The internet is widely acclaimed as a marketplace of ideas. Silicon Valley champions itself for catering far-ranging viewpoints, and the language of broad-mindedness is embedded in tech-CEO speak. But lost amid the rhetoric is the reality that the internet can also offer a haven for hate. Extremists and radicals go online to recruit new members, spread their propaganda, and push their radical agendas — in increasingly plain view.
Why does this happen? Hate groups have always recruited by looking for the disaffected and the vulnerable. Sociologist Pete Simi, who studied how hate groups recruit new members, points out to the Southern Poverty Law Center that fundamentally, the appeal of many hate groups, at least at first, is that they pretend to offer a way to ignore the complexity of the world:
Low tolerance for ambiguity seems to cut across most if not all extremist ideologies; this goes along with a certain type of concrete thinking where a person wants to categorize things as “black and white” rather than deal with so-called “gray areas.”
At the most fundamental level that’s what most of these movements are all really based on — oversimplifying a highly complicated world — and that’s a powerful thing to offer people, especially those who feel lost or are looking for some easy answers.
Before the internet, this often meant finding people who were struggling. Neo-Nazis recruited at struggling factories, stale-smelling bowling alleys, bars, rehab centers — anywhere they might find lonely, disaffected people looking for simple solutions to their problems. Online, it’s far easier. The potential recruits will come calling, and technology has, unknowingly, made it easier for potential recruits to stumble over racist ideologies.
“They [hate groups] have learned how to game the Google system,” Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project Director for the SPLC, tells Uproxx. “It went from a system that really did look for the most authoritative pieces of information, to one that was monetizing you, the user’s experience. So it became more like Amazon.”
Not helping matters is that search engine algorithms and computer programs can’t grasp the hate flowing from humans — Google Maps used a racial slur to refer to the White House until it was reported by users. The truth is, with millions of results to filter, no website can stop at least some hate from slipping through.