Poisoned Fruit in the Walled Garden - Part I

Twenty-sixteen was probably the worst year for online hate speech to date: a year when a grassroots affiliation of neo-fascists, the Alt Right, managed to overwhelm many online forums and comment sections. 

Members of the alt right took popular online platforms such as Disqus, Facebook and Twitter by storm, flooding them with hateful posts. They attempted to reshape the national debate in many countries on a wide range of issues: Brexit, Trump, immigration, Islam. What's worse, they succeeded... and they’re not nearly done yet.

The Alt Right represents a clear attempt to mould a new popular consensus of contempt for minorities everywhere… including Berlin.  It would probably be more correct to call theirs an 'unpopular consensus' though, because no matter what the Alt Right would like us to believe, its extremist hate is still in a minority here, and across the Western world.  It is easy to forget that fact when their virtual foot soldiers are seizing an ever-increasing range of territory online, though.

How big of a range? One study undertaken by the Anti-Defamation League found that 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets had been posted to Twitter by just 1,600 individuals in 2016. Together, these anti-Semitic tweets were seen around 10 billion times.

The study's authors noted that, 'Waves of anti-Semitic tweets tend to emerge from closely connected online “communities.”  These aggressors are disproportionately likely to self-identify as Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, or part of the “Alt Right."'

Alt Right websites such as Infostormer, Daily Stormer and Breitbart have been instrumental in mobilizing right wing activists to popularise nationalistic hate speech online. And they are quite open about their intentions to alter the status quo by passing their hate off as acceptable... for example, by claiming that it's nothing but a new brand of cutting-edge humour.

Andrew Anglin, founder of Alt Right website Dailystormer has written that, “‘Gas the kikes’ is ridiculous enough that it will immediately be recognized as humor.” He has also stated that he hopes, “the media repeating this phrase would desensitize the public to Holocaust humor.” 

Presumably, this explains why his website’s comment sections are drenched in racial slurs, misogyny and ‘comical’ suggestions about sending minorities to death camps. The problem is that those comments don’t just confine themselves to right wing websites - they have gradually overspilled into the rest of the world’s online discussions, too.  
Since about 2012, the Alt Right has been increasingly targeting the comments sections of British and European websites.

Here in Berlin, one of the Alt Right's most popular hang-outs until recently was the comments section of English language news site, The Local. Since I first reported on this fact, the Local.de has removed virtually all the hate comments from its news section. However, one needs only enter the terms "thelocal.de" + “[address of any white nationalist webpage]” into a search engine to see how often articles from The Local have been re-posted in right-wing backwaters - many of which are located in the American Deep South. Clearly, The Local was seen as a significant target to these groups for some reason.  One of those reasons is almost definitely the access it provides to a European readership; the other is it's use of the Disqus comment platform.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a non-profit org that’s been tracking hate groups since 1971, and is one of the most comprehensive sources of information on the American far-right. Its hate map shows that most active groups are clustered around the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida. Through social media, however, these groups have managed to extend their reach all the away across Europe.

It’s not just The Local, though - any other website using the comments platform Disqus usually has a far higher proportion of hate speech connected with it. The reason for this is simple: Disqus is extremely laissez-faire about tackling fake users and hate speech. While Facebook and Twitter have recently begun removing fake news items and hate speech, Disqus has taken no such initiative. As a result, it has become the number one vehicle for peddlers of online hatred.

This is a startling reminder of why it's dangerous for internet users to view comments sections on news sites and social media as an honest reflection society's views.  Marginal groups like the Alt Right are all too willing and able to manipulate that perception.

On the Daily Stormer, members of the alt right can be found coordinating campaigns to carpet-bomb social platforms like Twitter and Facebook and any major news websites that are using Disqus. Working in tandem, these trolls manufacture "public outcries" against various minorities who’ve upset them by doing things like speaking out against sexism in gaming, or marrying someone of another colour. From the kind of targets they pick, it’s easy enough to deduce that their own social group consists entirely of white, straight, single Christian men.

