The Dark Web & Domestic Terrorism – Sticks And Stones Will Break Your Bones; But Memes Will Never Hurt You?

Co-authored with Alex Goldenberg

The breaking news of multiple attacks on New Zealand Mosques was heart-rending. The fusillade of gunfire was at close range and lethal. Scores massacred in the attack, all filmed live by a white supremacist terrorist who desired to entertain and inspire his budding followers; The shooter promoted his plan to attack Mosques in Christchurch on 8chan, an imageboard which hosts a series of wholly anonymous forums, and advised to tune into the livestream on Facebook so they would have the opportunity to watch the carnage in real-time.

Today, these sites have surpassed ISIS-type and jihadist propaganda and recruitment, according to MoonshotCVE, a London-based group that counters online radicalization.

Two major developments appear to be driving the surge in acts of ethnic terrorism and compelling some to now go from flash to bang; with many whom possess a keen interest in sharing their manifestos and desire to kill in real time. The first is the creation of a complex space for like-minded extremists sharing, spewing, communicating online.  Robert Bowers, the suspected Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter was also a compulsive netizen. Bowers frequented Gab and 4chan – a social network frequented by white supremacists and Nazis some of whom driven off Twitter. Bower shared his intentions to kill Jews with his last online remark- Screw your optics I’m going in.. Today, these sites have surpassed ISIS-type and jihadist propaganda and recruitment, according to MoonshotCVE, a London-based group that counters online radicalization. The accessibility to these sites makes it easy for gradual indoctrination, particularly on social media platforms where tech companies long ignored the warning signs that their platforms were contributing to the radicalization of far-right extremists. This remains a persistent challenge for law enforcement and other international security services.

This dark internet subculture, where according to reliable organizations that track hate-motivated crimes, gave the New Zealand terrorist, Bowers, and thousands of others a home in which they could express sentiments that they dared not promote widely in their daily lives. As we’ve seen all too often, these online communities have become massive loudspeakers, encouraging their contributors and strengthening them in their most vile convictions. Just as the Internet catapulted the jihadi universe and created a global support community for ISIS, it has networked and inspired the ultra-nationalists and white supremacist movements. The fact that we are now experiencing an unprecedented surge in domestic terrorist attacks against religious institutions and people, many of which were shared either subsequent to or post-attack, quickly shows just how successful these wide-open platforms have been to the growth of these anti-Semitic, racist, and xenophobic movements.

According to Janet Reitnam’s story, “All American Nazis,” 4chan’s veil of obscurity is used to incubate extremists. Discussion threads on other white supremacist sites like Stormfront openly considered how 4chan and specifically /pol/, the Politically Incorrect forum might be used to help young people become “racially aware.” The goal of these subversive groups is to change public opinion to accept ideas that might had previously been radioactive. One of the tools utilized by right-wing extremists to change public opinion is the strategic use of memes.

Some Memes are fast becoming symbols commandeered by extremist movements to instill fear and terror.

The power of the Meme; In a 2009 report on “Memetic Warfare,” DARPA claimed that memes have the power to change individual and group values and behavior, enhance dysfunctional cultures of subcultures, and can act as a contagion.    At first glance, it seems outlandish that a meme could have such power, as they have traditionally been used simply to share ideas, banter, and produce inside jokes that you share with others. Memes refer to image macros, which are images that quickly convey humor or political thought, meant to be shared on social media. Sharing a meme, not only amuses your in-group but also defines it. Some Memes are fast becoming symbols commandeered by extremist movements to instill fear and terror. The New Zealand terrorist wrote in his manifesto to encourage others to “ create memes, post memes, spread memes… Memes have done more for the ethno-nationalist movement than any manifesto.”

Social networks that were once designed to connect friends are being re-engineered and designed to create adversaries. Fact-checking really makes no difference; misinformation outperforms facts. We are not so much incensed as fatigued, at a loss to explain or escape the ugly hate filled global net spaces that now have morphed and replaced our small-town public squares. Plots and conspiracies flourish as a substitute for the hard work of seeking facts and reliable data. As proof that these sites are linked to death and destruction and have caused harm, Stormfront, once the most prolific white supremacist site and described by the anti-hate group Southern Poverty Law Center as “. The group whose “registered Stormfront users have been disproportionately responsible for some of the most lethal hate crimes and mass killings since the site was put up in 1995. In the past ten years alone, Stormfront members have murdered close to 100 people.” Unfortunately, with civility at its lowest point in decades, this appeal is resonating and being effortlessly exploited by propagandists from both sides of the spectrum.

