Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists in Cyber
Eleanor Parker, CICYBER
November 30, 2020
Neo-Nazis are identified as individuals who belong to political organizations or hold political beliefs that are inspired or affiliated with the Nazi Party, which was founded in Germany in February 1920, and White Supremacists hold similar beliefs to Neo-Nazis as their ideology is based on racism. White Supremacy is the concept that white individuals hold superiority over other races whether through cultural or genetic superiority, and, as a result, should have dominance over other races in physical spaces such as through the implementation of ‘whites-only’ societies. However, this concept is more extreme than racism as many White Supremacists believe that the ‘white race’ is facing extinction due to the presence of other races who are controlled and manipulated by Jewish people, and so immediate action must be taken to prevent this. Whilst the first major white-nationalist hate forum, ‘Stormfront’, has existed as a website since November 1996, the online activities of Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists have greatly advanced and increased since then. Whether through their recruitment techniques or their spreading of hate speech and ideologies, social media has become an important tool utilized by both groups.
Neo-Nazis use cyberspace for a variety of different functions; recently the primary functions have been to spread their ideology and incite violence. This may be because it is easier for Neo-Nazis to spread hate speech online, whether anonymously or not, so that they do not risk arrest for hate speech or public displays of racism. However, the violent Neo-Nazi protests that took place in Charlottesville in August 2017 saw the police often refuse to intervene, and President Trump’s claim that there was ‘blame on both sides’ at the Charlottesville protests highlights how governmental institutions were giving power to such movements, whether inadvertently or not. In addition, the impact of COVID-19 may be contributing to the increased usage of cyberspace by Neo-Nazis as they largely cannot meet in numbers in public spaces to protest. This is supported by the fact that the Telegram messaging app saw an increase in more than 6,000 users in its channels associated with White Supremacy and racism in March 2020 alone. This rise of activity on the Telegram channels has been attributed to the increased time that individuals are spending online whilst ‘confined to their homes’ during the pandemic and it appears that Neo-Nazi organizations are using COVID-19 and cyberspace in an attempt to captivate new audiences. COVID-19 has given rise to a new sector within Neo-Nazism as users have been observed on these Telegram channels sharing memes and messages which encourage those testing positive with COVID-19 to spread the disease to ethnic minorities. This highlights how Neo-Nazis exploit and radicalize individuals into using themselves as bioweapons to spread disease and potentially cause death to those who do not fit within their racial ideals. Alarmingly, using the pandemic for recruitment purposes suggests that alt-right groups can change their narrative to suit and reflect global issues and affairs. Changing their narrative allows their ideology to persist and continue to threaten and terrorize minority groups and immigrants.
The National Socialist Movement (Neo-Nazis) marching to the Phoenix Federal building in 2010
In recent years, Telegram has become ‘the hub’ of White Supremacy, arguably because other platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are doing more to ‘crack down’ on hate speech and violent ideologies; this led the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to argue that any individual wishing to research, track or mitigate the threat from these groups ‘is spending a lot of time on Telegram right now.’ This highlights how the activities of these groups are ‘going underground’ in response to their suppression by social media platforms, suggesting that law enforcement will be presented with further challenges in 2021 with regards to monitoring the Alt-Right’s cyber movements and identifying potentially dangerous individuals and planned attacks. Despite this underground activity, there is still a plethora of Neo-Nazi and White supremacist activity on social media sites that has been increasing in recent years.
One recent example on Twitter from January 2020, highlights how Neo-Nazis were able to recruit new members by using Twitter keywords to promote adverts of a Neo-Nazi nature. Whilst Twitter received backlash as its keywords are supposed to be ‘restricted’, the BBC proved that it was possible to advertise using the term ‘Neo-Nazi,’ and doing so would reach a ‘potential audience of 67,000 to 81,000 people’ in the UK alone. Such a number is substantial and proves how Twitter’s advertising abilities could and are being exploited by white nationalists as a propaganda tool for recruitment, consequently presenting a threat to the UK’s national security as tens of thousands of people are being reached and possibly recruited. There are wider implications of this too, as any countries’ national security could be threatened if terrorist or hate groups begin to use Twitter keywords for recruitment and propaganda purposes. Using a tool such as Twitter keywords allows individuals or groups to maintain an omnipresence on online platforms, facilitating the threat of an attack at any given time. In addition to using social media, there is evidence of Neo-Nazis seeking asylum on the dark web since receiving backlash in 2017 on the Neo-Nazi site, ‘The Daily Stormer’, for celebrating the murder of Heather Heyer during the Charlottesville attacks. The Daily Stormer then became available to users through a Tor web link, allowing Neo-Nazi activity to continue by “going underground”; again, highlighting the omnipresence of alt-right groups in cyberspace. This reiterates the importance to the general public of maintaining a high level of cybersecurity and not clicking on malicious web links.
