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International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

How The Internet Strengthens Political Extremism


Extremist violence is on the rise in the United States. In the span of a single week, a white supremacist opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue during Shabbat, killing 11, a white man shot and killed two black people in a Kroger grocery store before reportedly telling a white bystander that “whites don’t shoot whites” and pipe bombs were mailed to several prominent Democrats and Trump critics.


In the aftermath of these vicious acts, the search for a cause behind the rise of extremism, bigotry, and violence has taken center stage in the national consciousness. But one factor often omitted in this search is the rise of the internet.


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Firstly, it is important to understand that extremist movements, like those that support white supremacy and anti-semitism, are dependent on having legal and social impunity to survive.


Protection from legal action is a vital requirement for extremist groups. Many of these groups use violence, intimidation, and threats to secure their aims, illegal methods that can result in prosecution. To succeed, white supremacists and other extremists need a government that either supports their ideology, is indifferent to it, or is too weak to oppose it. Governments like these facilitated the success of white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction and the Nazis leading up to  World War II.


Members of these groups also need social immunity to help ensure the economic and political stability of their movement. Association with or support for notorious or controversial extremist ideologies can have many negative social, political and even financial consequences.


Many private businesses have no interest in causing controversy and will generally refuse to employ avowed extremists, especially violent ones. Financial issues have forced many members of extremist groups to hide their identities or associations with those groups.


The Internet, however, has given extremists the anonymity, financial lifeline, and state of lawlessness that are vital to their success.


In large part, thanks to the inherent namelessness of the Internet, white supremacists and other extremists have become far more successful and efficient at intimidating opponents. Using coordinated harassment, death threats, and the release of private information, like phone numbers and home addresses, extremists have been extremely effective at attacking targets and silencing opposition.


Among all these methods, the release of private information is the most dangerous. The release of personal methods of communication, like phone numbers and emails, can result in large-scale personalized harassment and death threats.


The release of a home address can also give extremist groups a target for violence. As the attack in Pittsburgh shows, this is usually achieved through a “lone wolf,” an individual without any formal links to the hierarchy of an extremist group. While the primary suspect in the shooting was active in white supremacist circles on the far-right messaging app Gab and posted several anti-semitic posts, he had no direct links to the leadership of any white supremacist organization. “Lone wolf” terrorism can achieve the desired effect of an extremist movement without any legal repercussions for their leaders.


The Internet also gives extremist movements access to desperately-needed financial support. Extremist groups use the Internet to raise money through donations and advertisement revenue. While many large companies like Facebook and Google have cracked down on attempts by extremist groups to fund themselves on their platforms, the Internet has created financial lifelines for many of these groups.


Services like Paypal provided a key revenue stream for white supremacist groups until the company began cracking down on white supremacy on its website. In response, various people have attempted to set up various online services and crowdfunding websites.


Hatreon, a prominent alt-right fundraising website until VISA stopped processing transactions on the website, was used to pay help pay bail for white supremacists arrested during the 2017 Unite the Right rally. Among those arrested was domestic terrorist James Alex Fields Jr., one of the most recent examples of an extremist “lone wolf”. While a supporter of white nationalist ideology, Fields never had any direct link to the organizers of the Charlottesville rally.


By providing extremists access to vital financing, protection from social repercussion, and immunity from certain forms of legal action, the Internet has been integral to the current rise of extremist groups in the United States.

By Nicolas Greamo

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