The myth of Eurabia: how a far-right conspiracy theory went mainstream

Good long read. Excerpt below:

Source: The myth of Eurabia: how a far-right conspiracy theory went mainstream

The Global Machine Behind the Rise of Far-Right Nationalism

5 Takeaways About The Trump Administration’s Response To Far-Right Extremism

Of note:

Lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee questioned senior FBI and Homeland Security officials this week about their response to white supremacist violence.

This was the latest in a series of hearings, led by Democrats, to gauge the Trump administration’s commitment to fighting a threat that federal agencies deem the most lethal and active form of domestic extremism.

There were no bombshell revelations, but lawmakers did get a few details on some key questions.

Here are five takeaways:

There is no national policy to combat the far-right threat

Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who led the hearing, started by asking what he called the fundamental question: “Do we have an overall strategic plan to counter and prevent the threat of white supremacist violence? I fear the answer is no.”

Raskin was right. After more than two hours of questioning, it was clear that, unlike the government’s quick and sweeping response to Islamist militant groups, there’s no comparable national strategy to fight white supremacist and other far-right movements.

Elizabeth Neumann, a senior threat prevention official at Homeland Security, told lawmakers that federal authorities were still adapting to the evolution of both far-right and Islamist extremists: They now self-radicalize online, with little or no direction from organized groups like al-Qaida, which had a clear hierarchy and staged attacks that took months or years to plan.

“Our post-9/11 prevention capabilities, as robust as they are, were not designed to deal with this type of threat,” Neumann said.

She said Homeland Security was developing “a prevention framework” to be implemented in coming years, but she offered no details. Raskin, the lawmaker, said it was “very late in the game” to still be in the development stage of a national strategy, given the deadly far-right attacks in Charleston, S.C., Pittsburgh, Charlottesville, Va. and elsewhere.

Neumann said the delay is partly because “things haven’t been institutionalized” through legislation, an executive order or a national security presidential memorandum focused on domestic terrorism. She noted that the Obama administration also lacked those tools.

“We know we’re not doing enough,” Neumann said.

Federal agents do take this seriously – even if the White House doesn’t

President Donald Trump consistently downplays the threat of white nationalist extremism, which he’s dismissed as “a small group of people.”

Michael McGarrity, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, bristled when lawmakers suggested that, given the apparent disinterest from the top, federal authorities might not be taking the far-right threat seriously enough. McGarrity bluntly stated, more than once, that racially motivated violent extremists are the deadliest and most active of domestic terrorists.

“We’re not playing with the numbers here,” McGarrity said. “We arrest more domestic terrorism subjects [before they stage an] attack in the United States than we do international terrorism.”

He said the FBI is using many of the same tactics historically used to thwart international groups like the Islamic State: working sources, staging undercover operations and asking courts to authorize wiretaps. McGarrity added that the FBI considers racially motivated extremists a transnational threat, and that the agency shares intelligence with counterterrorism partners overseas.

Homeland Security won’t say much about its prevention effort

In 2015, Homeland Security opened a small office devoted to an approach known as “CVE,” countering violent extremism. The idea is to use community partnerships and other tools to interrupt the radicalization process before it turns to violence. Critics call it ineffective, and say it leads to the stigmatization and surveillance of ordinary Muslims.

Under the Trump administration, the CVE-focused office lost about 90 percent of its old budget and about half its staff, and it’s been renamed twice to signal a shift away from community partnership work. (Some Muslim activists joke that scrapping CVE was the only Trump administration move they supported.)

But it might be premature to declare the government’s CVE program dead. Neumann said CVE-style prevention work will be part of a broad counterterrorism strategy that Homeland Security plans to have ready by this fall. But she gave few details about the program or what’s going on with the restructured office that’s supposed to handle it.

“There’s still more questions than answers at this point,” Raskin complained. “What are the office’s precise functions? Who’s in charge? How many personnel will be assigned to prevent white supremacy violence?”

Debate is heating up over a domestic terrorism law

If a U.S.-based suspect is accused of involvement with an international terrorist organization such as ISIS or al-Qaida, prosecutors have an array of charges to consider that aren’t available for most cases involving white supremacist suspects.

Without a domestic terrorism statute, said McGarrity of the FBI, authorities are restricted as to how much they can police speech and conduct that’s offensive, but protected under the First Amendment.

“The FBI does not investigate rallies or protests unless there’s a credible belief that violent criminal activity may be occurring,” he said.

In some quarters of Congress, support is building for a domestic terrorism statute, ostensibly to correct the double standard in extremist prosecutions. But several rights groups already have rejected the idea, arguing that enforcing existing laws is better than giving even more power to federal authorities.

This debate is one to watch in coming months.

It’s official: Black Identity Extremism is no longer a thing

In the early months of the Trump administration, a leaked FBI report warned about a new kind of homegrown threat: black identity extremists.

The warning reportedly came after six unrelated attacks on police around the country; the FBI portrayed the threat as “an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement” by people with “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans.”

The claim was widely endorsed by conservative news media outlets but viewed with equally widespread skepticism as a move reminiscent of the FBI’s demonization of black activists in the civil rights era.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, asked McGarrity if there’s a single killing the FBI could link to Black Lives Matter or similar activist groups. McGarrity’s reply: “To my knowledge, right now, no.”

Pressley continued her attack on “this absurd designation” until McGarrity divulged that the category had been retired at the FBI.

“The designation no longer exists?” Pressley asked, sounding skeptical.

“It hasn’t existed since I’ve been here for 17 months,” McGarrity answered.

To recap: The FBI created a new category of threat and two years later quietly abandoned it without explanation.

Source: 5 Takeaways About The Trump Administration’s Response To Far-Right Extremism

Terry Glavin: The Tories insist racists aren’t welcome in their party. What are they doing about it?

Strong commentary, capturing the unfortunate missteps and resulting perceptions:

There’s no way around it: Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have a racist jackass problem.

This is not to say that Scheer or any of his MPs have consciously invited the affections of the country’s racist jackasses, and there are far fewer votes in Canada’s racist jackass constituency than you might think. But it’s a problem. And Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have it, in spades.

The most recent evidence is quite jarring. It comes in Ekos Research Associates’ latest annual findings about Canadian attitudes about immigration. Nothing much has changed in the long-term trends, but for the first time, the proportion of Canadians who say immigration rates are too high has merged with the percentage of Ekos poll respondents who say too many non-white people are coming to Canada. And that bloc is coalescing, for the first time, behind a single political party: Scheer’s Conservatives.

This is what it has come to. Sixty-nine per cent of the “too many non-whites” respondents say they back Scheer’s Conservatives. It only stands to reason that a fairly high number of these people are racist jackasses. And there’s growing evidence that sociopaths from that creepy white-nationalist subculture that congregates in obscure 4chan and 8chan chatrooms are hoping to mainstream their contagion into conservative parties. Scheer’s Conservatives insist they’re not happy about any of this.