Daily Stormers members are encouraged to create an array of bogus identities by supplying Twitter and Disqus with dozens of fake email accounts.  Hence, each right wing nutter magically transforms himself into a little one-man mob, liking and reposting all of his own comments and chiming in with cut-and-pasted replies. This is how many of the right wing echo chambers online today were born.

The alt right will often pose as women, teens or black people, so that other users will be slower to identify them as the neo fascists they really are. It’s pretty easy to figure out though, by their tendency to post endless, self-hating rants against Black Lives matter and feminism, for example.

Above: Poster on Daily Stormer explains how easy it is to manipulate Disqus by creating multiple fake accounts for each user. This is one of the alt right's favourite tactics for fostering the illusion of mass support for its views.

Why are they targeting Berlin?

The number of extreme right-wing comments on The Local.de/Berlin began to rise sharply beginning in 2014 - the same year that Chancellor Merkel announced her open-borders policy for refugees. This move was quickly commended by President Obama, a fact which seems to have acted as a starter’s gun for the alt right to begin seeding German websites with anti-refugee propaganda. Quite possibly, they were afraid that Obama might try to emulate the German policy.

Alt right poseurs are pretty easy enough to identify on European websites, though, if you know what to look for: they spend most of every day and night posting hateful comments, and scouring the internet for news stories involving refugees, immigrants or Muslims that they can share with their entourage of outraged sock puppets. If the news outlets don’t oblige them by providing a juicy story, they’re just as happy to simply make shit up.

A recent example of this could be seen on Twitter last December, after a story about a young woman who was kicked down the stairs at Neukoelln station appeared online. The details of the story were quickly re-written so that the dark-skinned, dark-haired female victim became a ‘blond-haired, blue-eyed German’, and her assailant, a Bulgarian citizen, was rebranded a ‘Muslim refugee’.

It was a perfect example of how the alt right aggressively tries to associate every wrongdoing with one of their hated minority groups, no matter how tenuous that connection may be.

Looking Into a Warped Mirror

Thankfully, the alt right views still don't reflect the majority opinion here in Germany, any more than they do in their American homeland.

It's true that far-right membership in most Western countries has increased slightly over the years (a fact which should not be ignored) but there is still a yawning chasm between the amount of bigoted views that one sees online, and the amount that one sees in real life.  Twitter and Facebook feeds may be easy enough to manipulate, but studies by NGOs and government agency reports? not so much.

In the 2015 World Values Survey, one of the biggest of its kind, it was shown that anywhere from 5% - 22% of Western respondents demonstrated negative feelings toward people of colour, immigrants, women, queer people, and other minorities. This stands in stark contrast to what one sees on Disqus, where the vast majority of comments are bigotted in some way.

Below is a random sample of the study’s results about Germany and the U.S.A:

Question: Does not want a multiracial neighbour? Germany 14,8%, United States 5.6%

Question: Does not want a migrant neighbour: Germany: 21.4%, United States: 13.6%

Question: Thinks that a woman's rights to work comes second to a man's: Germany 15.5%, United states: 5.7%

Meanwhile, the German Verfassungschutz's (the domestic intelligence unit) reported in 2015 that membership in far right parties in Germany totals just 11,800 people. Until very recently, however, most or all of views expressed in the comments of The Local were extremely right-wing end of the spectrum. This seems to suggest that the online representation of right wing views is skewed to disproportionately reflect the views of a hateful minority.

If no major media outlets realized that they were being manipulated until recently, it was probably because they couldn’t be bothered to look any deeper into the sudden rise in comments. Any sign of high traffic seems to be appreciated these days, even if comes in the form of trolls spewing rabid hate. So why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The Alt Right also counts on internet users being in a hurry, though, as they go glomming after the most shocking tit-bits from their feeds, and passing them on to others without pausing to checking the authenticity of the source. It happens to everyone, this writer included, but the rise of fake news is a stark reminder of why ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.’

Next week: Part II of Poisoned Fruit in the Walled Garden discusses the state's role in spreading extremist hatred online

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Berlin, Germany
...is NOT a fashion blogger! I write about underground music, streetart, left-wing activism, social media trends and green issues. Other publications that I have written for include: Urban Challenger Blog, Siegesaeule, Shlur, Alternative Berlin, Sensanostra.