How the far right is radicalizing American politics

02 07 18

Throughout the day, speakers and panelists from nonprofits, political organizations, and politicians gathered to to discuss how the far right is radicalizing American politics, share their learnings, strategize together, and plan the fightback against hate in the era of Trump.

Melissa Ryan, editor of Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter, and Dr. Joe Mulhall, Senior Researcher at HOPE not hate delivered opening remarks, explaining HOPE not hate’s work as the UK’s largest anti-racist organisation and premier anti-fascist campaign.

“HOPE not hate, to put it simply, is about offering hope to the communities the far right has impacted,” Mulhall said. “It no longer makes sense to say we are solely a British anti-fascist, anti-racist organization. We must fight back against fascism internationally.”

Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee and former Obama aide Michael Blake gave a keynote speech on the importance of choosing hope and fighting against systematic forms of oppression like racism and sexism.

“This is a moment where we cannot be silent,” Blake said. “We need to choose the sunrise over the sunset.”

Citing recent incidents of racism ranging from Charlottesville, Virginia to the U.S./Mexico border, Blake spoke about the importance of getting out of your comfort zone and discussing these problems.

“No child is born with hate in their heart,” Blake said. “Too often, we put them in conditions where it festers itself.”

Blake also shed light on what people can do to fight against hate, calling it urgent and necessary. He implored people to be aware of the world around them. He also emphasized the importance of speaking up for justice, mobilizing both minds and hearts, and using technology for good.

“We – people of good conscious and of good faith – must turn the moment into a movement and sustain it right now.”

Keep reading for a roundup of the day-long conference, which featured a keynote from Mike Singer, former Mayor of Charlottesville, and panels discussing the alt-right and social media, the alt-right after Charlottesville, and the alt-right in the upcoming midterm election.

Keynote 2: Mayor of Charlottesville discusses extremism, maintains optimism for the city

Mike Singer served as Mayor of Charlottesville from 2016 to 2018 and continues to serve on the City Council. In the day’s second keynote speech, Singer describes growing up Jewish in Arlington, VA with the American Nazi Party headquartered down the street. Though it wasn’t comfortable to be their neighbor, it was reassuring that these actors were considered the very fringe of the fringe. Now, extremism has been invited into mainstream politics, and took a fatal toll on Singer’s own city.

Charlottesville is popular and beloved city, known for pushing the needle of progress. This progressive nature attracted the Unite the Right rally. After the rally and the death of Heather Heyer, the City Council commissioned a report that uncovered insights like security strategy and interoperability between city and state.

While there is plenty of blame to go around in Charlottesville, Singer believes there is valuable wisdom to be gained. We can inform our strategies with the lessons drawn from Charlottesville and from a set of European countries that are several years ahead of the US. Rage, cynicism, and anarchy are now mainstream, and the political results of that are frightening.

Extremism has challenged the way that Singer thinks about democracy in America, but he hasn’t lost his faith in the system.

Despite what his city has seen, Singer maintains the optimism he’s always had, albeit with a caveat.

“I believe that the world will survive and you won’t see a repeat of the virus of fascism, but that’s not a self-fulfilling ideal. It won’t happen on its own.”

Panel 1: The Alt-Right and Social Media Manipulation

Melissa Ryan, editor of Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter, moderated a panel on how the far right has weaponized social media to game political discourse in the US. Bringing together progressive advocates from a variety of backgrounds, experts offered insights from their research and work into social media manipulation and its real world implications.

The discussion was a cause close to Melissa’s heart, piquing her interest when she was first attacked on social media in 2016. During the hour-long panel, which was followed by a Q&A session with the audience, panelists discussed how the alt-right use social media to grow their membership, why social media platforms fail to police them, and how advocates can stop the spread of the alt-right online.

Here are three takeaways from the event:

  1. The conversation around misinformation is misinformed in of itself

Although misinformation or “fake news” is often racial in nature, much of the media’s conversation about misinformation often ignores this narrative. Cristina López G., Senior Researcher at Media Matters for America, cautioned journalists covering the alt-right.

“When the media covers the alt right online, they conveniently ignore the dehumanization that takes place,” Lopez said. “That has a lot to do with the lack of ethnic representation in media itself.”

Becca Lewis, researcher at Data & Society, pointed to ignorance as the reason harmful narrative can be perpetuated in the media.

Since 2016, Data & Society – a research institute focused on the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development – has been looking at how groups of online trolls and conspiracy theorists manipulate mainstream media to recruit new members and amplify their messaging.

“Groups on the far right are incredibly good at co-opting the language of oppressed and marginalized groups,” Lewis said. “Almost no-one calls themselves alt right anymore. Now that people have caught on to what that is, many of them are rebranding themselves as identitarians.”

  1. Journalistic norms have given the alt-right a platform

Lewis also discussed how journalistic values – like the idea that both sides of argument should be presented as equal – has contributed to the rise of the alternative right movement.

