Trolls Are Gaming The Media For Personal Gain

January 12th 2016

Thor Benson

It's no surprise that social media has become the platform of choice for rants of prejudiced ideologues. Most recently, the hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII sparked a flurry of controversy as a minority group of individuals claimed that the new "Star Wars" movie promoted "white genocide." Another hashtag, #FactsArentRacist, hides intolerance behind statements of "truth."

RELATED: #BoycottStarWarsVII Was a Complete Failure

The animosity behind such messages is alarming and lately, it has been part of the driving force of racist groups and individuals who are using social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to distract the media and mislead news sources. In the last couple months, their tactics have become more intricate and more dangerous.

In a recent piece for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch section, research analyst Keegan Hankes laid out how extremist leaders have tricked the media into following fake stories in an attempt to spread their message and have used the internet to get attention to their cause. One of the people Hankes focuses on is Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer.

"He's not your average neo-Nazi. He's pretty effective at using the internet, and he's also a bragger," Hankes told ATTN:. He first started following Anglin when he heard he had been banned from Twitter for spreading his Nazi hate speech. Anglin was behind a Twitter post that claimed the KKK was rallying at the University of Missouri during student protests demanding the resignation of president Tim Wolfe. Anglin claimed that the police weren't responding, which led the media on a wild goose chase.

KKK mizzou

ALSO: Here's Why Tashfeen Malik's Violent Social Media Posts Went Unnoticed

Anglin seemingly did this to stir up emotions, which makes it more difficult for important issues to be addressed and draws attention to extreme ideology. It promotes focusing on the KKK instead of promoting systemic change and spreads misinformation.

Hankes describes that when the popular right-wing blog Breitbart banned Anglin's Disqus commenting account for its website last year, he led a campaign called "Operation Kikebart" where he had his Nazi followers flood Breitbart's comment sections, filling it with anti-Semitic tirades and condemning Breitbart's opening of a bureau in Israel. Hankes noted that Breitbart is already pretty conservative politically, so an attack from someone who is already also from the right is pretty odd. For the most part, though, these efforts seem to have died down.

Part of the success of Anglin's extremist social media strategy is normalizing hateful language. "He's really redefining the terms of the debate here, because he uses this hyperbolic language," Hankes said, and because he spreads his hate speech so effectively, people stop being disturbed by it and it becomes part of the norm. The internet and social media give extremists a space to come together, formulate strategy, and support each other, even if they are relative nobodys in every day life.

"Fringe actors like Andrew Anglin are able to command what in the grand scheme of things is a pretty small population of people and cause a very large effect," he said. This affects how the national conversation sounds in general, which often determines how the media covers these subjects.

Racist ideology took full advantage of social media again this month when a fake Twitter account was created for Ammon Bundy, of the Oregon militia and the Bundy ranch, going so far as to compare the Oregon militia to the civil rights movement.

RELATED: Ammon Bundy's Twitter Account Is Probably Not Ammon Bundy

Ammon Bundy

Large media publications, including USA Today, the Washington Post, and the New Republic ran articles about the tweet. Unfortunately for them, Ammon Bundy never typed it. Gizmodo was the first to discover that Bundy isn't on Twitter and ATTN: spoke to Bundy over the phone about it. He confirmed that he doesn't have a Twitter and never made the comparison to Parks:

"I do not have a tweeter [sic] account."

Hankes said journalist know if a Twitter account doesn't have a blue check mark next to it, they can't be sure it's from the actual person. "It's almost like a cautionary tale, right?" he said. "You have to do your due diligence, and in some ways, especially with the large venues, the reporting was borderline irresponsible. You're playing right into their hands." Situations like this are problematic because media outlets are competing so heavily to be the first to break a story that it seems like fact-checking has taken a back seat.

Mark Dery, a cultural critic and writer who spoke with Hankes for his original piece, explained why this kind of media/conversation manipulation is dangerous for the country. “They’re actually doing what the conservative-, mainstream-, corporate- or ideologue-funded right, that is to say the GOP and its fellow travelers, have been doing for decades, which is simply sowing the seeds of doubt in the media narrative,” he explained to Hankes. “In other words, you don’t have to win the climate change debate, you don’t have to win the fracking debate, you don’t have to win the debate on rape in the military, if you just create the illusion that there’s another side to this.” Essentially, the debates over important topics are manufactured to stop progress.

Not only does this behavior hurt the conversations around important issues, it wastes the time of journalists and experts who could be focusing on real solutions to problems.

Related: One Organization Has a Genius Approach to Fighting Racism on Facebook