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Do Online Forums Act as “Radicalization Machines” for White Supremacists & Mainstream GOP?

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Before embarking on a murderous rampage in a majority-Black neighborhood, the Buffalo shooter posted a white supremacist manifesto online that fixated on white dominance, white fertility and the survival of the white race. These are all sentiments shared by the Republican Party and its media arms, says author and extremism researcher Talia Lavin, who spent nearly a year impersonating right-wing white supremacists online, assuming false identities to infiltrate their groups, as she worked on her book, “Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.” She adds that online chat platforms such as 4chan and Telegram are essentially “perpetual motion radicalization machines” where “people who are already radicalized or in the process of being radicalized can imbibe propaganda.” Her recent article for Rolling Stone is headlined “The Buffalo Shooter Isn’t a 'Lone Wolf.' He’s a Mainstream Republican.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Rashad, we’re going to bring in a second guest to join you right now. Rashad Robinson, of course, is with Color of Change. Saturday’s massacre by the 18-year-old white supremacist, which killed 10, has been called a made-for-the-internet massacre, the shooter streaming the massacre on Twitch for about two minutes — as Rashad pointed out, it’s owned by Amazon — before Twitch took it down. Users of hate-filled online message boards like 4chan soon shared the video. It was being watched by 22 people, and now it’s been watched by millions.

For more, we’re joined by journalist and author Talia Lavin, who spent nearly a year impersonating right-wing white supremacists online, assuming false identities to infiltrate their groups as she worked on her book Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.

Talia, welcome to Democracy Now! In the process of writing your book, you also explored the relationship between the extreme right and conservatives in the United States in the mainstream, which you write about in your new piece for Rolling Stone headlined “The Buffalo Shooter Isn’t a 'Lone Wolf.' He’s a Mainstream Republican.” Take us through your response to what happened and your journey through the dark web. But as you said, it doesn’t just exist there, in 4chan, in 8chan, in the Dylann Roof groups, those who praise the killer in the Mother Emanuel Church and others. Take us on that journey you took.

TALIA LAVIN: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s important to note that the shooter was radicalized, according to his manifesto and other ratings, anyway, online. You know, he was steeped in this ecosystem, which I know pretty well, unfortunately. And I would say that it exists in parallel to and has grown ever closer to what I call the sort of white-hot center of Republican politics.

And the commonality is this fixation on white dominance, this fixation on white fertility, this — you know, the demographics of the United States are changing. It has been clear for some time now that there will be a time, you know, that is drawing closer, just due to the sort of fluctuation of births and deaths and, you know, some level of immigration, though that’s been consistently restricted, where the U.S. will be a majority-minority country, no longer a, quote, “white country.”

And to me, it’s important to note that demographic change, in and of itself, is a moral neutral, but it has been the subject of this moral panic, this intense moral panic, this imputation of existential threat, you know, both in the extremist white supremacist movement and now, increasingly, over the past half-decade, throughout the Republican Party, to the point where it is really a consuming sentiment in the central institutions of the Republican Party and its media arms. So, you know, you have this logic of sort of an existential struggle for survival of the white race that’s utterly consumed the top line of the Republican Party and also is the central preoccupation of far-right extremists who do not claim Republican affiliation, and, you know, far from it, they consider themselves outside the two-party system, etc., etc. And yet, to me, it was striking, like, how closely the shooter’s rhetoric mirrored that of stuff we’re seeing from Republican officials and candidates and right-wing pundits.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the youthfulness of some of these killers perpetrating these massacres. I mean, Dylann Roof was 21 when he engaged in the Charleston massacre. Patrick Wood Crusius in El Paso in 2019 was 21. Now this shooter, 18. Your experience in terms of the impact on young people of these neo-Nazi and ultra-right replacement theory views?

TALIA LAVIN: Yeah, I also wanted to, just while I have a megaphone, like, talk about what replacement theory is. It’s also known as, like, the white genocide theory. It’s this idea that — you know, again, it takes this idea of demographic change and, instead of positing it as morally neutral, talks about — you know, or sort of the natural ways populations change over time, postulate that it’s a sinister plot being engineered. And the white supremacists will explicitly say that they believe it’s engineered by Jews — that was the direct motivation of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter — whereas mainstream Republicans will talk about, quote-unquote, “elites” or “globalists” or Democrats — right? — for electoral advantage. But the sort of conspiracy element of it is that this is a deliberately engineered and sinister and nefarious demographic change.