“Mr. Scheer is clear. These types of views are not welcome in the party,” Brock Harrison, Scheer’s communications director, told me. “He’s stated that view many, many times. Sure, there are fringe elements who will tell a pollster they support the Conservative party, but, you know, those fringe elements who hold to these extreme ideologies have no place in the party. That’s clear.”

Fair enough. But if there’s nothing wrong with the Conservative message on immigrants and refugees and visible minorities, there sure is something wrong with the signal.

It’s not hard to make the case, for instance, that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have disingenuously attributed racism and xenophobia to public anxieties and otherwise reasonable Opposition criticisms of the way Ottawa has handled the upsurge in “irregular” asylum claimants who have crossed the Canada-U.S. border since 2017. “This kind of rhetoric drives these people [racist jackasses] to us, whether we like it or not,” Harrison said. “The denunciations from Mr. Scheer are clear. Every time something flares up and the Liberals try to pin this on us, we stand firm and we denounce.”

But the issue flared up into a bonfire of the Conservatives’ own making last summer, when Maxime Bernier, Scheer’s primary challenger in the 2017 Conservative leadership race, got turfed from Scheer’s shadow cabinet for a series of weird anti-multiculturalism outbursts that put him in the crosshairs of the Conservatives’ capable immigration critic, Michelle Rempel. In a huff, Bernier founded his own rump political party, of the type that sometimes seems to specialize in anti-immigrant jackassery. It was a golden opportunity for Scheer to purge the party of its jackass wing and invite them to run off with Bernier. It was an opportunity Scheer didn’t take.

During the 2017 leadership race itself, the House of Commons was in an uproar over Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s arguably outlandish motion to mount a national effort in the struggle against Islamophobia. But back then, the Conservative Opposition’s reasonable objections to Liberal hyperventilation were overshadowed by bizarre and paranoid alarums within the Conservative party itself. Several leadership candidates proved more than happy to cross deep into the territory of an Islamophobia they said didn’t even exist.

There was little separating Stephen Harper’s Conservatives from the Liberals and New Democrats on the issue of opening the door to Syrian refugees by the time voters walked into polling booths and turfed the Conservatives in the 2015 federal election. Even so, there was a bad smell about the party, coming from the fringes, and the occasional burst of air freshener out of Scheer hasn’t done the trick.

We’re only months away from another federal election, and with a spotty record to run on, Trudeau has given every indication that the question he wants on voters’ minds will be the same as it was last time around: what’s that smell?

Canada is changing dramatically. A lot of people don’t like what they see, and among them are voters who are predisposed to simple explanations and conspiracy theories. The rural white males drawn to white-nationalist propaganda are perched precariously on the bottom rung of every ladder the Liberal free-trade vision imagines, with its phasing-out of the oil patch and its preoccupation with gender equity, “political correctness” and the concerns of visible-minority communities.

While the Liberals deserve credit for attempting to craft policy that addresses the strains and stresses of globalization and migration, Team Trudeau has invested its political fortunes in a “liberal world order” that is broken. The losers in the shiny, happy world of the Liberal imagination are too easily written off by Liberal strategists. The New Democrats have lost their hold on voters from the old working class. The Tories have picked them up.

The promise of relatively open borders, the free flow of capital, people and ideas among and between liberal democracies and police states like China and gangster states like Russia and theocracies like Iran—all of this was already losing its sheen when Trudeau won his majority four years ago.

The urban millennials who carried Trudeau into office were already alert to the dismal prospect of a future planet convulsing in catastrophic climate change. Now they’re stuck in low-paying temporary jobs, and they’re dealing with out-of-reach housing, high daycare and transportation costs and university degrees that lead nowhere. Holding out higher immigration rates as some sort of magic road map out of this mess is at best a flimsy political strategy. It’s not convincing, for starters. But more importantly, it’s dangerous, because when the formula fails to fix things, it will be immigrants who take the blame, and Canada’s recent immigrants are overwhelmingly people of colour.

It’s not good enough for Scheer to get better at dealing with the occasional flare-ups that leave him looking like the hillbilly caricature Liberals like to make of him. He needs to openly admit that the Conservatives have a problem. He needs to clearly and emphatically demonstrate that he means what he says, that his party is not open to voters who scapegoat immigrants and hold fast to the view that there are too many non-white people coming to Canada. He needs to do something about it.

He needs to show them the door and invite them to leave. Whatever numbers he’ll lose to Mad Max Bernier, he’ll pick up from more centrist voters who’ve grown weary of Trudeau’s “woke” politics, with its wardrobe of groovy socks and a photo album filled with glamour magazine spreads where a portfolio of policy accomplishments should be.

But whatever the faults that can be laid at the feet of the Liberals, it’s Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives who have the racist jackass problem. And however much they genuinely don’t want it, they’re clearly not trying hard enough to shake it.

Source: The Tories insist racists aren’t welcome in their party. What are they doing about it?

Poway Synagogue Shooting: Why Conservatives Keep Getting Anti-Semitism Wrong

Good column:

What motivates someone to burst into a Southern California synagogue and shoot unarmed worshipers, there to recite the memorial prayer for the dead?

Depends who you ask: progressives say nationalist, racist ideology, while conservatives say hate. The difference may seem slight, but in fact, it’s why right and left talk past one another—and seem to be moving farther apart.

Progressives, and most scholars, regard the kind of anti-Semitism that motivated the Poway shooting as part of the xenophobic, ultra-nationalistic constellations of hatreds and “otherings” that also, in our day, include Islamophobia, racism, and anti-immigrant animus. Jews are the “enemy within,” facilitating the evils of immigration and multiculturalism to destroy the motherland.

This is borne out by what Poway, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and other white terrorists all said in their manifestos and other online comments. Like thousands of others of ultra-nationalists in Europe and America, they see their white, European cultures being overrun by foreigners. And they believe that Jews are making it happen.

In the words of the Charlottesville white supremacists, “you will not replace us,” a taunt aimed at non-whites, is easily changed to “Jews will not replace us.” That is a political statement—filled with ignorance and hate, of course, but also ideology.

On the right, however, anti-Semitism is regarded as hate, not ideology.

Despite reams and reams of ideological-political writing, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery to Mein Kampf to the paranoid manifesto of the Poway shooter that allege in precise terms the ways in which Jews destroy the national homeland, conservatives insist that anti-Semitism is simply pure, irrational, timeless, and ahistorical hatred that has nothing to do with any politics whatsoever. It’s the same whether it comes from Pharaoh in Egypt, a Tsarist pogrom, or a Hamas terrorist.

“We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate, which must be defeated,” President Donald Trump said in response to the Poway shooting.

