Not since the civil rights movement has America seen the level of racism and bigotry that’s now coursing through the mainstream and tearing at the seams of our nation. But unlike that era, extremists who promote hate are now able to recruit young people and spread radicalizing propaganda through the power of social media, a tool their forebears could never have imagined.
To help people understand the threat this radicalization poses and the impact it’s having on America society, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched its first original podcast, Sounds Like Hate, in August. The audio documentary series, produced and hosted by award-winning journalists/producers/filmmakers Geraldine Moriba and Jamila Paksima, explores the dangerous realities of hate in modern America and the ways people have escaped the far-right extremist movement.
In Season 1 of Sounds Like Hate, Moriba and Paksima present three compelling and very different episodes, divided into 40-minute parts, that shed light on national tensions surrounding race, discrimination and hate. Through their vivid storytelling, listeners enter the worlds of people grappling with the effects of hate and extremism, taking a deep dive into the realities of how it functions, how it spreads, who is affected and what people are doing about it.
This week, the SPLC released the third and final episode of Season 1 – “Baseless.”
It takes listeners inside a violent neo-nazi group known as the Base, with secretly recorded conversations that reveal the worldviews of these extremists as they discuss their desire for the collapse of American society. The result of an independent investigation, the episode analyzes more than 80 hours of audio in which the group’s leaders illuminate the organization’s approach to recruitment, radicalization and domestic terrorism.
Here, we share our conversation with Moriba and Paksima on the making of the series, the inspiration behind it and what they’ve discovered about the proliferation of hate in modern America along the way.
Geraldine Moriba is a journalist, filmmaker and producer who directed and wrote the acclaimed documentary “Until 20,” which screened at 15 film festivals across the world and won nine audience awards. She has served as an executive producer for PBS and CNN and as vice president for diversity and inclusion for CNN Worldwide. Previously, Moriba worked at NBC News, MSNBC and ABC News. Her awards include five Emmys, an Alfred I. DuPont Award, two Peabody Awards and the Anita Hill Gender Justice Award.
Jamila Paksima is an independent filmmaker, creative director and former Pew Journalism Fellow who has been awarded for her excellence in broadcast journalism, investigative reporting and online video and animation. She co-directed and co-produced the acclaimed independent film, “Until 20,” and produced independent documentaries for PBS, MSNBC and the Discovery Channel before working for 11 years as a journalist at NBC News. Paksima is currently the co-executive producer and director at Until 20 Productions and executive producer and creative director of Paksima Productions Inc., her independent film and video production company.
In Sounds Like Hate, you tackle a phenomenon that is tearing at the social fabric of our country – the proliferation of hate and the radicalization that accompanies it. What attracted the two of you to this project? And what was your thought process in deciding how to approach such an intense and complex subject?
Geraldine: My entire career has been based on reporting news stories about social equity, justice and the evolution of culture. I’m interested in reporting on America’s challenges with systemic racism, and I’ve developed a body of experience that can be applied to unpacking the rising rates of white domestic terrorism. So, when I was approached by SPLC about creating a podcast, I immediately had an idea about what could be done.
Little did I know then the president would place an executive order banning anti-racism workshops in the federal government and expand it to include federal contractors, or that white supremacists would be emboldened to the point of openly posting their accelerationist plans on social media. This is the epitome of white privilege and confirms that the focus of the first season on American extremists was the right choice.
This editorial challenge motivated me to invite Jamila to be my production partner. We had worked together on independent projects before. I’ve always been impressed by her passion for human rights reporting and dedication to stories about people or communities in deep conflict or crisis. Together we’re creating an audio documentary series to tease out the motivations behind hate. We’re examining the ways in which extremist groups encourage violent, terroristic behavior and how international networks are prepping for the collapse of America. This isn’t pleasant reporting. The people we want to speak with the most don’t want to speak with us. But this is our mission.
We’re not afraid of the truth. We’re worried about what happens if we miss it. So, we’re listening to what people are saying and we’re reporting the stories that sometimes make us most uncomfortable. In the end, as journalists, our job is not so much to report what no one else has seen – but to examine what few are reporting about, yet everybody sees.
Throughout the podcast, we hear unscripted conversations and recordings of people affected by hate, from people who have been targets of it to those who have participated in spreading it. What do you hope that listeners will learn from these raw, human stories?
Geraldine: The Base is a known international, terroristic, accelerationist organization. They believe the browning of America is destructive to society, and whites must regain power by securing their own fascist ethno-state. They are aiming to speed up the race war, and they drive, train and manipulate their members to secretly take action to contribute to the total collapse of America. They spend a lot of time and energy recruiting young men and members of the U.S. Armed Forces who are already indoctrinated online to these neo-fascist ideals.
In some circles it’s sexy to hate. It’s no longer hiding in the shadows of private conversations at work, schools or home. It’s boldly out there for all to see, expressed openly by leaders and violently by extremists. This means we have an opportunity right now to create unprecedented cultural change.
