“Hate is a normal part of life. Get over it.”
Offensive as that sentiment about the “normalcy” of hate is, it’s probably correct. I prefer a different version of “getting over it,” however; the challenge of our time–made critical by Trump and Trumpism–is indeed “getting over it.” As in, refusing to normalize or condone it.
The quotation itself came about halfway through a recent Washington Post article documenting the rise of racist and anti-Semitic messages in the wake of Trump’s election.
Racist and anti-Semitic content has surged on shadowy social media platforms — spiking around President Trump’s Inauguration Day and the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville — spreading hate speech and extremist views to mainstream audiences, according to an analysis published this week.
The findings, from a newly formed group of scientists named the Network Contagion Research Institute who studied hundreds of millions of social media messages, bolster a growing body of evidence about how extremist speech online can be fueled by real-world events.
It’s actually pretty predictable that messages from “real world” events would be discussed and amplified on social media. What is far more disturbing is the iterative relationship between social media and the “real world,” revealed by the article. The cycle begins with a real-world event–in this case, Trump’s election–that triggers a burst of online response–in this case, a celebration of bigotry. That online response begins in the dark corners of the Internet, but thanks to its connection to the “real world,” it doesn’t stay there. It infects more mainstream outlets.
One of the studies referenced in the article identified two such fringe forums, and found that
[a]lthough small relative to leading social media platforms, exerted an outsize influence on overall conversation online by transmitting hateful content to such mainstream sites as Reddit and Twitter, the researchers said. Typically this content came in the form of readily shareable “memes” that cloaked hateful ideas in crass or humorous words and imagery. (Facebook, the largest social media platform, with more than 2 billion users, is harder to study because of the closed nature of its platform and was not included in the research.)
“There may be 100 racists in your town, but in the past they would have to find each other in the real world. Now they just go online,” said one of the researchers, Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “These things move these radicals, these outliers in society, closer, and it gives them bigger voices as well.”
Niche hate movements that were once relegated to what the article calls the “dark corners of the Web” are increasingly influencing the mainstream.
The QAnon conspiracy theory began circulating on the same platforms last fall before exploding into public view in August, after months of refining its central allegations, purportedly from a top-secret government agent, that President Trump is secretly battling a shadowy cabal of sex rings, death squads and deep-state elites.
Trump is central to the most recent explosion of online racism and anti-Semitism. Surges in the number and intensity of “alt-right’ messaging occurred immediately after his inauguration and again after his “fine people on both sides” comments after Charlottesville. The alt-right celebrated–and continues to hail– the legitimacy they believe his election and rhetoric have conferred upon the white Christian supremicist worldview.
The article compares the spread of these tribal and racist sentiments to a virus for which there is not, as yet, an antidote.
The findings, researchers wrote, suggested a “worrying trend of real-world action mirroring online rhetoric” — and a possible feedback loop of online and offline hate.
That feedback loop requires both online and real-world support. We may not be able to do much about the rancid corners of the web, but we can vote to replace Trumpworld’s spineless enablers in the House and Senate.
Think of your midterm vote as an antibiotic.