Robocalls: New delivery system for hate messages

Human rights activists in North Idaho have confronted the Aryan Nations, the stigma of Ruby Ridge, Phineas Priest bank bombers and assorted other white supremacists. They’ve seen racist flyers, billboards, parades and cross-burnings.

Now, they’re dealing with racist robocalls and vile, antisemitic podcasts.

The robocall messages of hate apparently mark the first-time mass-calling — generated with a few computer key strokes and delivered for as little as a penny per call — has been used to deliver a message of hate outside of a political campaign, robocall expert Alex Quilici told Hatewatch.

“It’s sadly clever and powerful,” Quilici said.

The robocalls included one last month to California synagogues and media outlets, labeling that state’s Senator Dianne Feinstein a “traitorous Jew” and endorsing her opponent who admires Adolf Hitler and denies that millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Other robocalls from the same source last year targeted the mayor and city council members in Alexandria, Virginia, police said.

The calls to the Virginia elected officials came after white nationalist and racist “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer was confronted by a Georgetown University professor and later kicked out a fitness center in that community. The professor’s photo subsequently was printed on the hate flyers distributed in the Virginia community.

The new, high-tech, computer-delivered brand of hate is believed to be the handiwork of one man — identified by police and in media accounts as Scott D. Rhodes, who moved to Sandpoint, Idaho, from California.

“We’re coming to you from the racist capital of the United States … very white, very racist North Idaho,” Rhodes says in opening remarks of his podcasts.

The robocalls and podcasts allow one individual to deliver hate messages to the world behind the anonymity of a computer keyboard.

“These tools mean hate is not a local issue,” Quilici said. “It’s not a man with a sign in front of a school. It’s a guy spreading his message of hate on a national or global basis, using an effective media platform.”

Robocalls can be generated quickly and easily, Quilici said. The sender can type in words generating a voice message or upload an audio file to dozens of broadcast voicemail providers selling their robocall services on the Internet.

The sender then types in a spread sheet of phone numbers, easily copied from web sites. Providers commonly charge 12 cents for a completed call — one where the recipient picks up the phone — or as little as one cent per calls that go unanswered.

“You don’t really need any technical skills,” said Quilici, a computer scientist and businessman specializing in “telephony,” a profession dealing with phone-related issues.

Robocalls, which have many legitimate purposes, can be done “easily, quickly and at very low cost,” said Quilici, who owns YouMail, a company based in Irvine, California, that markets a robocall blocking app.

“That’s why a guy in a cabin in North Idaho with a computer can spread these messages of hate,” he said.

Quilici’s company ran an analysis and identified the phone number apparently used by Rhodes. It apparently targeted fewer than 50 recipients between mid-May and mid-June, Quilici told Hatewatch.

“We, as a company, haven’t see anything like this,” he said, referring to the use of robocalls to deliver a hate message.

“To me, it’s super scary because they are not doing it on a large-scale yet,” Quilici said. “But this would be very easily to scale-up and, say, for example, call all 800,000 people living in San Francisco.”

“It’s the tip of a spear,” he said of the new method of delivering hate.

 Rhodes doesn’t identify himself in the podcasts, but has an on-camera presence, interspersed with swastikas and images of Hitler’s reign. He has refused media requests for comment.

“We’re coming to you from the racist capital of the United States … very white, very racist North Idaho,” Rhodes says in opening remarks of his podcasts.

Police identified Rhodes, also is known as Scott Platek, last November after his red Jeep was spotted on surveillance video at the Sandpoint high school where CDs containing racist, antisemitic material were left on vehicles.

His ongoing racist activities prompted two human rights organizations, the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, to issue a joint statement this week denouncing the new form of blatant racism.

“We call upon all [residents] of our region to step up and show in action and numbers that Bonner, Boundary and Kootenai counties will not tolerate hate, racism or anti-Semitism in any form,” Lynn Bridges, president of the Bonner County task force said.

She said Rhodes’ claim that Idaho is the “racist capital of the United States” is an “erroneous declaration,” and pledged the two task forces will work to deliver their message about human rights work being done in the region.

“We should remember Albert Einstein’s words in these challenging times when he said: ‘The world is too dangerous to live in — not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen,’” Bridges said.

Christie Wood, president of the Kootenai County task force, which was behind the dismantling of the Aryan Nations two decades ago, said the new, high-tech brand of hate will be met head-on.

“All of this is evidence that the portrayal of North Idaho as welcoming to bigotry and hatred is just not true,” Wood said. “Those who attempted to make it so have failed, as will Scott Rhodes’ message of hate.”

The Bonner County human rights group donates nearly $20,000 a year to organization and schools, promote human rights activities and programs and scholarships.

Likewise, the Kootenai County task force, founded in 1981 and one of the oldest human rights groups of its kind in the United States, annually funds civil rights causes, providing financial and legal assistance to victims of hate crimes.

For the past 33 years, the group has reached 37,000 school children through its annual funding of programs calling attention each January to the life and work of slain civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

SPLC Illustration

 

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