By Bond Benton
Associate Professor, School of Communication and Media
Jane is browsing Facebook, and sees a friend’s post with the hashtag #SaveTheChildren.
Next to the post is a frightening image of a child in danger. Under the image is a link to a video with information about what we can do to stop human trafficking. Moved by the post (it was shared by a friend, after all) Jane clicks on the video and hears horrific stories about thousands of children being abducted from parks and playgrounds each month.
She then clicks to the next video and hears that these abductions are being coordinated by a cabal of traffickers selling children into sexual slavery and organ harvesting. She learns the “markers” of agents of this cabal including their usage of gray cars with external locks and windowless passenger vans. She joins a Facebook group dedicated to combating this menace that is terrorizing neighborhoods across the country. In this group, more about the cabal is shared along with information about the shadowy group of “global elites” in politics, entertainment and banking that is financing this cabal.
Jane’s initial visit to Facebook to catch up with friends and look at funny videos has turned into a space of radicalization. She has now become part of the QAnon conspiracy movement.
Next, there’s Jamie, an awkward teen. He faces challenges in developing romantic relationships and forms connections through playing video games online, laughing at naughty memes shared on message boards and fandom sites. On these sites, he becomes aware of GamerGate. GamerGate encompasses a range of topics, but primarily focuses on rejecting moves toward gender inclusion in spaces like video games.
The boogeyman of this narrative is the Social Justice Warrior, referred to as the SJW. This character is offended by all the naughty memes Jamie enjoys, and wants to replace the masculine heroes he connects with in video games with women. The SJW also wants to reorder society and views “nice guys” like Jamie as instruments of the patriarchy. Suddenly, Jamie has found a reason for his romantic difficulties. The SJWs have disrupted the sexual marketplace, leaving him alone. As he “learns” more about the SJW’s insidious plans, he is told they are part of a globalist, Marxist movement that acts as a thought police force against people like him. They seek to replace and dispose of “nice guys” like him with militant women and people of color. Jamie has gone from being a lonely gamer to becoming a far-right extremist.
These stories are not hypothetical. In my research with Dr. Daniela Peterka-Benton in Justice Studies at Montclair State University, we investigated the concept of “hatejacking,” of which these scenarios are examples.
The #SaveTheChildren hashtag on Facebook became so co-opted by QAnon that the site had to remove it – but only after it had been linked to over 3.5 million posts with hundreds of millions of unique views of QAnon-related content. Those going down the Q rabbit hole ultimately find a deeply antisemetic message that echoes centuries old myths such as the “blood libel” of child sacrifice. Similarly, the fight against SJWs by alienated young men online radicalizes a new group into the conspiracies of virulent misogyny and racism. The anger stoked by GamerGate, for example, was substantial enough that Trump Campaign Manager Steve Bannon harnessed them as a troll army who could be used to spread disinformation in support of an alt-right political agenda.
The face of modern hate and extremism will not be that of a Klan hood or swastika. Overt hate invites scrutiny and has been culturally stigmatized. Going forward, hate will continue to hide its intent. Hate groups will no longer broadcast their intentions and will instead squat on issues of social concern and appropriate seemingly banal symbols. Radicalization will be hidden in the shadows. While seemingly new in the United States, our research identified how hate groups in Europe (where overt hate often faces legal penalties) have adopted a “cat-and-mouse” game of hiding their purpose, allowing “normal” people to accept the most abhorrent ideologies.
In the weeks since the Capitol siege, social platforms have begun to remove overtly racist, violent and extremist content out of concern for incitement. While there is value in taking such steps, that alone is not a solution to stopping the spread of hate online. As topics trend on social media, it is important to stay vigilant and be aware of the potential for co-optation. Because in the new world we live in, what appears to be benign can hide the greatest malignancy.