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November 17, 2019

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UNLV group studies ‘violent energy’ that ignites online hate speech

Perusing through websites filled with threads espousing hatred toward Jews and other minorities isn’t exactly the sort of light reading UNLV sociologist Simon Gottschalk enjoys.

Analyzing 4,400 message threads on three prominent white supremacist websites with his graduate students was an extremely “distasteful exercise” for the son of two Holocaust survivors, yet he believes understanding the switch of when online hate speech turns into a hate crime may be key in knowing how to intervene. And that could ultimately save countless lives.

The UNLV findings will be released in an upcoming issue of Deviant Behavior, a peer-reviewed academic journal that explores criminal behaviors.

It’s been widely reported that perpetrators responsible for the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and in separate California incidents — the Gilroy Garlic Festival and Poway Chabad Synagogue — were linked to websites known for circulating hate speech.

One common trend, Gottschalk noticed, is that many of those expressing hatred on these message boards are targeting the anger they’ve internalized from their own negative experiences toward minority groups.

Typically, individuals who don’t receive the kind of validation, esteem or respect they think they deserve will direct negative emotions onto themselves, Gottschalk said. But sometimes that anger is expressed externally toward a convenient target.

“Members reframe their negative experiences as anti-white discrimination,” he said.

The analysis found that half the posts contained anger as a prevailing emotion, with almost 40% of those posts expressing vengeance, with some mentioning fantasies of physical harm, killing, mutilation and extermination. There were no comments seeking to temper these calls to violence, according to the study’s findings.

The intensity of the “sadistic fantasies” disturbed Gottschalk as he tried to understand the source of this hatred. His own family — half of whom were killed, the rest tortured, during the Holocaust — never expressed the kind of hatred he found online.

“I could understand if Holocaust survivors had sadistic fantasies against the Germans,” he said. “Yet, with all the stories I heard growing up, I never encountered those expressions of hatred as the ones I’ve found online, and that to me points at something that is not quite rational.”

Gottschalk believes online environments accelerate, amplify and convert negative emotional hate to physical violence in a way face-to-face encounters don’t. Search engines and social media site algorithms also systematically manipulate content based on previous online behavior to create an echo chamber for users.

“You can literally carry the network in your back pocket and stream its hateful ideology straight into your brain,” he said. “It can provide you with constant and instant positive feedback whenever you voice the emotionally correct messages, beliefs, genocidal threats, or plans of action. Once individuals are hooked to the network, it becomes relatively simple for those in the control booth to modulate the anger-fear complex.”

There’s also a part of Gottschalk that believes individuals who possess these hateful views can be changed. He pointed to examples of former white supremacists who left the movement, like Christian Picciolini. Picciolini joined the Chicago Area Skinheads 30 years ago as a teenager and has since turned his back on the group to dedicate his life to countering white supremacist behavior.

He concedes that there is no one solution to tempering the presence of online hatred, but he believes there are ways to mitigate the intensity of it by cutting access to some of the more extreme sites. He referenced a similar event that happened in France in 2018, when the government blocked access to the Démocratie Participative website, a white supremacist website that imitates the style of the Daily Stormer neo-Nazi website in America.

He said that while the suggestion will not guarantee immediate success — as there’s no way to stop other websites from popping up — it would at least slow down and disrupt some of the more violent outcomes.

“If we intervene intelligently we can hopefully reduce all that violent energy,” he said.