This definition of anti-Semitism is extraordinarily wrong. It is at odds with what anti-Semites themselves have said since the term was popularized in 1879. It mashes together religious animus, true nationalist anti-Semitism, and resistance to right-wing Zionism. And it is particularly helpful to the very people who exacerbate it, today’s nationalists, for three reasons.

“If anti-Semitism is defined simply as anytime someone hates Jews for any reason, then it is a free-floating hatred that finds a home in Palestinian activism, fringe black nationalism, and among Muslim Americans.”

First, of course, it absolves them of any responsibility. To most rational observers, it seems obvious that when Trump spreads lies about the dangers of immigrant crime and Muslim terrorism, he stokes the fires of populist nationalism. In response to that incitement, some will merely wave a flag and don a red hat. But others will take matters into their own hands, striking back at Jews or Muslims or Mexicans.

Some, like Poway shooter John Earnest and Pittsburgh shooterRobert Bowers, may even believe that Trump himself has not gone far enough. They are extending Trump’s logic, not defying it.

Yet if anti-Semitism is merely a pathological hatred and has nothing to do with any ideology, all of this is coincidence. Why did anti-Semitic incidents rise 60 percent in the first year of Trump’s presidency? Well, anti-Semitism is an age-old hatred; no one can explain its pathology, the right says.

Once again, such a denial of causality and reality seems facially absurd, and yet, it is what the likes of Trump, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and their ilk would have us believe. Moreover, since hardly any “mainstream” Republicans have spoken out about Trump’s incitement of hatred, either they believe this delusion as well, or, by refusing to speak, are implicated in the violence that Trump has incited.

Hatred of Jews goes back thousands of years, but the anti-Semitism of John Earnest is a specific, nationalist phenomenon with specific roots and specific myths.

The unmooring of anti-Semitism from ideology has a second benefit for nationalists, which is that it reinforces their own nationalism. In Israel, of course, this is most obvious: everyone hates the Jews, the thinking goes, therefore Jews must be strong and dominant. Force is all the Arabs understand, I remember being taught in Hebrew school, so we have to be stronger than they are.

But even for nationalist parties like those governing Brazil, the United States, and Hungary, anti-Semitism is a convenient reminder that violence and hatred are endemic to the human condition, and strong ethno-nationalism is the only way to fight it.

“We have no choice,” as Trump has said many times.

This is how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can find common cause with barely reconstructed anti-Semites like Hungary’s Viktor Orban. It suits Netanyahu fine for Orban to demonize George Soros and other Jews—after all, Netanyahu hates Soros, too. But more broadly, both men are also engaged in the same anti-democratic activities: attacking human rights organizations, enforcing patriotic speech, undermining the independent judiciary and, most importantly, demonizing “foreigners.”

To nationalists, the solution to anti-Semitism is not, as progressives would have it, stamping out bigotry, ultra-nationalism, and scapegoating of the “other,” but rather a strong ethno-nationalist state (Jewish or otherwise). The presence of anti-Semitism serves to reinforce this view. It simply means that we must all be even stronger and more nationalistic.

The third and final function of the uncoupling of anti-Semitism from ideology is perhaps its most important: it enables “anti-Semitism” to be a scourge of left and right alike, rather than a feature of right-wing nationalism. If anti-Semitism is defined simply as anytime someone hates Jews for any reason, then it is a free-floating hatred that finds a home in Palestinian activism, fringe black nationalism, and among Muslim Americans like Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Now, we are told, including by centrists who should know better, that an “ancient hatred” has reappeared on the right and left alike—as if it is campus BDS supporters who are shooting up synagogues and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

Of course, there are indeed instances of anti-Semitism on the far left, including conspiracy theories involving Jews and slavery, Palestinian propaganda depicting Israelis as drinking blood, and anti-capitalist screeds that call out Jewish financiers in particular (which, of course, a Trump campaign ad also did).

But in the United States, the quality and quantity of these incidents pale in comparison by those found on the right.

Most importantly, there are no left-wing equivalents for the incitement coming from the nationalist right. There is no left-wing equivalent of Trump seeking to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. There is no left-wing equivalent of “Make America Great Again” with its harkening back to a whiter and less equal past. There is no left-wing equivalent of the lies about Mexicans bringing crime, drugs, and rape to America. A single remark that congressional support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins”—a claim applied every day to the NRA, Big Pharma, or the fossil fuel industry—is nothing compared to these violent, constant, and powerful incitements to ultra-nationalist frenzy.

To the right, the Poway shooter has more in common with Ilhan Omar than with the massacre at a Christchurch mosque.

But to the Poway shooter himself, Christchurch was his inspiration. Contrary to the false and exculpatory claims of the right, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are arms of the same murderous monster, together with ultra-nationalism, hatred of the other, and racism.

And when you agitate one part of that monster, the whole beast rises.

Source: Poway Synagogue Shooting: Why Conservatives Keep Getting Anti-Semitism Wrong

The unlikely similarities between the far right and IS

Another article comparing extremists:

Far-right extremists in Britain have been accessing terrorism material published online by the Islamic State group, counter-terrorism experts have told the BBC.

They say neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists have been studying methods of attack shared by jihadists with their followers on the internet.

But we should not be surprised that they do share some similarities.

‘All-consuming hatred’

Since the middle of last year, MI5, the security service, has been tasked with helping the police tackle the growing threat from British far-right extremists.

Counter-terrorism officers have been using a range of methods, including phone taps, to gather intelligence on what the most violent individuals have been planning or aspiring to do.

In some cases, arrests have been made after suspects have been caught downloading child pornography. But officials say that neo-Nazis and other extremists have also been accessing material to plan attacks published by their ideological enemies, Islamic State.

This may seem strange, but it should not come as a surprise.

Their ideologies may be diametrically opposed to each other but there are some disturbing similarities between them, some of which are obvious, others less so.

Many white supremacists and violent Islamist extremists tend to inhabit a narrow-based world dominated by an all-consuming hatred and a total intolerance of anyone’s views but their own.

For the jihadists of IS, for example, this means treating not only non-Muslims as enemies but also Shia Muslims and anyone they see as co-operating with “the non-believers”.

Using the concept of “Takfir”, jihadists will declare even their co-religionists as “unbelievers” and “apostates” and therefore in their eyes a legitimate target.

This narrow-based intolerance, coupled with gratuitous violence, has been a major factor contributing to the inability of al-Qaeda, IS and other groups to appeal to a wider swathe of Muslim populations around the world.

Likewise in the UK and the rest of Europe, far-right extremists see as enemies all those who – in their eyes – have helped enable changes that they dislike, such as allowing inward migration from Asia and Africa.

In 2011, the Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik carried out his murderous attack in Oslo, not on Muslims or immigrants, but on youth members of a party he blamed for changing the racial mix of Norway.

‘Vile material’

White supremacists rail against a multicultural society.

