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Getting Right the “Alt-Right”

Sara McCleary

Technology is widely touted as evidence of the advancement of society, helping to bring about a better world that makes us healthier, happier, and our lives easier.

While this argument can be made, it’s becoming more apparent that technology is also making it easier for racism, bigotry and white supremacy to expand its reach.

Given the level of anonymity the Internet allows, it should come as no surprise that it has long been used as a tool to spread messages of hate. And yet, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have allowed online racism to level up yet again, with the rise of what is now known as the “alternative-right,” or alt-right.

So what is the alt-right? That’s somewhat more difficult to determine. As the name implies, it is a primarily political movement, with many members leaning far to the right, though with far more extreme conclusions than typical conservatives. Many feel that the movement hinges entirely on a platform of racism, and is based on the idea “that whites are undergoing an extermination, via mass immigration into white countries, which was enabled by a corrosive liberal ideology of white self-hatred, and that the Jews are at the centre of this agenda,” according to one member. (page does not exist)

With its roots in social media and online communities, the alt-right is made up of primarily young, tech-savvy Internet users, many of whom do not see themselves reflected in the traditional political continuum. It is this tech-familiarity that has allowed the group to expand so widely – connections made on social media sites like Reddit, Twitter, and 4Chan, and the spread of ideas on other websites and blogs, have made it easy to get their homophobic, misogynist, antisemitic, white nationalist voices heard.

Unfortunately, many members of the alt-right go further than just spreading ideas amongst themselves. The alt-right also makes use of social media to target and harass Jews, Muslims, members of the African-American and African-Canadian community, homosexuals and a variety of other racial or social groups. They have used 4chan specifically to create memes that’ve made their ways across the Internet, inciting hate. For example, the alt-right was responsible for hijacking the once-neutral Pepe the Frog meme and turning it into a symbol of Nazism.

This past summer, the alt-right’s (((echoes))) symbol was exposed for the antisemitic symbol it had become. While teenage girls might still be using the triple brackets around a name to convey a hug to that person, antisemites across the world are using them as a rallying call to others to incite harassment.  Twitter, in particular, has seen the triple-brackets being used around the names of Jewish targets, particularly journalists, to identify them to other members of the alt-right. And while it has been used widely, there have been very few repercussions for those using it because of the difficulty in monitoring it. The brackets can’t be caught by automatic filters, and they don’t come up as part of a search term.

Now, once again courtesy of the alt-right population active on 4chan, a new language has developed that allows white supremacists to spread their vitriol on multiple social media platforms without fear of being flagged by the sites’ automatic filters to weed out abuse. The list of code words includes Google, Skype, Yahoo, and Skittle as a way to identify minorities and certain ethnic groups. While Twitter’s filters might flag more common derogatory terms for these groups, they couldn’t possibly filter out every tweet referring to Skittles or Skype. The young, internet-savvy members of the alt-right have figured out how to best the system.

So what does all this mean for the future of social media?

While most sites have clear policies on abuse, they should also have automatic content filters. Ultimately, however, it is up to individuals to report these incidents. Knowledge, then, is the best way to combat the alt-right’s new technologically-savvy brand of white supremacy.

Be aware of the codes they are using and what memes like Pepe the Frog mean so that when you see them in use, you can raise the alarm rather than merely furrowing your brow in confusion. Come to the aid of the person whose name you see in (((parentheses))) by flagging the post, or join those in the counter-movement and use )))reverse parentheses((( around your own name.

In a better world, the alt-right wouldn’t exist and none of these actions would be necessary. But until social media is used only for the positive connections for which it was created, we need to be prepared to combat the alt-right and other white supremacists.

Sara McCleary has written extensively on a wide range of topics while working as a news reporter and freelancer. She has also completed a master’s degree in history, and further graduate work in interdisciplinary humanities.