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Internet companies must act to combat white nationalist movement

The list of terrorists linked to a globalized white nationalist movement keeps getting longer and longer. And it will keep growing.

When it does, we can count on President Trump to once again issue a shrug – as opposed to a tweet storm if an attack were to come from a Latino immigrant or ISIS. We can also be sure that, as he denies that America has a problem with white nationalists, Trump will double down on the language that encourages them and the policies that comfort them.

But the rest of us – at least those who deal in facts rather than conspiracy theories – should be clear-eyed about the serious threat we’re facing and where it’s coming from.

The fact is, not one single American has been killed by an Islamist terrorist on U.S. soil during Trump’s watch. Nor, for that matter, has an immigrant launched a terror attack.

Yet, dozens of people have been killed by U.S.-born white nationalists, continuing a dangerous trend that began before Trump was elected. Since 2014, at least 81 people have been killed and another 104 injured in attacks by extremists influenced by the racist “alt-right” in North America.

The latest victim, 60-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, was gunned down while observing Passover at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California on April 27– exactly six months after 11 Jews were massacred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The death toll in Poway undoubtedly would have been far worse had the attacker’s assault rifle not jammed.

Poway came just five weeks after the mass murder of 50 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Following that massacre, Trump responded to a question about whether he thought white nationalists were a growing threat: “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.”   

This “small group of people” has now spawned the likes of Dylann Roof, killer of nine African-American worshipers in Charleston; Anders Breivik, killer of 77 people in Norway; Robert Bowers, the accused Pittsburgh shooter; Wade Michael Page, murderer of six Sikhs at a Wisconsin temple; and James Alex Fields, killer of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many other white nationalists in recent years – far too many to list – have also committed hate-inspired violence or been arrested before they launch terror attacks.

Right now, there is another one out there whose name we do not yet know. He is a ticking timebomb, stewing in grievance and hate. He is imbibing the big lies about “white genocide” and “cultural Marxism” that are spread on social media and white nationalist websites. He is fantasizing about a “race war,” because, like Roof, he thinks that something must be done about “those” people.

And, he is likely reading or posting messages on a website like 8chan. That’s where John Earnest, accused of murder in Poway, posted an “open letter” littered with the same racist and antisemitic tropes that other white nationalist terrorists wrote before him. In fact, he praised Brenton Tarrant, the man charged in the New Zealand massacre, writing that Tarrant “was a catalyst” for him. “He showed me that it could be done. It needed to be done.”

This is where we are. The next domestic terrorist might be lionizing Earnest right now – and might be inspired by him.

If we’re to effectively confront this menace, we must recognize that our country – indeed, democracy itself – is facing a new enemy with age-old roots: a deadly, fascistic global movement that is metastasizing online; that is knitted together by an ideology of white, male, Christian supremacy; and that is finding inspiration in our own president.

Clearly, the Trump administration will do little, if anything, to combat this evil. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security recently disbanded an intelligence unit that focused on domestic terrorism. For his part, Trump seems to revel in stirring up even more division, no matter the consequences.

Last week, Facebook banned several extremists, including far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, from its pages, saying they could no longer use Facebook or Instagram under its policies against “dangerous individuals and organizations.” The action follows a series of steps by social media companies in recent years to address the use of their platforms to stoke hate and incite violence. It’s a welcome change of heart for these companies but still not enough.

The administration’s inaction – complicity, some might say – makes it even more vital that tech companies muster the courage to take a strong stand against hate, even in the face of withering criticism from the right. They just might save some lives.

Photo by Andrew Shurtleff​