“Infiltrating internet supremacist groups was like bathing in acid every day” | Digital Transformation | Technology

Talia Lavin, in an image provided by her publisher.
Talia Lavin, in an image provided by her publisher.

spent a year infiltrated on-line in dozens of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, posing as one of their members, going to bed and waking up pissed off and exposing themselves to constant hatred, incitements to armed violence and murder, hundreds of memes and videos of assaults, beatings and mutilations . She witnessed conversations between people who considered raping her. It is the first-person story of the American journalist Talia Lavin (32 years old), “a lanky bisexual Jew who lives in Brooklyn”, as she defines herself. She recounted her experience in 2020 in a book that is published this Monday in Spanish with the title The culture of hate. A journey through the dark web of white supremacy (Captain Swing).

“It was like bathing in acid every day.” This is how Lavin describes, interviewed by EL PAÍS by videoconference, her immersion in the catacombs of hate on-line. Her investigation arose as a reaction against the attacks and threats she had had to deal with every day as a moderator for a Jewish news agency for which she worked. The experience ended up becoming a viacrucis that generated a deep dislike and rage against those she had been investigating. Hate calls hate. “It tore me up inside,” she admits in her book.

Ask. What did you feel about supremacist movements before you infiltrated them? How has that image changed after your research?

Answer. I had been writing about extremist groups since 2017. I had experience of the kind of despicable things they talk about. She was even familiar with the personal attacks against me. But there was a moment when all that became especially intense. One of the things that struck me the most was that supremacists are very different from the stereotype. In the US it is believed that those who are involved in hate movements are a bit ignorant, that they are losers who live in their mother’s basement and have no other options in life. What I discovered was that many of these people lead very full and completely normal lives. They have a wife, a job, children and successful lives… They also come from wealthy neighborhoods. They are ordinary people, morally complex. The stereotype makes you feel like it’s impossible that there are people like that in your nice neighborhood. People are reluctant to face that reality. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how good a school you send your kids to: no one is immune from supremacist propaganda.

P. How do these groups use the internet? What are your propaganda tactics?

R. One of the tools they use the most is humor. Many of the things they publish [en sus sitios web, blogs, redes, plataformas de vídeo, aplicaciones de mensajería instantánea, etc.] they are very steeped in the culture of memes. It gives them an avant-garde image. They serve as a recruitment tactic because of their appeal to young men, who are often their target audience. They are also ambiguous and hide behind the “it’s a joke” to those who are offended. The style guide explains The Daily Stormer, which is one of the largest Nazi websites on the internet. In essence, what they are saying is: “Make them wonder if when we say we want to kill all the Jews we mean it in jest or not, even if we really mean it.” So if you say their descriptions are horrible, they reply that you’re not getting the joke, that you’re pathetic and have no sense of humor.

P. What other indoctrination techniques do they use?

R. They constantly show images and videos of violence, beatings and murders of blacks and Jews. They repeat jokes about killing their enemies and how to do it, so their followers will follow suit. They are not subtle, although they hide it as jokes. They desensitize to cruelty under the idea that blacks and Jews are subhuman. They try to rid you of any sympathy you may have for them. And then they tell you that by fighting those people, you’re helping save the world. It is a very powerful story, especially for young people, who want to feel that they are part of something bigger.

cover 'The culture of hate.  A journey through the dark web of white supremacy', TALIA LAVIN, EDITORIAL CAPITAN SWING
cover ‘The culture of hate. A journey through the dark web of white supremacy’, TALIA LAVIN, EDITORIAL CAPITAN SWING

P. that’s brainwashing

R. Radicalization is based on stories: stories that people tell themselves and want to be told. There are plenty of people in the white supremacist movement who just enjoy cruelty for its own sake, but most people, when they wake up in the morning, don’t want to think “I’m a horrible villain.” They want to believe that they are saving the world, that they are helping to create a better and safer world for white people. They are very obsessed with the notion of keeping themselves and their children safe from “evil Jewish influence.” Is very powerful. They feel that they are doing something vitally important for the future of white America, or white Spain. They see themselves as heroes fighting Jews and world elites. That is the engine that drives the propaganda.

