How Extremists Weaponize Irony To Spread Hate

Of interest, and no “just joking” is no excuse:

On a recent episode of his livestreamed show, the 22-year-old extremist Nick Fuentes repeated a formula that has won him a following with some of the youngest members of the far right. He went on an extended, violent and misogynistic rant, only to turn to the camera and add with a smirk, “Just joking!”

In this case, from the April 22 edition of Fuentes’ show, America First, a viewer wrote in to ask Fuentes for advice on how to “punish” his wife for “getting out of line.”

Fuentes responded, “Why don’t you smack her across the face?”

The rant continued for minutes.

“Why don’t you give her a vicious and forceful backhanded slap with your knuckles right across her face — disrespectfully — and make it hurt?” Fuentes went on. At one point, he pantomimed punching a woman in the face.

He then added, “No, I’m kidding, of course. Just kidding. Just a joke.”

Fuentes was following a playbook popular among domestic extremists: using irony and claims of “just joking” to spread their message, while deflecting criticism.

Researchers who track domestic extremism say the tactic, while not new, has helped several groups mask their danger, avoid consequences and draw younger people into their movements.

Irony as “cover” for extremism

Fuentes is best known for using cartoonish memes to spread white supremacist propaganda. His followers refer to themselves as “Groypers” — a reference to a mutated version of the Pepe the Frogcartoon that was co-opted by the far right. Though Fuentes exists on the fringes of the extreme right, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., spoke at a political conference that Fuentes hosted, drawing widespread criticism.

But Fuentes has said himself that he uses irony and “jokes” to communicate his message without consequences.

“Irony is so important for giving a lot of cover and plausible deniability for our views,” Fuentes said in a 2020 video. He specifically cited Holocaust denial — or what he termed Holocaust “revision” — as a topic that is too fraught to discuss earnestly, even on the far right.

Far-right extremist Nick Fuentes, seen here in a screenshot from his livestreamed show, has said he uses irony because it provides “plausible deniability” and cover for some of his most incendiary statements.

“When it comes to a lot of these issues, you need a little bit of maneuverability that irony gives you,” Fuentes said.

And, in fact, after Fuentes questioned the death toll from the Holocaust in one rant, he later claimed to The Washington Post that it was just a “lampoon.”

Researchers who track domestic extremism say Fuentes is not the only figure to adopt these tactics, particularly among far-right content creators, who encourage their audiences to follow suit.

“A lot of these content creators will tell the audience explicitly, ‘When people say you’re racist for liking this or thinking this, just laugh at them. They can’t handle it — they’re sensitive babies,’ ” said Jared Holt, a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Concern on campus

In early 2020, Oona Flood started getting more and more worried about a classmate at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The classmate, a 22-year-old named Christian Secor, was already well-known for his self-proclaimed “love” of guns. Around that time, he was also posting racist and antisemitic memes and tweets, attacking immigrants online and publicly supporting Fuentes. Often, Secor adopted the kind of “trolling” style that’s prevalent on the internet.

When one student called Secor out for a tweet that the student found offensive, Secor responded that he was using “post irony.”

“It’s called a joke and the fact that you think that these posts are anything more than that is telling,” added Secor.

Flood, who is Japanese American, said they wanted to speak up.

“I definitely felt that sense of threat,” Flood told NPR recently. “And, like, I really hate to say, [because] it sounds so much like, overblown, ‘snowflake,’ that we’re just overreacting, you know?”

And throughout 2020, students told NPR, UCLA took no action against Secor despite his escalating rhetoric, likely because of free speech concerns. (As a public university, UCLA is legally bound to follow the First Amendment, which protects hate speech.)

In retrospect, Flood’s concern does not seem like an overreaction.

Secor is currently facing federal criminal charges for allegedly storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Prosecutors have cited his support for Fuentes in charging documents. Secor has pleaded not guilty.

In addition to Fuentes and his followers, other experts point to the extremist group known as the Proud Boys, which has embraced outlandish rituals. The group’s name was inspired by a song from the Broadway version of Disney’s Aladdin, and one of the group’s initiation rites involves members listing breakfast cereals while they get lightly punched in the stomach. Yet that same group is known for its involvement in violent street fights. At least 25 members of the group are facing federal criminal charges related to the Capitol riot, including, in some cases, conspiracy.

Gavin McInnes, the group’s founder, said in an email that the media, including NPR, “willfully ignores” jokes to paint the group in a more negative light. The Proud Boys are “funny dudes, not Nazis,” McInnes wrote.

But Cassie Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center said the group’s use of “jokes” is strategic. “It distracts from what their actual political ideology is and from their violence,” said Miller. “Because if you point it out, it’s, like, ‘well, they’re so goofy.’ ”

Similarly, the far-right, pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is often so over the top on his InfoWars broadcasts that his own attorney likened him to a “performance artist” during a court hearing about Jones’ divorce.