So too do jihadists. They refer to Muslims living in the West as being “in the grey zone” and constantly urge them not to mix with the predominant non-Muslim populations in Europe.

Both far-right extremists and jihadists see themselves as righteous purists, yet they want very different societies.

What they do share in common is an often obsessive interest in extremely graphic imagery online, much of it encrypted but some of it circulated more widely for recruitment purposes.

Counter-terrorism officers have described some of this material as so vile that staff monitoring it have had to be given counselling.

In the years immediately after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, al-Qaeda made constant use of the imagery of planes going into the Twin Towers.

IS took this a stage further, shocking the world with its gruesome videos of hostages appearing to be beheaded on camera, as well as other atrocities such as men being thrown off high buildings after being “convicted” of homosexuality.

While these had the effect of alienating mainstream Muslim populations, they simultaneously attracted to the cause young men from around the world who often had criminal, psychopathic or sadistic dispositions.

During the IS self-declared caliphate between 2014 and 2019, its practice of enslaving Yazidi girls as young as nine for sex is known to have attracted paedophilic recruits from European countries.

Whitehall officials say far-right extremists have been sharing violent, satanic and occult images and videos, sometimes using gaming and music forums to recruit new members.

The aim, they say, is partly to desensitise people for the violence they believe is inevitable in a coming clash of civilisations.

Lack of cohesion

However, one area where the two groups do differ widely is in co-ordination and cohesion.

Broadly speaking, jihadists are united in wanting to see their ultra-strict version of Sharia Islamic law forcibly imposed on everyone under their rule.

But in Britain, far-right groups that have mostly splintered off from the now-banned National Action show little sign of working together.

Some aspire to what they see as racial purity, others want their own territory where only their own laws apply, while others are simply anarchists, bent on destroying “the system”.

How YouTube Built a Radicalization Machine for the Far-Right

Good long read on how YouTube’s algorithms work to drive people towards more extremism:

For David Sherratt, like so many teenagers, far-right radicalization began with video game tutorials on YouTube. He was 15 years old and loosely liberal, mostly interested in “Call of Duty” clips. Then YouTube’s recommendations led him elsewhere.

“As I kept watching, I started seeing things like the online atheist community,” Sherratt said, “which then became a gateway to the atheism community’s civil war over feminism.” Due to a large subculture of YouTube atheists who opposed feminism, “I think I fell down that rabbit hole a lot quicker,” he said.

During that four-year trip down the rabbit hole, the teenager made headlines for his involvement in the men’s rights movement, a fringe ideology which believes men are oppressed by women, and which he no longer supports. He made videos with a prominent YouTuber now beloved by the far right.

He attended a screening of a documentary on the “men’s rights” movement, and hung out with other YouTubers afterward, where he met a young man who seemed “a bit off,” Sherratt said. Still, he didn’t think much of it, and ended up posing for a group picture with the man and other YouTubers. Some of Sherratt’s friends even struck up a rapport with the man online afterward, which prompted Sherratt to check out his YouTube channel.

What he found soured his outlook on the documentary screening. The young man’s channel was full of Holocaust denial content.

“I’d met a neo-Nazi and didn’t even know it,” Sherratt said

The encounter was part of his disenchantment with the far-right political world which he’d slowly entered over the end of his childhood.

“I think one of the real things that made it so difficult to get out and realize how radicalized I’d become in certain areas was the fact that in a lot of ways, far-right people make themselves sound less far-right; more moderate or more left-wing,” Sherratt said.

Sherratt wasn’t alone. YouTube has become a quiet powerhouse of political radicalization in recent years, powered by an algorithm that a former employee says suggests increasingly fringe content. And far-right YouTubers have learned to exploit that algorithm and land their videos high in the recommendations on less extreme videos. The Daily Beast spoke to three men whose YouTube habits pushed them down a far-right path and who have since logged out of hate.

Fringe by Design

YouTube has a massive viewership, with nearly 2 billion daily users, many of them young. The site is more popular among teenagers than Facebook and Twitter. A 2018 Pew study found that 85 percent of U.S. teens used YouTube, making it by far the most popular online platform for the under-20 set. (Facebook and Twitter, which have faced regulatory ire for extremist content, are popular among a respective 51 and 32 percent of teens.)

Launched in 2005, YouTube was quickly acquired by Google. The tech giant set about trying to maximize profits by keeping users watching videos. The company hired engineers to craft an algorithm that would recommend new videos before a user had finished watching their current video.

Former YouTube engineer Guillaume Chaslot was hired to a team that designed the algorithm in 2010.

“People think it’s suggesting the most relevant, this thing that’s very specialized for you. That’s not the case,” Chaslot told The Daily Beast, adding that the algorithm “optimizes for watch-time,” not for relevance.

“The goal of the algorithm is really to keep you in line the longest,” he said.

That fixation on watch-time can be banal or dangerous, said Becca Lewis, a researcher with the technology research nonprofit Data & Society. “In terms of YouTube’s business model and attempts to keep users engaged on their content, it makes sense what we’re seeing the algorithms do,” Lewis said. “That algorithmic behavior is great if you’re looking for makeup artists and you watch one person’s content and want a bunch of other people’s advice on how to do your eye shadow. But it becomes a lot more problematic when you’re talking about political and extremist content.”

Chaslot said it was apparent to him then that algorithm could help reinforce fringe beliefs.

“I realized really fast that YouTube’s recommendation was putting people into filter bubbles,” Chaslot said. “There was no way out. If a person was into Flat Earth conspiracies, it was bad for watch-time to recommend anti-Flat Earth videos, so it won’t even recommend them.”

Lewis and other researchers have noted that recommended videos often tend toward the fringes. Writing for The New York Times, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci observed that videos of Donald Trump recommended videos “that featured white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content.”

Matt, a former right-winger who asked to withhold his name, was personally trapped in such a filter bubble.

For instance, he described watching a video of Bill Maher and Ben Affleck discussing Islam, and seeing recommended a more extreme video about Islam by Infowars employee and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson. That video led to the next video, and the next.

“Delve into [Watson’s] channel and start finding his anti-immigration stuff which often in turn leads people to become more sympathetic to ethno-nationalist politics,” Matt said.

“This sort of indirectly sent me down a path to moving way more to the right politically as it led me to discover other people with similar far-right views.”

Now 20, Matt has since exited the ideology and built an anonymous internet presence where he argues with his ex-brethren on the right.

“I think YouTube certainly played a role in my shift to the right because through the recommendations I got,” he said, “it led me to discover other content that was very much right of center, and this only got progressively worse over time, leading me to discover more sinister content.”

This opposition to feminism and racial equality movements is part of a YouTube movement that describes itself as “anti-social justice.”

