Overcoming online extremism will take both political and private-sector efforts
We have too much evidence now that extremism online isn’t just alarming — it can spill over to violence.
The murderous attacks at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand were both enacted by assailants who ascribed their motivation to a toxic stew of anti-Semitic and racist conspiracy theories online. A dozen racist and anti-Semitic militia groups organized online before joining the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Those events ended in one brutal death and more than a dozen people suffering from terrible injuries.
While the factors contributing to extreme, violent acts are complex, an important facet to consider is how these ideas perpetuate or radicalize online.
These concerns are compounded by broader trends we’re seeing in polarization. Scholars at Louisiana State University and the University of Maryland found that not only do many people in each political party believe members of the other party are “downright evil,” 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement: “We’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.”
Reverberations of heightened divisiveness in all sectors of society are driving many people to discover how to counter it.
For example, blues musician Daryl Davis addresses extremism one person at a time. For over 30 years, Davis has dedicated much of his time to befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. While this might seem like an impossible feat, Davis has said that once the Klansmen get to know him and the friendship blooms, they begin to see how misguided their hate has been. For many, this realization begins to chip away at their extremism.
It shouldn’t have to be the responsibility of someone who’s the target of hate to bridge the divide. But it should give us hope about the redemptive potential of dialogue.
Many online platforms are working to be part of the solution, too. Airbnb, for instance, took the bold step in 2017 of canceling reservations for self-identified white nationalists who were gathering for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Even though the company faced boycott threats, it did so again when the rally reconvened in Washington, D.C., in 2018.
These are heartening examples of how experiments can yield positive results. We want to know more. That’s why, this upcoming week, Communities Overcoming Extremism: The After-Charlottesville Project, is hosting its Private Sector Leadership Summit at Airbnb’s headquarters in San Francisco.
The event is part of an initiative led by the Anti-Defamation League, Charles Koch Institute, Ford Foundation, Soros Fund Charitable Foundation, Fetzer Institute, New America, and others. It’ll bring together scholars, tech leaders, local leaders, and other private stakeholders to address questions about how to combat extremism.
These groups do not agree on everything. That’s a feature, not a bug.
Given the high stakes of the challenges surrounding hate and heightened polarization, we can’t afford to devolve into political debates or respond reactively with censorship. It takes a diversity of perspectives — individuals willing to challenge each other as well as their own assumptions — to find innovative solutions.
We’ve seen this at previous gatherings. During last year’s event in St. Louis, a mayor of a major Midwest city shared how he’d tempered tensions at a white nationalist rally: His city simply supplied water bottles.
The rally took place on a hot summer Saturday, when public restrooms were closed. Providing an easy source of hydration — but no restrooms — ensured people could only congregate so long. The crowds quickly thinned.
This week’s event invites similar knowledge sharing. Alongside leaders from companies including Lyft, Medium.com and Twitch, just to name a few, we’re exploring topics like “Exploring the Unintended Consequences of Content Moderation,” “Promoting Free Expression, Combating Hate Online,” and “Building Alliances: Opportunities for Collaboration.” We’re also exploring how the gaming community can help overcome the extremists who are quickly moving to their platforms.
Coming together across the political spectrum to discuss an issue as complex and important as online hate is a first step, but not a last one. Solving the problem will ultimately take the commitment of all our communities.