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Opinion Inside the white supremacist global network

Members of the Proud Boys gesture and cheer onstage as they and other right-wing demonstrators rally in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 26. (John Locher/AP)

Violent white-supremacist groups have formed a connected global movement that rose before Donald Trump’s presidency and threatens to continue long after he leaves office.

These white-supremacist groups have used the Internet to recruit and train followers, much as Islamist extremists did a decade ago, argues a major new study by Jigsaw, a research arm of Google. The study, described here for the first time, is being published Tuesday by Jigsaw’s digital journal, the Current.

The study shatters the image that many analysts have of white supremacist attackers as “lone wolf” extremists. Jared Cohen, the chief executive of Jigsaw, argues that “this myth obscures the vast underlying infrastructure of white supremacist online communities around the world.”

These groups “move fluidly between mainstream and fringe platforms,” Cohen warns. They recruit followers on Facebook or YouTube, among other venues, and then direct them to protected “alt-tech” sites where they can privately share propaganda and boast about operations.

How do conspiracy theories and racism move from the fringe to a political platform? The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has found the way. (Video: Parjanya Christian Holtz, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post, Photo: Markus Schreiber / AP/The Washington Post)

The challenge as Trump’s presidency ends is how to reduce the spread of this toxic movement and deradicalize its followers. The Jigsaw study offers some useful case studies in interviews conducted over the past two years with 36 former members of white-supremacist groups. But it’s clear there’s no silver bullet for deprogramming hate.

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Former members told Jigsaw researchers that their escapes began with basic things — a life-changing event such as a birth or death in the family; disgust with violent acts perpetrated by other followers; or doubts raised by exposure to “minorities . . . they had vilified,” the study explains.

The movement is far larger and more violent than many people realize. Numbers collected by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database depict a network that has been growing globally since 2010 and has expanded in tandem with Islamist extremism, its twin in using online media to spread hate.

Consider these comparisons: In 2009, white supremacists were responsible for six deaths in 19 incidents, while Islamist extremists were responsible for 14 deaths in 12 incidents. Those numbers kept climbing steadily through the decade. By 2019, white supremacists were linked to 165 deaths in 336 incidents, while Islamist extremists were tied to 193 deaths in 82 incidents.

In three “hot spots” for white supremacists — Germany, Britain and the United States — the number of incidents seemed to spike because of special factors: in Germany, the influx of Syrian migrants in 2015; in Britain, the angry debate over Brexit in 2016; in the United States, Trump’s presidency in 2017. But in each case, the problem pre-dated these events.

The Jigsaw researchers found that former group members had been attracted by the combination of solidarity and anonymity of the online community. One former member of several white-supremacist groups explained: “Every time I went online, it was like putting on a mask, one where you’re shielded from empathy, from consequences. . . . I’d say all sorts of horrible things. And then I’d get offline and hang my mask up and go back to my family.”

Another former member told Jigsaw researcher Beth Goldberg about her path from a curious 16-year-old browsing online forums to membership in the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division. As recruiters sensed her initial interest, the discussions moved to private channels where she was cultivated as a “prospect,” gaining status and “hidden knowledge” from the group. Eventually, before finally breaking away, she became an Atomwaffen recruiter herself.

The concealment tactics of these organizations were described by a former member of a group that helped organize the August 2017 Charlottesville rally. The group urged people to celebrate “white pride” in postings on mainstream platforms, this organizer said. “Yet in private chats she was part of,” Jigsaw reported, “they talked openly about what weapons they planned to bring and what violent acts they hoped to see in Charlottesville.”

How can the United States and the world step back from hatred? The Jigsaw report offers some suggestions. Facebook, YouTube and other platforms are making it harder for extremists to spread their ideas and hook followers. Counter-radicalism networks (the Jigsaw study mentions five in the United States and Europe) are disrupting the radicalization process and helping people break from the violent subculture.

What can President-elect Joe Biden do against white supremacists? He says his candidacy was motivated by horror over the Charlottesville attacks and Trump’s encouragement of extremist violence there. Biden says his presidency will be about healing. But in this angry country, combating hatred won’t be quick or easy.

The Jigsaw study reminds us that the Internet is a rage accelerator. Good leaders can discourage extremism rather than feed it; they can encourage norms of good behavior. But tolerance needs to become a mass movement, more powerful than hatred.

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