Andrew, who also asked to withhold his last name, is a former white supremacist who has since renounced the movement. These days, he blogs about topics the far right views as anathema: racial justice, gender equality, and, one of his personal passions, the furry community. But an interest in video games and online culture was a constant over his past decade of ideological evolution. When Andrew was 20, he said, he became sympathetic to white nationalism after ingesting the movement’s talking points on an unrelated forum.

Gaming culture on YouTube turned him further down the far-right path. In 2014, a coalition of trolls and right-wingers launched Gamergate, a harassment campaign against people they viewed as trying to advance feminist or “social justice” causes in video games. The movement had a large presence on YouTube, where it convinced some gamers (particularly young men) that their video games were under attack.

“It manufactured a threat to something people put an inordinate amount of value on,” Andrew said. “‘SJWs’ [social justice warriors] were never a threat to video games. But if people could be made to believe they were,” then they were susceptible to further, wilder claims about these new enemies on the left.

Matt described the YouTube-fed feelings of loss as a means of radicalizing young men.

“I think the anti-SJW stuff appeals to young white guys who feel like they’re losing their status for lack of a better term,” he said. “They see that minorities are advocating for their own rights and this makes them uncomfortable so they try and fight against it.”

While in the far-right community, Andrew saw anti-feminist content act as a gateway to more extreme videos.

“The false idea that social justice causes have some sort of nefarious ulterior motive, that they’re distorting the truth somehow” can help open viewers to more extreme causes, he said. “Once you’ve gotten someone to believe that, you can actually go all the way to white supremacy fairly quickly.”

Lewis identified the community as one of several radicalization pathways “that can start from a mainstream conservative perspective: not overtly racist or sexist, but focused on criticizing feminism, focusing on criticizing Black Lives Matter. From there it’s really easy to access content that’s overtly racist and overtly sexist.”

Chaslot, the former YouTube engineer, said he suggested the company let users opt out of the recommendation algorithm, but claims Google was not interested.

Google’s chief executive officer, Sundar Pichai, paid lip service to the problem during a congressional hearing last week. When questioned about a particularly noxious conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton that appears high in searches for unrelated videos, the CEO made no promise to act.

“It’s an area we acknowledge there’s more work to be done, and we’ll definitely continue doing that,” Pichai said. “But I want to acknowledge there is more work to be done. With our growth comes more responsibility. And we are committed to doing better as we invest more in this area.”

But while YouTube mulls a solution, people are getting hurt.

Hard Right Turn

On Dec. 4, 2016, Edgar Welch fired an AR-15 rifle in a popular Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant. Welch believed Democrats were conducting child sex-trafficking through the pizzeria basement, a conspiracy theory called “Pizzagate.”

Like many modern conspiracy theories, Pizzagate proliferated on YouTube and those videos appeared to influence Welch, who sent them to others. Three days before the shooting, Welch texted a friend about the conspiracy. “Watch ‘PIZZAGATE: The bigger Picture’ on YouTube,” he wrote.

Other YouTube-fed conspiracy theories have similarly resulted in threats of gun violence. A man who was heavily involved in conspiracy theory communities on YouTube allegedly threatened a massacre at YouTube headquarters this summer, after he came to believe a different conspiracy theory about video censorship. Another man who believed the YouTube-fueled QAnon theory led an armed standoff at the Hoover Dam in June. A neo-Nazi arrested with a trove of guns last week ran a YouTube channel where he talked about killing Jewish people.

Religious extremists have also found a home on YouTube. From March to June 2018, people uploaded 1,348 ISIS videos to the platform, according to a study by the Counter Extremism Project. YouTube deleted 76 percent of those videos within two hours of their uploads, but most accounts still remained online. The radical Muslim-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki radicalized multiple would-be terrorists and his sermons were popular on YouTube.

Less explicitly violent actors can also radicalize viewers by exploiting YouTube’s algorithm.

“YouTubers are extremely savvy at informal SEO [search engine optimization],” Lewis of Data & Society said. “They’ll tag their content with certain keywords they suspect people may be searching for.”

Chaslot described a popular YouTube title format that plays well with the algorithm, as well as to viewers’ emotions. “Keywords like ‘A Destroys B’ or ‘A Humiliates B’” can “exploit the algorithm and human vulnerabilities.” Conservative videos, like those featuring right-wing personality Ben Shapiro or Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, often employ that format.

Some fringe users try to proliferate their views by making them appear in the search results for less-extreme videos.

“A moderate user will have certain talking points,” Sherratt said. “But the radical ones, because they’re always trying to infiltrate, and leech subscribers and viewers off those more moderate positions, they’ll put in all the exact same tags, but with a few more. So it won’t just be ‘migrant crisis’ and ‘Islam,’ it’ll be ‘migrant crisis,’ ‘Islam,’ and ‘death of the West.’”

“You could be watching the more moderate videos and the extreme videos will be in that [recommendation] box because there isn’t any concept within the anti-social justice sphere that the far right aren’t willing to use as a tool to co-opt that sphere.”

Vulnerable Viewership

Young people, particularly those without fully formed political beliefs, can be easily influenced by extreme videos that appear in their recommendations. “YouTube appeals to such a young demographic,” Lewis said. “Young people are more susceptible to having their political ideals shaped. That’s the time in your life when you’re figuring out who you are and what your politics are.”

But YouTube hasn’t received the same attention as Facebook and Twitter, which are more popular with adults. During Pichai’s Tuesday congressional testimony, Congress members found time to ask the Google CEO about iPhones (a product Google does not manufacture), but asked few questions about extremist content.

Pichai’s testimony came two days after PewDiePie, YouTube’s most popular user, recommended a channel that posts white nationalist and anti-Semitic videos. PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg) has more than 75 million subscribers, many of whom are young people. Kjellberg has previously been accused of bigotry, after he posted at least nine videos featuring anti-Semitic or Nazi imagery. In a January 2017 stunt, he hired people to hold a “death to all Jews” sign on camera.

Some popular YouTubers in the less-extreme anti social justice community became more overtly sexist and racist in late 2016 and early 2017, a trend some viewers might not notice.

“The rhetoric did start shifting way further right and the Overton Window was moving,” Sherratt said. “One minute it was ‘we’re liberals and we just think these social justice types are too extreme or going too far in their tactics’ and then six months later it turned into ‘progressivism is an evil ideology.’”

One of Matt’s favorite YouTube channels “started off as a tech channel that didn’t like feminists and now he makes videos where almost everything is a Marxist conspiracy to him,” he said.

In some cases, YouTube videos can supplant a person’s previous information sources. Conspiracy YouTubers often discourage viewers from watching or reading other news sources, Chaslot has previously noted. The trend is good for conspiracy theorists and YouTube’s bottom line; viewers become more convinced of conspiracy theories and consume more advertisements on YouTube.

The problem extends to young YouTube viewers, who might follow their favorite channel religiously, but not read more conventional news outlets.