In Episode 3, called “Baseless,” we analyze 83 hours of secret audio recordings inside the vetting room of the Base. This trove of information captures what these men are saying when they think no one is listening.
Sounds Like Hate comes at an important moment in America because we can change what we can see. At the center of this series are people who have become extremists. Some of them learn to hate early on. Here’s what one 17-year-old had to say, “If you look at the economy and this whole fiat currency, even if it doesn’t collapse, it’s just going to degenerate more and more until even the military starts to revolt. ... Every empire falls, you know. So that’s why I’d say, just prepare for the fall.” Others try hate on like a new Hawaiian shirt. But wherever they start out, we’re trying to figure out why they commit terrible acts of hate and why some of them change.
The series looks at their darkest aspects – but it’s also about the goodness in people. It pushes and pulls at the stereotypes we hold to be true, our fragilities and our fears. We want listeners to question their firmly held beliefs, think about the things that unite us and question what divides us. Ultimately, our goal is to expose the stupidity of hate and encourage more people to act in socially beneficial ways.
In Episode 3, your independent investigation of the Base included extensive data analysis from Stanford and Berkeley Universities. Tell us more about the process behind producing “Baseless” and what you were able to uncover with your deep dive into the group.
Geraldine: On one recording, the leader of the Base said, “We want things to accelerate, we want things to get worse in the United States. And from that point, by virtue of the chaos that ensues, that would naturally present some opportunities for us ... law and order starts breaking down, power vacuums start emerging ... for those who are organized and ready, to take advantage of those.”
This isn’t a coded message. This is an expression of malcontentment with real intentionality for the destruction of our nation. So, when we received these secret recordings from the Base’s vetting room, I knew we could do more than piece together their narratives; we could gain valuable insights into the words they use, their tone and their habits.
Back in 2019, when I was a fellow at the John S. Knight journalism program at Stanford University, I had an opportunity to work with a team of computer scientists building the Stanford TV News Analyzer. It’s a tool that uses deep learning-based image and audio analysis processing techniques to answer questions about the last decade of cable news programming. As a result of the impact of this data exploration, I understood the power of what you can examine with an algorithm. That’s why we asked Claudia Natalia von Vacano and Chris Kennedy with the D-Lab at UC Berkeley to forensically analyze the hate speech in the recordings. We also worked closely with Will Crichton, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Stanford, to crunch the numbers to find patterns in what was said. What we uncovered painted a clear picture about in-group behavior and the way extremists communicate when they are speaking to people who share their values.
The stories in this first season feature three very different conflicts with a few common themes, one of which is the rise in hate participation among young people. What do you think these stories tell us about how young people are reacting to the presence of hate in their communities? And what gives you hope?
Geraldine: These stories are not about how young people are converted to extremism. They are mostly already believers. We’re examining the content of what these young people say to understand why. In “Not Okay” [Episode 2] we visited Randolph Union High School in Vermont, where they are experiencing a surge in hateful acts, and hate symbols show up as graffiti on tables, cafeteria trays and students’ hands. Administrators are desperately trying to intervene and actively attempting to re-educate the students toward more humanistic ways of thinking.
Then, in our next story, “Baseless,” we listened to secret recordings of over 100 men who filled out online applications to join a white power group. Eighty-eight percent of the ages mentioned by these recruits were under 30. Twenty percent of them were between the ages of 17 and 25. Many said they learned about the Base and national socialist ideas from two platforms, iFunny and Telegram.
Terroristic ideologies spread fast among young people for two reasons. They are easily targeted where they gather on social media, gaming platforms and YouTube. Second, when they join an extremist group like the Base they bring along their friends. Even though the overall number of people who actually engage in illegal activity, and particularly violent activity, is very small, it only takes a single person to do a lot of harm. Here’s what one 20-year-old said in his recruiting conversation: “Well, a lot of our guys, we have just a pure hatred for modern civilization and industrialization. We wish to liberate ourselves, our fellow whites and animals from that system, through economic sabotage such as bombings, arson.”
People are speaking and we are listening. These recordings demonstrate there are some who are actively spreading propaganda and getting ready for an imagined armed confrontation to accelerate a race war.
Stories like the ones in Sounds Like Hate are often controversial and difficult to tell. Can you share a little about your experience shaping discussions that may make listeners uncomfortable or challenge their deeply held beliefs?
Jamila: Working on the series reminds me of the reporting I have done from Iran. There are many parallels to issues I faced in representing the stories of radicalization, rage and misplaced anger. Iran is the country where I grew up. I watched it unravel over disparities in equity, terrorist threats, radical ideas coming from ordinary people, and manipulative dictatorial leaders. When I returned to Iran to report on why the country had remained in a state of chaos since the revolution in 1979, I had to be careful not to fall back on old tropes but instead to find real stories about humanity and misunderstanding.
