An invasion of propaganda: Experts warn that white supremacist messages are seeping into mainstream

Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY

Colin P. Clarke has been teaching a course on terrorism and insurgency at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for four years, and much more of his class these days is devoted to white supremacy than in the past.

So Clarke was not one bit surprised when a new report by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism revealed that efforts to spread white supremacy propaganda – often through discriminatory fliers, banners and posters – more than doubled from 2018 to last year.

Moreover, the university is located just a short walk from the Tree of Life synagogue, and Clarke has seen up close the consequences of hateful words turning into violent action.

“It’s concerning because, for all the people who don’t move on to become threats of violence, some will, and some will get their start by seeing pieces of propaganda that will alert them to the fact this group exists,’’ Clarke said.

The ADL report represents a sobering warning about the reach of white supremacist groups, which can take advantage of the efficiency and anonymity provided by social media to disseminate their ideology with little fear of backlash.

Last year the ADL recorded its highest number of propaganda incidents ever with 2,713 cases, compared to 1,214 in 2018. College campuses, full of impressionable young minds open to new ideas, are a favorite target, receiving about one-fourth of the propaganda against minority groups like immigrants, blacks, Jews, Muslims and members of the LGBTQ community.

The report also said all states except Hawaii registered instances of this kind of messaging, which is often cloaked in patriotic themes and serves as a recruiting tool. In addition, the ADL said the use of announced white supremacist rallies has given way to flash demonstrations, which are less likely to draw counter-protests and negative media coverage.

A menorah at a memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue, where Robert Bowers killed worshippers in an Oct. 27 shooting, as people prepare for a celebration service at sundown on the first night of Hanukkah in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

John Cohen, a former counterterrorism coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security and now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, said white supremacists have become more sophisticated in their communication.

“They’ve rebranded themselves,’’ Cohen said. “In the past they were viewed as racist individuals who were on the fringe or outside of mainstream society. Now their thoughts and ideas and messaging have been incorporated into the mainstream political discourse by a growing number of elected officials.’’

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While emphasizing he’s not singling out either party, Cohen warned about the danger of normalizing white supremacist ideology.

In the runup to the 2018 midterm elections, President Donald Trump often railed against the caravans of migrants from Central America making their way to the U.S. to request asylum.

On Oct. 27 of that year, 10 days before the election, accused gunman Robert Bowers burst into the Tree of Life synagogue and killed 11 people in a shooting rampage. In anti-Semitic online comments, Bowers had blamed Jews for aiding caravans of “invaders that kill our people.’’

Less than a year later, on Aug. 3, 2019, a shooter who had posted a hateful manifesto decrying a “Hispanic invasion of Texas’’ gunned down 22 people at an El Paso Walmart. An additional 24 people were injured in the attack, allegedly perpetrated by 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, whose screed warned about foreigners replacing white people in the U.S.

In this file photo taken on August 6, 2019, a makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting that left a total of 22 people dead in a shjooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

Cohen said political leaders are playing with fire when they promote white supremacist talking points, such as exaggerated claims of the security threat immigrants present and their supposed drain on public resources, to stoke their supporters.

“By mainstreaming those ideologically beliefs for the purposes of inspiring their political base, they have also inspired disaffected, violence-prone individuals to conduct attacks,’’ Cohen said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing an increase in acts of domestic terrorism in the country.’’

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Equating immigration with an “invasion,’’ as Bowers and Crusius did, has been a common tactic of Trump’s campaign. According to research by Media Matters, in January and February 2019 alone his Facebook page ran more than 2,000 ads using that term.

The president is far from the only elected leader to make that analogy, but his voice carries the farthest.

“When you have the person with the biggest bullhorn not only in the country but in the world using this language, doesn’t that give cover to other people to use it?’’ said Clarke, who is also a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, a nonprofit that focuses on global security issues.

Both Cohen and Clarke say educating the public is critical to countering white supremacist propaganda, especially getting the word out about the means those groups use, such as radicalizing teenagers online through messages distributed in the gaming community.

In a report on the rise of transnational white supremacist extremism, The Soufan Center calls for the U.S. to adopt strong laws to combat domestic terrorism.

The evolution of Clarke’s class suggests it’s time to look beyond al-Qaida and the Islamic State as the main sources of terrorism to worry about. He said the more insidious approach taken by white supremacist groups poses a bigger danger in the long term and needs to be acknowledged.

“Nobody hesitates to slap a terrorist label on any kind of act committed by someone who looks brown. Part of that is the 9/11 effect, undoubtedly,’’ Clarke said. “But the other part of it is the fact people still haven’t woken up to the notion that violent white supremacy poses just as much if not a greater threat to this country than Salafi-jihadism.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White supremacist ideas seeping into mainstream, leading to violence