“It’s where people are getting their information about the world and about politics,” Lewis said. “Sometimes instead of going to traditional news sources, people are just watching the content of an influencer they like, who happens to have certain political opinions. Kids may be getting a very different experience from YouTube than their parents expect, whether it’s extremist or not. I think YouTube has the power to shape people’s ideologies more than people give it credit for.”

Some activists have called on YouTube to ban extreme videos. The company often counters that it is difficult to screen the reported 300 million hours of video uploaded each minute. Even Chaslot said he’s skeptical of bans’ efficiency.

“You can ban again and again, but they’ll change the discourse. They’re very good at staying under the line of acceptable,” he said. He pointed to videos that call for Democratic donor George Soros and other prominent Democrats to be “‘the first lowered to hell.’” “The video explained why they don’t deserve to live, and doesn’t explicitly say to kill them,” so it skirts the rules against violent content.

At the same time “it leads to a kind of terrorist mentality” and shows up in recommendations.

“Wherever you put the line, people will find a way to be on the other side of it,” Chaslot said.

“It’s not a content moderation issue, it’s an algorithm issue.”

Source: How YouTube Built a Radicalization Machine for the Far-Right

Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed)

Hard to combat such wilful ignorance and distortion:

Nowhere on the agenda of the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, being held in San Diego this week, is a topic plaguing many of its members: the recurring appropriation of the field’s research in the name of white supremacy.

“Sticking your neck out on political issues is difficult,” said Jennifer Wagner, a bioethicist and president of the group’s social issues committee, who had sought to convene a panel on the racist misuse of genetics and found little traction.

But the specter of the field’s ignominious past, which includes support for the American eugenics movement, looms large for many geneticists in light of today’s white identity politics. They also worry about how new tools that are allowing them to home in on the genetic basis of hot-button traits like intelligence will be misconstrued to fit racist ideologies.

In recent months, some scientists have spotted distortions of their own academic papers in far-right internet forums. Others have fielded confused queries about claims of white superiority wrapped in the jargon of human genetics. Misconceptions about how genes factor into America’s stark racial disparities have surfaced in the nation’s increasingly heated arguments over school achievement gaps, immigration and policing.

Instead of long-discounted proxies like skull circumference and family pedigrees, according to experts who track the far-right, today’s proponents of racial hierarchy are making their case by misinterpreting research on the human genome itself. And in debates that have largely been limited to ivory-tower forums, the scientists whose job is to mine humanity’s genetic variations for the collective good are grappling with how to respond.

“Studying human genetic diversity is easier in a society where diversity is clearly valued and celebrated — right now, that is very much on my mind,” said John Novembre, a University of Chicago evolutionary biologist who has taken to closing his visiting seminars to illustrate how one of the field’s textbook examples of natural selection has been adopted for illiberal ends.

One slide Dr. Novembre has folded into his recent talks depicts a group of white nationalists chugging milk at a 2017 gathering to draw attention to a genetic trait known to be more common in white people than others — the ability to digest lactose as adults. It also shows a social media post from an account called “Enter The Milk Zone” with a map lifted from a scientific journal article on the trait’s evolutionary history.

In most of the world, the article explains, the gene that allows for the digestion of lactose switches off after childhood. But with the arrival of the first cattle herders in Europe some 5,000 years ago, a chance mutation that left it turned on provided enough of a nutritional leg up that nearly all of those who survived eventually carried it. In the post, the link is accompanied by a snippet of hate speech urging individuals of African ancestry to leave America. “If you can’t drink milk,” it says in part, “you have to go back.”

In an inconvenient truth for white supremacists, a similar bit of evolution turns out to have occurred among cattle breeders in East Africa. Scientists need to be more aware of the racial lens through which some of their basic findings are being filtered, Dr. Novembre says, and do a better job at pointing out how they can be twisted.

But the white nationalist infatuation with dairy also heightened Dr. Novembre’s concerns about how to handle new evolutionary studies that deal with behavioral traits, such as how long people stay in school.

Anticipating misinterpretations of a recent study on how genes associated with high education attainment, identified in Europeans, varied in different populations around the world, the lead author, Fernando Racimo, created his own “frequently asked questions” document for nonscientists, which he posted on Twitter.

And in a commentary that accompanied the paper in the journal Genetics, Dr. Novembre warned that such research is “wrapped in numerous caveats” that are likely to get lost in translation.

“Great care,” his commentary concludes, “should be taken in communicating results of these studies to general audiences.”

Already, some of those audiences are flaunting DNA ancestry test results indicating exclusively European heritage as though they were racial ID cards. They are celebrating traces of Neanderthal DNA not found in people with only African ancestry. And they are trading messages with the coded term “race realism,” which takes oxygen from the claim that the liberal scientific establishment has obscured the truth about biological racial differences.

Some scientists suggest that engaging with racists would simply lend credibility to obviously specious claims. Many say that they do not study race, in any case: The racial categories used by the United States census correlate only imperfectly with the geographic ancestry groupings of interest to evolutionary geneticists. “Black,” for instance, is a socially defined term that includes many Americans who have a majority of European ancestry.

But as the pace of human population genetics research has accelerated, it has yielded results that, to many nonscientists, appear to challenge the idea of race as a wholly social construction. Genetic ancestry tests advertise “ethnicity estimates” (Senator Elizabeth Warren appealed to the perceived authority of DNA this week to demonstrate her Native American heritage, in response to mocking by President Trump), and some disease-risk genes have turned out to be more common among certain genetic ancestry groups. Doctors use patients’ self-identified race as a proxy for geographic ancestry, because individual readouts of DNA are costly, and though the correlation is imperfect, it exists.

As DNA databases tied to medical records and personal questionnaires have reached a critical mass for individuals of European descent, moreover, so-called polygenic scores that synthesize the hundreds or thousands of genes that contribute to many human traits into a single number are being developed to predict health risks, and in some cases, behavior.

Last summer, researchers developed a score that can roughly predict the level of formal education completed by white Americans by looking at their DNA. And while those scores cannot yet be compared among racial or population groups, the new techniques have prompted some scientists to feel it is the field’s responsibility to head off predictable misrepresentations.

“You have to make a judgment when you have powerful information that can be misused,” said David Reich, a Harvard geneticist who has publicly called on colleagues in a recent book and in a New York Times Op-Ed to more directly address the prospect of identifying genetic differences between populations in socially sensitive traits.

There is no evidence, scientists stress, that environmental and cultural differences will not turn out to be the primary driver of behavioral differences between population groups.

At the same time, the advances in genetic technology have put white supremacists into a kind of anticipatory lather.

“Science is on our side,” crowed Jared Taylor, the founder of the white nationalist group American Renaissance, in a recent video that cites Dr. Reich’s book.

Dr. Reich was among those to decline an invitation to lead a discussion on the topic at the San Diego meeting. “I really wanted to return to research,” he said.

