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Extremism And Hate Crimes Are On The Rise, And Finding Audiences Online

ADL Florida Region
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, speaks at the ADL Florida Region's annual meeting on June 18 in Fort Lauderdale.

The Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League tracks hate crimes and extremism in the U.S. and abroad.

The center also investigates crimes and tries to prevent hateful acts. Analysts there spend their time reading media reports and going through government data, as well as looking through hate-incubating corners of the internet to try to identify possible threats.

WLRN’s Madeline Fox spoke with Oren Segal, the director of the Center on Extremism, about the state of hate crimes and violent extremism in the U.S. and in South Florida.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

WLRN: What can you tell me about extremism and hate crimes in South Florida in particular?

SEGAL: Out of the 50 extremist-related murders that we saw in 2018, there was one that was a little bit different than the others. That was an attack that we saw in Palm Beach County, by Corey Johnson.

Here's somebody who was apparently radicalized online, was really interested in white supremacist propaganda and tropes. But then, before he stabbed somebody to death, apparently had changed his psychological allegiance to ISIS.

But his case is also consistent with a lot of what we're seeing play out with all these extremist-related murders – that there is a heavy online component, a feeling of the ability to create a community to find like-minded sympathizers for people to egg each other on. And we're seeing the consequences on the ground.

Credit Courtesy ADL
Courtesy ADL
Oren Segal, director of the ADL's Center on Extremism

The virality created by the internet, the ability to spread awareness, can cut both ways. On the one hand, you have people across the country rallying to support communities affected by violence, and more people knowing what to look for in their own communities. But on the other hand, it sounds like, there’s also an ability for people interested in hateful ideology to form communities.

I think that's the danger. The easy access to hateful narratives is as easy as getting a piece of actual, factual news.

This activity online now exists in the same space as legitimate news. When people are able to choose their stream, what they're going to see on their wall, what they're going to recirculate and tweet and like, they're going to start self-selecting to what makes the most sense to them. 

When it comes to extremist violence, it goes a step further, where I think these are communities online that are by and for extremists. The propaganda and the encouragement that is occurring there is having a direct influence on what we're seeing on the ground.

Look no further than Pittsburgh and Christchurch and even in Poway more recently, where these are people who signaled back to their online communities, letting them know what they were about to do – and had gotten some ideological comfort from this cohort before they did that. 

"We need to understand where the threats are coming from before we can address them – and they look a lot more like me, white male, than I think people realize."

You bring up Poway, and I think there’s a question that comes up about how that shooting got relatively little attention compared to, say, the San Bernardino shooting, also in California. Some of that is a function of timing – San Bernardino became a 2016 election talking point – but what seems to dictate whether an attack becomes a national conversation or not?

There are laws on the books about foreign terrorist groups. So when somebody carries out an attack in San Bernardino, in Boston, arguably in Orlando, it is already labeled as terrorism because of the ideology behind it. When you have white supremacists who engage in similar violence, we (at the Center on Extremism) call it terrorism, but it's not necessarily immediately going to get that label.

I know that there's a discussion about, is it because it's a brown person versus a white person, a Muslim person versus a non-Muslim person. And I think that definitely plays a part in our perception. But I think these legal definitions that we have, and what law enforcement is able to call something, plays a part in this as well.

The bottom line is that terrorism is politically, socially, religiously motivated violence targeting innocent civilians. And it's not the sole domain of any one extremist movement. We need to understand where the threats are coming from before we can address them — and they look a lot more like me, white male, than I think people realize.

What can be done on a local government level, and on an individual level, about hate crimes and extremism?

We know that 92 cities of 100,000 people or more — including several in Florida — report zero hate crimes. That's just not possible. So one of the things that we advocate for is for better reporting from all jurisdictions around the country, because you need to have the data before you can come up with plans on how to respond.

Individually, people really need to view this as part of their day-to-day life, to find one little way to make a difference. And if that's flagging hateful content on a platform, do that.

That's having a conversation during Thanksgiving with that aunt or uncle that may not see the world the way you do. It's worthwhile.

The polarization is not going to help. We need to actually reach out. I deal with extremism, right? I don't do the feel-good stuff very well. But even in my world, I recognize the importance of connection, and having some radical compassion during these difficult times.

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