The appeal to young people

Humor has always been crucial to building social movements, experts say, because it serves to define the people who are “in on the joke” and those who “just don’t get it.”

And online extremists have adopted irony because it is, in many ways, the native language of the internet.

“I’m speaking the language of other zoomers,” said Fuentes in 2020. “If you’re a young person online, I mean, this is the language of our generation.”

“Every kid naturally wants to push away from their parents,” said Joanna Schroeder, a writer based in California.

Schroeder was troubled when she saw a pro-Hitler meme pop up in one of her kids’ Instagram feeds. Memes that merely pushed boundaries were mixed in alongside outright racist and antisemitic content.

“The problem is that all of this kind of trolling behavior, some of it is harmless and goofy,” said Schroeder, “and others of it is designed to look harmless and goofy but will drive our kids’ social media and YouTube algorithms toward alt-right and even more extremist content.”

Schroeder has since collaborated with the Western States Center to develop a guide for parents who see their kids share online extremist content.

Historic parallels

Violent domestic extremism in America long predates the internet, however, and so does the tactical use of irony.

Historians have documented how the early iterations of the Ku Klux Klan were portrayed by group members and their allies as outlandish, rather than as a dangerous terrorist group. The KKK put on racist minstrel shows and created its own songs.

This drawing from 1868 depicts early members of the Ku Klux Klan. Historians have documented how the group used absurdity to mock its opponents and to try to mask the seriousness of the KKK’s atrocities.

Descriptions of attacks by men in hoods, who had titles like “dragon,” “ghoul,” and “wizard,” were often seen by white Americans as tall tales and ghost stories. Newspapers that supported the KKK played up those aspects of the group and mocked their opponents for supposedly taking the KKK too seriously, said Elaine Frantz, a historian at Kent State University.

Pro-KKK newspaper editors would often “talk jokingly about what the klan has done,” said Frantz, “in order to be deniable.”

And at first it seemed to work. Frantz cites the testimony of a Georgia congressman who tried to play down klan murders and other racist atrocities.

“Sometimes, mischievous boys who want to have some fun go on a masquerading frolic to scare the negroes,” testified U.S. Rep. John H. Christy of Georgia in the early 1870s. Christy insisted that stories of klan attacks were “exaggerated.” In fact, he claimed, the group did not exist at all. Frantz said there were also documented instances in the Reconstruction era of white Northerners dressing up in klan robes as a supposedly boundary-pushing “joke.”

But eventually, Frantz said, the testimony of Black Americans who witnessed these atrocities — published widely by newspaper reporters and in government investigations — so thoroughly demonstrated the KKK’s campaign of lynchings and assassinations that it became undeniable. They pulled back the klan hood to see the terrorism and violence it masked.

Source: How Extremists Weaponize Irony To Spread Hate

Emails Outline Anti-Immigration Group’s Connection to Stephen Miller

Not a surprise:

Stephen Miller, President Trump’s hard-line immigration adviser, has long relied on data produced by the Center for Immigration Studies, a right-leaning think tank, to shape policy at the White House. Shortly after Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Miller became well-known in the West Wing for putting printouts of studies published by the group on the president’s desk.

A new set of emails first published by a civil rights advocacy group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and shared with The New York Times illustrates the degree to which Mr. Miller used the work of the think tank, which advocates restricting immigration, to shape coverage at Breitbart News, a conservative news site, while he served as a communications aide to Jeff Sessions, the former Republican senator from Alabama.

“He was almost a de facto assignment editor for the political writing team at Breitbart,” said Kurt Bardella, the site’s former spokesman and now a frequent critic of the Trump administration.

In one instance in January 2016 — around the time he joined Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign as a senior policy adviser — Mr. Miller sent Breitbart employees a study from the think tank that tracked Muslim population growth in the United States: “Huge Surge in U.S. newborns named ‘Mohammed,’” Mr. Miller wrote in the subject line. A related story appeared on Breitbart the next day.

The persistence of anti-Muslim hate on Facebook | Southern Poverty Law Center

The data mapping showing confluence between anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, white nationalist, neo-Confederate and anti-Government/Militia is of interest.

Have always wanted more data on social media networks and what they say about integration or not between different ethnic communities, not just the standard demographic analysis of communities and hopefully this analysis will stimulate such work. We need to look beyond the ‘physical enclave’ to include the virtual ones:

…Researcher and professor of computer science at Elon University, Megan Squire, is conducting a large-scale, ongoing study of hate groups on social media platforms, including Facebook.

“Preliminary results from my research indicate that – not surprisingly – groups with broadly ‘nativist’ ideologies, including anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views, have significant membership in common,” Squire said.

“But this social network analysis also shows that anti-Muslim ideologies in particular can serve as a bridge between mostly disconnected communities, such as between anti-government and white nationalist communities.”