The widespread uncertainty among Americans over what scientists know about genetic differences between racial groups, experts say, has left many flummoxed in the face of white supremacist claims that invoke genetics.

“I was surfing my favorite dumb picture site and I came across a post trying to prove racism with science,” a community college student in Florida wrote to Jun Z. Li, a University of Michigan geneticist whose work has been invoked to buttress racist claims of white intellectual superiority. “I read through the paper myself but I do not have the education or experience to understand and make sure I have a coherent counter argument.”

For white Americans half-inclined to blame nonwhite immigrants or African-Americans for perceived social problems, the veneer of a scientific rationale for white superiority, researchers say, can tip them toward racial resentment. It can be more effective than base appeals to tribalism, especially for the educated demographic the far-right has been targeting.

And while much of current white nationalist rhetoric is framed in terms of preserving a white cultural identity, experts say it relies on a familiar narrative of immutable biological differences. On a YouTube talk show earlier this year, for instance, Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, whose appearance set off a brawl outside a Republican club in Manhattan last week, echoed the pet white supremacist theory that the environmental challenges of cold winters explain the supposed higher intelligence of northern Europeans.

Some geneticists have penned blog posts explaining why new genetic tools will not support white nationalist claims that average behavioral differences between groups are immutable. Others — including Dr. Li — have replied directly to individual queries.

And when a blogger at the far-right Unz Review noted that the DNA variations associated with high IQ in a 2017 study of Europeans were at the lowest frequency among Africans, the study’s lead author, Danielle Posthuma, wrote in a published reply that such cross-population comparisons were spurious.

“This,” she wrote, “is a very deep-rooted misunderstanding.”

Many geneticists at the top of their field say they do not have the ability to communicate to a general audience on such a complicated and fraught topic. Some suggest journalists might take up the task. Several declined to speak on the record for this story.

And with much still unknown, some scientists worry that rebutting basic misconceptions without being able to provide definitive answers could do more harm than good.

“There are often many layers of uncertainties in our findings,” said Anna Di Rienzo, a human genetics professor at the University of Chicago. “Being able to communicate that level of uncertainty to a public that often just sees things in black and white is very, very difficult.”

As a step toward changing that, Dr. Di Rienzo has helped organize a meeting of social scientists, geneticists and journalists at Harvard next week to discuss the social implications of the field’s newest tools.

Participants have been promised that the meeting will be restricted to some three-dozen invitees and that any remarks made there will be confidential.

And David L. Nelson, a Baylor College of Medicine geneticist who is president of the human genetics society, says it will not stay completely quiet on the issue, promising a statement later this week.

“There is no genetic evidence to support any racist ideology,” he said.

Adrian Karatnycky: Ukraine, anti-Semitism, racism, and the far right

Interesting analysis and commentary placing the legitimate fears regarding the rise of the far right and antisemitism in Ukraine in context. Look forward to comments from others who know Ukraine better than me:

October 14 saw the latest in a string of annual mass marches by the far right in Ukraine. As many as 10,000 people participated, mainly young men, chanting fiercely. A nighttime torchlight parade with signs proclaiming “We’ll return Ukraine to Ukrainians,” contained echoes of Nazi-style symbolism.

Lax law enforcement and indifference by the security services to the operations of the far right is being noticed by extremists from abroad who are flocking to Ukraine. German media reported the presence of the German extreme right (JN-NPD, Dritte Weg) at the rally. According to Ukrainian political analyst Anton Shekhovtsov, far-right Norwegians, Swedes, and Italians were supposed to be there too. And on October 15, they all gathered in Kyiv for the Paneuropa conference organized by the Ukrainian neo-Nazi National Corps party. “Kyiv,” says Shekhovtsov, “has now become one of the major centers of European far-right activities.”

Such activism, naturally, unnerves liberals as well as Jews, and national minorities. And they often result in alarmist headlines in Western and Israeli newspapers.

Coming in a year in which the white supremacist C14 group engaged in savage beatings at a Roma encampment near Kyiv, one could draw the conclusion that the far right is on the rise in Ukraine.

But such a reading would be mistaken. Far-right sentiments exist in Ukraine, but these ultranationalist groupings attract little public support. As the March 2018 presidential election approaches, recent polls show that the combined vote of far-right presidential candidates amounts to around 4 percent. A similarly paltry level of support is to be found for the far-right Svoboda and National Corps parties. Compared to the support of far-right parties such as the AfD in Germany (12.6 percent support), Marine Le Pen’s Rally for the Nation (13 percent) and Italy’s Northern League (17.4 percent), Ukraine’s public has little sympathy for the far right.

Nor can these fringe Ukrainian parties be labeled pro-Nazi, though their leaders initially were drawn to proto-fascist ideas.Ukraine is a country on whose territory two million Jews died in the Holocaust. It is also a country in which five million non-Jewish Ukrainians perished in combat as a result of Nazi occupation. Virtually every family has the memory of Nazi brutality etched into its memory. Ukraine’s nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s, who advanced anti-Semitic and proto-fascist ideas, were also eventually hunted down for extermination by the Nazi regime.

To be sure, casual anti-Semitism and Jewish stereotypes persist in everyday life. And anti-Semitic graffiti appears with regularity near Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, and cultural institutions. Even still, this regrettable phenomenon is widespread in most advanced industrial democracies.

At the same time, in the last two years there has been not a single recorded violent attack against a Jewish person. The last such attack occurred on October 7, 2016, against a Hasidic rabbi visiting the city of Zhytomyr.

Between 2016 and 2017, acts of vandalism against Jewish targets increased from 19 to 24, but were still far below those reported in many European countries. While an Israeli government report issued in January 2018 alleged a doubling of anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine, it failed to provide detailed answers about its methodology or sources.

Unlike two decades ago, when Silski Visti, an anti-Semitic newspaper reached millions of readers, today there is no mass circulation periodical spilling out anti-Semitic bile.

Moreover, in comparison with its Central and East European neighbors, Ukraine remains a remarkably tolerant society, even as it faces Russian occupation in part of its territory. A 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that among South, Central, and East European countries, Ukraine had the highest level of acceptance of Jews as fellow citizens, with only 5 percent of the public disagreeing.

The leadership role of Jews in the country’s economic and political life is rarely a topic of public discourse and is accepted as normal.

The country has a Jewish Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groisman.The president’s chief of staff is Jewish, as was his last chief of staff, Borys Lozhkin, who now heads the Ukrainian Jewish Confederation and is a vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

According to the Ukrainian Jewish Confederation, more than thirty of 427 members of parliament are Jewish. And the Committee on Interparliamentary Relations with Israel is the largest of all such groupings in the Ukrainian Rada, numbering nearly 140 deputies, a third of the legislature.