Reporting on controversial and difficult stories requires broad and deep research, careful framing and opportunities to present wrap-around perspectives. It is easy to lean into the outrageous statements and shocking details of people’s lives or beliefs, but that is not reporting. We have a responsibility as journalists and documentarians to bring thoughtful discourse and analysis to our podcast. We do this by presenting voices which rarely share the same space. I believe in examining an array of opinions, grievances and solutions, whether I agree with them or not.
Clarity and insight come from listening to everyone, as ugly as it sometimes can be. In this process it is important to expose lies and lift truth. This is a responsibility Geraldine and I take very seriously as journalists. We carefully choose and sometimes debate at length about every word so we can tell stories which resonate and inform. This is a meticulous and demanding process of reporting for us. As co-hosts, this is a vital part of our reporting. These daily examinations are essential, whether I am reporting on radical ideas from Iran or radical ideas that come out of America.
The first story of Season 1 is about a young woman, Samantha, who became radicalized by a white supremacist group called Identity Evropa before eventually escaping its grip. As you produced Sounds Like Hate, what did you learn about the radicalization process and how extremist propaganda infiltrates the mainstream?
Jamila: We are seeking the answer to why people hate. Radicalization is happening every day, and it’s happening in secret chat rooms online and in plain sight. As tensions around the presidential election rise, the commander in chief has called on militant, fringe white power groups to “stand back and stand by,” and to also “monitor” our nation’s polling stations. The president is emboldening violent militants to wait for his next directive. People call them militia groups. I call them what they are: domestic terrorists. Nothing good will come from normalizing their radical ideals.
We are learning that radicalization is a process. It happens over time. There are many entry points, many victims and inevitable regrets. Episode 1 is all about bringing listeners inside the world of extremists. Samantha’s story is about a woman who joined a group of neo-nazi extremists with Identity Evropa. She followed her heart straight into danger. She wanted to belong to something, or someone, more than questioning the ethics and the ideology she was being fed through a veneer of a white purity movement. It appealed to her. Quickly she was given power she coveted when she became the women’s leader of a white supremacist group.
The tactics this group used to grow its membership and find allies inside powerful government agencies are no different than what the president is doing by amplifying white power groups like the Proud Boys. Getting out meant taking the difficult step of self-examination and questioning the violent results she amplified as an organizer of the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia. It also meant, in Samantha’s case, rebuilding relationships with her family members and working every day to remove the hateful ideas manipulating her mind. Samantha is still deradicalizing. She’s made it her personal mission to help others find a path out of hate. Her story illustrates that anyone ensnared in the false family of the white power movement, including the Proud Boys, can find a way out before these radical ideas lead them deeper into a future violence and destruction.
What does “Baseless” teach us about the strategy of newly emerging hate groups and their relationship to violence?
Jamila: In these recordings, nearly 20% of applicants claim to have combat training, including Rinaldo Nazzaro, the group’s leader. They served or were active duty servicemen. There were eight men in the National Guard, one former member of the Air Force, a Marine, and eight in the U.S. Army. Anyone with a military background was more desirable to the Base. Here’s an excerpt: “I'm currently in the military, but I'm in the National Guard. I go off to deploy in July and that will be for 15 months ... but then I will be back.”
To build trust and group cohesion, the Base holds regular regional “hate camps” to prepare for combat training for their ensuing war. They use these gatherings as a public relations opportunity to make more propaganda in the form of posters, photographs and videos to distribute online. As they grow their network, the goal is to build international cells across the white world. This strategy of a network of small cells is not new to white power terrorist groups. It’s a strategic play at plausible deniability to skirt U.S. conspiracy and collusion laws. On these recordings, Nazzaro tells members repeatedly they should not openly discuss action, to avoid implicating the larger group. His theory is it will limit law enforcement's ability to break them down entirely – because if one cell takes a hit, other cells can claim having no knowledge. Within these recordings we reveal the truth behind their intentions.
Both of you are award-winning journalists and filmmakers. How did the audio-only format of Sounds Like Hate influence your story-telling approach?
Jamila: Our creative approach was to bring our listeners along with us as Geraldine and I chase the truth and try to understand the motivations of violent white supremacists and the people who want to be just like them. We are passionate about exploring complex, textured, diverse views on difficult stories and opinions. We knew these stories would need to be especially compelling for listeners to invest their time in listening and to ensure they return again and again. This is why we are determined to bring them valuable investigative journalism coupled with the power of authentic, long-form documentary storytelling.
Before the pandemic, we planned to gather our interviews firsthand and report in the field. We wanted to capture interviews and events as they unfolded and support it all with the sounds of life: screeching school buses, coffee brewing, emotional meltdowns and the silence of disbelief. We found ways to be safe and still make this happen. It elevated our production quality overall, and we didn’t stop there. To create a compelling listening experience, we worked with an exceptional young creative composer, Warner Meadows, to write original compositions, and layered it with the perceptive editing touch of our sound designer, Randy Scott Carroll.
Season 2 of Sounds Like Hate is already in production and the next round of stories promises to be even more enlightening. More information will be available soon at SoundsLikeHate.org.
Photo illustration by SPLC