As to the youthfulness of the perpetrators, I mean, I think it’s important to understand white supremacist extremism as like any other human endeavor. It’s driven by narrative. It’s driven by emotion and story. So, you know, what it appeals to emotionally — and it often sort of is perpetuated in these youth-oriented online spaces, you know, that it sort of pitches itself as very edgy, this ideology. You know, the mechanisms it uses for recruitment are sort of these edgy jokes — that aren’t really jokes — crude machismo, the sort of ability to engage in sort of online harassment and cruelty without compunction, right? But the story that it tells is very much a story in which you can be a hero. You can fight for the white race. You can belong to something bigger. Your life can have a purpose. You know, if you take up arms, if you spill blood for the white race, you’ll be a hero. You’ll be a “saint,” is the term they regularly use for white supremacist mass shooters. And that was the term that Payton Gendron, the Buffalo shooter, also employed in his online writings in describing previous perpetrators of massacres. So, you know, when you think about who does this sort of, like, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, like, you know, “It is good and sweet to die for your race,” say — who does this rhetoric appeal to? You know, I think it’s natural that it would appeal in the most actionable way to young men, who are more prone to take up a call to arms.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Talia, I wanted to interrupt for a second to ask you, because what I was so struck by in Culture Warlords, in your really deeply researched book, personally researched — I mean, you were so well known on Twitter before this. You were at Media Matters. You had been monitoring the extreme right. You were the target of so much vitriol, you know, online. You were threatened with rape endless times. Yet your bravery in staying there, also adopting a new persona. But I think so many people don’t even understand what 4chan and 8chan are. He said he was so influenced, this shooter, by 4chan. And even though the Amazon company Twitch, only 22 people were viewing, very soon at 4chan, they took it up, even though it was replaced by — it was removed by Twitch, and now millions are viewing this. Those places you went to, not to say it all lives there now, because the swamp has become mainstream, but take us there, to the Dylann Roof groups even today.

TALIA LAVIN: Yeah, I mean, these spaces, you know, you have your, like, 4chan. There are certain communities on Discord. At this point a lot of it has migrated to an app called Telegram, which is an encrypted messaging app that enables sort of public channels, private channels, the posting of video and audio, and so it’s a very useful, you know, mechanism to spread propaganda.

One way I describe these online spaces is sort of perpetual motion radicalization machines. They are essentially megaphones for stochastic terror that operate 24 hours a day, you know, where people who are already radicalized or in the process of becoming radicalized can imbibe propaganda, can imbibe video of violence, can imbibe all kinds of racist screeds, including those from decades and centuries past. You know, they’re passing PDFs of Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries and these other radicalized texts. They’re constantly spreading racist memes. So, it’s really — once you have sort of entered these spaces, you are then subject to sort of this gushing, consistent fountain of vitriol, that slowly, like any other form of propaganda, shapes your worldview. It shapes an apocalyptic worldview, a worldview that, again, just like consistently posits the necessity for violence over and over again, 24 hours a day. I mean, it’s really remarkable how relentless the surge of propaganda is when you enter these spaces.

And the function — you know, the reason why these videos — the same was true of the Christchurch mosque shooter. You know, his live-streamed video of his massacre was taken down, put up again, taken down, put up [inaudible], you know, because these videos have significant propaganda value. You know, the visceral thrill of sort of almost in a video game-like way watching people die, this has significant propaganda value. And every time an attack is successful and widely publicized, it lowers the barrier for the next one.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Rashad Robinson again. Rashad, you’ve had numerous conversations with some of these tech company executives. Could you talk about your discussions with them about this issue of racism and white supremacy and hate speech online? What’s their response? And what do you think needs to be done concretely in the coming months and years to address this problem?

RASHAD ROBINSON: Well, you know, my conversations oftentimes with them starts with them being deeply concerned, feeling very bad about the situation, saying that they’re working hard, and oftentimes recognizing that there are people inside of these platforms who are working hard, who are trying sort of at the edges and even within very challenging circumstances to fix these problems. The challenge is the model itself. And even while these folks will say that they care and they want to work, they’re unwilling to actually deal with the business model, because they are not forced to.

And so, you know, some of the hardest conversations we had with the social media platforms were in the summer of 2020, for instance, when Donald Trump posted that call to arms against protesters, the “looters and shooters” post on Facebook and Twitter. And, you know, it absolutely violated the four corners of the policies we had fought to put in place at Facebook. But instead of actually enforcing that policy against Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg calls Donald Trump to have a conversation with him and ends up leaving up that post. And when I ended up having a conversation with Mark, going back and forth about it, they couldn’t really sort of describe why they gave Donald Trump sort of an out, except to talk about it as sort of newsworthy. When trying to help them understand the history of vigilante violence, trying to help them understand the attacks on Black communities, and trying to help them understand the calls to arms made us once again recognize all of the ways in which the sort of attempts to get these companies to self-regulate are sort of futile.

We actually need very clear rules, right? The algorithms should be more transparent at these companies. Governments should be able to review them. We should actually understand what type of things get amplified and what type of things don’t. There should be some sort of transparency. Researchers should have access to how these things work, so that we can evaluate and we can find out if they’re safe. These companies shouldn’t have carte blanche. There are a whole set of things on the transparency front. Then there are a whole set of things on the business model front, from the ways in which targeted ads work on these platforms to the ways in which everything from recommendations — you go onto Twitter now, and you maybe come across a white supremacist on Twitter, someone like Richard Spencer, who right now is still able to monetize on Twitter, and then you start getting served up more and more white supremacists, more and more white nationalists to actually follow. This is a design function at Twitter. This is choices they have made. These are choices that these platforms have made. And time and time again, they’ve been pushed and challenged on them, and they have chosen to do something different, because the accountability, the consequences are not strong enough for them to do something different.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Rashad and Talia, Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, and Talia Lavin, author of Culture Warlords.

Next up, we look at monopolies and the baby formula shortage with David Dayen of The American Prospect. Stay with us.

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