Ukraine’s religious leaders have regular access to key government leaders. And Ukrainian government and state leaders routinely take part in commemorative ceremonies of remembrance of the Holocaust.

All this is not to say that there are serious problems.

Ukraine’s memory politics reflect too much heroization of a complex past and not enough acknowledgment of such issues as indigenous anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazi occupation. More, too, needs to be done in restoring the killing fields in which Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

More ominously, Ukraine’s far-right, para-military formations and their penchant for vigilantism remain a problem that must be more vigorously countered by the state and their sources of funding investigated thoroughly.

Anti-Semitic vandalism needs to be rooted out and hate speech handled in accordance with Ukrainian law. Government reactions to acts or expressions of anti-Semitism remain far too slow. And incidents of violence against Roma by members of far-right groups such as C14 must be swiftly prosecuted.​

However, Western and Israeli governments, media, and NGOs should be sensitive to Russia’s hybrid warfare and disinformation around the topic of anti-Semitism and the far-right in Ukraine. Russia’s deployment of actors who wittingly or unwittingly are encouraged to engage in hate speech, incite anti-minority tensions, commit vandalism, and employ violence is another phenomenon that must be better understood. In a poor country, it is easy to buy or win the allegiance of alienated youth and enlist them in fringe politics either by far-right operatives or Russian agents.

Ukraine’s far right may not be a rising force. But in a poor country facing external aggression, it is a force that cannot be ignored.

Adrian Karatnycky is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, and co-director and board member of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Source: Adrian Karatnycky: Ukraine, anti-Semitism, racism, and the far right

Exclusive: Right-wing sites swamp Sweden with ‘junk news’ in tight election race

Possible factor contributing to the shift in Swedish politics (scheduled before results known):

One in three news articles shared online about the upcoming Swedish election come from websites publishing deliberately misleading information, most with a right-wing focus on immigration and Islam, Oxford University researchers say.

Their study, published on Thursday, points to widespread online disinformation in the final stages of a tightly-contested campaign which could mark a lurch to the right in one of Europe’s most prominent liberal democracies.

The authors, from the Oxford Internet Institute, labeled certain websites “junk news”, based on a range of detailed criteria. Reuters found the three most popular sites they identified have employed former members of the Sweden Democrats party; one has a former MP listed among its staff.

It was not clear whether the sharing of “junk news” had affected voting intentions in Sweden, but the study helps show the impact platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have on elections, and how domestic or foreign groups can use them to exacerbate sensitive social and political issues.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, whose center-left Social Democrats have dominated politics since 1914 but are now unlikely to secure a ruling majority, told Reuters the spread of false or distorted information online risked shaking “the foundations of democracy” if left unchecked.

The Institute, a department of Oxford University, analyzed 275,000 tweets about the Swedish election from a 10-day period in August. It counted articles shared from websites it identified as “junk news” sources, defined as outlets which “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be real news”.

“Roughly speaking, for every two professional content articles shared, one junk news article was shared. Junk news therefore constituted a significant part of the conversation around the Swedish general election,” it said.

A Twitter spokesman declined to comment on the results of the study.

Facebook, where interactions between users are harder to track, said it was working with Swedish officials to help voters spot disinformation. It has also partnered with Viralgranskaren – an arm of Sweden’s Metro newspaper – to identify, demote and counterbalance “false news” on its site.

Joakim Wallerstein, head of communications for the Sweden Democrats, said he had no knowledge of or interest in the party sympathies of media outlets. Asked to comment on his party’s relationship with the sites identified by the study, he said he had been interviewed by one of them once.

“I think it is strange that a foreign institute is trying to label various news outlets in Sweden as ‘junk news’ and release such a report in connection to an election,” he said.

“DECEPTIVE TOOLS”

Swedish security officials say there is currently no evidence of a coordinated online attempt by foreign powers to sway the Sept. 9 vote, despite repeated government warnings about the threat.

But Mikael Tofvesson, head of the counter influence team at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), a government agency tasked with safeguarding the election, said the widespread sharing of false or distorted information makes countries more vulnerable to hostile influence operations.

“Incorrect and biased reporting promotes a harder, harsher tone in the debate, which makes it easier to throw in disinformation and other deceptive tools,” he said.

Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher from the Oxford Internet Institute’s Project on Computational Propaganda, said most of the “junk news” in Sweden supported right-wing policies, and was largely focused on issues around immigration and Islam.

The top three “junk news” sources identified by the study – right-wing websites Samhallsnytt, Nyheter Idag and Fria Tider – accounted for more than 85 percent of the “junk news” content.

Samhallsnytt received donations through the personal bank account of a Sweden Democrat member between 2011-2013 when it operated under the name Avpixlat. A former Sweden Democrat member of parliament, who also previously ran the party’s youth wing, is listed on the Samhallsnytt website as a columnist.

Samhallsnytt often publishes articles saying Sweden is under threat from Islam. In June, for example, it said a youth soccer tournament in the second-biggest city had banned pork as “haram” – or forbidden under Islamic law. The article is still online with the headline: “Islam is the new foundation of the Gothia Cup – pork proclaimed ‘haram’”.

A tournament organizer told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper that caterers had not served pork for more than 10 years for practical reasons, and there was no ban against eating or selling pork at the event.

Samhallsnytt and Fria Tider did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Commenting before the Oxford study was published, Nyheter Idag founder Chang Frick disputed the “junk news” label and said his website followed ethical journalistic practices, citing its membership of Sweden’s self-regulated Press Council body.

“Yes, we put our editorial perspective on news, of course, like everyone else,” he said. “If you are doing a tabloid you cannot have dry, boring headlines, it should have some punch to it. But we do not lie, we do not make false accusations.”

FACT CHECKERS AND BOTS

Social media companies have come under increasing pressure to tackle disinformation on their platforms following accusations that Russia and Iran tried to meddle in domestic politics in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Moscow and Tehran deny the allegations.A report by the Swedish Defence Research Institute last week said the number of automated Twitter accounts discussing the upcoming election almost doubled in July from the previous month. Such so-called “bot” accounts shared articles from Samhallsnytt and Fria Tider more frequently than real people, the report said, and were 40 percent more likely to express support for the Sweden Democrats.

Facebook said its work with Viralgranskaren to fact check content on its sites helped it quickly identify “false news.”

The company declined to give specific figures about the amount or sources of false news it had recorded around the Swedish election, but said any flagged content is given a lower position on its site, a practice known as “downranking” which it says cuts views by 80 percent. Users who see disputed articles are also shown other sources of verified information, it said.

In a blog post on its website, Twitter says it “should not be the arbiter of truth”.

But the MSB’s counter influence team’s head Tofvesson said there had been a “positive increase” in the work of Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies to help safeguard the election, largely via better communication and coordination with local authorities.

Source: Right-wing sites swamp Sweden with “junk news” in tight election race