To construct the graph below, Squire first classified Facebook groups into ideologies using SPLC’s descriptions. She then selected the groups having more than 10 members in common and used social network analysis software to reveal the underlying “co-membership” network.

Each node represents one Facebook group. Lines between the groups indicate that the groups have at least ten members in common. Groups are positioned on the graph according to how similar their membership is. Groups that are closer to the center have more in common with one another. Green nodes, representing anti-Muslim groups, can be seen throughout.

Anti-Muslim hate seems to be the unifying cause hate groups can rally around and engage in on the social media platform. These findings are part of her ongoing research project to study far-right extremist beliefs through social media.

Is Facebook enabling anti-Muslim sentiment?

According to a 2017 Pew research study, 75 percent of Muslims polled believe there is a lot of discrimination in the United States against Muslims. Americans polled that same year by Pew rated Muslims on a “feeling thermometer” where 0 is the coldest and 100 is the warmest, the lowest among all religions at just 48. This disposition is well illustrated on Facebook, a platform in which Nazis and white nationalists are removed, while anti-Muslim groups remain.

Many publications have highlighted the double standards that exist in policing various demographics. Like other tech companies, Facebook largely responds when there is a controversy that is reported on by a publication. ProPublica points to complaints made by many users and the Anti-Defamation League about a page called “Jewish Ritual Murder,” which Facebook didn’t respond to until ProPublica wrote about Facebook’s inaction.

Monica Bickert, who leads the global policy management team at Facebook, explained, “The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes. That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is OK to share.”…

via The persistence of anti-Muslim hate on Facebook | Southern Poverty Law Center

Neo-Nazi Groups Explode Under Trump, Southern Poverty Law Center Finds

Not encouraging:

Neo-Nazi organizations saw the greatest growth among hate groups last year, according to a new report by Southern Poverty Law Center released Wednesday.

There were 954 active hate groups in the United States in 2017, SPLC found, the greatest total since 2011’s record-breaking year. About half of the groups are white supremacist groups, including Neo-Nazis, Neo-Confederates, white nationalists, skinheads, and Christian Identitarians. Almost one-quarter of 900 hate groups are black nationalists, and 114 groups are anti-Muslim. Other groups with specific hatred for the LGBTQ community, the government, and women have risen, albeit in smaller numbers.

“Within the white supremacist movement, Neo-Nazi groups saw the greatest growth—soaring by 22 percent from 99 to 121,” since 2016, according to the SPLC report.

“The overall number of hate groups likely understates the real level of hate in America,” SPLC said, “because a growing number of extremists, particularly those who identify with the alt-right, operate mainly online and may not be formally affiliated with a hate group.”

The report comes after a year of notorious violence by the so-called alt-right. In August 2017, white supremacists gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to the deaths of Heather Heyer and two local law enforcement officials.  In January 2018, a California man who allegedly murdered his gay, Jewish high school classmate trained with Florida-based Neo-Nazi group Attomwaffen, ProPublica reported. In December 2017, a man who frequented alt-right forums and websites like The Daily Stormer killed three people including himself at a New Mexico school, The Daily Beast previously reported.

Since 2014, 43 people have been killed and 67 people have been injured by men associated with the alt-right or white supremacists, SPLC reported earlier this month. Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston nearly three years ago, regularly commented on The Daily Stormer and admitted to planning the race-based attack. “I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country,” Roof wrote in a note used in his prosecution.

SPLC also counted the murders of Elliot Rodger, the California man who killed seven people, including himself, as one of the first massacres killings carried out by the “alt-right” before the movement went mainstream. Nikolas Cruz, the alleged Florida school shooter who killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day, commented “Elliot rodger will not be forgotten” on a YouTube video last year. Law enforcement said it is investigating whether Cruz was affiliated with a white supremacist group in Florida that initially claimed he was a member.

In a first for the organization, SPLC added two male supremacy groups to its annual report on extremism: Texas-based A Voice for Men and Washington, D.C.-based Return of Kings.  “The vilification of women by these groups makes them no different than other groups that demean entire populations, such as the LGBT community, Muslims or Jews, based on their inherent characteristics,” SPLC said in a statement.

Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said that the organization compares male supremacy groups’ methods—using slurs and saying women are “destroying” men—to white supremacist groups like the New Century Foundation, which publishes a magazine that “focuses on the demonization of black people.”

President Donald Trump blamed “many sides” for alt-right violence in Charlottesville, and the SPLC report says Trump’s presidency has emboldened white supremacists. “They believed they finally had a sympathizer in the White House and an administration that would enact policies to match their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist ideas,” the report stated.

The only hate group that decreased its chapters in 2017 was the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest hate group in the country. “It’s clear that the new generation of white supremacists is rejecting the hooded movement that was founded after the Civil War,” the authors of the SPLC report wrote.

Source: Neo-Nazi Groups Explode Under Trump, Southern Poverty Law Center Finds