theorists by suggesting in a tweet that Soros was secretly funding anti-Brett Kavanaugh protesters. Soros was the first recipient of a mail bomb last week.
It is not shocking that white supremacists are using social networks to spread anti-Semitic and racist conspiracy theories. It is shocking that they are so brazen, so unconcerned about the repercussions for doing so. The lack of governance and moderation on these platforms empowers these actors. Twitter has stated that it has no intention of preventing the president from engaging in online harassment or promoting violence against journalists. After the mail bomb suspect was arrested, journalist Rochelle Richie revealed that she had reported the threatening messages he previously sent her on Twitter. Twitter claimed to have found no violation of their rules originally but after his arrest, the platform admitted to having made a mistake. On Gab, site administrators claim that harassment, conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitic content are all part of the platform’s key feature: almost unrestricted free speech.
Fake news, anti-Semitism, racist memes, and conspiracy theories are commonly shared among white supremacists and Americans on the fringes of the hard right. But in sum and substance, the conspiracy theories we see shared on social media today are not very different than those emails whose subject lines begin with “Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Re: Fwd:”; nor are they much different from what you will hear during the call-in portions of AM talk radio. Social media has extended their reach. The president can participate directly in this discourse, which now spreads at rates previously unthinkable.
At this point, it should be clear that Trump shares responsibility for the uptick in violence. He declined to support gun control after the shooting in Pittsburgh, instead suggesting the worshipers would have been safer if they were armed. During the killing spree, the attacker shot three trained armed police officers. After Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Trump struggled to denounce white supremacy. The suspected mail bomber lived in a van covered with pro-Trump stickers; his family said that Trump became like “a stand-in father” to him. When Trump tweeted a long-disproven white supremacist conspiracy theory about South African farmers, even the neo-Nazis who disfavour Trump celebrated online.
After the mail bomber was caught, a reporter asked the president if he would tone down his violent rhetoric. Instead, he threatened to “tone it up.” Less than 24 hours later, a man with a history of sharing anti-Semitic hatred online killed 11 people at Shabbat services. Some of the sentiments he posted on social media were anti-Trump, but many supported the conspiracy theories that Trump and his supporters embrace.
These acts of violence are not random. They are the direct result of providing a platform for people to openly promote and engage with hateful ideas with no penalty. Far from being introspective about their complicity in 11 deaths this weekend, Gab’s management openly bragged about the traffic they were seeing after the shooting.
Next month, James Fields, the man who drove his car into the crowd in Charlottesville, will be going on trial for his 10 state charges, which include a first-degree murder charge for the death of Heather Heyer. The evidence against him is vast, and the conspiracy theories shared everywhere, from the extremist sections of Gab to the mainstream conservative parts of Facebook, are false. I know this because I was there, and I saw what happened with my own eyes.
But that doesn’t matter. If Fields is found guilty, white supremacists, and likely Trump, will refuse to tone down their rhetoric. Instead, they will resort to the proven formula and creating still more conspiracy theories. Unless the reaction by both the authorities and the companies responsible for moderating social media platforms changes, the trend of increasing violence won’t abate. Instead, it will be “toned up,” because to a significant group of people, including the president, it is an acceptable form of hate.