“While we all like to say sunlight is the best disinfectant, sometimes coverage of the alt right can become oxygen adding fuel to the fire and become PR campaigns for these movements,” Lewis said. “For them, any coverage is good coverage.”

  1. Social media and technology can be a tool for the good and the bad

Ellie Langford, Research Director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, noted how many members of the alt right are using online platforms to test how they can sanitize their white supremacist message and make it more palatable to a mainstream audience. She also discussed how social media and technology can disseminate misleading and false information.

“Using platforms such as Google to mislead and manipulate people is not only wrong, It is disruptive to the mission of Google which is to get people the information they need,” Langford said.

While tech platforms and devices facilitate can disseminate the spread of fake news or alternative facts, the panelists urged audience members to call these companies out for violating their own terms of services.

“Social media companies can no longer disconnect themselves,” Lopez said. “That’s something that the social media companies have failed to acknowledge.”

Lopez discussed how, in the age of branding, companies care a lot about their own image. She implored people to point out to companies when their ads are being delivered during content featuring hate speech can be a very effective way to get hateful content taken down.

Madihha Ahussain, a civil rights lawyer at Muslim Advocates, also asked social media users to think about the real-life consequences of their posts.

“We need to find ways to connect the dots and show people how online hate is impacting real people in their lives,” Ahussain said.

Panel 2: The Alt-Right after Charlottesville

Following remarks from Michael Singer, the former Mayor of Charlottesville, panelists from Muslim Advocates, SPLC, Media Matters, and examined the state of the alt-right after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August of 2017. They took on the uncomfortable realization that Charlottesville did not spell the end of the alt-right movement in the US but rather placed them squarely in the spotlight.

In the first half of the panel, the conversation focused around what Charlottesville meant for the alt-right itself. During the second half of the panel, the conversation broadened to examine the reaction to the rally, the influence it’s had on society in the US, and how we move forward.

Here are three key takeaways from the panel discussion:

  1. The alt-right continues to pose a threat. Charlottesville was a “coming out” party for the alt-right. In the immediate aftermath of the Unite the Right rally, the community considered it a success. The mainstream right-wing community embraced the alt-right and even President Trump went to bat for them. Post-Charlottesville, it’s not politically toxic to espouse the ideology of the alt-right. On the contrary, dozens of candidates at the state and federal level are backed by hate groups. So while the alt-right actors from Charlottesville may seem quiet, their message has maintained mainstream recognition.

“Lulls in activity just give these folks an opportunity to get more sophisticated and savvy,” said Madihha Ahussain.

  1. Online platforms are critical actors in the fight against the alt-right. In the wake of Charlottesville, few companies made a concerted effort to de-platform hate groups. Some of the biggest names in bigotry make sure they never violate a platform’s terms of service; they know the rules and they know how to maintain their presence online. Progressives can focus on values and let those guide us in the fight, but we need to shift companies to these values as well.  

“Only by making the funding of hate as toxic as the feeling of hate will we change the way companies act, summarized Ahussain.

  1. The truth is under assault. Things may get worse before they get better and we need to get creative. We can’t simply stay in step with the alt-right, but need to get a step ahead of them. Thankfully, we’re not alone in this fight; the American alt-right is just a piece of a global puzzle.

Ryan Lenz wrapped the panel by saying “What we need to do now is double down on our commitment to truth, in all of the ways that one does that, and recognize all of the ways truth is being undermined and dissolved.”

Panel 3: The Alt-Right and the Midterms

In the age of Donald Trump, it’s clear that the alt-right and alt-light is influencing the Republican Party. The democrats are looking to win back the House in the 2018 midterms while many members of the radical fringe try to take over the GOP. In the third and final panel discussion at the “Ctrl Alt-Right Delete” Conference, HOPE not hate’s Campaigns Director Matthew McGregor moderated a panel discussing the influence of the alt-right on the impending midterm elections.

The panel, which featured New York Times’ Op-Ed Columnist Michelle Goldberg, Priorities USA Executive Director Rob Flaherty, DLCC Executive Director Jessica Post and DSCC Field Director Lauren Brainerd, gave insights into how races are playing out locally and helped conference attendees understand the extent to which the fringe right is increasingly influential in the GOP.

Here’s what the speakers had to say:

About the Republican Party: The Republican Party isn’t standing up to the extreme wings of their party. They need these extreme party members and more importantly, they need their vote. There is room for for failures and grifters in the Trump’s White House because normal, qualified people do not want to work there. The same goes for primaries, as increasingly fringe candidates like Corey Stewart and Roy Moore not only enter races, but prevail.

Fringe Republicans may be gaining the spotlight, but as Michelle Goldberg said, “it’s the nature of a party to become more extreme as it becomes smaller.”

About what gives them hope: One of the few bright spots in the panel was a discussion of organizing and resisting on the left. The panelists reflected on door-knocking in Virginia, connecting with conservative parents in new ways, and progressive organizations like Indivisible.

Goldberg was excited to see that “People have burrowed into electoral politics and are organically using strategies that the Christian right used to build power.”


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