P. He says in his book that the internet facilitated the rebirth of these ideas

R. Yes. None of these are original ideas. In essence, they recycle old shit and put it in packages. on-line shiny new. Anti-Semitism is one of the oldest conspiracy theories in the West: that notion of Jewish malevolence plotting to take over the world and destroy white people, and have control over black people, who are genetically inferior. I was surprised how much neo-Nazi groups like to go back to texts from earlier times like Mein Kampf (Hitler) or The Turner Diaries (an apocalyptic novel of racial genocide published in 1978). They have a certain timeless appeal, particularly in times of fear and upheaval like the present.

P. What real capacity do they have to manipulate?

Everyone has a point of vulnerability. We have seen it with the pandemic, with the anti-vaccine movement gaining so much strength. That is something that the neo-Nazi movement takes advantage of. They see their anti-government protests and tell them “we don’t trust the elites either”. They are very opportunistic. They use anti-capitalist language to appeal to a younger audience, or resort to modern formats like memes. They have a whole arsenal of tactics.

P. How do they dodge social media moderators?

R. They don’t have to try very hard. Social networks have prioritized profit and growth over safety, particularly that of marginalized members of their user base. Facebook has been indifferent to the genocide and the supremacist groups take advantage of that complete apathy. The same pro-Nazi tweet can be published in the US, but if you try it in Germany, Twitter will tell you that it is prohibited in that country. Therefore, they know that there are Nazis in their network, but the approach of the laissez-faire [dejar hacer]. That is something that directly hurts women and people of color. These and other networks have known about this problem for a long time. White supremacists were among the early adopters of the internet. The Ku Klux Klan has been online since the 1980s. They immediately recognized its usefulness to the movement. They could recruit and spread their propaganda without exposing themselves, from anonymity. A decentralized form of leadership. That is why it is inexcusable for these companies to say that they could not have anticipated it.

P. How widespread is that fascism?

R. We do not realize to what extent. I myself was not aware of how entrenched the ideology of white supremacy is. It is a very interconnected international movement. It is a global problem. A few years ago, no one would have expected a massacre in a New Zealand mosque. It happened because that movement has been allowed to grow and metastasize. The threat has been denied. Moreover, these people are often given space to speak, to “give them their rights”. That’s what people say to justify themselves, to feel more tolerant. The same thing happens with a certain media culture of telling “both sides of the story”. That just makes the problem bigger. There is no harmless fascism: its core is violence. Of course, they know a lot about rhetoric and how to introduce themselves nicely.

P. What were the reactions when you published your book in English in 2020?

R. The FBI came to my door to let me know that I had received death threats. It was not something new for me, although it is still frightening. Would I do it again? Definitely. This work is worth even the highest potential price. I do not regret what I have done and what I continue to do. I have met brave and wonderful people. Without them, I would have collapsed a long time ago.

P. How do you think your work can help fight hate on-line and offline?

R. One of my goals in writing the book was to make it interesting for people of all backgrounds who may not know anything about the subject. That they can understand how hate works on-line, and specifically, anti-Semitism and supremacist groups. He also wanted to destigmatize antifascism, about which there are many misunderstandings. Especially in the American media, there is this notion that anti-fascists are very violent people, but there are many different ways to be anti-fascist. A lot of people operate behind the scenes, either by infiltrating chats and groups on-line, informing, trying to paralyze a demonstration logistically (for example, informing the hotel where they are going to stay or denouncing it on social networks) or simply raising their voices when something is unfair or cruel. There are many things that can be easily done from home without putting yourself in danger. The only way to fight the rising tide of fascism is to join forces. I want the readers of my book to feel empowered, to recognize that any ability they have is useful in the fight. We need you all.

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