American law enforcement and homeland security communities have experienced tremendous challenges when investigating these groups and vis a vis online threat.

This dark online biosphere, where according to reliable organizations tracking hate-motivated crimes, provided the New Zealand slaughterer, the Tree of Life murderer Bowers, and thousands of others a home in which they could express sentiments that they dared not promote widely in their daily lives. As we’ve seen all too often, these online communities have become massive loudspeakers, encouraging their contributors and strengthening them in their most vile convictions. Just as the Internet catapulted the jihadi universe and created a global support community for ISIS, it has networked and inspired the ultra-nationalists and white supremacist movements.  American law enforcement and homeland security communities have experienced tremendous challenges when investigating these groups and vis a vis online threat. They are keenly aware of the complex rules of engagement; especially when perceived as a potential violation of the first amendment.

On the Sunday following the attack, and in solidarity with its Muslim communities and the first time in that nation’s history, New Zealand Jewish community chose to close Synagogues, schools, and institutions.   Beyond death and destruction, these hate groups and terrorists –seek to create a sense of fear and vulnerability. If they are successful, this can be more impactful than any attack, forcing us to not only query the safety and security of the societies that we live in, but causing us to question our own ability to protect our neighborhoods and families, and with this, causing us to change our behavior – retracting from our daily routines, way of living and compromising our beliefs – whether that means altering how we dress or pray, and even more disconcerting, and now after the recent attacks on our houses of worship  and the people who come to pray, mourn, harmonize, learn, we cannot voluntarily allow for what the terrorists themselves could never have achieved on their own – by giving up our principles or way of life.

During the last decade I had the opportunity to travel to Europe, first as an advisor to the OSCE, Office for Security Cooperation in Europe, the worlds largest government security organization and currently as Senior Fellow to the Rutgers University Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience. My mission is to evaluate and support vulnerable communities and police services sworn to protect them by providing counsel and training on topics such as building communities of trust and combatting violent extremism. In just the past few years I have personally witnessed a sad transformation where democratic western states have now deployed and maintain crack military troops and specialized police brigades not to nuclear and power facilities, government buildings, military installations, but to their religious schools, houses of worship, community centers. At a cost of billions of dollars and tremendous impact on the psyche of their people. Europe may be our canaries in a mine…

A community immunized against the psychological influence of terrorist threats has a greater ability to resist manipulation. If those who undertake attacks or threaten our religious communities believe that they will not be able to create terror or panic, and a subsequent unraveling of our principles as a nation, it very well eliminates a major cause for their activity. In this, through our own psychological strength and position, we may better mitigate against such threats or attacks and prevent them from disrupting our way of life.

By educating lay leaders, community members, staff and administrators as well as teachers, and by more effectively working with police, we need to work closely with the private sector who are responsible for operating the social media sites and hold some more accountable.

We have the fundamentals to empower ourselves, developing a sense of ownership among our whole community. Working with federal, state and local authorities’ Faith-based communities will better understand the resources and capabilities that government can provide during an incident, as well as what we need to do for our own communities thereafter. The US Department of Homeland has developed a plethora of resources addressing faith-based security and protecting houses of worship.

Moving the faith-based community beyond “awareness” to “engaged citizenry” must be a primary goal for 2019. We are and remain resilient… the faith-based community understands that life has its challenges and hardships; resiliency means that when confronted with such actions, we as a community will work to make them ultimately surmountable.

Alex William Goldenberg is currently completing his Master of Science at New York University where he is studying transitional security. He is currently supporting several ongoing research projects focusing on social media and impact on national and global security.

Paul Goldenberg
Paul Goldenberghttp://www.cardinalpointstrategies.com/
Mr. Paul Goldenberg is the President and CEO of Cardinal Point Strategies and is a member of the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council (HSAC) where he served as Vice Chair of the Departments Faith Based Security Advisory Security Committee and Foreign Fighter Task Force. He provides counsel to government, faith based and NGO organizations in cyber security policy, capacity building, transnational security, counter terrorism and information sharing. His public career includes more than two decades as a former senior official of the New Jersey State Attorney General’s Office, Director of the nation’s 6th largest county social service and juvenile justice system, and as a law enforcement official who headed investigation efforts for significant cases of domestic terrorism, political corruption, and organized crime.
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