Whilst considered ‘internet trolls’ by some, the growing Twitter audience of alt-right individuals, such as Jack Posobiec (who currently has over 1.2 million followers), is alarming and highlights that there are often blurred lines between hate speech, trolling, and free speech on social media accounts. There is evidence of Posobiec using his account to direct anti-Semitic hate toward Jewish reporters and individuals in the media, sharing links to White Supremacist ‘fringe websites’ authored by Neo-Nazis, and mocking the Holocaust on a Periscope live stream (that was later shared to Twitter). By allowing Posobiec to have a platform, Twitter helps facilitate the normalization of such attitudes and ideologies, inadvertently strengthening Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist movements.
Neo-Nazis are also using sites such as Facebook and Instagram to spread extremism, recruit new members and raise funds via the selling of merchandise such as Nazi SS symbols and stickers praising BLM shooter Kyle Rittenhouse. According to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), Facebook was aware of this in 2018 but ‘failed to act’, facilitating the spread of content such as the Facebook page ‘Gas Chambers.’ This page links visitors to sites showing graphic content, such as ‘white skinheads’ standing beside murdered black and Jewish men, alongside the caption ‘Aggravated assault: It could happen to you.’ In response, it is crucial that these social media sites stress the importance of removing and shutting down pages by racial hate groups and dedicate staff teams to do so. Stricter measures need to be implemented by social media sites, such as ensuring two-factor authentication for when a user creates a new account or page. In this way, racial hate groups would face tighter measures, aiding in the prevention of them creating new pages or accounts after facing a previous shut down. Additionally, social media sites should work with local governments to facilitate the creation of laws surrounding hate speech and activities online. Physical deterrents such as the possibility of jail time may be the only way to eliminate the operation of such groups.
Jack Posobiec in 2019 at the Student Action Summit
Whilst Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists largely rely on physical attacks and the incitement of violence to spread their message, cyberspace is often used as a precursor for these physical attacks to rally individuals behind Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist objectives and beliefs. Unlike other organizations that launch cyberattacks to cause as much damage as possible to an organization, a collective, or a network, it may be difficult for Neo-Nazis to launch cyberattacks against those who do not support their beliefs, for several reasons. Firstly, to have a wide-reaching impact and garner the attention of the mainstream media, the cyberattack must cause a significant amount of damage. Achieving this goal may be difficult as the attackers would have to ensure that all the recipients were against their cause and, were non-white. Secondly, accidentally targeting a Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist with a cyberattack, would undermine their message and legitimacy of their cause, discrediting it and possibly leading to the disbandment of such alt-right groups.
Although not classed as a ‘cyberattack’, the spreading of misinformation by these groups can be considered as a hate crime with the purpose of encouraging violence and indoctrination. In recent years, the US government has altered its stance on spreading misinformation and taken legal action against such sources. An example of this is during the 2016 presidential election as Russia’s ‘meddling on social media’ led to a law being passed in California in September 2018 which requires the Department of Education to ‘list instructional materials and resources on how to evaluate trustworthy media.’ This highlights how the spreading of misinformation on social media is becoming legally recognized as having an impact on the decision-making and livelihoods of individuals. Laws such as this encourage individuals to identify fake news sources, which could potentially pose problems for the future activity of hate groups and the alt-right. The necessity of passing this law displays how misinformation and social media are becoming weaponized by cybercriminals, hate groups, and those looking to incite violence. This suggests that in the future, these individuals or groups may have to turn to alternative platforms to spread their message if they break the law and misuse social media platforms by spreading misinformation. A resulting game of ‘cat-and-mouse’ may ensue between these groups and law enforcement as they try to identify the platforms used by hate groups in order to eliminate their presence in cyberspace.
As well as spreading misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, in recent years, Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist groups have also spread misinformation regarding the American election and 5G mobile phone masts. The aim of this was to blame any potential consequences of such affairs, on their ‘traditional targets’ such as Muslim and Jewish individuals, such as through theorizing that 5G masts are spreading COVID-19 and then blaming Jewish individuals for controlling the telecommunications industry. In doing so, Neo-Nazis encourage others to act in a similar manner, resulting in an overall increase of white nationalist violence and support for White Supremacist ideology. However, it would be incorrect to say that Neo-Nazis have not encouraged the launching of such cyberattacks. In June 2020, online discussions were uncovered which found Neo-Nazis promoting and encouraging attacks on US critical infrastructures, such as power and water systems. Whilst experts have argued that cyber attacks on ‘one or two substations’ would ‘not be enough to take down the country’s power grid’, US Homeland Security has urged critical infrastructure owners to ‘consider implementing measures’ to protect their operations and staff. This suggests that US Homeland Security is viewing the threat of attacks with enough severity to encourage the implementation of measures against the actions of Neo-Nazis, highlighting how the power and influence of such groups are growing exponentially.
Using cyberspace for recruitment has allowed Neo-Nazis to reach a wider audience and thus recruit individuals from different audiences and backgrounds worldwide, increasing the overall threat and size of Neo-Nazism. One prevalent method that Neo-Nazis have utilized is the use of ‘internet memes,’ which take images, videos, or pieces of text and are typically humorous and spread rapidly between online users. Using memes as a form of propaganda or to spread their racist message serves several purposes. Memes can prevent prosecution and legal issues due to their supposed ‘humorous’ nature which can result in them being viewed as harmless efforts to troll, they can spread quickly reaching wide audiences and so their origins can be hard to trace (especially if using a VPN), and also those spreading memes are often young adults or children who often do not understand the severity or implications of what they are posting online. The Daily Stormer has openly admitted that the Neo-Nazi site ‘targets children as young as 11 [years old]’, eerily echoing the recruitment tactics used in the Hitler regime through the creation of the Hitler Youth. Jokes and memes have reportedly been working ‘very well’ as a Neo-Nazi ‘recruitment strategy for young people.’
With the algorithms of social media sites, such as Instagram, working to show users more content based on the content that they engage with, it is easy to understand how children’s accounts can become inundated with violent, racist Neo-Nazi content if they are ‘liking’ and sharing these memes with other users. One report found that this content included sexist and racist jokes and that these memes led to infographics that falsely asserted that ‘black people are inherently violent’, serving to entrench racism and the Neo-Nazi ideology in young minds. Whilst it is crucial that social media sites do more to remove this content and take action against these groups which seek to divide society and spread misinformation, hate, and racism, it is important that adults continue to monitor their children’s internet activity, report or ‘mark’ items as hate speech on social media sites, and block individuals or pages which disseminate such content. It is crucial, especially with the prolonged periods of time spent online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that schools and institutions do more to educate children on the threats of alt-right and other groups using social media to indoctrinate, radicalize, and attract individuals to their cause to prevent them from accidentally clicking or sharing this content.
In recent years, exploiting cyberspace to radicalize individuals to the Neo-Nazi cause has essentially become one of, if not the main, method of recruitment by such alt-right groups. Online radicalization refers to the process whereby individuals begin to adopt an organization’s extreme beliefs. These beliefs can be social, political, religious, or economic. In this case, individuals such as young people, and especially children, could become aligned with the racist and pro-white ideologies of these alt-right groups, which could result in them agreeing to carry out attacks or duties on behalf of these organizations. The alt-right’s use of cyberspace has essentially modernized their ideology and culture in the sense that it now encompasses the new digital age through the use of memes, compared with the Nazi culture of the past which largely existed of physical marches and displays of anti-Semitism. Their focus has shifted to encompass and more strongly encourage the persecution of Muslims and other ethnic minorities, using the twenty-first-century fears of immigration and the White Extinction Theory as propaganda.
The Counterterrorism Group’s CICYBER team is actively seeking and working to mitigate the threat of Neo-Nazis and White Supremacist groups online, and it is vital that other organizations and individuals act to counter the threat of Neo-Nazism and White Supremacists in cyberspace too. CTG recommends that individuals remain vigilant to alt-right activity, especially on Twitter and Instagram, and report and block anything suspicious and encourage others to do the same. Whilst it is a difficult task, it is crucial that Agencies, Organisations, and Companies (AOCs) remain vigilant and act quickly, especially as the prevalence of Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist groups are rapidly increasing in recent years, growing by as much as 600% since 2012. AOCs such as the ADL are working tirelessly with technology and social media companies to encourage the correct policing of their platforms and shut down sites that ‘traffic in incitement to hatred and violence.’ Other organizations, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center are encouraging their readers and associates to become educated on the threat of Neo-Nazis in cyberspace through providing resources, links, and information on Neo-Nazis and their history, as well as encouraging users to donate to their work. Within CTG, the CICYBER team exists to report on and alert others to the threat of cyberterrorism and defeat the threat of Neo-Nazism in the cyber realm. Especially through written reports to educate and alert the public on cyber Neo-Nazi activity, by issuing security alerts to imminent cyber threats, or through our encouragement to users to update their software to prevent being affected by cyber breaches. By working to defeat the threat of the alt-right online, this will contribute to the reduction of alt-right terrorism in the physical world, preventing attacks such as the riots seen at the Washington Capitol in January 2020.
__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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